Games - Part 2

Following are some of the insights I gained from reading Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken. This is the second of what will be three or four posts about the book.

-Good games allow us to enter a state of flow in which we are challenged to perform at the very edge of our skill level. This is a state that most people quite enjoy.

-"The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression." Depression is characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and despondent lack of activity. When enjoying a game we experience the opposite of these conditions: an optimistic sense of our own capabilities and an invigorating rush of activity.

-We like hard work, we actually seek it out as is witnessed by the very demanding recreational activities people pursue. This is similar to the concept of 'hard fun' that John Seely Brown has examined. The problem is that many jobs involve hard work that we don't like or enjoy. 

-When we are doing hard work we enjoy we experience positive stress or eustress, which although similar from a neurological standpoint to negative stress, is experienced quite differently. "As long as we feel capable of meeting the challenge, we report being highly motivated, extremely interested, and positively engaged by stressful situations."

-We much prefer enlivening time rather than killing time.

-McGonigal believes intrinsic rewards fall into four broad categories.

1. We crave satisfying work

2. We crave being successful

3. We crave social connection

4. We crave meaning

If we are able to obtain these intrinsic rewards we tend to be quite happy, but large parts of our society work very hard at convincing us that we should instead pursue wealth, fame and beauty, none of which tend to promote happiness. McGonigal believes that games can help us opt out of the ultimately unsatisfying pursuit of extrinsic rewards.

"Games don't fuel our appetitie for extrinsic reward: they don't pay us, they don't advance our careers, and they don't help us accumulate luxury goods. Instead, games enrich us with intrinsic rewards. They actively engage us in satisfying work that we have the chance to be successful at. They give us a highly structured way to spend time and build bonds with people we like. And if we play a game long enough, with a big enough network of players, we feel a part of something bigger than ourselves -- part of an epic story, an important project, or a global community."

Games

I have a few games on my iPod Touch. After purchasing them, and trying each for a half hour or so, I've hardly ever played them. I've tended toward the view that game playing is a frivolous waste of time. With things like the singularity, or some other exponential growth induced change, rushing down the information superhighway straight at us, who has time for games?

In Reality is Broken Jane McGonigal argues that we ignore those games on our collective iPods at our own great risk. I've come to agree with her.

Henry David Thoreau wrote "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” It is an interesting aside -at least to me- that before I checked I attributed this aphorism to James Thurber, perhaps because of his story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and that he once puckishly modified Thoreau's saying to be "Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation."

Anyway, I didn't understand Thoreau's quote when I was younger, or perhaps more accurately, I hoped -as we all do- that I would end up in the minority instead of the majority. However, in our winner-take-all society, the minority has been shrinking in number and becoming harder to join while at the same time it has become increasingly bloated with excess resources.

For most of us, reality is broken; not all of it, of course, but large parts of it, and those parts are getting bigger and harder to avoid. Thurber's character Walter Mitty dealt with his broken reality by having an elaborate fantasy life. McGonigal's great insight about games is that they not only help us deal with our own broken realities, but do so in a way that empowers us to come back to the real world and start fixing that which is broken.

In the next few posts I'll review McGonigal's arguments about how games are able to perform this somewhat miraculous feat.

Bloat

Bloat. Not a pleasant word. Lots of negative connotations. Put the marketers to work and they come up with a new phrase to encourage excess consumption, but with a more positive aura. Super size! That works for a while, until people start playing with the new term in works like Super Size Me. (I'm sure if corporations could protect their neologistic spinoffs from being tarnished by such creative reuse they would.)

We all are susceptible to the urge to pursue and consume more, but it is important to recognize the drive as a kind of flaw in our cognitive processing, a misbalance in our neurochemistry.

In his book Collapse Jared Diamond explores the history of various communities that failed to develop feedback and control mechanisms to prevent excessive consumption and bloat.

There are days when I feel we - the global political-economic community "we", especially the US contingent- are very much in danger of letting bloat get the better of us.

The ideology of unfettered capitalism has emerged so triumphant that it is not at all clear what force, other than natural or economic disaster (collapse, in other words), will provide the needed restraint.

What I find ironic is that nature provides, for free if we let it, an ecosystem service that counteracts bloat. The more we cut ourselves off from nature, the more likely we are to get caught up with trying to replace nature's richness through excessive consumption.

So step away from your computer (after you finish reading this of course), go outside, and take some small step to rebuild your local natural environment. Help to restore the balance and fight bloat... and in the process help avoid collapse, nasty thing collapse.

(Image is from a SketchUp design called "Moore House" as it was an attempt to build a house around/within Henry Moore inspired sculptural forms. It is an example of design bloat on my part.)

