The All Mighty Green One

Non sense, whining and stupid unfounded comments from the green.

I Finally Got It

I have recently had a very unbalanced life. All work, no play. The “All work” part has been formed in a very large part by a great deal of technical research. Although this is beneficial, since it will increase my skill set, this still reeks of an unbalanced life.

More than once, I have the same advice handed over to technical readers. Especially we the oh so lucky nerds in the computer science and related fields of knowledge. Alternate reading technical books with fantasy, science fiction or any other type of creative works. Technical books tend to put in a specific frame of mind. They box you into a specific way of thinking. While their knowledge is necessary, exposure to that influence alone will create a very square person. Fiction works help develop your creativity. Making your mind soar, it helps develop the skills of creation and “out of the box” thinking. While this is not as documented as the former, in my field it is just as important.

It might not have been the best decision, but instead of going with a fiction book, I decided to take up an MMO. While not as stimulating as the former, it definitely will help stimulate my long abandoned creative juices, and offer enough interactivity to keep me active and motivated. While I will not specify the game, let me just say it is NOT Warcrack. Although this can be said about most MMO’s, Warcark is simply too time consuming, too addictive, and too absorbing.

I went with a game which I had a little previous experience with, making my transition into it a bit easier. I invited a couple of my friends which have played it in the past, but have now abandoned it. Only one has showed up till now. The game, like many others, forces you to look for allies in order to complete cooperative quests and missions. While you can attempt to do them yourself, or utilize AI driven helpers “henchmen” (as they are called in the game), most of the time this just isn’t good enough.

For those of you that have not had the pleasure of playing an MMO, I really, really recommend you try it out. If only to experience a very important cultural phenomenon of this decade, if not century. The game boasts a huge number of players. These players are not only interacting with the environment presented to them in the game, but also amongst themselves. These players are all simultaneously attempting to complete quests and missions, scouting good players to have them join their guilds, buying and selling goods, negotiating prices, trying to upgrade their armor and weapons, playing against each other. Any sociologist would have a field day analyzing all of this interaction. I am pretty sure a couple already have.

I quickly found myself in a very inhospitable environment. A bunch of people trying to sell me stuff I didn’t want or need. I was asking for help with a couple of missions, and the little help I was offered came with a price tag (in game currency) attached to it. I had little resources at my disposal, therefore there was little I could do. Sound familiar? All of a sudden this seemed like the “real” world, all over again. Thoughts of The Matrix popped in my head. I quietly grinned and tried to make the best of it with the resources I had at my disposal. I had already set out to make this the best experience possible, and I wasn’t about to quit now.

I had managed to gather a little bit of money from the small entry level ventures I was able to successfully accomplish. I was offering a small amount of money in exchange for help in the completion of a quest. As you can imagine, most of the people in that area simply ignored me. One particular fellow walked up to me astonished that I was offering money for help. I simply responded saying that was the only way I saw that I could get help. He laughed and offered me his free services. When we set off on the quest that I had to complete I realized this was an experienced player who had already maxed out the potential of his character. When we set off in the quest, he quickly and easily dispatched any enemies that popped up in front of us. There was little for me to do, but to pick up the money and loot left behind by the enemies.

After completing a couple of pending missions he promptly invited me to become a member of his guild. I was honored and quickly accepted. This guy was my hero. He was a master at the game, he selflessly helped me get through some hard parts of it, and now he was inviting me to form part of his group! I mean, how bigger than that does it get in the context. I was happy. I was playing. Probably a bit more than the conservative couple of hours a week I proposed myself to do so. As I mentioned before, these games are highly involving and addictive. If you let yourself get immersed in the fantasy world it projects, you can dedicate a couple of hours to it without even realizing it. In any case, I have corrected this, and I am back to regular more healthy dosages of the game.

One day I was hanging out with a couple of guys in the guild, doing some missions. We talk about a lot of stuff, related to the context of the game, but also mundane matters as well. My personal super hero and another one of the members were talking about how happy they were that they had gotten through their final exams and the school year was finally over. I froze in my tracks. After a couple of seconds I snapped out of it, and asked them “what grade are you in?”. They happily responded “10th grade”. They whipped back the same question at me. A bit ashamed I let them know I was an “old man”. This did not change my relationship with any of the guys in the guild. I still highly respect then, and love to play with them.

