Desert of My Real Life

Ian Schreiber, co-author of Challenges for Game Designers, is undertaking an interesting experiment in online education this summer.  He is offering an online course called Game Design Concepts via Web 2.0 tools (a blog, a wiki, a discussion board, Twitter and so on).  None of this is revolutionary.  What makes this experiment interesting is that Ian is offering the course entirely for free and allowing an unlimited number of people to register (or not) for the course.  Registration closed yesterday (June 29th) with 1402 registrants.  Many, many more people (myself included) will probably follow the course informally without registering for it.

One thing that I wondered was why Ian would decide to do this.  In his own words, here’s why:

I have many motivations for starting this project, some selfish and some altrusitic. Best to be up front about it:

  • Game design is my passion, and I love to share it with anyone and everyone.
  • I have taught some classes in a traditional classroom and others online, and I want to experiment with alternate methods of teaching.
  • By exposing my course content and viewing the comments and discussions, I can improve the course when I teach it for money.
  • It is a career move. If this course is successful, it gives me greater exposure in my field and promotes my name as a brand.

The reason that I find most interesting is the last one. I wonder how he knows that a successful course will lead to “greater exposure” and branding his name.  But let’s assume that assume that success will mean that he gets these things.  I also wonder how he will determine whether the course is “successful.”

Most of the materials that Ian is providing come in the form of text–twice a week blog postings, a wiki and so on.  These items are not really much different than the book that he requires the students to buy for the course.  In other words, so far this sounds like a correspondance course.  But online education differs from other types of correspondance courses in its ability to allow interaction between a faculty member and a students as well as between two students.  With 1402 students, I don’t think Ian will have much time to interact with the students individually.  He puts the students into online groups and so they should have the opportunity to interact with each other.  Of course, the quality of the experience that one has in such a situation is likely to depend on the other students in one’s group.  It could be a great, meaningful experience if there is a critical number of students in the group who engage in thoughtful online discussions and group project work.  It’s unclear at this point how many of the 1402 students will have this experience.

In explaining that there is a text book required for participation in the course (but no other expense), Ian says, “It’s still cheaper than a college education.”  He’s absolutely right.  The idea of getting together a group of people who are interested in learning the same thing is nothing new.  I participate in a two-person academic book club and in a teaching reflective practice group to accomplish something similar to what Ian is trying to do via this class and I find both to be among my most rewarding activities.   The difference between my book club and Ian’s class, however, is that the class has a single person (a teacher) who is structuring the experience while in the book club, we both take responsibility for structuring the experience.  This responsibility ensures that we are both serious about the work we do in our book club meetings.  But if enough of the people in Ian’s class are serious about the work, I think this will be a “successful” experience.

{June 28, 2009}   The Decision Engine

I’ve seen a couple of commercials on TV for Microsoft’s newest product, Bing.  Microsoft claims that Bing is a “decision engine.”   What exactly is a “decision engine”?  According to a press release from Microsoft, a decision engine “goes beyond search to help customers deal with information overload.”  In other words, information is no longer power.  Products like Google (Microsoft’s competitor) present too much information in response to searches and humans now need help (more help than Google can give) to be able to make sense of it all.  And Microsoft steps in with Bing.

The traditional search engine does a good job of helping people find information, according to Microsoft’s press release, but the explosion of information means that people have difficulty actually using that information to make informed decisions.  So Bing will actually help us make decisions!  That seems like a bold claim to me especially since search engine optimization is typically incremental rather than revolutionary.  Is Bing as revolutionary as the phrase “decision engine” implies?  It’s difficult to say at this point but even Microsoft’s own promotional materials make me doubt it.

According to the press release, Microsoft did some research about the kinds of things that people search for and found that lots of people are interested in four areas when they search the web: “making a purchase decision, planning a trip, researching a health condition or finding a local business.”  Ok, so there’s the first way that Bing is not really a “decision engine.”  The tool will be optimized to deal with searches that are related to these four areas and the press release makes no mention of whether the tool will help me make other kinds of decisions.

The optimization strategy for dealing with these four areas also doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary to me.  The press release gives a bit of detail about the focus of the strategy.  In particular, Bing provides “great search results”, an “organized search experience”, and it simplifies tasks and provides insights.  What do these things mean?

“Great search results” simply means that Microsoft’s research found that only 25% of searches provide information that satisfies the searcher.  So in creating Bing, they tried to increase this percentage.  No details about how they’ve done this, however.  But don’t all search engine manufacturers try to provide results that are as relevant as possible?  So this is not a revolutionary strategy. 

Microsoft also did some research and found that people want the results of their searching to be organized.  So they added some organizational features to Bing.  These features include “Explore Pane, a dynamically relevant set of navigation and search tools on the left side of the page; Web Groups, which groups results in intuitive ways both on the Explore Pane and in the actual results; and Related Searches and Quick Tabs, which is essentially a table of contents for different categories of search results.”  When Microsoft uses the words “relevant” and “intuitive”, I am skeptical.  Remember “Clippy”, the paper clip cartoon character that was supposed to help us when we used Office?  Or how about the fact that Microsoft claims that they changed the menu structure in the Office suite for Vista so that the menus would be more “intuitive”?  There are too many examples that show that what Microsoft considers “relevant” and “intuitive” doesn’t match what most people consider “relevant” and “intuitive”.  So this statement from the press release doesn’t convince me that the claims that Bing is a “decision engine” is anything more than hype.