My Analog and Digital Worlds

This morning, as I was surfing the web and kayaking the tweet stream, I kept seeing a Yellow Warbler flash by as it went about its business in the Hickory trees in our front yard.

I was tempted a few times to go find my digital camera and try to get a of picture of the little fellow, but the web kep pulling me back in. What precious new bit of information might be in the next tweet, email, website, etc... hurry, click (or tap) and find out!

I had my own little Bloomberg terminal set up, with my iPad perched next to my laptop. Like a day trader I was busily searching out knowledge that might provide clues to using information technology to improve education. Meanwhile the Yellow Warbler occasionally flashed by, alerting my brain -at some level- about this amazing analog world buzzing along just outside the window.

I often find myself pondering the analogy/digital divide in our lives. Perhaps "divide" is not the right word, but they do seem like two quite separate worlds. I know most of us are struggling with finding the right balance in how we apportion our time between the two.

I suppose I'm particularly pensive and reflective because I'm disconnecting from the institution that has been my workplace home for the past 27 years. While the separation is totally my choice (he hastens to add) and something I've desired for a number of years, it never-the-less has me thinking a lot about schools and education, and my place in them.

Most of the people I follow on twitter work in "ed tech" and many are currently attending conferences at which the focus is sharing information about making our schools more effective learning environments next season. This is absolutely essential work, and one of the big ways progress happens in our schools. However, being deinstitutionalized for the coming year, I have a different perspective, which I hope may provide some insights into what the future may hold. I hope this perspective will unfold in this blog, a bit like a flower blossom, as the year progresses.

If the weather holds I'll go kayaking again this afternoon. (I did) I'll also check the progress of the Hollyhocks out front, the tomatoes on the deck, and I'll keep an eye out for that Yellow Warbler. (Saw it again as approaching home from my paddle out on the Sound.)

I'll also jump in and out of that tremendously attractive pulsating flood of information flowing through the Internet, try not be overwhelmed by it all, and hope to ride a good wave now and then.

(Image is from one of my first SketchUp "art" models. It's called Reason and Passion... or something like that.)

Hollyhocks

Hollyhocks are perennials. However, unlike most perennials, after planting Hollyhocks you need to wait a couple of years before they bloom.

I've waited patiently and this year one plant -the one that wasn't decimated by our local deer herd- sent up three very impressive stalks. They have an almost architectural structure so I can easily see why Hollyhock's were one of Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite flowers.

Here are a couple of pictures that do a much better job of conveying their beauty than any words I can muster.

Boats

I just came back from a kayak out around a rock off Rye's Milton Point called Scotch Caps. (That last little island below and sligthly to the left of Milton Point(A). The little tiny dots are actually boats moored in the harbors.) It is one of my favorite paddles as the Caps have a bit more of a wild feel than the rest of the Mamaroneck and Rye shorelines. Often the terns nesting on the rocks will swirl around overhead and dive at us as they defend their nests.

On my way back I proceeded at a lazy pace and a few times put my legs up on the gunwales (I have a large cockpit kayak), sat back, and watched the world go by. More accurately I should say I watched the boats go by. People sure do seem to love their boats. Big boats, small boats, powerboats, sailboats, boats of every imaginable shape and size.

Many of the boats, especially the bigger powerboats, make it clear that the concept of a reduced carbon footprint may be completely trumped by the pleasure of captaining your craft and feeling the wind on your face, the thrum of powerful engines underfoot, and the admiration of your envious passengers. Of course, it makes for an even more perfect experience if bikini-clad lasses are happily displaying their wind-caressed hair and bronzed limbs at some highly visible location on the deck.

Then in our neck of the woods there are the large yachts. Lots of them. All those Wall Street investment bankers need to spend their huge bonuses on something... well actually, on many things. I suspect the ones who attended Ivy League schools tend to favor sailboats over powerboats but that's pure speculation. I'm on the sailboat side of the old power/sail boat divide, so I tend to be more admiring than disdainful of these beautiful fiberglass objects of conspicuous consumption.

I used to have a small 17" sailboat which I sailed in these waters for years; making many cross-sound sails to the north shore of Long Island and back. I gave it up for kayaks seven or eight years ago because kayaking provides a good workout while still getting me out on the water. I do miss sailing, and hope that in retirement I can perhaps take it up again.

So what is the point of this post? I sometimes need reminding that a lot of people are much more interested in their boats (or cars/sports/hobbies..etc) than in things like sustainable housing, using computers to improve education, and a more equitable distribution of income in our country. It is good to be reminded of this!

However, if we have reached peak oil, then many of these boats are going to be spending a lot less time roaring around the waters of Long Island Sound in the future, which will make for quieter, but perhaps less entertaining, kayaks.