What this did do for me was make me think about the social implications of this type of game. You are represented and perceived by others by you in game character. When you start a campaign, you create a character. This character has a profession, a sex, a color of clothes, and particular physical characteristics that you specify. This gives you your own custom image in the game. Yet it is simply made to distinguish you from players which are nearby. The truth is that these are all false. Since from the get go everyone knows this is just a digital representation of the person behind the keyboard and mouse, no assumptions are made based on their appearance. Do you have any idea how big this is? Say goodbye to any discrimination based on color, sex or race. People are judged by how good they are at the game, what items you have available, what strategic support you can offer. Not by their characteristics. We’ve been trying to do that in our own society for at least the last 300 hundred years and have yet to be successful. Yet thanks to this online interaction, it has happened as a side effect no less.

I didn’t know that my partner in crime was simply a 15 year old child. I still have no idea what’s his race, color of his skin, or if he has any the ability to speak any tongues other than English.This has not changed in any way how I perceive him. He is still the leader of the group, and I still gladly follow him in the game. Yet in our world, the couple of laps around the sun that I have as an advantage would have probably given me seniority over the group. Irrelevant of the fact of weather I actually deserved or not. I am not even going to go into other discriminatory implications.

This, in part, explains the massive popularity of these games. It provides you a world where a man is quite literally “Not judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”. How many times have we been discriminated in our lifetimes? How many times have we been considered to be less adequate for some task just because we didn’t fit into “the profile”?. Even if you, my dear reader, fit into the 18 to 34 young, thin, white, healthy, English-speaking male (arguably the demographic which less suffers the injustices of prejudice), I am pretty sure this is still an alluring world. Even for you.

Sadly, I came to this realization a bit late. There are already 4+ million people playing Warcrack, which is by far the most popular MMO today. There are countless others in other games and franchises. This will sound like old news to most of you. Yet it was a marvelous moment of realization for me.

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June 19, 2007 Posted by | internet, media, software, technology | 1 Comment

Google is not Making us Stupider!

A very compelling argument was recently presented to me: “Google is Making us Stupid!”. “Why?”, I responded with a confused face. “Well it’s simple”, my interlocutor replied. He went on to make his point. For the sake of brevity I will sum up his reasoning. People don’t try to remember anything anymore. They just load up their browser, where Google is set as the default homepage half of the time. They type in a couple of keywords they can remember are associated with the element in question they want to interact with. And BAM! Just like if it was the all knowing, all wise, Galactic AC responds with the answer.

At first this seems like a very convenient tool. The Internet has a wealth of information on just about every topic there is. With the new advances in social networking and user generated content, the amount of information grows exponentially. Weather the quality of this content is good or not is another subject all together. Yet this information is not very well categorized. Even if it was, there is so much to go through that it would be humanly impossible to actually find what you are looking for if you don’t already know where it is to begin with. In short, Google is the best thing since individually wrapped sliced cheese.

Where lies the problem? People no longer are using their brains. They are not trying to remember everything. They assume Google will always be available to them. It will always give them a zippy response with accurate results. Why bother remembering anything to begin with. I must admit, there are a lot of sites I visit frequently which I don’t even bother bookmarking, whenever I doubt how to spell a word correctly I use it, it’s my first stop for any investigation no matter it’s size, scope or objective.

This argument is true. It is true but only under a traditionalist context of education based on memorization. For the folks reading from the good ol’ U.S. of A., your education definitely has been influenced by this, but it is not so bad. If I am so lucky to have readers from other industrialized nations, it’s pretty safe to assume your education level is superior (if not at least equal) to that of the U.S., so again, you were probably exposed to it, but not in extreme measures. I had half of my education in the lovely Caribbean paradise some call the Dominican Republic. Creativity, spontaneity or problem solving or not high on the priority lists of most teachers. Their method is very simple. The teacher speaks, the student listens. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, the student will have the lesson scarred to his brain, and use this valuable “learning experience” in the walks of life where it may become necessary. This is applied for every subject, from math and science (where some of this could necessary due to the nature of the disciplines), to religion and music (where it simply doesn’t make any sense at all).

