Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Frogger and Lessons in Self Destruction

Back in the 1980s, when I lived in England, I would sometimes supplement my income and develop my programming skills by writing software for the TI-99/4a Home Computer. One of the programs that I wrote was a blatant rip-off of the arcade classic, Frogger. Parker Brothers later released an official version of the game, but in some ways mine was much better.

Not my version, but mine looked pretty close.
the center on mine was a grassy strip.
On the TI, Frogger was a very easy game to program. The TI-99/4a's capabilities included 32 moveable sprites, all with automatic motion and collision detection. And in Frogger, most of the objects on the screen aren't really animated... they just move. So there's not a whole lot for the programmer to do other than move the frog. That meant that after coding the basic rules, I had a lot of free memory.

So I decided to use it.

In my version of the game, instead of simply becoming an "X" or a skull and crossbones or boring instant dead frog upon a collision with a car, the frog's death was gloriously animated.

  • He flattened out. 
  • His eyes bulged a little. 
  • Blood oozed from his body in an expanding puddle, accompanied by a sound effect: "glug, glug, glug".

I worked for the better part of two days just getting that sound effect right.

Having completed the game, I had the neighbor's kids play test it for me. And after a long spate of testing, their scores were abysmal. So I watched them play.

They weren't even trying to win the game. Instead, they were deliberately sending their kamikaze frogs into the thickest traffic just to watch the poor creatures die. And then they'd do it again, and again. They'd end with a score of zero, and laugh uproariously. Seriously, I could have left all of the game mechanics out of it and just animated dying frogs, and they'd have loved it.

This wasn't what I intended.

The experience taught me a bit about game design. I should have made the winning condition even more entertaining. So with the few bytes I had remaining, I gave it a very nice animation if you succeeded in saving all of your frogs. Few players ever got that far, because killing the frogs was so damned easy and fun... and to learn about the winning condition you'd have to get past the deaths: something most players just didn't do. The result of saving the frogs was entertaining, too; but it wasn't easy.

If I had really wanted people to play the game as I intended, I would have had to change both the reward and the punishment. But I was pretty damned proud of that frog's death, and kept it in. Besides, I'd already gotten all the experience I'd needed from writing the program. A few people still bought it (I only sold a few of anything back then, really), and I imagine they happily whiled away the time killing frogs and gaining nothing.

This taught me a bit about human nature...

Why do people do self-destructive things? Because that's what people do when they believe that destruction is more entertaining than winning. And if winning is hard -- even if it's rewarding -- they go for easy entertainment, even if it means death. I've seen it happen many times over the years, and each time I think about my version of Frogger.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Defense of Books

As I write this, I am literally surrounded by books. Yesterday, a millennial (and one of my own children!) announced to me that he had probably read his last book. There are so many media forms proliferating, he told me, that he was making a conscious effort to focus on the new rather than those that were on their way out.

The thing is, though, that books are not on their way out. Sure, the codex might be superceded. But the codex is simply a form of delivery. A codex is what we think of as a physical book... multiple pages bound on one side, that can be flipped through. But before that, books were delivered on scrolls. Before that, they were impressed into clay, or carved into stone. Today, they're delivered electronically. And we still read the books that were previously delivered on scroll, or clay, or stone. The form of delivery is not what makes a book. So here are just a few thoughts on why books themselves are not, nor will they become, obsolete.

1. Books are slow and deliberate in their creation. They deliver the distilled, deliberate thoughts of their authors. No other medium can match this -- not film, not a blog post, not a podcast, not a lecture, and certainly not any of the phone-friendly byte-sized forums.

2. Books are personal. They're usually not written by committee, and when they are, it's a small collaboration. Through a book you can peer inside another human brain.

3. Books endure. When you're reading the "The Gallic Wars", it is Julius Caesar himself who is speaking to you. No one else. It matters not whether the words themselves are written on a parchment or vellum scroll, a codex, or an ebook. The book itself is a form of expression that transcends its medium.

4. Books use language to its fullest. Books use descriptive language without crutches. The visuals and emotions are those that they impart through language alone. Because of this, a great author MUST tap into the universalities of human emotion and experience in a way that no filmmaker can begin to match.

