Aug 042012

What if someone said that if you did something special for 20 minutes a day, your memory would improve.  Your intelligence too!

Would you do it?

Turns out, our family doesn’t.  There’s this Dual N-back app that Catherine downloaded.  It’s challenging and I could see how practicing is good exercise for one’s mental capabilities.

It’s just so boring.

Instead, I’ve convinced myself that learning new games and the strategies within them, is the way I’d rather work out my brian.  Ben pointed out that I don’t like running, but would play basketball.  Same thing.  Analogies are the mark of intelligence.

Anyway, I’m still hooked on Carcassonne.  But now, there’s some Outwitters going on.  It’s of a class of games that I haven’t played much, but I thought that the characters would interest Sal.  And it’d be another good way to get his mind shaped around strategy development.  He’s taking to it very well, though we still see the game a bit differently.

He was asking me what my favorite character was. And in my answer, I qualified it for the different types of boards, the style of game I was going to play, the style I felt my opponent played, and the color of my mood ring.  It took me that long to realize he was just asking which character I thought looked the coolest.

You need to play 5 games to get a ranking in the game.  Sal finished his five games over a few days (depending on your opponent, things could take a while). But he came to me sad.  “Dad, I’m so bad at Outwitters, they won’t even put me in the Fluffy league.”  This was just a few days after he had a victory against some stranger online.  He was bummed and I felt bad for him.  But I also felt like everyone gets ranked.

He had two games against me, which were unranked.  He thought those counted.  So he’s happy now he’s still in the hunt for the Fluffy league.  Click on that game screenshot to see a video of his win. Which was completely unassisted by a parent.  I got a text from Catherine while I was at work that he beat a stranger (she’s staying away from the game because the Fog of War makes her nervous…the Fog of Poor Memory makes me more nervous) and I was anxious to get home to watch the replay.  I was pleased with how aggressive he was.  Over the wide variety of games that we play, he’s picking up some decent strategic ability.

Myself, well, more than half the time I make a move, there’s some aspect of it I immediately regret.  But the percentage of time that’s happening is shrinking.  Slowly.  Shrinking because I’m making fewer mistakes.  Slowly because I’m still learning more about the strategy of the game myself.  I’m increasing the number of things I’m paying attention to – meaning I’m learning new ways that I’m making mistakes.  But I figure collecting those facts/strategies is in the same spirit as the N-back test.

Or at least, it is good enough for me.

Jul 072012

I love me some Carcassonne.  Not sure why, and it took about 2 months for it to take, but I’m pretty well addicted to it.  Sal, once, even to try and hurt me, said that he wanted to delete Carcassonne off his iPad.  We still haven’t fully recovered from that.

I’ve started playing some strangers online now, in addition to my regular stable of friends.  This is one result:

Some people like dishing it out more than taking it, apparently.  He LOLs me when he orphans one of my players.  And on the next move, I put a player out there that could again get orphaned, so I mention I’m a slow learner. Then I orphan 3 of his players, as well as one of my own (but that’s a reasonable sacrifice to make) and I wonder if this is just as Laugh Out Loud funny.  It was to me at least.

Another game I was playing, I quickly realized I was up against serious competition.  Sal was talking to me about something and I asked him if we could have the conversation later because I was playing a tough person in Carcassonne.  He was fine with that and came over to watch.  Catherine asked how I could tell and I talked about some of the types of moves he was making.

Sal asked me how come I knew it was a guy, when their avatar was a women.  I had to start describing how sometimes people don’t represent themselves perfectly online and I felt that the best way to get around some of the tougher topics was to bring up the New Yorker comic where the dogs were talking about how the internet was great, cause “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

Sal thought about that for a while, watching our game progress.  Then he said “Or maybe, they are a dog and are just really excited because they are finally playing another dog!”


Feb 262012

We did some more programming over the weekend.

I was wondering yesterday, as we were going through it, how much of it he is getting and if I am letting him grasp enough of it, or if I am rushing him through it due to my impatience.

Today, I got a bit of a hint towards that, because we needed to add buttons.  Which don’t really exist in the Scratch world, except as their “sprites” and so every button is an “actor” in a sense.  So we started making buttons as sprites and I was explaining to him how they need to have two costumes, a “selected” costume and a “notSelected” costume.  And we colored the two states of the buttons differently so one could tell when they were in each state.

“It’s like you have this all planned out, Dad” he commented as he went through the repetitive process of putting the same set of actions on each of the buttons.