The student would repeat, memorize, and spit out everything they stored the next day. This is essential in order to please the teacher and achieve acceptable grades. The better you are at memorizing yesterday’s lesson and spitting it out with as little help or resources as possible, the better grades you got. It was never about your skills in a certain science, or your understanding of the complexities of a certain circumstance, or reflexion on how the elements work. It was repetition. If you can repeat, you are an excellent student! Needless to say, this caused me more than my fair share of frustration while at school, but that’s another story.

What is wrong with this approach? The student is given a task. That task is to repeat what he/she has been order to bottle up. Once this is done, the student has proved his/her worth, and their is no need to maintain this so called “knowledge”, so it is simply thrown out for more relevant information. It is the natural order of things. You remember how to eat and sleep. They are essential to your survival. You might not remember the name of that guy you bumped into last week, if it didn’t make much of a difference in your experience. If that “knowledge” is simply replaced with the next week’s lesson, then what is the whole point of the education system in the first place? By the end you leave high school, you will simply remember the last lesson of the year, if that at all.

The tendency to think that if you cant remember a URL that means that you are stupid comes from a base in education under this system. It is only natural. That is what has been defined as “being smart”. If you can’t do it, it means you simply do not posses that quality. And stand back! Because the person scolding you has harvested their unique memorization abilities for years! He/She will put it in just to impress you. Have no doubt.

It’s very simply to see at a glance what is wrong with this system, but, what do we replace it with? It’s called “critical thinking”. The important thing to teach is not the Who, Where, When, or What. The important things are the Why and the How. The value of PI = 3.1416. You insert that into the formula, and it will give you the answer. Great! You can even pass the trigonometry test if you can remember the number, but did they bother to explain to you, why that value? Why not 5.2345 or 9.18938? Where did it come from? What does it mean? When an interest is sparked in knowing what happens behind the scene it is assimilated as a valuable lesson. This sticks with you because you understand the concept. The understanding of a concept is several orders of magnitude more powerful than the memorization of a constant.

Does Google make me stupider (pun intended)?  No. It doesn’t. It relieves me of the necessity of remembering things. Since we’ve already covered the topic detailing that remembering things does not enhance your abilities, we can draw upon the simple conclusion that it does not affect your intelligence. I would even go as far as to counter argue that it is a stimulant to make you smarter. You don’t have to dedicate time to memorization, it does it for you. You can dedicate your time to what’s really important. Finding out the Why and the How.

In my wet dreams I become appointed the Secretary of Education of my country. I lead an education revolution which emphasizes critical thinking in schools from kindergarten to PHD’s. In the long run this change makes my country more competent in it’s  economical, cultural and social contexts. There is more probability of me winning the lottery with a couple of million dollars than that happening. Now a days I limit myself to try to teach this to the people around me. I do believe that if we all try we can make a difference. The question is how long will it be until a favorable impact on society as a whole can be perceived?

June 16, 2007 Posted by | internet, software, technology | 2 Comments

Ahoy Matey!

In my travels through the blogosphere I found an article which grabbed my attention. The author was ranting on how we have become evil pirates leaching on the poor artists who invests in music and have to starve to death because. We are so insensible and indifferent that we steal to no end.

I am going to take the politically incorrect stance here. People, really, the whole stealing thing. It’s a marketing campaign. It’s being overblown, taken out of proportion to serve the interests of the big corporations which distribute media. They publicize astronomical numbers in losses, sue innocent people, raid servers in foreign countries. All to get your attention. All to make you fear your dastardly activities and lead you into a path of redemption.

It is very hard to take any large group of people and place them all under a single category or specification. Yet it has been done. The millions of people that trade digital media around the world in P2P networks (this is the most notorious example, but there are other technologies at work here as well) are all labeled universally as thieves. Is this an accurate description? Let’s try to take an unbiased look at the evolution of the “illegal” distribution of media to try to find out. I’ll concentrate on movies and music, since they are the two types of content that tend to get most attention.

