Desert of My Real Life

{September 21, 2008}   Parking Wars

Earlier this month, I was out for drinks with colleagues. Most of us are friends on FaceBook as well as in real life. A new colleague, Marylena, mentioned that one of her favorite things to do on FaceBook is play Parking Wars. Her sheepish description of the game was not particularly intriguing but because I’m always interested in the games people play, I decide that I would check it out. And once I had played for a few days, I invited some other friends to play as well. Now I’m addicted.

The game is an advertisement for an A&E channel show, also called Parking Wars. I have never seen the show and playing the game doesn’t make me want to go watch the show. So although I think the game is successful as a game, I’m not so sure it’s successful as an advertisement.

Here’s how the game is played. The premise is that you are in charge of a street with five spaces on it. Some of the five spaces do not allow parking. Some allow parking for only cars of a certain color. And some might allow parking for cars of any color. The arrangement of these five spaces changes at random. In addition, you have some cars of your own that you need to park. You can’t park them on your own streets. Instead, you have to park them on the streets of your friends (of course, only those friends who have also installed the Parking Wars application) and two strangers. For every minute that your car is parked on a particular street, the car gains monetary value. When you move the car from one spot to another, you earn the value of that car at that moment. You also earn money if you catch someone parked illegally on your street–you ticket them and you earn the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing. Of course, if it is your car that is ticketed, you lose the amount that the car is worth at the time of ticketing.

When I first started playing Parking Wars, my only FaceBook friend who was playing was Marylena. So I could park on her street and on the streets of two strangers. I installed the application, parked my two cars and then promptly forgot about the application. A few days later, I received a FaceBook message from Marylena telling me that there were cars parked illegally on my street just waiting for me to ticket them. I’ve been hooked on the game ever since. I went to the game, ticketed Marylena, got the money from those tickets and became a Parking Pro (I had been a Parking Amateur up to that point). I also was able to purchase a third car, which allowed me to start earning more money. That act of altruism on Marylena’s part stuck with me because it hooked me on the game. After playing for a few days with only three streets to park on, I realized that the game would be much more fun if I had more streets to choose from. So I invited my closest FaceBook friends (who are my closest friends in real life–go figure) to play the game. Within hours, I had seven streets to park on and the game was even more fun.

As my friends became acquainted with Parking Wars, I watched them move from Parking Amateurs to Parking Pros. I explained how the game worked. And I engaged in the same sort of altruism with them that Marylena had shown toward me. I parked illegally on their streets, simply so they could earn some money and thus, become hooked on the game.

Today, I was explaining this game to Evelyn. I mentioned the altruism because I had been somewhat uncomfortable with the part of the game that tempts you to park illegally if you can get away with it. I thought the altruism redeemed this troubling aspect of the game somewhat. Evelyn pointed out to me that the altruism sounded like the kind of altruism that heroin dealers show to potential new clients. They give away a taste of the heroin for free, hoping to capture their new clients in addiction so that they become lifelong customers. She’s absolutely right in making this comparison. I was trying to get my friends addicted to the game by giving them a taste of what the game has to offer. Their long-term addiction was worth the short-term hit to my current cash level because in the long run, it’s good to have more people to play with.

So games really are like drugs! They both give us the same little jolt of pleasure in our brains.

{September 13, 2008}   Digital Rights Management

Back in the late 1980’s, I worked as a volunteer on a running race. Because I had a background in computer science, one of my tasks was to set up a database of all the race entrants and then to enter their finishing positions after the race so that we could publish the results in the local paper. A friend of mine had an Apple II computer with a database management program on it. I think the database program was AppleWorks. In any case, the database management program had a primitive copy protection mechanism, a scheme for ensuring that users of the software did not give copies of it to their friends. Each time I started the program, I had to answer a question from the user manual. The question might be something like: On page 37 of the manual, what is the fourth word in the third paragraph? This was in the days before copy machines were widely available so the thinking was that the software would not be very useful if you didn’t also have a copy of the user manual. It was a very primitive way of trying to prevent users from giving the software to all of their friends, of trying to protect what the software developers felt was their right to limit the copying of their software. Of course, this mechanism would not work today since it’s extremely easy to copy user manuals. But even back then, the critique of this protection mechanism was that it was easy to circumvent if you were determined to do so but it was simply an inconvenience for legitimate users. What if you lost your user manual, for example?

