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.