Wednesday, December 29, 2004


When you first buy a microwave, you instantly rely on it like it's been part of your kitchen all along. If you lose it, you can't remember how you ever got along without it. How exactly do you warm up lasagna without a microwave? A cell phone is the same way, once you have it, you need it. Which is why I resisted buying one for so long, though now I've officially been 'assimilated'.

But I've had my new GPS device for about 3 months now. I use it all the time, and continually am finding more and more things to do with it. I love it. But not in theh same 'gotta have it' kind of way I do my phone or microwave. If I were to lose my GPS reciever tomorrow, I'd be sad but I just wouldn't feel like I had lost my right arm. I wouldn't have the same sense of withdrawal that comes when you lose your microwave and have to warm up leftovers on a skillet.

Having got a car adapter for Christmas, I can now just turn the GPS on and leave it on. I tracked how long it took me to get to work today.

2.81 miles in
6 minutes, 31 seconds stopping only
1 minute and 21 seconds.
Moving average speed was 25.8 mph while my overall average was
21.4 mph
Top speed was 44.5

Almost as fun as the device the pioneers had.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Marion's New Blog

I just helped Marion set up a blog of his own, since the whole 'blogging experience', is a little addictive. Anyway, if you would like to continue following his thoughts on instructional design and his path to a degree (or insanity), you can click here.

Monday, December 20, 2004

New Poster...

Well, I've wrested the site back from my friend, Marion Jensen. Matthew Buckley is once again in charge of this site. :)

For those not keeping track at home, I was setting up this site for my book, and Marion asked me if he could use it for his class. Since I didn't have anything to post back then, I decided to be nice (fill my quota for the year), and allowed him the courtesy. Sometimes he's not so good with technology, though he probably doesn't want his professors at Utah State to know that.

Anyway, I've started writing a few things about my book. I'll post them here in the very near future. As way of introduction, however, my name is Matthew Buckley, and I originally started this blog to track the progress of a book of mine that will be published next spring. I'll bore you with details later, but I did want to start with the actual site of where my book takes place. Technically, the book never really comes out and says where the story is occurring, but if you go here, you can see the homestead where the summer of the evil chickens and demon goats took place. This is the spot where the age old truth was rediscovered; the fact that chickens do not have armpits.

Look for more to be posted soon.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Final Thoughts...

I recently read a somewhat scathing review of Wikipedia. The article was written by Robert McHenry, a former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

In his article, McHenry makes fun of pretty much everything Wkipedia attempts to accomplish whether it is the general idea of social software, or to J. P. Barlow and his ideas of information. To illustrate the futility of the entire project, McHenry picks apart a wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton by showing that it does not contain several pieces of information that McHenry would deem necessary to meet his standards of a good encyclopedia article.

McHenry's concludes his article by comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom. "It may be obviously dirty, so the users knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."

This article is discouraging. The idea of self-organization rests on the idea that there is power in a thousand learners seeking out knowledge together. Many types of social software such as fan fiction, wikipedia, online games, and USENET, support learning. This idea of using social software to support learning does not diminish the learning potential of a a more traditional learning environment, rather it suggests that self organization and social software provides an alternative means to the same end; the end in this case being a person learning. As Dave mentioned in his week 14 lecture', "Formal education is one piece of machinery that can facilitate learning. There are potentially many others. A key piece of being able to build innovative learning technologies is being able to think differently about learning."

But McHenry's castigation of wikipedia, and those working on the project, brings the idea of self organization into question. Does McHenry have a point? Is using social software to support learning a cheap imitation at best to 'formal instruction'?

McHenry does have a point, but he comes to an erroneous conclusion.

To compare the wikipedia to an encyclopedia, or fan fiction to a formal creative writing class is a mistake. There are enough differences to make the comparison pointless. What needs to be compared are the outcomes. What are the writing skills of an active participant in fan fiction compared to a participant in a formal creative writing class. What is the understanding level of a user of wikipedia compared to a user of the the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is the ends that need to be examined, not the means. An encyclopedia article can be completely accurate, but if the users does not get the information he seeks, is the article useful?

A user can learn from reading an encyclopedia. A user can learn better grammar from taking a formal writing class. Are these formal pieces 'better' instructional tools than their self organized counterparts? If students are learning just as well using other methods, and if more students are learning using other methods, then it becomes a question of how do you measure 'better'?

If, as McHenry suggests, wikipedia is not as complete as an Encyclopædia Britannica article, does that mean students will not learn as well? If the feedback from a fan fiction article is not as thorough as the feedback from an English teacher, does that mean students will not learn as well?

The Pareto principle states that "for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes." This 80-20 rule is often used to describe a variety of events in the business sector. Twenty percent of your stock takes up 80 percent of your warehouse. Twenty percent of your clients do 80 percent of your business. Twenty percent of of a projects work (the first and last 10 percent) take up 80 percent of your time and resources, etc. etc. etc.

But the Pareto principle also has it's place in education. Couldn't it be argued that only about 20 percent of what is learned in formal education actually is needed for employment? Other job requirements are learned after an employee has been hired in the form of on-the-job training, or unofficial training. Many of the skills have been learned or reinforced outside of formal education such as communication skills, social skills, or many types of technical skills.

So if a learner only needs 20 percent of what formal education is offering, and a social software provides that 20 percent without as much of the other 80 percent, wouldn't it be better (in some cases) for a learner to explore these alternative options? If the end result is that the necessary knowledge is learned, what does it matter by what methods that knowledge was transferred?

Some will say that a formal education is more 'complete'. An electrical engineer learns math, but also about other cultures, history, current events, etc. While this is true, the same can be said about online self organized communities. If I learn the 20 percent needed to do my work, I have more free time to explore other areas of interest. Just because I'm not in formal learning doesn't mean I can't learn about other cultures, history, or current events.

The wikipedia failed to mention that the birth year of Alexander Hamilton is in question. *Because of this, McHenry declared the wikipedia to be inferior to the more traditional encyclopedia. Because the wikipedia did not contain 100 percent of the information McHenry deemed necessary, it is therefore unreliable. There are probably countless participles that get dangled on fan fiction, and are never corrected. Incomplete answers are given on USENET and bulletin boards every day. But people are reading, writing, and experimenting because of these pieces of social software, and most of the information out there is correct, useful, and direct. If it's not, users would stop using the social software! More people use these kinds of software every day. And as more users log on, the information gets better and better. The end result is that more and more people are learning. The means may not appear as professional or organized as formal education. The journey may be a bit rough, but if the end result is a student who has learned something new, how can you attack the method with which they have learned?

I submit that self-organization can be a very viable alternative to getting relevant, direct, useful information into the hands of more learners in an efficient, economical manner.

* It should be noted that since the writing of McHerny's article, the wikipedia entry has been updated to include this information

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

MIT Excursion

I've always wanted to try out one of MIT's open courses, and it looks like I'm finally going to do it. A group of friends over at the Grey Labyrinth have all decided to go through a course. Since we usually talk politics at the GL, and nobody can pony up the big books for a book, we are going through this political science course. Most of the readings are online in pdf format.

It's kind of fun to see self-organized collboration already taking place. Some of the reading is online, and some of them were in texts, but it's all 'old' stuff, so I mentioned in our forum that we can probably find the rest of it online somewhere. Two posts later, somebody posts an entire list of the readings of the course. You can read our thread here, and if you want to join in, please feel free to do so!

Monday, December 06, 2004

6 Smart Bots

OK, here are my two images...

The top one is probably cheating, but in 250 days I was able to get 6 learners up to 2510 in the 'know' score.

The second one was a bit trickier, but I found that when there was a good number of learners, and the learning objects were fairly difficult, and people were both helpful, but not patient, it seemed to cause quite a bit of question asking.