Since that time, digital rights management has come of age. DRM is a hot topic with owners of digital content claiming that their rights cover all sorts of things, allowing them to do all sorts of things to our computers without our consent. And yet, it is virtually impossible to use technology to prevent the copying of software and other digital content. So DRM is typically criticized for not actually protecting against illegitimate copying while making the lives of legitimate users very difficult. A number of stories about DRM have been in the news recently.

What is digital rights management? According to Wikipedia, it is a generic term that refers to any scheme that a hardware manufacturer or copyright holder implements to prevent illegimate use of their hardware or copyrighted materials. In 1998, the United States passed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) which among other things, made the circumvention of any digital right management mechanism a crime. In other words, if a company used the DRM mechanism that I described above (asking users to answer questions from a user manual), then copying the manual and giving it to a friend would violate the DMCA. But the situation for users of digital content is even more dire than that. DRM mechanisms today are wide-ranging, claiming all kinds of rights for the owners of digital copyrights, at the expense of your right to control what happens on your own computer.

I have been thinking about the DMCA since its passage because of its immediate impact on the research of computer scientists. Soon after the passage of the DMCA, the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) ran a contest that challenged researchers to break their latest digital watermarking scheme. Edward Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton, chose not to sign any of the confidentiality agreements that would qualify him for the monetary prize of the contest. Within three weeks, he and his team had broken the watermarking scheme and wrote a scientific paper that described the techniques they used. When the SDMI and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) found out that the team was planning to present this paper at a conference, they threatened to sue, citing violation of the DMCA, specifically the portion of the act that makes it illegal to circumvent DRM schemes (of which the digital watermarking scheme was one). Felten withdrew the paper but also sued the SDMI and the RIAA and sought a ruling that presenting the original paper should actually have been allowed. Because Felten had not actually been sued and therefore had not been harmed, his case against the SDMI and the RIAA was dismissed on the grounds that he lacked standing to sue. Since then, the Justice Department has said that any threatened legal action against researchers such as Felten under the DMCA is invalid. But this judgment has not yet been tested in a court of law. And in the meantime, content providers have gotten bolder in their uses of DRM technologies.

In early 2007, Sony BMG Music Entertainment agreed to settle with the Federal Trade Commission after it was discovered that music CDs from the company contained software that was secretly installed on any computer on which the CDs were played. This software “limited the devices on which the music could be played, restricted the number of copies that could be made, and contained technology that monitored their listening habits to send them marketing messages.” Because the software gave access to users’ computers to Sony BMG, it also opened up holes on those computers to any intruder who knew about them. In addition, the software, once discovered, was unreasonably difficult to remove. The Federal Trade Commission said that this secret installation of software violated federal law. The settlement was a financial and public relations disaster for Sony BMG and should have put that kind of DRM technology out of business forever.

But the long-awaited release of Will Wright’s new game, Spore, from Electronic Arts earlier this month shows that DRM is alive and kicking. The reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly negative due to the existence of SecuROM, a particularly nasty implementation of DRM. This software was developed by Sony DADC, does not announce that it is installing itself, limits the user to 3 installations of the game (even if it has been uninstalled), and is very difficult to uninstall, even if the game is uninstalled. It remains to be seen what kinds of security risks are opened up on the computers that have SecuROM on them. The biggest complaint seems to be about the limit of three installations because of how strict this limit is. Apparently, changes in hardware make the software believe that a new installation has occurred. So if a user upgrades her video card, she may use up one of her Spore installations. This software sounds very similar to the software that Sony BMG got slapped down for using so I can only imagine what is going to happen as these thousands of disgruntled gamers make their dissatisfaction known. Of course, the developers of Spore claim they are just trying to stop piracy. The problem with this argument is that the DRM scheme was broken before the game was released so anyone intent on pirating the game will be able to do so. Only legitimate users of the game will be harmed by SecuROM.