And I laughed and said that I’ve been programming for most of my life, so I am able to see problems earlier.  But I’m conflicted between making the process seem like a natural conversation and having dedicated design sessions with him.  I think that this stage, we want things to flow and have quick, fast iterations and not be weighed down by “lectures”.  Though at the same time, I want to avoid spoon feeding him solutions and make sure that he’s able to learn how to see problems and break them down.  Though I don’t know how to do that explicitly, so we’re going with a leap of faith on implicit learning for now.

Since this hit my soft spot, I changed the subject and told him that our implementation already had a bug in it that I could see.  I asked if he could see it and he couldn’t.  If he could have, I probably would have annoyed everyone with how many times I’d tell the story bragging about his ability to see that changing the state of one button necessitated the states of the other buttons to be updated.

Though he had fun discovering the bug by running the game.

And we had a lot of fun (I think) writing this last game.  And the part he thought would be the hardest, actually took less than 2 minutes.  Programming the “hard” mode of our game turned out to be pretty easy.  I think that aspect of the program tickled his soft spot for word play.

Anyway, to be safe, I think we’ll design our next game (tic-tac-toe?) on paper first.  To go through some of the design process.  I think he’s taking for granted how easy it is to design an application with me as a tour guide.  As we played some other rock-paper-scissors games on Scratch, we felt ours matched up rather nicely.

Though we’re completely biased.  And Sal’s willing to give you a bajillion dollars if you can beat our game in Hard mode.  Good luck.

As a final point, he did understand the abstraction between our internal representation of a rock (1), paper (2), and scissors (3).  We took a walk after we hit a big conceptual design flaw in our program (in “easy” mode, our first mode we wrote, we programmed the computer to always play paper – our result screens were based on that.  So when we wrote “medium” mode, where the computer plays randomly, the results screens weren’t handling the computer’s new freedom of choice.  That change demanded a dog walk) and on the walk, among other things he was talking about, he mentioned the desire to make a elemental based version of the game.  And we found it on Scratch.  Where fire, water and ice battle each other instead of rock, scissors and paper.

So we talked about what we would need to change in our program and it was really only the “costumes” of our sprites.  Internally, our program could still call things rock (really the value 1) and just draw it as fire – and the game would be the same.  We could even just have it as a choice for the user – if they would like to play Rock Paper Scissors, or Fire, Ice and Water.  I was pretty pleased that the idea clicked so fast.

But to test it, when we design tic-tac-toe on paper, we’ll try and use math only to sum up the rows/columns/diagonals to check for a winning condition.  Or maybe we’ll come up with a better way.  You know, cause it’s not like I’ve got it all planned out already…sheesh.


Feb 222012

I knew I had written about the song The Dollar before – I just didn’t realize it was so long ago.

We had our Dollar moment a few weeks ago.

I have taught some LEGO robotics courses for the DMA a few times.  I’ve enjoyed it each time, but always left feeling a little guilty.  Parents could have saved 2k by just buying the kit and doing a little web searching and playing with their own kids, instead of having me do it.  But time and interest isn’t always there.

It hit a little closer to home last year, as I was dropping Sal off for his own 6 year old robot course summer school.  They had some interesting kits, but were a bit pricey on eBay due to being discontinued.  The replacement Mindstorms kits for kids wasn’t interesting to Sal though.

Especially after he went to the last day of the course I was teaching later in the summer.  He really liked tweaking our full on NXT robot to compete with the other kids in the course.  He wasn’t interested in downgrading to the elementary school version of their robotics kits when he had played with the big boys.

Still, when I threw out the option to have me go teach the class this year in San Diego, I thought with LegoLand there, it’d be slam dunk with the little guy.

“I want to do that!” he said.

It was going how I expected, but the phrasing was a little off.  The way he said “that” seemed odd to me. So I probed a little more.

“I want to goto your class!”  Not goto the beach and maybe the Wild Animal park, while I teach the class?  “No, I want to do the class.”  All day?  “All day!” Every day?  “Every day” he said with a huge grin.

Well, that wasn’t going to work.

Bottom line, I got my kid asking to teach him the stuff I’m teaching other kids. How could I focus on the other kids more than my own?

So this summer, I’m not teaching a DMA course, but instead, trying to figure out how to teach a 2nd-grader-to-be how to program.  We’ll use the NXT kit I think, but I really think I’ll get more bang for the buck from the Scratch programming environment.

