The Fountainhead

I'm in the middle of reading The Fountainhead, and have some thoughts on that. I will write it and publish it when I have time, probably this weekend. This is just to let you know that I'm not dead, and to expect something from me soon.
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Education and Games

I'm in the middle of CTY, and I'm having a grand time. If I come back next year, I'll be back as an instructor. The future's not certain though, and there are several factors preventing me from coming back. First, CTY fits Northwestern's schedule really well - we end mid-June, then I have a week before CTY starts. UMich though ends mid-May, which means CTY cuts my summer in half. That  means it's harder to get things, and I can't just start research later during the summer - I'll have to start it, stop for a few weeks, then go back to it. Of course, the whole research thing will probably be the main competitor for my time. I really wish I could come back though; I'll have to talk to my advisor about it.

Anyway, this post isn't about my 2010 summer plans. I started off saying that I want to be back as an instructor because I was thinking about ways to improve the course. While the course as it stands is pretty good, there are several things which bugs me. For example, the pre and post tests are almost irrelevant to the course material; I'm sure I can think of some better questions which deals with breaking goals into steps, or how information travels through a program, or how to build sturdy objects.

One thing that my instructor did, and which I like a lot, is the focus on not only robots, but on design as well. Before each big project, we have the kids fill out design documents, so they have to think through what their problem is, and how their robot will solve that problem. Right now though, the design templates are very heavily physical. There is no room to do some good thinking about the program, where as there's an area for a sketch of the robot. I would totally redesign the design sheet, so the hardware and software components are given enough time. I also think there's some space for more reflective questions; for example, start off by asking the kids what they think will be hard, then afterwards asking them whether they predicted correctly, and if not, what was harder than expected and why.

All this led to thoughts of flow charts, which I know the other robotics class do. We never teach the kids flowcharts, although I learned that some earlier iterations of the class do have that in the curriculum. The main problem, I think, is that we don't deal with branches and loops until Thursday, and by then it's a little late to start adding flow charts to the design process, especially if they've already filled out several of those sheets. One option, I guess, is to move the branches and loops lesson to earlier in the week. My only qualm with that is how comfortable the kids will be with that material that early. And besides, flow charts don't work very well with variables anyway (as a side note, is there any kind of diagram allows the diagrammer to keep track of variables over time?).

So I was thinking about flow charts, and how to best structure the class so kids can learn more abstract concepts, when I found myself wondering how video games have tutorials which slowly guide the player to more advanced skills. The tutorials have to start off easy, get progressively harder, but at the same time must remain fun for the whole time. And isn't that exactly what we want to do at CTY? Yes we're cramming a lot of material into the kids' brains, but it's also supposed to be fun. In this sense, I liked what one of my other instructors did; he had a theme of the students being robot builders throughout the course, and told them that at the end they'll be "little Gorts". This is in essence a "leveling system", so the kids feel like they've accomplished something.

But really, I think game designers should talk to educators more, so kids are learning more but remain engaged.
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Porn and Intimacy

It is rare that I talk about something so personal on my blog. My life is at a changing point, very saliently a point where the future is wide open and I get to decide where it should go. There are some other circumstances which I don't feel like elaborating on, but let it be suffice to say that this has been on my mind somewhat recently.

I think it would surprising some people for them to know I consume a lot of porn. I actually remember the first time I saw anything indecent on the internet. I was probably only 10 at the time, and was trying to get on the search engine Infoseek. I had mistyped the URL, however, and typed in "ifoseek" instead, which turned out to be some porn site. Much later I would classify this as an instance of cybersquatting, but I didn't know any of that at the time. I remember fighting the urge to go back, but eventually I succumbed, and the whole world of online pornography opened up for me. For a long time I was ashamed of it, but in the last few years that changed. It might partially be due to the fact that the Internet being filled with porn is just widely accepted, and as well as the fact that a lot of people watch porn. I think part of it also has to do with me taking a more rational trend in life, and I critically pondered the question of whether porn ever actually does anyone harm. I concluded that, aside from cases where the actors are forced to do it (most prominently, child pornography), there is no physical reason pornography is damaging. As for the whole moral degradation argument, if you were one of those people who were surprised that I watch porn, maybe you should rethink the argument that porn makes men objectify women.

But I don't want to spend this post rebutting the negative affects of pornography. Instead, I want to give a more personal account of pornography, and what I have learned about myself from it. Regardless of it's influence on morals, I do think pornography often depicts humans as (shall we say) animals. That is, the plot of a pornographic movie, if there is one at all, tends to portray people as thinking of nothing but sex. There is no consideration of time, money, possibility of getting caught (unless that's what the director wanted). This past statement, of course, is something I couldn't have said even 3 years ago. In the early days I didn't really discriminate, and everything explicit on the web looked the same to me. As I grew up and learned and thought more, however, this trait of porn became clear to me. I must say that there are times when mindless sex is exactly what you're looking for, but most of the time nowadays I'm looking for something else: a connection.

My real problem with porn is that the actors rarely show concern for each other. Although the act of sexual intercourse requires another person, it is safe to say that both characters are more often than not only concerned with their own desires. If the actress gave a blowjob, it's not to please the buy, but because she "likes it". If I may, it's the difference between being a friend because it keeps you from feeling guilty, and being a friend because you truly care for their feelings. Sex in the real world, I would think, is more about the other person's desire. Both people may be horny, but there is the desire to make the other person happy first. In porn, these acts of "giving" seem forced, and are there more to satisfy the /audience/ than the /partner/.

Instead, lately I've been more attracted to amateur pornography. I don't mean what professional studios label as "amateurs, but actual home made videos. Often these are videos that couples have filmed of themselves, probably for their own entertainment later. Because the actors are real people (not fake characters) with feelings for each other, however, these videos depict much more intimate acts of love making. And that's what I'm looking for: the sense that what is shown is not simply two animals copulating, but two humans with emotions and an intellect. What they are doing is an extension of their love, because even a piece of cloth between their bodies is too much to bare. It is, almost by definition, a private moment, and therefore I also feel somewhat guilty about it's distribution and consumption. But again, it's (mostly) a victimless thing.

Given that it's rather easy to spot whether two people like each other, I'm surprised that not more professional porn is done depicting this connection. The most obvious clue, I think, are the actors hands. Are they clasped and fondling (gently), or are they there just to hold the other person in place? Is the brushing of the hair to see their face better, or to give the camera a better angle? The face, too, is a big area, just because we are so good at reading emotions. And then, of course, the big orgasm thing - is there any involuntary movement?

I think the fact that I think in this way says a lot more about me than the fact that I watch porn. One last thing... you may comment that I'm looking for intimacy in the wrong place. I know.