Trouble Thinking

May 6, 2011

The Finch: Teach Yourself Some Programming In A Way That Doesn’t Completely Suck

Filed under: Computers — Tags: , , , , , — Durandal @ 11:17 am

Okay, here’s the thing: I watched Hackers as like, a kid. I was 10 or something.

To me, for most of my life, learning to “hack” was basically like learning how to throw fireballs. You needed a secret tome or a mysterious mentor, and once you learned a little bit of it you would be able to enter a world unable to be imagined by mere mortals.
I’m going to do a bigger post about generally being a middling programmer and why I think it’s as important a skill as basic rhetoric, as well as why I think it’s being unnecessarily obfuscated by dorky insecure people. I think I already did one but hey, it’s not like anyone was looking when I posted that and I’m pretty sure I can do a way better one now.

But today I just want to share something neat I found on BoingBoing!

The Finch is a little robot that costs $100.


It’s cute, it’s got a light-up nose, and it can do tricks. But that’s just a less awesome version of that one dancing robot toy.

He stops caring about them literally the next second.

The really cool part about it is that it’s been designed by Carnegie Mellon University to teach you how to program. The basic idea, that I totally can get behind, is that there’s one massive problem with learning how to program: figuring out what you want to do.

It’s like learning how to speak a new language without knowing whether “can you direct me to the library” is even possible to say. Maybe this new language is mostly used for cooking fish? Who knows! The great part about the Finch is that it takes programming languages (Java and Python for now) and constrains them. Instead of being able to do absolutely anything, you can do a whole ton of stuff that is all related to making this cute robot do whatever you want. I cannot tell you how much this would have helped me as a younger programmer. Struggling with a blank canvas robs you of a great opportunity to develop your skills in a more organic manner. If you’re handed a toy that can do A->Z, you get to try to see if you can make it do all that shit. Just handing someone the Java API, while technically providing them with all the information they need to make anything they want, practically doesn’t do a damn bit of good.

So anyway, I kind of want to buy one of these just to support the idea, and I really hope all CS courses through the high school level buy a dozen each.

Here’s a video! New Trouble Thinking policy: all posts end with at least 40 dozen videos.

January 19, 2011

Star Trek Online: Engaging!

Filed under: Computers, Game Reviews, Video Games — Tags: , , , — Katherine Barclay @ 3:04 pm

I know, I know, terrible pun. Let’s just move on from that, shall we, because I’m about to make a point that I never thought I’d make.

Star Trek Online

I have long hated MMOs. No, I’ve never had a subscription to that WoW thing that so successfully ensnared so many people, and maybe that makes me unable to truly judge, but the point of the matter for me is that I’ve never wanted one. I’ve watched people play, and I’ve watched people play other MMOs, and at the end of the day, they have always seemed massively unappealing to me. The dual points of the game seem to be a) get as high level as possible as quickly as possible, because that’s where all of the fun things are, and b) to get yourself as deeply burried in a guild as possible, because those fun things often end up being really hard to do alone.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those notions, especially if you’re the sort of person who’s looking to put hours upon hours into his or her game of choice.

The problem, for me, is always what each part implies: levelling, to the best of my observation, tends to involve a lot of monotonous repetition of mundane if not utterly tiresome game elements, all leading up to the chance to actually access the interesting parts. Do people really enjoy killing porings that much? Did porings traumatise you as children, that they must now be hunted down and slaughtered to a head? It reminds me of Pokemon, and how you’d have to spend hours walking around this one little square of grass to get your entire party from level 2 to level  49 — only at least with Pokemon, there were no other trainers walking around, laughing about how long it was taking you to do it, and whether your pokemon were 5th level or 55th, in the end you were still just a kid.

And as far as guilds go, it has always seemed to me that they make gameplay much more restricting than they do freeing, from a (vaguely) objective point of view. Those guild-attached players who I have had the pleasure of witnessing (anecdotal evidence is 90% of the law?) always seemed concerned, if not downright obsessed, with how their guild would perceive their actions. Gameplay now had to happen Just So, and at such specific times because of in-guild actions of various sorts that even the least obsessive people I know tended to start treating it like a job. A job they really enjoyed, but a job nonetheless, with the fear of being fired if you don’t perform to the boss’s standard.

Which is why I resisted as hard as I could, when I was offered a month’s subscription to play Star Trek Online … and why I’m surprised as all hell to have ended up enjoying it thoroughly. (more…)

November 20, 2010

Strange new world.

Filed under: Computers, Interesting Things — Tags: , , — Katherine Barclay @ 8:25 pm

So, I’ve always liked computers. I’ve always been one of those fixypeople, the ones you ask when something’s gone wrong with your technology and you can’t quite figure out why – I’m the girl who either solves it for you, or lets you know you’ve got an actual problem problem on your hands and should really ask someone who knows that the hell they’re doing, like Durandal. I’m pretty good at things like codecs, and updated drivers, and turning it off and on and plugging it in again, and kicking it when nothing else works.

For all of that, though, there’s always been this large, sturdy brick wall between me and actually understanding what goes on inside the case of that technological devil that bewitches us all. I knew that motherboards had very little to do with maternal instinct, and that video cards made things look good, and that some processors are faster or slower than other ones, which is either good or bad … When it came down to it, though, all of the hardware in my computer basically just looked like a tangle of wires that would probably electrocute me to death if I looked at it the wrong way, or tried to stick my hand in where it didn’t belong.

Until a few days ago, when I built my own computer.

I’ve been living in a laptop, you see — a pretty good laptop, definitely considering when I bought it, but still small, and limited, and growing older by the second. Games that used to be nice and shiny now play like they’re running through molasses, and that’s with the graphics settings dropped to minimum. So, I’ve wanted a nice new desktop for a while, but I  figured while I was moving around from school to other places it didn’t make sense to spontaneously acquire some giant hulking thing that breaks your back to carry down five flights of stairs. Now, though, I’m reasonably more settled, and just so happen to have some friends with extra parts lying around, parts that they decided they were willing to sell to me at awesome prices to get me the computer I’ve been craving.

There was only one condition: they weren’t going to work for free, or at all, so I had to make the thing myself. And, I had to understand what I was doing while I was doing it.

You can be sure, I looked at them as though they were stark raving mad when that ultimatum was first set down: I don’t do hardware, I never have; I don’t know what a gigahert(z?) is or what clocks have to do with speed or how going over one could be a good thing … to suggest that a random civilian could acquire such knowledge is insane.

Well, apparently crazy works for me, because I have to say, I haven’t had as much fun in an embarrassingly long time. Sitting at a workstation with a slightly condescending friend pointing out every blinking light on the motherboard, I suddenly felt everything click into place. All those things I thought I just couldn’t understand, like what BIOS was or why a dual-core processor isn’t the same as a quad-core one, began to make sense. Suddenly, I know what a heat sink is, and why they’re useful, and why the one I have isn’t as good as it could be, and I get it.

It kind of makes me wonder what exactly was stopping me from figuring all of those out before, honestly. But aside from that little bit of self-chiding, it feels like an entirely new world has been opened to me. Like my ball and chain went from being a mystery box to a device with regular, predictable means of operation, with parts that intersect in logical ways. When my dvd drive stopped working, I opened up the case, checked, found that the cables weren’t properly connecting because my video card was putting a bit of a strain on them, fixed it, closed the case, and had it work again when I turned my computer on.

Which is probably more impressive when one notes that my previous response to that situation would have been to stare in confusion, and wait for a man to come and rescue me.

It’s liberating, and empowering, and just a little bit frightening … but at the end of it all, I have a computer that can play Batman, so I have to fucking win!

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