The image below is a SketchUp work I created a few years ago that attempts, quite unsuccessfully I'm afraid, to capture the variety of images experienced on a kayak like I had today.

Houses

Houses have been on my mind a lot since I last posted here almost two months ago. Our relationships with our houses are incredibly complex (many books have been written on the subject) and what follows is just a brief glimpse at some of my thoughts about these wonderous things.

We had our house on the market this Spring, and almost sold it, but at the last minute decided we want to stay put for at least another year. Leaving our jobs and leaving our home proved to be a bit more stress than we wanted to take on all at once; and we were lucky enough to have a choice.

When you go through the process of selling your home you learn a lot about your house, or at least how your house is perceived by others. This can be an interesting experience but not necessarily a pleasant one. Our house was built in 1925 and in some ways shows it. We've put lots of money into the house over the years, and improved and updated many of the systems, but there are lots of systems in a house. The un-updated systems tend to be perceived as 'negatives' and are often the first things on which perspective buyers focus.

When we thought we were going to sell we spent some time looking at houses up in New Haven. What struck me most about that process was how clearly our country's neighborhoods are socio-economically stratified. We could tell -almost with just a quick look- whether a neighborhood was one in which we would feel 'at home'.

The house in the image at the top of the post was built by my maternal grandparents for their retirement in Duxbury, Massachusetts. It was designed by the architect Royal Barry Wills, and is a classic example of Wills' simple but elegant adaptations ot the traditional New England vernacular Cape Cod house style. My grandparents loved to garden and had a large vegetable garden at the back of their property. On summer visits I spent many happy hours helping out back there doing things like picking raspberries and beans. It was there that I first saw a compost heap and learned about composting.

This next image is of my parent's summer/retirement home on Cape Cod. This house grew over the years, as often happens with houses as needs and assets change. It started as a small summer cottage and had three significant additions tacked on over the years. The whole agglomeration was torn down a few years after my parents had to sell the house due to failing health. The addition on the right was designed to take maximum advantage of passive solar energy. Both my parents loved to garden. My father had a big vegetable garden out behind the house where he would spend lots of time puttering.

The next two images are of our house. "Our" being my wife Laurie and me, and our two sons, one of whom is in the hammock in the second picture. The dog, Snowy, is now buried in the back yard. The first of the pictures is taken from Otter Creek, which is a tidal creek that winds along the salt marsh behind our house and eventually empties into Long Island Sound. The house is shingled with asbestos shingles which are quite safe, but unfortunately are perceived as a distinct negative and definitely lower the "curb appeal." One of my goals for my Yestermorrow experience is to figure out what to do with these shingles specifically, but more broadly, what can be done to improve the energy efficiency of older houses like ours.

Finally, just for fun, is an image of the type of house I'd like to try building for our retirement home. If I do build a house like this it will definitely have a big garden. I'll be bouncing this idea off of folks up at Yestermorrow and it will be interesting to see what comes of that process. I'll be sharing the experience here.

Walkthrough of the SketchUp Model Used for a Presentation about OPuS

At the Embracing Innovation conference hosted by Poughkeepsie Day School on April 15th I gave a presentation focused on the process that led to the development of OPuS. To facilitate this I oriented the presentation on a timeline in SketchUp.

Without my commentary the walkthough will not make a whole lot of sense, but essentially, images are shown in chronological order, of the people, resouces, events and tools that led to the development of OPuS in early 2011.

More on How To Build a Complexly-Curved Roof

I'm looking for a material that is similar in consistency -when cured- to the shell of a walnut. In its pre-cured state it should be spreadable like clay. One possibility is a form of paper mache consisting of cellulose insulation, glue and joint compound. I really like the idea of using paper mache given its sustainability, but I readily admit that it's pretty off-beat as a material for housing construction.

So why do I need this material? As a coating to create a smooth rounded layer over the flat-surfaced triangular faces of the roofing grid system. Additionally the material should have enough heft to solidly grip nails or screws securing the covering shingles. Watch this video to get a clearer sense of the need.

Covering A Complexly-Curved Roof

If you have a roof curving in multiple planes then a waterproof covering becomes quite a tricky issue.

One possibility is a monolithic coating of some waterproof substance like fiberglass. A problem with this approach is that fiberglass is not particularly sustainable or healthy to work with. It also would require exceptional technique to create an attractive looking roof.

I was browsing the aisles at our local Home Depot yesterday and came across rolls of thin aluminum used for various roofing tasks. Perhaps this material could be pleated and formed to wrap around gently curving roofs.

The images at the top show some experiments with paper.