Like Kami, I found it interesting that the fewer the learners seemed to increase what was learned. I'm not sure why that is the case in this simulation. I would think in real life that the more learners you have, the more of an 'expertise' you have access too, but then I guess you also run the risk of information overload. So many questions being posed that the flow of information becomes too unwieldy.

Overall, similar to my experience with flocking, I found myself moving sliders just see what happened, then using that information to try and predict, and get the desired results. I would need to play with, or look at the calculations behind, the system more before I feel like I really understood, and could predict what would happen. Several times I would move a slider and get an exact opposite reaction than what I expected.

I like this kind of modeling. It reminds me of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. The basic premise is that you cannot predict what a single person will do, or even a group of people, but you can predict what large numbers of people will do. While I'm not sure how closely this model represents real life, it would be interesting to see how close it comes, or what other factors are needed to make it a closer representation.

Flocking, flocking everywhere....

I'm usually an underachiever, but since I have three screen shots, I guess for at least 'one moment in time', I am an over achiever. :)

I did the 'things to try' on the flock of birds program, and came up with some interesting results. It first asked to try to get the flocking patterns tight. I came up with this result.

Linearly that's pretty dang tight.

It then asked for 'loose' patterns. I came up with this:

Not only are they loose, but all they did was circle around. I thought that was pretty fun.

Then I decided that maybe I could get an even tighter flocking pattern that the linear thing I had, and with a little bit of work came up with this:

I figured that was about as tight as I was going to get it. 124 birds on top of each other.

A few thoughts about this kind of 'learning'. I don't think I played with this enough to really understand it (maybe I'm an underachiever after all!). Through trial and error I could come up with the above images, but if I were going to sit down and try to replicate the images, I would have to engage in the same kind of trial and error activity. To me this is interesting because if these images were used to determine whether or not I understood the workings of this simulation, well then, it would be a bad measurement.

But I like this kind of learning. I like the discovery nature of it. You could talk about birds having a low level of intelligence, but engaging in activity that would make it appear they had a high level of intelligence, and the point would never be made to a large number of 'students'. But give them a toy like this, and then explain that with a few simple 'commands', the birds can look as if they are participating in advanced flight patterns. I think if a student were given a myriad of goals, and then some guided questions, more would be learned than by simply reading, lecturing, etc.

This is a fun little tool that needs some more exploring. The biggest question in my mind is can I use this as a strategic advantage in any of the many board games my family will be playing over the holidays.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Critical Mass

In the reading Dave gave us this week, he says, "the success of an OSOSS is heavily dependent on a critical mass of participants". In other words, for a learning community to be effective, they must have a lot of people participating. This increases the level of expertise you have available to the group.

So how does a community achieve this critical mass? Dave mentioned that they provided four features in OLS, the online forums to support the MIT OpenCourseWare project:




Fire Alarm

I think all of these are needed, but I wonder if there isn't one feature that may be also be needed in order for an OSOSS to reach critical mass. In fact I think it may be the most important.

I've mentioned before that I participate in a great online community; the Grey Labyrinth. People at the Grey Labyrinth know each other. Every six month or so somebody hosts a 'gathering', and anybody close enough travels to meet other members in 'real life'. A few people have suffered tragedies, and shared those stories or feelings with other members of the group. Members of this group offered advice and encouragement on my book when I first started writing it. In fact, the title of the book was offered up in a thread I started for just that reason. Several have already 'placed orders'. We have had one official 'marriage' from this community.

I feel that this sense of community is vital to the success and growth of an OSOSS. We cannot learn until we feel comfortable with those we interact with. If we feel uncomfortable with others, there won't be a fear of looking stupid when asking a question. If we do not care for other people, there is no desire to help them. Even though this sense of community has nothing to do with the actual learning, I feel that it is the most important element. I am much more willing to help somebody I love, than I am to help a complete stranger.

So if this sense of community is so important, how is it achieved? There are probably many ways, but the simplest way is to provide an 'off topic' area. It is fun for me to go to the Grey Labyrinth and discuss the subject it was built for (the posing and solving of puzzles), but talking about other topics is when we build that sense of community. We rejoice with member A because he passed his exams. We mourn with Member B because she broke up with a longtime boyfriend. If you are only allowed to talk about Civil War history, you will never build a community. I have looked at the OLS a bit, but haven't seen anywhere this can take place. There are running discussions about each topic, but no general meeting place where you can get to know each other.

Often I go to a site for a particular purpose. I went to the greylabyrinth to solve problems. I went to chataholics to play trivia games. But that gets boring after a while. I need the human interaction. So unless there is a community, I am likely not to stay.

I am going to try to talk a 'cohort' of Grey Labyrinth friends to go through a course with me over at MIT. It will be interesting to see how people who are already part of a community interact in the OLS. I'll let you all know how it turns out.

Monday, November 29, 2004


7:56 - Breakfast: "Dad, which monster is stronger, the skeletons or the zombies?"

9:37 - Call from home: "Dad, I bought all five levels of the the mage guild, but my hero can't cast any of the spells."

12:45 - Lunch: "Dad, today John got the unicorns and they are strong. He killed a whole bunch of elves!"

5:21 - Just walked in the door - "Dad, did you know on Heroes..."

My 6 year old son is learning about a computer game called Heroes of Might and Magic IV, and he can't stop talking about it. I've had to set up rules when he is allowed to talk about the topic or we would discuss nothing else in our home. If we don't schedule times to play, he asked me every five minutes if we can play 'tonight'. My response is, "Check the calendar, when does it say we are playing next." I've also given him the manual so that when he asks about a particular aspect of the game, I can tell him to look it up.

There is an excitement in learning; discovering something new. It seems like our first impulse is to share it. Maybe talking about a new found piece of knowledge helps to solidify it in our minds. Or maybe we hope for feedback or a second opinion.

The other night the topic of a new television show came up in a conversation I had with by brother and sister-in-law. The show is called House. "Did you know," I said, "That the main character is actually British? He got his start on Black Adder, which is a great show, along with another fellow called Steven Fry. They started a show called 'a bit of Fry and Laurie', and then played the characters Jeeves and Wooster on PBS, did you see that? No? Have you seen Black Adder? No? Have you seen Stewart little? Yes? The dad on that show is the main character in this new show, House."

I stopped.

Then I apologized. "That was probably the most boring thing I've said all week."

Having loved Black Adder, and enjoying Jeeves and Wooster, and then realizing that Hugh Laurie was the lead character, and had to learn an American accent, I found the whole thing utterly fascinating. I was bubbling over with all of my new found facts. I wanted to share, and in my excitement, I didn't stop to think that nobody really much cared for the topic.

MMO provides an interesting learning experience. There is a 160 page manual, (text book?) that comes with the game, but few people care to spend so much time pouring over it. Users buy a game to play, not study. Many game publishers realize this and provide a 'quick start' section in their manual, usually not more than 2-3 pages that tell the user how to start up the game. Or many games teach the game by having an in-game tutorial, so the manual is not even needed. d Most of the learning takes place in the game, not by studing the manual.

In a MMO, we have thousands of players scouring the virtual world. They are information gatherers. And as they discover new skills, their first impulse is to share it. When our 7150 group got online to play, I was very excited to share information I had learned. And if you were to ask me why I was excited to share it, I can honestly say that I don't know for sure. It certainly wasn't to appear more intelligent than my peers, and I don't like the spotlight, so I wasn't doing it to take the center stage. I think part of it was that I was with a group of learners, and if I helped them, maybe as they learn something new they would turn around a share it with me. In fact on Friday night Mark went to great lengths to show us all how to make skeleton boots. Or maybe it's because I don't want my fellow students, whom I count as my friends, to have to wander around for 30 minutes to discover something that I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out, and is in fact quite simple.