Ten years ago you could also get movies and music illegally. The internet was still in it’s infancy. A 33.6 or 56 KiBPS dial up modem was the hottest thing since individually wrapped sliced cheese. The widespread use of audio and video encoding that we see today was science fiction at best. There was still a very tight coupling of content and medium. To acquire and consume the content you had to accept the medium it was being distributed on. This was no exception for the pirated distribution as well. Let’s sum up the characteristics of the content and medium that was being distributed.

  • The pirated medium sucked. The packaging was sported a very bad copy of the originals logo or front label. Usually never had a back label. The tape, or CD itself usually also had a bad copy of the imprint or nothing at all.
  • The content quality was bad. The audio and video was usually very bad. The VHS tapes presented static on the TV, the image looked less sharp. The sound sounded muffled.
  • The location of transaction was informal. You had to go to a flee market, or meet up with someone selling pirated content on the street. You never walked into a respectable business with a nice presentation. There was no support, no number to call, no promise of customer satisfaction.
  • It was more cost effective than buying the original content. Despite all the negative elements previously mentioned, the strong motivator is that it was significantly cheaper than the legal alternative. Legal and illegal product offer more or less the same thing, with a big price difference. Obviously the market is going to respond to that. Keep in mind that there were no HDTV’s or 7.1 surround systems, so a focus on quality was not the big factor it is today.

Jump to the present. The internet has taken the world by storm. We have tiny devices that we carry around all day that can connect our calls, play music, and announce next week’s forecast. Appliance costs continue to decline and an overall growth of technological related product consumption grows. The media market is at the center of this growth. With the supply of all those media devices, content demand rises as consequence.

People want content. It’s that simple. As always, the market will give them a different choices on what and how to acquire it. How have the illegal offerings evolved during this time?

  • There is no medium. I can no acquire my content without the need of it being tied to a to a physical medium. I no longer have to worry about a CD or DVD scratching and ruining my favorite song or movie. I no longer have to worry about that big disc pile in the corner of my room. I no longer have to worry about having a CD and a cassette only radio. With digital content, I can have it with me wherever I go. It’s versatile enough to be played on a wide range of devices, not just my radio or TV. I can quickly and easily share it with anyone irrelevant of geographical position. This freedom is a very powerful concept. Especially when compared to the previous status quo.
  • The content quality is excellent. Most of the time on par or above legal offerings. I can download movies and TV shows in HD resolution in a wide variety of formats. I can get MP3’s in 320 KiBPS or lossless formats.
  • The location is the best place on earth. You can acquire everything you want from the comfort of your own home. No need to deal with traffic. No need to wait for the half hour it takes you to get to the store and the other half hour it takes you to get back. Instant gratification!
  • It still is more cost effective. It’s not free as some people think or promote. You pay for the bandwidth necessary to download the content. Those resources are dedicating the acquisition, so they are part of the cost. Even though, it is still considerably cheaper, probably even more than before.

Before I had to choose between “good price and bad quality” or “not so good price and good quality”. Now it’s simply a no brainer. The illegal offering is superior, and it’s cheaper. There is simply not enough to motive you to “step out of the dark side” so to speak. That is why the MPAA and RIAA are crazy suing people and companies and spending millions of dollars in lobbying. The only motivator they can count to favor them is fear of prosecution. So the judgment now becomes: “good price but I’m in danger” or “not so good price but I can sleep at night”. This introduces a little more balance to the equation. It’s not the best method. They are not stupid. They are aware of this, but it’s the only thing they can resort to.

We all know they have made attempts to follow the new distribution mediums. They have been hindered by poor quality, awful DRM schemes, non competing release dates, etc. If you look at piracy as a competing company, not a menace, and you compare each offering… again, no brainer.

Markets react to the products and services that are presented to them and under the circumstances they are offered in. It’s not that we wont pay for content! We will. Make it worth our while. Not by driving us into fear. Do it the old fashion way: actually offer a superior product. When you do, you’ll see me in line with everyone else.

May 18, 2007 Posted by | internet, media, politics, technology | 14 Comments