Legitimate users of Yahoo Music recently learned the lesson that purchasing DRM-protected content is actually like renting, rather than purchasing, that content. Yahoo Music Store will close its virtual doors at the end of this month. If you are one of the unlucky legitimate customers who bought your music through this store, you will no longer have access to your music because of Yahoo’s DRM scheme. When the store closes, the DRM license key servers will shut down. If you can’t get a DRM license key, you can no longer listen to music that you legitimately purchased. Meanwhile, those who pirated that same music will continue to enjoy what they pirated.

Content providers need to stop creating roadblocks for their legitimate users. These roadblocks do nothing to protect content.

{September 9, 2008}   Fringe

I am watching a new show on Fox tonight.  It is called Fringe and it’s from JJ Abrams, the guy who developed Lost which is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It’s a cross between X-Files, Lost and Heroes, all of which I have really enjoyed.  But here’s the thing.  One of the major plot developments in the pilot involves a Harvard faculty member who was institutionalized 17 years ago in a psychiatric hospital.  He is released from the hospital and goes back to the Kresge building at Harvard.  His lab had been in the basement of that building which has been used as storage for the last 17 years.  Lo and behold, his lab is pretty much intact, with microscopes and lab equipment just as he left it all those years ago.

This series is science fiction but this particular plot point was the most difficult one for me to swallow.  If Harvard is like most institutions of higher education (including my own), space is at a premium.  There is no way that such a large space would be left alone for 17 years while the primary user of that space languishes in a mental institution!  It’s funny to me that it’s this mundane detail rather than the many sci fi potentialities that makes me question the reality of this show.

{September 7, 2008}   We ARE Telling Stories

As I suggested in a previous post I don’t understand why FaceBook calls each status update a story. I said that if we were to consider each update a plot point in a longer story, then I could understand the use of the word story. Clive Thompson, in a New York Times article, explains that part of the reason these status updates (no matter how banal they might seem individually) are compelling is precisely because taken together, they tell us a story of our friends’ daily lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s a fascinating article. Thanks to Liz for pointing it out to me.

I can now be found on Twitter. I look forward to reading 140-character installments of your life story there.

{September 3, 2008}   AcademHack

My last post about my frustration with our faculty day speaker prompted some interesting discussion, with several people sharing their own, similar frustrations. So I thought I’d see if I could find some discussion on the web about the pedagogical aspects of using technology in education. The best site that I have found so far is a blog called AcademHack. Lots of useful, interesting stuff so check it out!

{September 2, 2008}   How Not to Do Educational Technology

At the start of each academic year, my university hires a speaker to address the full faculty, presumably to inspire us to take on new challenges. Like most universities, mine is interested in new and exciting uses of technology in instruction. This year, our speaker was Dr. Curtis Bonk, from Indiana University’s Instructional Technology Department and who, according to his web page, “firmly believes in distance learning since he is a product of it.” His web page also tells us that he “is listed in the Who’s Who in Instructional Technology.” So he should know.

The problem I had with his talk was that it was focused on the “technology” part of “educational technology” and not the “education.” Dr. Bonk seems to believe that technology will solve all problems. That if we simply use technology, all that is wrong with the world of education will be fixed. For example, he started his talk with many stories about his own boring accounting education. Toward the end of the talk, he showed us how exciting accounting education is now–professors are using PODCASTS! But the clip he showed us was a podcast of a boring lecture about accounting. He seems to think that simply using the latest, greatest technology will automatically make students want to learn. And that somehow the technology itself will HELP them learn. But his lack of focus on pedagogy was problematic.