But a large part of it is simply the thrill of discovery. As I begin to notice certain patterns, or figure something out, there is an excitement in verbalizing my knowledge, explaining my hypothesis, and allowing others to verify or disprove my ideas.

And because there are literally thousands of players online, when I ask a question, there is a good change that somebody in the game has just discovered the answer to the question I'm posing, and will be anxious to share the answer. Some will find the question so simple they don't want to bother with it. They will recognize me as a newbie, and rightly conclude that I can probably not help them. Others will not even understand the question, let alone the answer. But those on the same learning level as I am will be interested in the question, and offer any information that may help to answer it.

An example of information coming in small packets came in one of my earliest sessions. I was playing and saw a character running away from a dwarven miner. By this time I had enough experience to recognize a player in over their head (I had spent several hours myself perfecting the art of an 'organized retreat'), so I notched an arrow to my bow, and 'assisted' in the kill.

"Don't", was all he said before he left. Another player was in the area, and had observed what I had just done.

"Is is poor form to help another person kill a creature?" I asked, hoping they would know.

"I think so," they replied, "because they don't get all the gold or experience."

I had just learned something. Later, when I was attacking with friends from 7150, I noticed that in fact you didn't get nearly as much experience when you fought as a group, as you did when you fought alone. And often in a group I didn't get any gold for my troubles. So this one brief encounter taught me something new to the game. I learned that you don't help somebody else unless they ask for it.

In a MMO there is no teacher, there is no text (well, there is, but there are no reading assignments), there is not even a formal guided learner or facilitator. There is simply exploration and sharing. I did not have an experience like John or Mark where a person invested a large amount of time teaching me how to get around. What I did get was a lot of short, brief explanations, that together enlightened and guided me to a better understanding about the 'rules' of the new world.

I guess the million dollar question is why can't we capture this type of learning in the real world, that is even more exciting/interesting/amazing than the Lands of Aden?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004


I've got a question for you all, but it's going to take just a little bit of a set up. But bear with me, if the question doesn't interest you, I think at least getting there will amuse.

Imagine for a moment that you are out walking with four friends, we'll call them (purely at random) Shelly, Jim, John, and Kami. You happen upon a hundred dollar bill lying on the ground. Since you all spot it at the same time, you determine that it needs to be divided among the party.

But instead of dividing it evenly, Jim, with a gleam in his eye, suggests another plan. He suggests that the party draws lots and place themselves in an order; 1-5. The first member of the party will put forward a plan to divide the money. Everybody then votes on that idea and if a majority is reached, the money is divided in the suggested manner. If not, that person does not get a share at all, and the second person gets to put forward his or her idea to the remaining three. Again there will be a vote, and so forth. When an agreement is reached, the money is divided. If no agreement is reached, the one putting forward the idea is out, and the remaining members start again. In the event of a tie, no majority is reached, and the proposing member is out.

Everybody agrees to this crafty plan. Everybody also agrees that there will be no hard feelings. Everybody will act in a rational, self-interested manner. If somebody gets shafted, the shaftee will not harbor any ill will (if it will help you star trek fans, assume everybody is a Vulcan).

OK, the lots are drawn and the order looks like this:


2- Shelly

3- John

4- Jim

5- Kami

So, you get to decide. How is the money divided? You can divide it evenly and are assured that everybody will vote for it. But you only need two other votes, so you could get 33 dollars. Or maybe 34? Is it possible to get even more?

Think about it for just a moment. How much do you think you could really get? Can you get more than 34? more than 40?

The answer may surprise you, but it's easiest to demonstrate by working backward.

Let's assume that four proposals were put fourth, and all rejected. It's now Kami's turn to divide the money. Since she is the only one left, she is going to keep all 100. No surprise there. Let's move on to the previous round.

Jim is just out of luck. No matter how he proposes to divide the money, Kami is going to say no, because then there is a tie, and she will get all of the money. Even if Jim keeps one dollar, and Kami gets 99, Kami will vote no.

So John's proposal gets more interesting. He needs one other vote. Kami is going to be hard to buy because if this vote fails, she will get all 100 dollars. But Jim knows he's going to get nothing if this vote fails, so he is easy to buy. John can propose to split the money 99 for himself, 1 for Jim and nothing for Kami. Jim, being rational and self-interested, will of course accept.

Moving on to Shelly. Shelly needs to buy two other votes, since she can't have a tie. John is going to be hard to buy because he's going to get 99 if the vote fails. Kami is quite easy to buy right now because she knows on the next round she will get nothing. Jim needs 2 dollars so that this proposal looks better than the next proposal (where he gets 1 dollar), so the split is 97 for Shelly, nothing for John, 2 dollars for Jim, and one dollar for Kami.

So your proposal looks like this. 97 dollars for you, nothing for Shelly, 1 dollar for John, and 2 dollars for Kami. If everybody is rational and self interested, they will accept your proposal. In other words you keep just about everything.

Here is a table if it helps.


Rounds 1 2 3 4 5
You 97
Shelly 0 97
John 1 0 99
Jim 0 2 1 X
Kami 2 1 0 X 100

Absurd, right? This wouldn't happen in real life, right?

I think it does.

Look at how businesses run. Can't it be argued that this model is a fair representation of what happens? The proverbial 97% net profit goes to CEO, upper-upper management, and shareholders. This argument was just made about EA Games, makes of The Sims and other hits. Thousands of low-level employees (who actually do the work) get the 1 or 2 dollars while the most of profit goes to the upper few.

If you are investing in a company, which one will you choose to invest in? The one that doesn't make much money because it's dividing the spoils fairly among workers, or the one that maximizes its profits by giving little to the workers, and more to you?

Before this post gets Marxist on us, I'm not attempting to make a judgment call, just attempting to demonstrate that this type of model works in the real world. (if you disagree, please let me know, I'm very interested to see if I haven't thought this through all the way). On a small scale it doesn't work because we value friendship more than a hundred bucks. But when a faceless, unfeeling corporation is involved, we can be rationally, self-interested by proxy. Our bank can foreclose on granny and take her home so that we can earn our .8 percent interest on our savings.

So now that I've 'set up' things up, here we go with the actual question. Does formal education follow this same model? Does formal education (or the educational process as it currently stands) keep true learning in the hands of the few? If so, is it by intention or by circumstance? My first thought is that this does not happen. We have a public education system. Everybody gets to learn, in fact it's the law. But is this really the case? What about private schools? What about prestigious universities? Are they admitting and handing out their degrees to only a few in attempt to make them worth more? It can be argued that if everybody had a degree from MIT, that degree would not mean as much. What about when you move things to a global scale? Are the 'first world' countries intentionally withholding education? Or is it just circumstance that we have more educational opportunities? The MIT Open Courseware project gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction, but what more can be done?

Your thoughts are welcome.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Nancy wrote an excellent piece in her blog this week about her experience in Lineage. One part in particular got me thinking. She wrote,

"Here is where the most remarkable part of the online interaction occurred. As a group, a large group, we got through the cave well as everyone worked together to fight evil creatures."

This idea of cooperation is an interesting one. I am a long time Counter-Strike player, I've enjoyed it for well over three years now. There is something about it that brings me back to play over and over and over again. It's not the violence, or the adventure, rather its the cooperation. You can only get so good at counterstrike. When you can jump, aim, run, and know the maps, how do you improve from there? Why doesn't the game become boring?

I think cooperation is the answer. I can only do so much on my own, but there are a few select times in the game when somebody takes charge. "You go here, I'll do this, and the end result will be that we win." And it works.

You watch what the other team is doing, make a plan, and two organized team members, who have a plan, and the ability to communicating are worth four players just running around shooting at anything that move. The game actually encourages you to cooperate, to get to know the other 'faceless' players. And when a plan works, even if you end up the cannon fodder, it's thrilling.

