26-27 Oct

This weekend was back to basics.  On Saturday I made a cajun chicken pasta dish that should last several days, and on Sunday I made a small batch of chocolate pudding.  Cleaned the apartment a bit, wrote a genetic algorithm for work, caught up on some shows, went jogging, and did some writing.  It was a pretty nice weekend, actually.


Chessy adventure

No, not cheesy.  Chessy.  But that’s what I read the first time.

A company that shall remain nameless contacted AoPS a while back about reviewing their educational book that uses chess to teach logic.  I thought, “Sign me up!  This is right up my alley.”  At this point, there were multiple weak warning signs: they were offering to pay reviewers (is this normal in the educational book/game industry?); their webpage touts their animation being shown at various film festivals (remember, what they are selling is a book and a chess set, not an animated show or whatever).

Anyway, I receive a PDF copy of the book and eventually found some time to read it through the other day.  It’s dreck.

It’s not a book of puzzles to develop mental skills.  Rather, it’s a children’s book interspersed with math problems.  What very few chess puzzles there are are not really puzzles.  They don’t really get students to think any deeper about game and do not teach logic as advertised.

The math problems are okay, of a quality typical of worksheet word problems, but nothing inspired.  If condensed, the problems would fill several pages of worksheets.  Mind you, this is in a book approaching 200 pages.  The issues with the problems are 1) their topics bounce all over the place, and 2) their difficulty ranges from 1st through 8th grade.  The only way I can think of such worksheets being useful is as a review of various concepts.  It cannot be used to, say, have a student bone up on a particular concept.

Oh, actually the worst thing about the problems is that for many problems, little math is taught.  Students do the problems and check their answer in the back of the book.  If the student gets it wrong, there’s no explanation.  If the student doesn’t know what to do, the book tells them to ask their teacher.  So the book admit that it is insufficient to teach the material.  This is being marketed as an educational product.

There are many other problems with the book.  Names and terms from physics are dropped into narrative for no reason.  I imagine someone was trying to broaden the educational reach by saying, “We do physics!”  Except such tidbits are inserted without context and students are, I guess, expected to memorize them for their own sake.  Not, say, as part of a exploration of how a handful of simple laws governs how the entire universe operates from the galaxies to atoms.  No, what you get is: “A proton is made of three quarks.”

That isn’t the only way it tries to sell itself.  The bio of the white king literally says, “an American hero… born on the 4th of July.”  The first page of the book proper name drops about a dozen New York city landmarks and place names.  I was surprised there weren’t little American flags waving in the illustrations.

There are grammar mistakes on every page, mostly from someone who doesn’t know comma rules.  The writing is like something someone in a college creative writing class would be told to redo.  The writer has heard that adjectives make the prose less flat and so has them on every noun, adjectives like “cute” and “darling.”  Except for the villains, who get their own set of words.

The characters are flat.  The first 30 pages or so, which was meant introduce the characters while teaching the rules of chess, made no attempt to introduce either the characters or the rules of the game in an organic narrative.  There is no character development or discovery.  And it doesn’t teach the rules of chess all that well either.

By now you’re thinking, “James, it’s a frickin’ children’s book for crying out loud.  It’s not meant to be the last word in educational literature.”  And this is a fair point.  My rebuttal is that it does a poor job in pretty much everything it sets out to do.

Anyway, I read half the book but did not finish the rest because it looked to be more of the same.  I packaged my page-by-page notes with a summary of my criticism and expected to receive a curt, “We’re not paying you for this.”  What I got back was a, “You’re a hateful man, and if you think of asking money for this, I’m going to vomit.”  I knew all along it was about the money.  That’s a paraphrasing, but “hate” and “vomit” are quotes.

I find it interesting that most people’s reaction to criticism of their work is to interpret it as a personal attack and to respond in kind.  I think creative people, such writers and artists, learn to separate a rejection of their skill from a rejection of themselves.  Even scientists and engineers who find their work criticized don’t take it as a personal insult.  It still hurts because something you worked hard on (suffered for, as the stereotype goes) was found lacking, so there is an emotional reaction.  But people have these baby projects that they nurture for months and years, and they bring it out to the world.  And Sturgeon’s Law kicks in and tells them they are part of the 90% that is crap.

I’ve worked in science and dabbled in game design as both a designer and playtester (mostly the latter).  The people who produce good work use constructive criticism to their advantage.  It gives them an outside perspective when they’ve become to close to be objective.  It’s the ones that think they’re infallible and ignore criticism in the classic confirmation bias pattern that have that criticism come back to haunt them.  Good science is peer reviewed for a reason.  The example in gaming that stands out in my head is Guards! Guards!, which I bet was entirely developed in-house, and they did not look for or were not willing to listen to feedback.  The concerns raised early on BGG were reflected in the comments by the community after release.

