Monthly Archives: October 2007

When I Am Old I Shall Wear Grouchy like a Purple Hat

Sometime in the past few years of getting a house and having two babies, I got old. This is something that Stephen and I joke about from time to time when we realize the multitude of 20-somethings on TV. Then sometime in the past few months, I realized that I was older than the people in the books I read.

Today I realized that technology has also passed me by.

About seven or eight years ago I bought a 125,000 image clip art library. I use the images in many different projects. I’ve used the seasonal and holiday portions twice a month for more than three years now in our church’s newsletter. So recently I decided it was really time to get something new. I bought something at Staples since I had a spend-$50-get-$25-off coupon burning a hole in my pocket. I knew it was for PC but I thought, “surely I’ll be able to pull the image files off the disks and open them in Photoshop to do what I need.”

I couldn’t do it.

I let Teresa, the woman I do the newsletter for at church, borrow the disks to look through. I chatted with her this morning about it. While we were looking at it on her computer, I realized the reason I couldn’t see the image files on the disk. They aren’t image files, just links to files on the internet. What I bought wasn’t images, just the software to download the images from the internet. Ugh. I asked her if she wanted to buy it from me since I couldn’t use it on my computer and couldn’t take it back.

So I thought, maybe I should just get the Mac equivalent. No, sorry. No such thing exists any more. Everything is on the internet now–for a low, low monthly fee. But see, I don’t want to pay a monthly fee. I want to spend $50 and have access to 1.2 million images whenever I need them for the next seven or eight years.

And this is where I know that I am old. I am longing for the days when I could squish my pennies without repercussions, babies didn’t fall out of Bumbos, and clip art still came on CD.

Portal Was a Triumph

Let’s talk about Portal, the game from Valve. It’s a first-person puzzle game in which you place portals that allow you to teleport from one portal to another. You use these portals to reach places you normally couldn’t, move objects around, and solve puzzles.

You know, putting this in words is difficult. Let me show you the trailer.

The game is absolutely brilliant, and has a streak of dark humor that’s unusual both for its tone and for being actually funny. Its pacing is spot-on, keeping you moving forward without frustrating you too much. It’s currently sitting at 89 on Metacritic, and a lot of gamers have been raving about it online.

Add me to that mob. Portal is exquisitely made, polished until the cannonball has no corners whatsoever, and manages to combine puzzles and atmosphere and characterization into a beautiful package. It’s better than a chocolate-covered magic pony.

And I’m about to spoil it for all it’s worth. I’m going to break down its structure and pacing, dissect its backstory, and try to explain why the game works as well as it does. If you have any interest whatsoever in playing Portal–and you should–then go get it and play it before reading on. It’s available for Windows as a standalone game, or for Windows and XBox 360 as part of the Orange Box bundle with Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and a bunch of other stuff.

Continue reading Portal Was a Triumph

The Power of Language

When we lived in North Carolina I met a woman who did sign language with her baby. Ten years ago, it seemed like a fringe baby communication technique. I was pretty impressed anyway, not only with the mom’s thoughtfulness but also with the baby’s ability to communicate. I told Stephen about it then and suggested we give it a try when we had a kid.

Before Eli was born, I bought the standard Joseph Garcia work Sign with Your Baby. We worked and worked with Eli until finally, not knowing he was trying to communicate with us, we gave up. We didn’t think he was responding or trying to duplicate the signs we were making. A few weeks later, a child care worker at church asked us if we’d been doing signs with him. Apparently, she was able to recognize the loose signs Eli was making and call them what they were: his attempt to talk to us. We renewed our efforts and were rewarded with a dozen signs during his pre-verbal and early verbal days.

I can’t tell you the amount of frustration his ability to sign cut down. Many times when he was tired, a sign would ease the way to compromise. We didn’t do the endless pointing and asking, “Is this what you want? No? How about this?” And it gave him some power. Even without vocalized words he could still let us know what he needed. We also got an excellent start on good manners. To this day, he will still sometimes make the sign for ‘please’ when he says it out loud. I was continually amazed at him making signs for stuff and me for understanding what he wanted.

I’ve often wondered if sign language is the reason he talked so early and so well. Of course, there’s no way to verify that. Many times I’ve had people approach me and comment on how articulate and well mannered he is. I think it was the sign language.

So, of course, we’re signing with Liza. I have a different book this time, it’s Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers. My sister-in-law, Joy, recommended it and I find it to be better than the Garcia book. The new book said to start earlier and be ready to see very loose signs at first. It also suggested to do two groups of signs. “See a Lot/Do a Lot” signs are things like ‘bath,’ ‘milk,’ ‘where,’ and a made-up sign for Eli. “Highly Motivating” signs are things she likes: ‘Eli’ again, ‘water,’ ‘mom’ and ‘dad.’ These two groups of signs are a much better system, I can already tell. Also, knowing what to look for is very, very helpful.

Liza has made the signs for bath, milk, and water. Right now she is only doing them in response to us doing them. I haven’t yet seen her make them on her own as a request, but I’m sure that day is right around the corner. I never thought I’d be communicating with my five month old. It is awe-inspiring and proves the drive we have to communicate, even from birth.

Dangerously Stupid Kids

In SF Gate, Mark Morford warns of the coming collapse of America due to all of the stupid kids coming out of our educational system. He hints at the horrors an anonymous high-school teacher at Oakland High School has witnessed and warns us that the future shown in Idiocracy is upon us. He has a lot of scary things to say, from how letting a kid under 6 years old watch any TV will scramble their “basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions” for life to how high school students don’t know how to use a ruler to draw a straight line.

I’d be a lot more worried if these arguments weren’t shored up by anecdotes, bad and fuzzy data, and stupid logic.

For instance, what reports and hard data is he referring to when it comes to TV and the under-six crowd? There was a study in 2005 showing TV’s modest bad effect on reading for kids under 3, but another study that just came out in October of 2007 indicated that heavy early TV exposure that’s later reduced doesn’t cause behavorial problems or poor social skills. There’s no support for the idea that one glimpse of TV will turn your kid into an idiot, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV before age 2, but allows one to two hours of TV after that age.

Mark also makes much of how, out of 182 school days in a year at Oakland HS, there are 110 days when someone is giving standardized tests somewhere in the school. Oakland has some 2,400 students. They’re clearly not all taking standardized tests all 110 days, so what fraction of any given students’ time is spent in testing? 80 days out of the year? 40? 2? We’ve got no clue. It’s like saying that it rains somewhere on Earth every day of the year, so we’re all going to be flooded.

He’s got all kinds of dumbifying causes. Cell phones. iPods. Electromagnetic fields! Junk food!! Videogames!!! Why, kids today can’t use a ruler, and a compass? Forget it! And it’s all because of those horrible public schools! Or because they’re a bunch of pussies who don’t ride in the back of pickup trucks or on car roofs! Or because they don’t go camping and can’t recognize plants! He’s gone to the grocery store, bought a bunch of theories about why students don’t do well, gone home, shoved them all in a blender, and served the resulting lumpy paste to us while yelling alarms in our ears. The only causative factors he’s missing are parents, an anti-intellectual American culture, and the students themselves.

Maybe kids are getting dumber. But from this column’s evidence, it’s not like the adults are necessarily all that smart, either.