Games like lineage don't encourage people to lock themselves in their basement, away from the rest of the world, rather they encourage you to get out, to meet other people, offer assistance, and hope that that assistance is reciprocated. It can be a great experience in cooperation.

Friday, November 19, 2004



I didn't have a very embarrassing death, but I did have one other embarrassing moment that I would be more than happy to share.

It was early on in the week and I had spent the last 30 minutes getting killed, spawning in the center of the village, walking back to the training area, and promptly getting killed again. It was obvious. I needed help. I hadn't read the instructions, or gone through the tutorial because, well, I like to just jump right in.

I had just had my beans cooked by a werewolf when I noticed a nearby player. I moused over him and saw the name "Lothar the Tutor".

My heart began to beat faster. This is what Dave has been talking about! Online collaboration, peer assistance. Here is a player who had even named himself 'tutor' so that others know he is willing to help! I was witnessing something we had talked about in class.

OK, I have to play it cool, I thought. I can't just go up and declare myself a noob. I'll use my trusty fallback scheme. Try to be funny.

"Note to self", I said to nobody in particular, "stay away from werewolves."

Would he buy it? Would he find me funny and offer help?

I was almost ready to pack up my sense of humor and leave when I got a reaction.

"Are you new here?"

YES! Peer-to-peer, spontaneous, online learning! This is the holy grail for the class, I was a participant in the very topic we are studying!

I tried to get my grip. I had to tone down my enthusiasm.

"Yeah," I said casually, "I've only been playing for two hours. I've got a lot to learn."

That was cool. Didn't demand help, didn't ask for help. But obviously I would be open to any help he could give me.

There was another pause.

"Perhaps I could be of assistance."

YES! "I would be open to any help you could give me."

I waited breathlessly. Would he take me out to help me kill monsters? Would he give me some items he had collected? Would he give me money?

I waited some more. Finally, Lothar the Tutor spoke again.

"Are you new here?"

I'm thick, but not that thick. I had just spent 2 minutes trying to impress an NPC. The computer. I was cracking jokes, trying to look cool for a computer.

For those that may have read this post earlier, yes, I've edited my post. I realized that I'm posting what Dave wants next week. So I'm going to hold off on that, and see if my opinion changes after the reading for this week, and after more playing.

As for a description of my character, I'm an elf, Male, and currently at level 8. I've found quite a bit of stuff, but most of it is just your run of the mill, I know there is much better stuff out there to find. The day before we were going to meet as a group online I found about 7 sets of apprentice armor, and 3 swords. I passed them out to the members in class since if your ally is better equipped, you have a better chance of making it through the evening...

I played the knight first, and probably would have stuck with it, but found out that the elf, by default, could shoot arrows. Once I found out where to buy them, and found out with the haste spell, I could shoot, run away, shoot, run away, I became endeared to the elf.

Anyway, more to come next week.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

A Promising Research Tool

Sorry, two posts in one day. But I just saw this on slashdot and it looks promising... A search engine that " enables you to search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research."

Violent Video Games

So Shelly sends me a link to a great site, which leads me to a great article, which led me to notice one particular paragraph.

"Some psychological studies have highlighted the 'addictive' nature of computer games and suggested that they could potentially exacerbate aggressive or anti-social behaviour. However other research claims the reverse - that computer games are a safe outlet for aggression and pent-up emotions."

This can be seen quite clearly by examining the DOJ website that tracks violent crime rates. You can see that children and young teens all over America had a lot of pent up frustrations (probably from trying to rescue that princess in Super Mario Brother I, II, and III). Mortal Kombat was released and violent crime has been declining ever since, thanks to such stress relievers as GTA and the Doom series.

So remember this holiday season to make sure there are at least a few extremely violent video games under that tree. It all comes back for the good of society.

On the serious side, the research done by Alice Mitchell and Carol Savill-Smith does look interesting, and is available for free. I've requested a copy, and if it comes electronically, I can send it out to anybody interested.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Who are you really?

4 years ago I got the internet for the first time in my home. I started wandering around and came across a chat room for folks of the LDS faith. I hopped in and spoke to a few people there.

At one point, one of the other users asked if anybody played any musical instruments. I responded that I played the saxophone and the piano, both mediocre. He got excited, “I play the piano too! I’m Marvin Goldstein.”

I responded without missing a beat, “Really! That’s great, I’m Porter Rockwell.”

I knew Marvin Goldstein, or rather I had heard him play many times. He is incredible. He is the church’s foremost accomplished pianist. He is a master at his craft. And he certainly wouldn’t be chatting in an LDS chat room at 9:30 at night.

“No really, I am,” he responded.

“Prove it.” I said.

5 minutes later I had to admit he either knew a whole lot about Marvin Goldstein, or I was really talking to the master.

“Go over to my sight, pick out a CD, and I’ll send it to you.”

By this time I was convinced. I told him the CD that looked interesting, and he promptly replied that it would be in the mail the following day. Three days later I had the CD and a slightly red face. I have never met a more gracious person. His character is as warm as his music. If you ever get the chance to hear him play in person, don’t pass it up.

Identity is a curious thing on the net, but there are parallels to real life. When I meet somebody for the first time, the first thing I do is to judge them, both by “expressions given, and those given off”. I do not mean this in a negative way, rather I’m simply trying to gather information. If they are wearing a cowboy hat, a CD sized belt buckle, and snakeskin boots, I might decide that this person possibly could like country music, might be from a rural area, or enjoy John Wayne movies. I may be completely wrong, but I’m beginning to categorize who this person is, and what makes them tick.

Online we do the same thing, although we are a bit handicapped when it comes to gathering information. I thought the author of this weeks reading did an excellent job of describing different ways we gather information about a person whether it’s by their username, e-mail, or the ‘voice’ in their messages.

The username I always use when going into a chat room or discussion board is Firemeboy. I like this username because those who know the term always ask me about it. It’s an inside joke that gives insight to what one of my interests is.

Just as in real life, it takes time to build our identity. Somebody who meets me for the first time meets a white male, about 30 years old, who is a bit quiet. The more I get to know them, and they know me, they will find out more about who I am and what makes me tick. As they do so, they will begin to determine if I can be trusted or cooperated with. It is quite difficult to trust a person you do not know.

There is certainly a benefit to having a reputation and a cost to building one. The reading said that “Information exchange is a basic function of Usenet. And if I am a member in good standing of the community, and have shared information in the past, and my identity is well known, I will more likely receive help from the community. Therefore, if the cost of building a reputation is lower than the benefit of having one, a rational individual will seek to build a reputation.

George Bush just made the comment that with the election, he has gained a lot of political capital and he intends on spending it. Reputation capital can also be gained and spent. On this discussion board I visit, I try to make all of my posts either insightful, funny, or at least interesting to read. I have gained many friends on this board that I have never met, but who I have helped in the past. When I pose a question, there are always several who are willing to help me out, based solely on my ‘identity’.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Raising the Benefits

OK, so I’ve been thinking about the MIT open content project and what might drive somebody to participate in a course. Remember, we are talking about learning a difficult subject, by yourself, with little or no guidance. This is a high cost, so unless the benefit is equally as high, a person is very unlikely to participate.

So who goes through these courses? What is the benefit of doing so? If a participant has an insane curiosity about a topic, then simply learning the material is a high enough benefit for that person to pay the cost. But what else is there? Couldn’t there be some other way to provide a benefit so that more people would take advantage of these open educational opportunities? If, after taking these courses, businesses or other institutions of learning don’t recognize the work you’ve done, what is the purpose of going through the material?

What if there was a way to ensure that the material had been learned? Usually this is determined by a professor who also serves as a mentor and content expert in the class. But in an online environment, the professor has already provided both the content, and, to some extent, mentorship. The only piece missing in the open content courses is the ability to ensure the material has been learned.

