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Educational games: Boon to childhood learning, or gateway drug to delinquent truancy?

A lot of parents out there think educational games for their kids are great. That their children can have fun while learning at the same time.

These parents are idiots.

Educational games are not great. They are dangerous.

They are a gateway drug to pain and trouble.

How do I know this? Because I’m an idiot.

The Missus and I recently introduced our toddlers to computer games. This was done with no small amount of trepidation.

The Missus worried the kids would park themselves in front of the computer, never to move again, and just slowly grow larger and larger.

And I don’t mean in height.

She also had an irrational fear about moss accumulation, and how one could safely scrape it off skin, but I allayed that fear by saying we’d just keep the computer room too dark for moss to grow.

I’m a genius that way.

My worry was more practical. I was terrified they’d get into online gambling, incur huge debts, and one day I’d wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a note saying, “Sorry, Daddy, but it was your kidneys or our kneecaps. Hope you don’t mind. Also, get to a hospital ASAP.”

Some nights, the nightmare is even worse. I’m in the tub, but because my kids can’t read or write yet, there is no note prompting me to get to a hospital so I try to go into work instead.

The dream doesn’t end well.

The first mistake we made was underestimating the computer savvy of three year olds.

The second mistake we made was resurrecting an old computer for the exclusive, lightly supervised use of the kiddos.

As I set up the computer and searched the web for suitable educational games, my kids sat on either side of me, absorbing every move I made.

In hindsight, the furtive huddling and quiet whispering in the days that followed should have tipped me off that trouble was afoot.

Soon my novice hackers were clicking on links, adjusting Flash settings, and typing stuff into Google.

They even managed to install Chrome on the machine. One day, I walked up to the computer, and there it was on their desktop.

All this despite still being illiterate.

The educational games gave them a taste for electronic entertainment, and knowing that clicking on words that are a different color on the screen will take you to a new web page introduced them, with just a few clicks, to less educational games.

Far less educational games.

Colorful games.

Noisy games.

Violent games.

Shortly after the computer game experiment began, my kids were running around shouting “Ninja punch!” while slamming their fists in the air.

To be sure, not our original intention.

This led inevitably to them running up to me, pounding on my stomach, back, thighs, or whatever part of me was handy and facing them, then darting away while taunting, “It’s game over for you, Daddy!”

It was during the course of these attacks that they discovered Daddy’s weakness.

And once discovered, they exploited it ruthlessly, as only toddlers can.

They began punching me in the junk.

And headbutting me in the junk.

The only thoughts that could form in that hazy, red cloud of pain I endured while curled in a fetal position was, “Thank goodness they’re too short to kick me.”

Then they started climbing into my bed at first light and kicking me in the junk.

So heed this warning, written to you from a hospital bed as I recover from not one, but two ruptured testicles, and bruising in that region so severe that heretofore they were unknown to medical science:

Don’t get your kids started on educational games. Because corporal punishment is illegal in most states, and that’s really the only thing that might stop them once they’ve moved on to the harder stuff.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me! My reproductive options may no longer be available, but my books still are!
 

The Santa Claus Gang:

The Santa Claus Gang: A Marlowe and the Spacewoman short story

Marlowe and the Spacewoman:

Marlowe and the Spacewoman

Kleencut (FREE, and a fine showcase for my artistic abilities!):

So bad it won a Voidy for the next THREE consecutive years (would have been FOUR, but 2012 was a leap year)

 
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Posted by on 30 April 2013 in Life, Parenting

 

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Legacy computing: Is FreeDOS truly free? I think not (Trigger warning: nerd, geek, MS-DOS)

Apologies to the non-geeks. This week’s post will strike you as rambling, jargony, and probably more than a little boring.

So last week’s post about uncovering ancient (but deadly) treasure on old computer disks got me to thinking:

What if I hadn’t been able to find that old Zip drive in the surplus store?

What if I had waited another twenty years to find and dig through those CDs and DVDs?

How long does any storage standard / medium have before it fades into obscurity, leaving you with lumps of useless plastic that contain priceless historical artifacts that you will never be able to access?

Will I ever be able to read these again?