The ironic thing to me about this idea is that Bonk himself comes out of a program that thought that using TV for educational purposes would revolutionize education. We all know that it hasn’t. And yet, Bonk has not learned from the failures of educational TV that technology in and of itself is not the answer. Why should we believe that using Web 2.0 technology–podcasts and Youtube and Twitter and Second Life–will somehow be different than all the other technologies that came before them? Bonk seems to think that Web 2.0 is somehow different than all the technology that came before it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that there are some interesting uses of technology that can truly help us to increase student learning. My problem is with those who think that using the latest, greatest technology will automatically increase student learning, that somehow the technology itself is a pedagogical tool. Bonk showed himself to be one of the people who believes in the power of the latest, greatest technology when he gave us a short discussion period and timed it using a freely downloadable PC-based timer. When he stopped our discussion, he said something like, “There. Use this timer and you’ve put technology into your class.” My questions were, “How is this different than an egg timer?” and “Will using this PC-based timer increase student learning compared to using an egg timer?” Bonk never addressed either question.

Bonk’s fascination with technology for the sake of technology was very clear when he discussed the capacity of flash memory drives. He showed us his latest thumb drive which holds 32 gigabytes of memory. He told us that soon such drives will hold a terabyte of memory and then, he asked dramatically, “What will knowledge be?” As though knowledge is about the number of facts that can be carried with you! Knowledge is about more than just facts. It is about being able to synthesize facts, being able to make connections between facts and being able to analyze those connections, being able to apply what you know in one context to a completely new context to reveal something about the world that no one has ever thought about before. More memory on a flash drive will not help students do this.

Technology in any context should be used only if it supports the goals of what you’re trying to do. As educators, we should not be advocating the use of technology for the sake of technology. We should be asking, “Which uses of technology increase our students’ learning?” That’s where we should be focusing our attention. Unfortunately, too many people think the latest, greatest technology in and of itself will solve all of our problems. And even more unfortunately, Curtis Bonk seems to think that technology is a panacea. A look at our long history of technologies that have failed to live up to their initial hype should remind us that there is no panacea.

FaceBook is changing how we view and think about many aspects of our lives, including literature. As an example (from McSweeney’s), here is Sarah Schmelling’s version of Hamlet, written in the sound bite style of a FaceBook News Feed.


– – – –

Horatio thinks he saw a ghost.

Hamlet thinks it’s annoying when your uncle marries your mother right after your dad dies.

The king thinks Hamlet’s annoying.

Laertes thinks Ophelia can do better.

Hamlet’s father is now a zombie.

– – – –

The king poked the queen.

The queen poked the king back.

Hamlet and the queen are no longer friends.

Marcellus is pretty sure something’s rotten around here.

Hamlet became a fan of daggers.

– – – –

Polonius says Hamlet’s crazy … crazy in love!

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet are now friends.

Hamlet wonders if he should continue to exist. Or not.

Hamlet thinks Ophelia might be happier in a convent.

Ophelia removed “moody princes” from her interests.

Hamlet posted an event: A Play That’s Totally Fictional and In No Way About My Family

The king commented on Hamlet’s play: “What is wrong with you?”

Polonius thinks this curtain looks like a good thing to hide behind.

Polonius is no longer online.

– – – –

Hamlet added England to the Places I’ve Been application.

The queen is worried about Ophelia.

Ophelia loves flowers. Flowers flowers flowers flowers flowers. Oh, look, a river.

Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don’t Float.

Laertes wonders what the hell happened while he was gone.

– – – –

The king sent Hamlet a goblet of wine.

The queen likes wine!

The king likes … oh crap.

The queen, the king, Laertes, and Hamlet are now zombies.

Horatio says well that was tragic.

Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, says yes, tragic. We’ll take it from here.

Denmark is now Norwegian.

et cetera