But couldn’t there be another way that a student could demonstrate they know the material other than to have a professor watching over and checking their work?

What if to earn ‘credit’ for a course, a student must do two things. First they must complete the course under the guidance of an expert by demonstrating competence in all of the necessary areas. Second, they must then take on the role of an expert, and turn around and guide another student through the same process. So completing a course is only half of the work, you must then take on the role of teacher and help somebody else complete the course. A person would be ‘graded’ on both the work they completed, and the work his/her student completed. If a person passes, and their student passes, couldn’t it then be said, with a fair amount of confidence, that this person knows the material?

What if we took a group of students and sent them though an online course under the direction of a faculty member. Call them Group A. Take a second set of students (Group B) and have them go through the same course, but have them turn around and serve as mentors to a third set of students (Group C). Have Group C (who has not been in any contact with a professor mentor a fourth set of students (Group D), and then wait six months (Halo 2 just came out, there are plenty of things which can occupy our time). At this point test Groups A and C (the group that never worked under a professor) and compare the results.

It can be argued that learning under somebody who just learned the material themselves could never replace learning at the feet of the ‘masters’, but what if you're not 'accepted' to learn at those feet? Or what if the privilege of sitting near those feet runs you $30,000 a year, plus books and housing? Couldn’t this be a viable alternative, especially in the ‘hard sciences’, where you either know it or you don’t? Do I really need to sit at the feet of the masters to learn the quadratic equation? Just give me somebody who knows it, and can explain it to me, and I’m good to go.

I doubt MIT is close to handing out credit just because a person has gone through the material, and mentored somebody else, but if it can be demonstrated that these mentors are learning the material just as well as their in-class counterparts, couldn't you argue for a the possibility of some other kind of recognition? Perhaps a certificate system or something? One that businesses may honor, or possibly even other institutions? What if a person in a lesser developed country could earn a 'certificate degree' from MIT without ever having to leave their country? Couldn't this benefit drive more people to online content, and thus result in the education of more people?

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Rate a Customer...

I had lunch on Tuesday with a great group of folks and the topic of Best Buy came up. I was informed that Best Buy tracks which customers are not the ‘good ones’; for example, those that only buy things when they come on sale. Best Buy doesn’t exactly say what they do with the information, but it raises a few interesting scenarios. Are you going to be blocked at the entrance if you are a frugal shopper?

Anyway, I was a bit miffed that Best Buy would do that, but then it reminded me a very similar concept that I’ve never given half a thought. E-bay. I once bought an apple-peeler-corer-slicer on e-bay, (some day somebody is going to write a very good rap song about this device), and when it arrived it had apple gunk on it, it was rusty, and there was a 9 inch-long hair stuck to it.

Being new to e-bay I figured that if ever there was a time to leave negative feedback, now was the time.

Well, I was surprised to discover that after leaving the feedback, the favor was returned. The seller left negative feedback about me! They declared I hadn’t contacted them about the problem and had just immediately left negative feedback. They refunded my money, but I couldn't take the negative feedback... back. I felt bad. I was now a marred e-bay shopper. The whole world knew I was a cretin.

I got over it with therapy.

Anyway, I find it interesting that I have no qualms about the e-bay system that tracks how nice of a customer I am, and yet knowing Best Buy does the same thing really bugs me. And they aren’t even posting my information for the whole world to see. I guess I can always express my rage by passing Best Buy and going over to Media Play, but then Media play has that horrible replay system...

Maybe that's why I shop here. :)

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Thet Rationality of Irrational Rationality

I was sick in bed most of last week, so I didn’t get to comment on something Dave said (typed?) ‘in class’. Dave said,

“Why do people keep buying Windows machines when they could have Macs [another wink to the student in the back]? Why do people do any of the things they do? I believe we gave up the assumption that people make rational choices a very long time ago.”

I completely agree that people do not make rational choices all of the time, though I still would argue that people think they are making rational choices almost all of the time (though that is a topic for another day).

Dave’s statement made me realize that completely rational choices of a group of individuals, can lead to irrational choices of another group. Take, for example, the Mac/PC/Linux situation. I have read a bit about operating systems, and it seems to me that the best operating system is Linux, followed by Mac, and then Windows. The Linux system is arguably the best because if it doesn’t do what you want it to do, you simply re-write the code. It seems that Apple computers are always on the cutting edge, and Microsoft seems to be a step or two behind them, and have had some problems with system crashes and security.

So since I know this, am I being irrational because I use a Window’s based operating system? Isn’t the rational choice for me a Linux? Or at least a Mac? I would argue no, and here is why.

What is rational for one person is not necessarily rational for the next person. I mentioned that Linux is the better choice because you can go in and change the code to suit your needs. This is a serious benefit. However, if you don’t know how to change the code, then that benefit of Linux suddenly doesn’t mean anything. In fact it may be a liability if you think you know what you are doing, when in fact you don’t. It’s better that you don’t go in and play around with the code, lest you reformat the hard drive by mistake.

Another example is money. If money is no object, and I want the best computer, then it could be argued that buying a PC is irrational. If I don’t know much about writing code, a Mac would be the way to go. But if money is an object, or I want to buy a computer to play the latest games (like this guy?) then the PC is now the rational choice for me.

The interesting thing to me, going back to the beginning now, is that if most people are buying a computer based on what they feel is a rational choice (and may well be a rational choice for them), then suddenly that technology becomes the ‘norm’. Not because it is the best, but because it is or appears to be, the most rational choice. And even if you realize that the Mac is the better computer, now that Windows is the 'norm', and you love computer games, and game developers develop for the PC, because the PC is the 'norm', suddenly the rational choice is what first appeared to be the irrational choice.

Maybe a better example is the whole Betamax/VHS thing back in the 80s. Beta tapes were in many ways the better technology, so if you wanted the best movie watching experience, the rational choice was Beta. But as more and more people bought VHS, and less and less movies were being released on Beta, there came a point when if you want the best movie watching experience, you now had to choose VHS. The irrational choice became a rational choice because of the way other people acted.

Monday, November 08, 2004


The first time I used chat was probably more than a decade ago, but quite frankly I don’t think I’ve ever been in an IRC channel. This assignment was enjoyable, and I wish I was 16 again (with no life), and had time to just mess around with this medium. I really could waste a lot of time playing with this.

I was completely up front with everybody I met online. “Hello, I’m firemeboy and I’ve never been on IRC before today.”

This statement was sometimes ignored, but often I was welcomed to the channel and many were very willing to answer questions. I decided rather than to just try to pretend I was an expert at everything, I would let them know up front I was a bit lost. This way if I committed a faux pa, they would know it was because of stupidity instead of spite. I was just a moron, and not mean. Thick and not thoughtless…

The first several channels I went to were quite dead. The one I was most excited about was #geocache. I don’t know if it still exists, but nobody was there the times I visited.

I found some channels that had quite a few people, but still no action. I asked my friend who was sitting next to me (face-to-face help, is that cheating?). He replied, “They are probably just swapping files or something on the side.”

“Swapping files?” I asked, “like pictures they’ve taken themselves, or music that they have created and recorded themselves, and thus own the copyright? or the latest CD from Wired that is under a CC license? All legal stuff, right?”

He gave me a weird look and said, “Yeah, sure.”

Looks like even is Kazaa is shut down, file swapping will always be around. You can get your Burt Bacharach albums online whenever you need.

I finally found one interesting channel called #chataholics. There was a very interesting person named Mungo (I think that was his name) who kept asking trivia questions. He appeared to be keeping score, and he would time to see how long it took people to answer. He was also a stickler for spelling. When he asked who wrote Childhood’s End, I quickly wrote Arthur C. Clarke, but he didn’t give me the points because I put a period after C.