They say you can judge a man's penis size by the diameter of the magnetic media he uses to store information
Sadly, I missed out on the truly golden days of floppy media – 12″ disks. But my father told more than a few ripping yarns about those!

So I decided to build a legacy computer.

Little known fact - before the mouse pointing device, computers used a cat pointing device.
Truly the king of legacy computers, AND the father of the LOL catz craze. (Picture is from the cover of my PC-Write manual, circa 1986.)

In fact, for the last few nights, I’ve gone to bed with images of my childhood DOS computing experiences replaying themselves in my head.

I’ve never claimed to have exciting dreams or aspirations, just to have them.

Sadly, finding a monochrome CRT monitor, a desktop case with dual 5.25″ floppies, and RAM you plug into the motherboard one chip at a time is not something one can do easily or cheaply these days.

Well, maybe cheaply, but the guys at the surplus store give you such withering stares, like building old computers is some sort of extreme porn fetish.

I ended up settling for an early 2000s-vintage AMD Athlon tower case system I had collecting dust in my garage.

It came with a 3.5″ floppy drive, but no hard disk or CD-ROM drive.

Those I ripped out of a donor Dell desktop.

I also found a 5.25″ floppy disk drive, but no cables and no way of knowing for sure it worked.

I didn’t let this stop me.

I’ve been an adult for a long time now, so I don’t often go poking around inside computers. I’m at a point in my life where I just want the things to work out of the box.

But in grade school, high school, and college, I was quite the hobbyist. I remember reading the Computing section of the newspaper every Sunday, scrutinizing the computer store ads, building lists of the components I needed and figuring out the cheapest combination.

They were mostly mom-and-pop stores, which don’t exist anymore.

My first computer, which I really would have loved to rebuild for this project, was a 12MHz Turbo 286 with monochrome monitor, two 5.25″ floppy drives, a 40MB hard drive, and no operating system. Total cost: ~$1100 ($400 of which was the hard drive).

I think I initially ran it on DOS 2.something.

I loved that thing, even though I couldn’t afford EGA color graphics at the time.

Yes, EGA. I am old.

I would spend hours poking around inside my computer case, moving cards, installing memory, cutting notches in my disks to double their capacity, and setting jumpers.

Yes, you young whippersnappers – tiny, easily dropped into the bowels of the machine physical jumpers on cards and disk drives to get them to work with each other – it’s the public library equivalent of the card catalog, another throwback to the past I truly miss.

And hours more prodding the outside, installing programs, dialing up BBSes, parking the hard disk drive head with a program before shutting down, to prevent damage.

In the early days of computer, everything was still done manually.

For this project, I ended up spending a great deal of time putting things into that case, pulling them out, connecting and disconnecting cables, and gouging my knuckles on the pins extruding from the backs of some of the cards.

It brought back such happy memories.

Only after I was mostly done did I discover the fat-bodied black spider that had been hanging out in the case.

Some things never change.

Now in order to justify the amount of time and (moderate) expense spent on this, I had to cook up some practical application for the Missus. I settled on saying it was for the kiddos. I’d build them a computer that they could use to watch They Might Be Giants YouTube videos without bumping mom off her machine.

She bought it.

This also explains the keyboard, which I had to buy as ‘proof’ of my kiddo-entertaining intentions.

At first, I though this was some sort of physical-world Tetris game.
Turns out my kiddos have abnormally large hands. And, thankfully, they are color-blind.

But in addition to installing Win XP, I also put Linux and FreeDOS on it.

Ah, FreeDOS. I only recently discovered you, and yet you are a marvel. Now I can install PC-Write and Telix and Qmodem on you, not feel like I’ve stolen software from Microsoft, AND pretend it’s still 1986.

Awesome.

I won’t go into the pain of trying to update a Win XP install without any service pack and only IE 6, and Firefox refusing to install without SP2. It took hours and involved incompletely rendered Microsoft.com web pages.

WTF, Microsoft? You design web pages that only work with your latest software? It’s almost as if you want us to upgrade.

The Linux install went OK too, once I figured out that I had to tell the BIOS to detect the USB keyboard rather than leaving it to the OSes I was trying to install.

The FreeDOS install took longer, but only because my kiddos, seeing I was up to something, got very excited and decided to help.

Usually by hitting the power button on the front of the computer.