Of course, this company wasn’t looking for feedback.  They were looking for praise.  Specifically, a ~500 word essay they could snip quotes out of for marketing.  Anything that told them to return to the drawing board and rearrange their production schedule is clearly not in the books.  So I can understand why they would rather ignore what I gave them.  That doesn’t change the fact that their product is still dreck.

I dreamed last night…

… I got on a boat to heaven.  No, not really.  I don’t remember my dreams that often, so here’s the one I remember from last night.

So first off, my family (at least my mother) and I were going on a trip.  A cruise.  And it was the night we left to drive to the dock.  But wait, who was going to feed the bunnies?  I hadn’t arranged for someone to take care of them.  There was also something else that needed to be taken care of before we left.

I was frantic for any way out.  Could I find someone at this hour and then arrive at the dock late?  Maybe there was some shuttle service for people who missed the boat (yeah right).  Maybe I just shouldn’t go.

I was also trying to pin the blame on others for not giving me warning, and I wrote on the whiteboard a note to myself.  But looking at the dream in cool light of three hours past dawn, if I didn’t remember to find a bunnysitter, that’s my own dashed fault.

I think the bunny sitter crisis is a stand-in for the current panicky state the teaching assistant scheduling is in.  I have no idea what the cruise represents.

13-14 Oct

13 Oct: Sunday I played more Civ5: BNW.  2 civs, Duel-sized map.  The other civ, whoever it is, is really annoying about poaching wonders.

We went back to the Rabbit House Society to get tips about bonding.  They didn’t particularly like the ride there in the carrier, but they tolerated each other in confined quarters.  They started off manageable, and the RHS people gave me some tips.  Mostly I have to stop fighting behavior much faster.  I can also try the banana trick.  After an hour and a half, however, they had enough and had their worst fight yet.  I took them home in separate carriers.

I got an email saying that Papers, Please is on sale at Steam, so I started watching a Let’s Play.  It’s pretty amazing that someone could turn being a customs officer into a engaging game.

14 Oct: First time teaching Algebra 2.  Wow, I am not used to such a torrent of activity.  I’ll just have to learn to process faster.  My students are super excited though.

Came home, fed the bunnies, ate dinner, then tried another bonding session.  I tried to banana trick, though I put it on before getting them into starting position.  They didn’t leave much real estate for petting them.  I also kinda ground the banana into Bunbury’s head, and I may need to give him a good cleaning later.  I don’t think they liked having their head messy, and it took them a long time and a lot of calming to get them into position.  Then Bunbury ate a bit of banana off Penny’s face.  You know, that was good progress for today, really.

No song stood out for today.

11-12 Oct

Let’s just lump these two days together.

I started a couple bonding sessions with the bunnies, and they didn’t go well.  They constantly tried to nip each other.  I’m going to bring them into the SD House Rabbit Society to see if they have any advice.  If they don’t tear each other’s fur out during the car ride.

I finished my first game of Civ V: BNW.  4 civs on a small map.  It was spread over, I think, 4 sessions.  Micromanaging the maneuvers of a bunch of units gets boring after a while, so I lost that just-one-more-turn steam.  It’s late, so I’ll write up the new mechanics later.

Song for today:

10 Oct

I bought this week’s Humble Bundle.  Apparently they’re no longer Indie.  Didn’t play of them, however.  I want to finish a game of Civ V: Brave New World, but after hitting the grocery store, making dinner, and eating dinner, if I open the game I’ll stay up too late, and I already feel the beginning of a sore throat.

I’ve realized that I don’t know where to buy boardgames anymore now that Thoughthammer.com has closed.  I’m planning to buy Firefly: The Game and The Witches, maybe something else.  But I don’t know which are the good retailers.

Bunbury poos a lot when he’s marking territory.

No songs today as I’ve been mostly listening to Pandora instead of earworms.

9 Oct


Today at work I was caught.  Working.  On the Python course I should have let go of last month.  Whoops.  I’ll have to keep working on it in secret.

I was more talkative at lunch than usual.  Probably because there was a lot of politics.  I realize that politics frustrates me because, despite being a citizen in a democracy, I feel powerless while bad things happen.  Education feels like that sometimes, but I at least control a (very) small corner of it.

Bunnies are still scrapping when they get too close.  I tried switching their pens today so they get used to each other’s scent.  It’s making them act a little weird.  I still don’t know if Kaley/Penny will work out.

Today’s songs stuck in my head:

It feels weird using YouTube, a video site, to link to music tracks, but that’s how it’s done.