I’m thick, but it didn’t take me too long to realize what was going on.

“Is Mungo a bot?” I asked finally.

“Yeah” came the reply. Remember, this stupid of a question surprised nobody because I had already professed I was new to IRC.

“Does he do this all the time?” I asked again.

“Pretty much.”

I shut up and went back to answering the questions. I think I ended up with about 14 right. I’m now in the top 100 players of all time. I suspect there isn’t much competition.

There was a bit of chatting going on in this room, but it was a bit tricky with Mundo always asking questions, giving hints, and delivering the score.

Another room, #chatterz I believe, did not have a bot going, but they were more active. This was more like the chat rooms I’ve been in. People asking about other people, reporting where they live, joking back and forth. But there was not the level of identity I observed in LambdaMoo, but it wasn’t a group of strangers by any means.

While many of the channels were empty, I observed a broad range of topics. One could go and talk about a number of highly specialized topics.

Over the weekend I got a contract from my publisher. Once I sign it looks like it will be official. I had a few questions about the contract, but many of the questions were branching in nature. If the answer to one question was positive, then I had a follow-up. If it was negative, I had a follow-up for that question too. But when I e-mailed my editor, I had to try and second guess. “If so and so, then is this the case? Or if not, will this be the way it’s done?”

IRC gives the user to interact and working things out in real time that cannot be done easily in a medium such as USENET. I have quite a few geocaching questions that I have never bothered to post on a bulletin board because it would take too much time to flesh out all the information I need. In a chat room, this could be done within a matter of minutes.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Hurdles in the adoption of new technology

I’ve been reading Christine Hine’s Virtual Ethnography book for another class, and came across an interesting phrase. Hine discusses the fact that so many times a new technology comes along, and proponents suggest that this new device will lead to the end of such and such, or the beginning of a new era in so and so… And that quite often those predictions are completely wrong.

So she concludes “This argument suggests that, rather than technology itself being an agent of change, uses and understandings of technology are central.” I certainly agree with this sentiment. Just because something should work, doesn’t mean it will work. Many times I’ve heard somebody (usually programmers) say, “lets write up a quick program that will automate this. All people will have to do is…” And there is the trick. Based on a different cost/benefit structure, the automated program doesn’t actually lower the cost for the intended user. Sure it works great for a techno junkie, but not for the common man on the street.

And a further hurdle is that something can’t just be easier (lowered cost), it has to appear to be easier, since so often perception is, in fact, reality. I would be willing to bet that many time saving devices that should have caught, didn't catch on for these two reasons. Using the device did not actually lower the cost for the intended user, or they were not perceived to actually lower the cost, even though they would have.

Something to keep in mind when trying to convince somebody you have an answer to their problem.

Sunday, October 31, 2004


I have to say right here at the first, I spent probably 3-4 hours playing Zork. It was a great stroll down memory lane. My brothers and I beat Zork, back in the day, before walkthroughs. We beat it by struggling with it for months and months, checking with our friends, and begging for help from dad… We used to program our own 'games' in some really old programming language.

10 print "You are standing on a hill."
20 If "s" then goto 30.
30 Print "You are now standing on a cow pie."

Playing Zork was an enjoyable way to spend a few lunch periods this week Now, on to the topic of the week…

Communication is an interesting topic, and you can’t discuss technology, in particular the internet, without eventually ending up discussing communication. Before the invention of the alphabet, if one person wanted to convey ideas to another, both parties needed to share the same space and the same time. Only then could ideas be communicated between two people.

With the invention of writing, suddenly people could share ideas without sharing the same space and time. Words could be recorded and sent to far distant places, read by people at a different place and a different time. But written conversation is different than face to face conversation. When was the last time you got a letter like this?

Jennifer, how are you doing?

If I’m speaking to Jennifer face to face, that is what I would say. Then I would wait for Jennifer to tell me how is she is doing. Then based on what her reply is, I would form another piece of communication, and this exchange would go back and forth until Jennifer claims she left the stove on, and excuses herself (wow, flashback to the days when I was single.)

Writing forces you to engage in a type of monologue. Over time you eventually interact with another person, but as you write letters you are engaged in asking questions, telling stories, describing events, data, or ideas, without any feedback from the intended receiver. There is no feedback until after you have completed the writing, the recipient has received it, and replied to it. Our writing is usually meant for a different place, and a different time.

Now consider the following: IRC, instant messaging, MUDs, and similar program, we are now communicating by writing, sharing the same time, but a different space. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Written conversation no longer needs to be a written monologue with a significant amount of time between exchanges, rather immediate written feedback can be expected.

This is a subtle, but important change that leads to all sorts of interesting side affects.

When conversing face-to-face, not only do we get immediate oral feedback, but nonverbal feedback as well. If a communicative partner rolls their eyes, that is a signal that they may not agree with something just spoken. Even the tone we take becomes a non-verbal signal to our intended message. Consider the following sentence.

I didn’t sleep with your sister.

Now read the sentence 6 times, placing an emphasis on each of the words in order. The exact same 6 words, in the exact same order give 6 completely different meanings. For example, “I didn’t sleep with you sister” implies that somebody else did. Or, “I didn’t sleep with your sister” implies possible amorous relations with some other member of the family.

There have been many methods developed to overcome this loss of non-verbal communication such as emoticons and abbreviations. It is interesting to note that we have social norms that exist because of our method of communication, and we attempt to replicate those norms when the medium changes. If I want to communicate something that may be a bit harsh, I can soften the message by making a joke of it, winking, or saying it tenderly with a soft hand on the shoulder. Online there is nothing but words. No tonal variance, no comforting squeeze of the hand, and on the positive side, no slap on the face when offence is taken. There is nothing but words.

MOOs allow for yet another interesting aspect. Suddenly a person is no longer just chatting; they are now interacting within an environment. Instead of typing, “You drive me crazy, I am very angry.” One can say, “You drive me crazy”, and then proceed to throw a chair through the wall. A person now has objects and an environment with which to interact.

I should mention that ‘back in the day’, I spent much more than 4 hours in a MUD environment. I guided a fledgling character upwards of level 9 (or something) by killing bugs, rabbits, and wildebeests in some MUD probably long gone. While spending time this week in a MOO, I was surprised how little activity was going on. Players were hanging out in the living room talking about, what else, politics. I was anxious to join in the conversation, but being a newbie, I did not attempt to jump right in to the foray. I did politely ask where a new visitor might want to visit and was told to go “north, south, east, west, up and down.” This spot, I was told, was apparently a great place to visit. I’m not the quickest guy in the cubicle, but I was able to figure out where this would lead me before I actually embarked on the journey. When I mentioned this I was told to feel free to sit on the couch, which I did. None of the active participants was overly anxious to spend time on a person who may never visit the site again, which is a very interesting topic for another day.

I explored a few other places in the LambdaMOO environment, and interacted with some of the objects, but did not have as much time as I wanted. Because of a firewall issue at Weber State, and having no internet connection at home, the only opportunity to log on was while on vacation at my brother’s house in Las Vegas. And after exploring for a bit my wife said something to the affect of “drove 400 miles to play on the computer”. I didn’t catch it all, but the non-verbals and tone was enough to get me off the computer, post haste. :)

Monday, October 25, 2004

Trust me...

What was it that Yoda said? "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering" This week Dave asked us to discuss the relationships between cooperation, incentives, reputations, and trust. I think it would be fair to say that reputations lead to trust, trust leads to cooperation, and you must have incentives to make it all work.

I used to teach a class at Weber State University called The Wired Society. One of the topics was human nature and technology. I posed the question, if technology helps us to do what humans do 'better', then it might be important to determine if humans are inherently good or inherently evil. If technology is a magnification of human nature and by nature we are 'bad', then isn't technology a bad thing as well?