5. Books take time to read. They are to be savored, not devoured. We dwell in them. There's no set length. There's nothing that flies by to be missed. This is time employed by the reader to build the world that is given in blueprint form by the author, and the reader related because he is invested in that creation. In itself, reading a book is a skill far more advanced than the mere interpretation of the printed words. It is an active engagement of the mind and imagination of the reader. And yet, it's not a difficult skill.

6. When an author elicits emotion from the reader, it is a deliberate act. It's not the instinctive response of an animal to the purity of a tone or a particular facial expression. It is a difficult and subtle craft to -- through words alone -- coax the reader into a particular frame of mind and Make. Him. Feel. It is this deliberate impartation of emotion that raises the craft of an author to Art.

7. Books -- particularly classic books -- are honest. They depict what is, as understood by the author. They need not check boxes for political expediency. As such, books are intellectually dangerous. This is why books are the first expressions of speech to be banned by those demagogues and manipulators who are vulnerable to the truth. Those things that are MOST dangerous to tyrants are the very same things that are MOST necessary to maintain our liberty. This is why it is the freedom of the press, and not that of guns, that is avowed in the First Amendment.


Monday, May 14, 2018

About Consent

Seen on GlobalNews.ca:

Parents should ask babies for consent before diaper changes, expert says — here’s what she meant


What she meant is clear... but that she's fundamentally misguided is equally clear. This does NOT foster an environment of consent in any meaningful way, and it's destructive, to boot.

Consent is for peers. For instance, politically in the US we can have a "consent of the governed" (at least on paper) because we recognize that all citizens are peers. But what if your child says "No"...? He still needs his diaper changed, or a bath, or to eat properly, or to go to bed. At some point you will have to override the child's consent and put your foot down. And the lesson thereby given is that ultimately his consent is meaningless.

Context is necessary, and this means that things must be taught at the proper time, just as you wouldn't start math instruction with long division. You need the basics first. What are the relative values of numbers? What are addition and subtraction?

Requiring the child's consent undermines the authority of the parent and undermines the teaching of all other good things. It immediately puts authority in the hands of a child who has no idea how to exercise it. What a child needs is to respect authority and play well with others. Respect for authority is basic. It is required every time you deal with your boss, or a shop owner, or the police, or the TSA, or a judge. In the adult world, you spend far more time exercising respect for authority than you ever do fending off sexual advances, and you need to know how to respect authority.

Part of that is knowing the limits of authority. Sex is always outside of those limits.

With respect to sexuality, a child needs security. Consent must never be required between those who are not peers because a situation that would require consent must never, ever happen. If it does happen, then it is always the person in a position of authority or power that is at fault. It's why you aren't allowed to have sex with subordinates at work. It's why you can't have sex with someone you got drunk, or drugged, or tied up, or held at the point of a weapon. It's why you can't have sex with children. Not even if you want to. Not even if you're attracted. You're an adult, and you should know better.

When a child reaches puberty, before he or she becomes an adult, that must be part of "the talk". You cannot use your authority and power to sexual advantage. No yammering about "consent" is ever an excuse. And those who try to apply it thusly are suspicious as shit. This nonsense about the "consent" of children is how you identify sexual predators. "Consent" implies that there can be a "yes" answer. With regard to sex with minors, that's just wrong. It is inappropriate as an adult to ask for something that cannot be given. Because of your authority, it's easily taken as a demand, and that's abuse.

Change your child's diaper. And when the child is potty trained, that's time for Talk #1. "Never let anyone touch you there."  That's the talk about the limits of authority. It goes along with "Stranger danger" and a bunch of other age-appropriate talks.

Around puberty is the time to learn about being an authority. Talk #2: Self-control. "You may have grown some hair, and maybe a few other things, but no, you can't have sex. Not even if you want to. Not even if you're attracted. Yes, it sucks. Get used to it, you're going to have that feeling for a lifetime. Even when you're old enough, and even when you've found your soulmate, you're going to have that feeling from time to time about other people. So exercise restraint now, so you will be adept at exercising it when you're an adult and you are the one with the power."

When the child is approaching the age of consent, it is time for Talk #3, which includes, "You're about to be an adult. But the one you're dating has six months to go. Until then, keep it zipped. Controlling yourself is a sign of respect for both you and your partner. If you violate that, you can be arrested. You can go to jail. I have examples. And if that happens, I won't be on your side, because we've had this talk.

"And when you have children, don't ask if you can change their diapers. That's just stupid."