He’s played around with Scratch with his mom some afternoons.  They had a game where you had to touch the ninja to score some points, then the ninja would jump away, and you’d have to go mouse over him again.  Sal was really proud to tell me about how he had written a bug – since the game didn’t really end.

It’s a little sad, when one’s son’s way of mimicking one is by creating bugs.  Says a lot about what he thinks of the quality of my work, huh?

Anyway, shameful example aside, we have talked abstractly about how we could define the game ending, and he had it in his head that he would want a big “THE END” to appear and when the color of those letters hit the color of the ninja, the game would be over.

We’ve also had long conversations about which came first, the chicken or the egg. He didn’t always see the connection.

But tonight, after his friend couldn’t make it over for some play time, to avoid any drama over the change in plans, we busted open Scratch and fixed up the game.

It was a pretty good first session.  We defined the end of the game would be after X seconds.  They have a very convenient timer that we made a lot of use out of.  We added a game over background.  Then we added another ninja, so you would have to avoid one while tagging the other. This second ninja had us doing a lot of copying each time we wanted to tweak something, so we got to talk about the responsibilities of each character in the game, and the background started to take over a lot more of the “management” of the game.

So he refactored a program already!  And we had to debug some things.  I don’t think he fully got the nuances behind the race condition we had when the game started and the initial state wasn’t set properly, but he did understand how message passing allowed us to have the stage tell each of the ninjas when to start running (which fixed our race condition).  We are definitely hitting upon the notion of a controller.

Now, he’s dreaming of what’s next.  I’m sure I’ll hear about it quite a bit tomorrow.

And I’m scared.  And happy.  And mainly glad that I’m going to be around to see it develop.

Here’s the game, if you want to try it out…and if you see the kid around sometime, I’m sure he’d love to talk to you about the game in more detail…

Apr 042010

Kind of drawn to the iPad and not just because of the Modern Family tie-in.  Though everyone talks about what it’s not replacing, and I agree with them, it doesn’t replace my laptop or my Blackberry, but no one has mentioned that it’s a great replacement for the OLPC that we have.

I mean, I love the idea behind the OLPC but it just didn’t work. The keyboard was flakey and the touchpad was worse. Making the whole thing rough to use. Kids don’t have that kind of patience to figure out how exactly you need to slide your finger to move the mouse.  Or at least, mine didn’t.  And yeah, there’s no Flash on that thing either, unless you wanna spend 2 evenings trying to reimage the thing from a USB stick.

So given that Sal’s got an XP box into some crazy state with a very unhappy active desktop, and that the OLPC doesn’t quite cut it, plus he’s got a huge interest in his mother’s iPhone, the iPad seems great for him as a device.

  • Reading.  The dude is reading more and more now, and to have his library contained in one device makes road tripping seem that much more sane. There’s a version of Cat in the Hat on the iPhone that is interactive and encouraged him as he worked his way through the words.  Loved it.
  • Math games. When he’s got no pure game time left, he’ll play the math games.  Not as fun as the other games, but he is working on his math.
  • Memory games, puzzles, logic games, coordination games…even the games that are more entertainment than educational, will have some beneficial side effects.  I’ve seen apps that mimic a piano…and I’m sure there’s gotta be a chess tutorial app out there too.
  • There is no OS; in the traditional sense. No file system, no command lines, nothing for him to really jack up, inadvertently.
  • He’s not going to be typing novels yet, so I’m not worried about the keyboard issues.
  • The sketchpad apps with infinite crayons again make those roadtrips seem more manageable.  Plus you get to save the result digitally to share with others instead of worrying about Dad ripping butcher paper up.  Or he could narrate a slideshow of his to his grandparents.
  • Wi-Fi is good enough for him.  I imagine when we’re out, there should be enough on the iPad to keep him entertained, and able to share his works with others easily.

Now, there isn’t the collaborative aspect that the OLPC had, but we weren’t going to be able to really utilize that anyway. And probably still would not want that for a 4 or 5 year old.

To get the OLPC I think was 400 – buy one to give and keep one.  So we’ll just wait it out, and then when the 2nd generation comes along, I think we’ll have our OLPC replacement…

Jul 102009

WordPress releases blackberry app to publish posts. Not sure if that will make a difference, but it’s worth trying out.

Attaching picture…

That was harder than I thought it would be.

Gonna try and write a gymbuddy interval timer for the berry this weekend. Will probably admit on monday that buying one for $14 would have been worth it.

Had to edit photo at desktop to reduce its size.  Was an option I ignored on the berry…

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