I ran a series of 'experiments' where the students had to make choices in an online environment. The results of these challenges were supposed to give us an insight into human nature. A key theme to this experiment was the question of anonymity (which could be argued is the antithesis to reputation), and trust. The results were interesting. One of them was the prisoner's dilemma. I found that when we did the exercise in class, people played quite nicely. Online was a completely different story. Here and here are a few of the the links that demonstrate what happened. The long and the short of it was that when the class got online, in a state of anonymity, with no worry about reputation or future retaliation, things got messy. Quite messy.

Compare this to real life where what I do is noted by those around me, and I build a 'reputation'. "Oh yeah, that's Marion. Isn't he the one that painted the local Wal-Mart a nice shade of salmon while wearing a Tick costume?" What I do becomes my 'reputation'. Online we have the option to be anonymous, but if we frequent the same spots, with the same people, we again begin to build a reputation. I argue reputation is a good thing. It keeps us from acting 'human'.

Because my class acted in a anonymous environment, for a short period of time, in a temporary environment, there was no reputations built. The end result was that there was no trust. Because there was no trust, there was ultimately no cooperation. Another of the challenges I gave my class was an exercise in cooperation. If the whole class cooperated, they all came out ahead. If, however, one person decided to go against the group, everybody lost a few points, but the person who defected got a lot of points. It was a non-zero-sum game. Since nobody was concerned about reputation can you guess the results? More than half the class defected, even though during the discussion portion of the challenge almost everybody promised to cooperate.

A good case study is e-bay, talked about in two of our readings. It's a great system, partly because it is so incredibly simple (lower cost for those following the rational choice theory threads), but the end result is that the system gives us a reputation, easily and readily accessible by all, thus forcing trust (or distrust, as the case may be). With a quick click, I can know how other people have acted in past transactions. If somebody tends to be dishonest, then I can avoid working with them. If the trust is built, then I may now enter into a cooperative act with them. I will give them money in exchange for an item.

That trust also plays back into what Kollock called a social dilemma. E-bay's system allows us to engage in a 'tit-for-tat' system of feedback. Tit-for-tat means that if somebody harms you, then you harm them back. If the other player cooperates, then you in turn cooperate. If somebody sends you a solar powered clothes dryer, and you are not happy with it, then you can retaliate. This won't keep them from trying to sell to others, but it may warn others that this person is dishonest, and ultimately they may lose business. Going back to the rational choice theory, it becomes to costly to act in a dishonest manner. It is to a sellers advantage to be fair because there is a cost (negative incentive) to cheating.

I haven't left out incentives on purpose, rather I feel that I've already shared my thoughts on how they play a very important and holistic role in online communities and human nature in general, and I certainly wouldn't want to bore anybody with further ramblings. :)

I just want to say in hindsight that I feel like I've only scratched the surface of this topic. I think there is a lot there, and my thoughts are quite convoluted and nomadic in nature. I only had a week to work, read, and think on this. I feel like there is more that I haven't considered or discussed.

Ok, on to Zork! I beat Zork 'back in the day' (by day I mean before you could hop on the internet and get a walkthrough), but who can pass up the opportunity to play video games when you've got such a great excuse? "Honey, look right here, it says I have to play this game for hours and hours this week. Yeah, my professor is a slave driver, but you gotta do what the good doctor says."

Friday, October 15, 2004

You know you want to be one...

If you know the true definition of a hacker, and know what they do, then you may be like me and have always had a secret desire to be one.

This site at least gives you a place to practice.

Glad to know it's not just Herman again...

A few years after I found, and had frequented, a discussion board, I posted something to the affect of, "How do we know that this discussion board isn't just you, me, and some guy named Herman pretending he is 89 other people?"

It caused quite a stir, but the group got over it. That being said, it was nice to meet our Logan counterparts at Rooster's and to see the faces behind the blogs. I had a very enjoyable evening, and look forward to a possible next meeting up in Logan.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Fan Fic...

My family went for a drive last night. My little four year old is just learning about the letters of the alphabet; what they are, what they do, and how they sound.

“Just,” he said. “ju, ju… just. G… S… T. That spells just.”

I heard him from the front seat and replied. “Son, you are wrong. Gst does not spell just. You are not as smart as your brother.”

Earlier that day my toddler pointed to a banana and said, “Nanna.” It was the first word I had heard him say. I pointed my finger at him. “NO!” I said strictly, “That is not a nana. That is a banana. You need to learn to say it right, like your older brothers.

OK, I’m lying. That is certainly not how I act around my kids. When my son attempted to spell just, I praised him for knowing the sounds. He is thinking about forming words with letters, a significant leap. I encouraged him and he was very pleased at my attention. When my toddler tries to tackle new words, I cheer him on and give him a hug. Even when they are flat wrong I praise and encourage.

So why is it when children start to write, we have to grade them? We have to correct their spelling, grammar, and prose? Shouldn't a significant amount of time be spent doing nothing more than cheering them on?

After reading fan fiction this week, I’m beginning to understand the appeal. I was quite frankly shocked as I read the comments. I have been blasted many, many times on the internet. I share my opinion and I’m flamed. I ask a question and I’m flamed. I post a smiley and I’m flamed. In places I'm know I've been flamed on what I'm 'probably going to say'! But with fan fiction it’s different. Oh sure, there are the occasional flames, but for the most part people go out of their way to praise and encourage. That, in an and of itself, makes fan fiction a powerful learning tool. Why do kids (and adults) go and post stuff here? Could it be because they don’t get all of their errors shoved in their face?

But there is more. If I had to teach writing I would do three exercises. First I would have students read good literature. Second I would have them read bad literature. Third, I would ask them explain to me the difference. I would ask them to show me how to make the bad literature better.

Critiquing is a very difficult thing. It seems easy. You read a bad story and say to yourself, “That sucks tacos.” But that isn’t critiquing, that is merely criticizing. To critique you need to explain why something sucks tacos. That is much, much more difficult.

When I first started writing for fun, I wanted the opinion of others. I went to writing groups and asked for opinions. In exchange I was more than happy to give my opinion on their work.

But I found this to be very difficult. I would read a story, find it to be ‘bad’, but not quite knowing why. Their sentences were grammatically correct. It seemed like they had a great plot going. Why didn’t it grip me like Orson Scott Card’s books? Or Douglas Adams? What was the difference?

I certainly don't have all the answers as to what makes a good story, but I feel like I’m starting to have a better idea. Now, after much work, I can read a story and find specific problems; common errors that writers make. Maybe the plot is too heavy handed, predictable, or without conflict. Maybe the writer uses a particular word too many times in a paragraph. Errors I make all of the time, but now recognize because I’m looking at other’s work, and asking the difficult questions; what is wrong with this? how can it be better?

The long and the short of it is that people are finding a voice online. Because of the sheer number of individuals, participants can find a group of peers that have about the same writing level, and the same interests. They can think about each others’ work, make it better, and learn. This could be (is?) a powerful method of teaching literacy.

The stories I critiqued are here, here, and here. The story I wrote is here.

I found this assignment, and the reading that went along with it, to be both insightful and enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Self-Interest and Game Theory

Those interested in game-theory and the like will find this article interesting...

For twenty years, the strategy of Tit for Tat has won the competition. This was the basic strategy employed during the cold war. If you neighbor was nice to you, you were nice to them. If they 'wronged' you, then you answered back with an equal amount of aggression.

It now appears that Tit for Tat no longer works, as long as you have enough 'suckers' in the mix. The new program seeks to recognize 'friendies' playing the game (based on how they act in the first few rounds), then one program goes into master mode, and the other goes into slave mode. The 'slaves' end up at the bottom of the heap, because they are always sacrificing themselves for the 'masters'. The masters end up on top.