Finally, Microsoft claims that they use the strategy of simplifying tasks and providing insight.  Again, most search engine manufacturers probably want to do this so the strategy itself is probably not revolutionary.  But the fact that Bing focuses only on four primary areas of searching might mean that the tool can be optimized to simplify tasks and provide insights into these four types of searches. 

I haven’t yet used Bing.  The only way to know whether it really is a “decision engine” that will revolutionize the way we use the information provided on the Web is to use the tool.  Microsoft has had a search engine tool for a long time (quick–do you know what it’s called?).  It was called Live Search before it was upgraded and renamed to Bing.  But the fact that you probably didn’t know that name is an indication that the old tool was probably not very good, certainly not better than Google.  Given Microsoft’s record with upgrades, I feel pretty sure that calling Bing a “decision engine” is nothing more than hype.

{June 19, 2009}   Travesty of Justice

The Supreme Court yesterday ruled in a case from Alaska that the state does not have to provide physical evidence (which the state still has) to a man who has been in prison for 16 years for the purposes of new DNA testing (which the man has agreed to pay for himself).  Ed Brayton provides an excellent analysis of the case and explains the negative impact of the decision on our justice system.

{June 4, 2009}   Changing Medical Technology

I just finished reading My Lobotomy by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming.  Howard Dully received a transorbital lobotomy (also known as an “ice-pick lobotomy”) when he was 12 years old.  The doctor who performed the lobotomy was the king of transorbital lobotomies, Walter Freeman.  The book chronicles Dully’s life as well as his search, more than 40 years after the lobotomy, for answers as to why this surgery was performed on him.  It’s a harrowing story, especially because by almost all accounts, Dully was a normal kid.  The problem in his life seems to have been his step-mother who for some reason just didn’t like him and was probably afraid of him because he was a big kid.

Antonio Egas Moniz was the pioneer of the lobotomy and in fact, received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949 for his work in this area.  By the late 1950’s, with the introduction of drugs that worked far better than lobotomies, the procedure fell out of favor in the mainstream medical community.   In fact, some have characterized the lobotomy as the biggest mistake ever made by mainstream medicine.  My favorite quote about the lobotomy comes from Norbert Weiner who is the father of cybernetics.  He said on page 148 of his book Cybernetics, “…prefrontal lobotomy …has recently been having a certain vogue, probably not unconnected with the fact that it makes the custodial care of many patients easier. Let me remark in passing that killing them makes their custodial care still easier.”

Reading My Lobotomy is an eye-opening experience.  Throughout the entire book, I wondered where the authorities were.  Surely there were adminstrators at the hospitals where Freeman worked who realized that his methods for diagnosing patients as having major psychoses were problematic.  Why did they let him continue to practice for so long?  What about all those doctors that Dully’s step-mother took him to who said he was a fine, normal kid?  Why did none of them recognize that she was going to continue in her pursuit until she found the diagnosis she was looking for?  The problem, of course, is that at the time, a lobotomy could be prescribed for conditions as mundane as “youthful defiance” or even just “moodiness.”  There is no doubt that Howard Dully was a defiant youth.  Reading the book, I get a portrait of him as a really smart kid who was bored in school and who probably had attention deficit disorder as well as an incredible amount of stress as a result of being an abused child.  But the kind of trouble he got into was normal kid stuff and probably could have been dealt with by someone paying a little bit of attention to him and maybe challenging him a little more in school. 

The other question that kept popping into my head was whether things are better now.  Could this sort of thing happen today?  Obviously, there are not a lot of lobotomies performed today but kids are put onto serious psychotropic medicines all the time.  What kind of safeguards do we have in place to protect kids (or adults for that matter)?  Do we require multiple physicians to look at a kid before he or she is diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar or whatever?  My guess is that we don’t.  Although it seems like the effects of taking drugs for these conditions would not be permanent in the same ways that having a lobotomy would be permanent, some of the stigmatization that Dully describes would be present and very damaging simply with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or some other serious mental disorder.

One of the most moving parts of the book is the afterword to the paperback edition of the book.  Dully is contacted by two brain researchers to have a detailed MRI taken of his brain to determine the kind of damage that was done by the ice picks.  The researchers suspected they would find little damage because Dully seemed so normal, too normal for someone who has had a lobotomy.  What they found was brain damage that was so significant that if it had been done to an adult, that person would be a vegetable.  But because Dully had the surgery when he was 12, his brain was still maleable.  It adapted to the damage so that after 40+ years, he was a normally functioning adult.  Dully then says that he had always felt burdened by the lobotomy, like something really bad had been done to him as a child.  After the MRI, he realized that he actually was quite lucky that he had the lobotomy at such an early age.  If it had been done even five years later, he probably would never have left the institutions he grew up in.  He would never have had a life with a wife and kids and a job.  So he now sees his life as lucky.  It’s an inspirational shift in perspective, I think, and I’m not sure how many of us would be able to make that shift. 

From a technology standpoint, this story reminds me that we have developed lots of tools that we can use in a variety of situations.  But having the tools doesn’t mean that we should actually use the tools.  And when we do use the tools, we need to put into place significant checks and balances to avoid abuses of power and to protect the powerless as much as we can.  I don’t think we’ve really learned these lessons yet.

By the way, National Public Radio did a 22-minute documentary about Howard Dully back in 2005.  Here’s that story–I strongly encourage you to listen to it by clicking on “Listen Now” in the upper left corner of the page.

et cetera