While standing directly in front of the monitor, their noses touching the screen.

Asking me why I keep using those naughty, naughty words mommy gets mad about when they use them.

I lead a charmed life.

Now while I have a working computer, I’m not completely done with this project yet.

I still need to find a cable for the 5.25″ floppy drive.

And the 3.5″ drive made a great rending noise when I tried to read a disk in it.

But substance aside, the outward appearance, while a trifle too modern for me, is not half bad.

While they wait for stuff to load, the kiddos can pretend to drive along the roads on the coffee table cover
In every way, shape, and form, this computer corner is the antithesis of feng shui.

Plus the kiddos love the games on the Linux partition. They are scary good at using the computer, considering they can’t read or write yet.

And I think I already know what my next project will be.

Now we just need a tape player and audio cables so we can load games onto this thing. Or crap, cassette tapes as data storage media! How will we ever manage that???
True fact: In one draft of my will, I left my Timex Sinclair 1000 computer to Hell.
 
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Posted by on 9 February 2013 in Technopocalypse

 

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Why the Singularity is Going to Suck

People get so excited these days about technology. Everything is getting smaller and more integrated. Computers are faster and smarter. Some gleefully proclaim the day is coming when we’ll all have cybernetic implants that allow us to do anything. Nano probes roaming our blood stream will be ever on the lookout for problems to fix. The lactose-intolerant will be able to consume dairy without the unpleasant side-effects. Shop class table-saw amputations will become little more than an inconvenience while we wait for the severed bits to grow back (and don’t tell me teenage boys who know there are no permanent consequences won’t take FULL advantage of that!). Huffing glue will be perfectly safe (and become a national pastime) since we can just restore our memories and personalities from a backup on ‘the Cloud’ (I want to fart every time I hear that term) once those nano probes repair all the brain damage.

Doesn’t that sound great?

Even better, these Singularity fans crow, will be the dawning of Artificial Intelligence that accompanies the Singularity. AI inside our cybernetic implants will provide us with a range of useful tools, from being a limitless resource for cheating on exams, to being our BFF so we don’t need to find or interact with anyone else, to playing Devil’s Advocate to the other voices in our heads when we go off our medication.

While I’m as excited as the next guy by the prospect of one day having a piece of hardware that can sass me jammed into my body (the level of excitement varying depending on just where it’s jammed), I don’t want to focus on that. I want to talk about the AI component of this budding fiasco.

People are ignoring an important problem with the arrival of AI. I’m not talking about the machines rising up against us and either enslaving us or wiping us out (though I suppose that bears looking into as well). I’m talking about degrees. Degrees of intelligence.

Think back to when you were in grade school. Remember that teacher’s pet suck up who always had her hand up, always knew the answer? Annoying little twit, wasn’t she? And let’s not forget the other end of the spectrum, the class clown who couldn’t think his way out of a cellophane bag (nor had the intelligence to realize just how fatal sticking his head into that bag would be, rest his soul). What makes you think AI will be any different?

Sure, we’re gonna have state-of-the-art, MENSA-busting AI manufactured at the finest, highest-tech institutes. And those AIs are gonna be smarmy gits none of us can stand to be around, let alone play Jeopardy against. And then, within a few years, we’re gonna have the cheap knock-off AIs, manufactured overseas by outsourced techies who have no respect for intellectual property laws. The quality on those will be all over the map, but I can guarantee you that they’ll be cheap, which means they’ll be everywhere. If we’re lucky, they’ll speak English. The Department of Motor Vehicles, MediCare, Social Security, and any other government bureaucracy you can think of that makes use of call centers will be answering their phones with AIs made by the lowest bidder. How do you think that’s gonna work out for us?

Sometimes I think we’d be better off getting wiped out by the machines instead.

So what do you think? Am I a crazy nay-sayer and doom-prognosticator? Do you think the AIs will be smart enough to avoid / fix the problems I foresee? And for that matter, just how do you hard code the Three Laws of Robotics into a machine? What if there’s a bug in that code copied-and-pasted by a Chinese programmer from an old version of an open source Linux module with known vulnerabilities? Do you really think we’ll be safe?

 
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Posted by on 4 May 2011 in Life, Technopocalypse

 

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