Monday, October 11, 2004


A friend just gave me a page from her Dilbert calendar. I found it quite funny.

Dilbert and Dogbert are talking at the breakfast table.

Dilbert: Maybe I should become a teacher so I can educate the leaders of tomorrow.

Dogbert: Maybe you should educate the morons of tomorrow so they'll stop believeing the leaders of tomorrow.

Rational Choice Theory

With a little help from a good friend, Jeannie Johnson I found a theory that relates to a previous discussion of online communities and self-interest. It's called the Rational Choice theory. The long and the short of the theory states that we all have desires, and that there are costs (monetary, social, psychological, etc.) associated with obtaining these desires.

My thoughts are that by raising the desire, or lower the cost, you can get people to act a certain way. Marketing departments do this all the time. They make commercials to convince us that we need an SUV, Ovaltiene, or a riding lawnmower. They try to raise our desires. Conversely, by lowering cost, you can also affect action. I do not like Ford vehicles, but if somebody offered me a new one for $4, then I would buy it. Well, I would consider it anyway... This works in economic models, but also works in describing human nature. I have the desire to be with my family and the desire to watch Napoleon Dynamite. If I watch Napoleon Dynamite, the cost is that I'm away from my family. I must weigh the costs against the desires before I come upon a rational decision.

So, taking that back to online communities. I would argue that the advent of these online communities are not because somebody has convinced us that we need to belong to a community (remember, the internet is not a corporate phenomenon, no single entity 'built it'). The desire of individuals haven't raised, rather the technology has lowered the 'cost'. It used to be that the cost of obtaining news was to wait until 6:00, or buy a newspaper, or listen to the radio at the top of the hour. Now the cost is to type into a browser. The cost of finding people who have similar interests, and actually conversing with them, has also lowered dramatically. I argue THAT is why online communities have organized.

I think I could demonstrate this phenomenon with the online group geocachers. The level to which this group has organized, the extent they now reach (globally), at the price they charge (Free), is amazing. The desire has always been there, and the ability to do so has been as well, but the cost was too high. Now the cost of accomplishing such a feat has decreased to a level so low that people are willing to just make it happen.

I don't know, what do you think?

For what it's worth...

Edublog log

I found this assignment particularly challenging. It has opened my eyes to several of instructional design, blogging, and earning a Ph. D. in general.

The first thing to strike me as I read these edublogs was the technical expertise of the bloggers. I work everyday with faculty members helping them with technology. I have a pretty good idea of how ‘technical’ the average college professor is. This is not a put down. Weber State has some brilliant professors. They know chemistry, literature, nursing, foreign languages, etc. etc. etc. What most of them don’t know are the finer nuances of technology. I spent my day with faculty who didn’t realize you can copy and paste, or undo a mistake. I’m worshiped as a techno god at least 3 times a week by fellow human beings with the title Doctor before their name.

So I felt completely overwhelmed by posts like this and this. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, instructional technologists and educators who are blogging are going to have a higher degree of technical expertise than your ordinary professors, but as I read through blogs this week I had a hard time feeling comfortable about jumping in and posting. I could see an exchange in the back of my mind.

Blogger: And so my RSS had a problem with the ASP, XML and SPGXML feeds. I wrote an application that isolated and repaired, but then flickr rendered python and you know what that did to plone and the So has anybody else solved this little conundrum?

Marion: Ummmm… Whenever my computer doesn’t work… Uuuuuh. I try restarting it. I don’t know, maybe you’ve already tried that, but I’ve noticed when my computer doesn’t work… I just… restart… Sometimes you have to pull out the cord… I mean the primary power supply… Ummmm…..

That being said, I’m excited to continue monitoring these sites. There are some exciting ideas being discussed. I doubt there is a group anywhere that is closer to the bleeding edge than many of the authors of the blogs I read this week.

The second, and perhaps more troubling revelation of the week, is the problem I realized while reading these posts. I saw several references to Flickr, a program that has something to do with graphics. I’m very curious about this program and would like to try and figure it out. However, I came to the conclusion I don’t have the time, nor did I have the time to do this assignment correctly. Personally I need more than five hours before I feel I can post something of merit to many of these blogs. This idea that I don’t have the time frightens me. I am beginning to realize that perhaps a Ph. D. is not something you do in your spare time. I currently work full time and am a dad in my spare time. That means whatever time is left has been devoted to reading, writing papers, and fulfilling class assignments. But the ‘deeper’ I get into this program, the more I realize that this is not how one earns a doctorate. I am realizing that a doctorate is something you immerse yourself in. Sure, you still have your life outside of the program, but earning a doctorate, if you are serious about it, is going to take up a significant amount of time. If work is taking 50 hours, and kids and dinner is taking another 20, is the remaining time enough time? The ‘five hours’ we were supposed to read and post was all I spent. I did not explore further, I did not download or play with Flickr (I’m not even sure it’s a downloadable). How can dive into this community of bloggers while wolfing down a plate of beans and in between faculty asking questions about their online course? I simply need more time.

Anyway, that is something I’m going to have to grapple with.

Back to the assignment. Using the RSS I read blogs for the required time, including reading back on fellow students’ blogs. I replied to these sites.

A message from a Wiki Spammer I couldn’t resist this one, the blogger used the phrase “crapping and leaving their fetid roach turds.” How can you ignore inspired prose like that?

I found several of Gulfidan’s posts interesting, and replied to them.

I wanted to post a reply to John Dehlin’s blog but did it on my site since I couldn’t seem to post a comment to his.

I also posted to The Flying Car. Jim had an interesting idea on the Zone of Proximal development and how that related to he Bazaar article we read in class.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Name change...

I decided to go with a better name while I'm blogging for this class. I can always either set up another one for my book, or change back when the topics becomes more my personal blog.

Anyway, for a bit of 'off topic' news, I found out this week that the publisher indeed is going to publish my book. I should have a contract in about a few weeks that will make it official. It looks like it's scheduled for a Spring/Summer 05 release.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Somewhat relevant for two reasons...

This article talks about blogs, and also involves a USU prof. Interesting indeed. Is this the beginning of a dark side to blogging?

Monday, October 04, 2004

More Thoughts on Blogs

I just read John Dehlin's assignment for the week and wanted to post a comment, but alas, was unable to. So I'll just post my thoughts here. John poses the following thought,

"To me, the miracle of the blogging movement lies within the notion of "aggregate and share"--the fact that really smart and motivated people are willing to spend time accumulating all of the most interesting and relevant articles/writings for a given topic/issue, and then are generous enough to share these findings with the rest of the world"

I think he has hit upon a key aspect of the usefulness of blogs, which leads to the question: why are people so willing to share? In our capitalist society, why are these people trying to do so much for so little? Do we need to start referring to anybody who blogs as "comrade blogger"? ;)

I think the answer goes back to the notion that we are dealing with such an amazing amount of people, each of them with their own value structure (going back to my thoughts on cost/benefits). Let's assume there are 50 people who have useful information; information that others would like to have. 49 of them try to think of a way to get money for that information. But the other one decides that the costs involved with trying to make money from the information (publishing, developing, marketing, managing, etc. etc. etc.), isn't worth the potential benifit. He/she decides that the cost of giving the information away for free (posting it to a blog), is outweighed by the payoff (the potential that thousands will use and benefit from the information, and that the poster may receive some attention).

My cousin keeps a tech blog. He says for him it's just as easy to keep track of how he did something on a blog as it is in a notebook. If he forgets how he did something, he can search his blog to remind himself of the procedure. The fact that others can also search it is just another benefit. Sure, he could try to publish his knowledge and make some money, but for him the cost is too high. And by doing this, he is keeping anybody else from making money from such information. Why pay for information if it is available for free?

Anyway, just a few more thoughts on the cost/benefit model...