Posted by: holdenlee | April 17, 2013

## Red Mars

I read Red Mars back in February. It’s one of my favorite science fiction books. I started writing a review/analysis of it when I finished, but didn’t get around to posting it until now. (Thus I gloss over some parts, but I don’t want to give everything away, do I?)

Red Mars is a tour-de-force of scientific imagination.

In short, Red Mars is an epic tale chronicling the colonization of Mars from the first hundred settlers to the millions who immigrate from an overcrowded earth; the slow but irreversible process of terraforming, from the windmills that increase the temperature by a fraction of a degree to ice dams breaking into new seas; and the political forces —business interests, government agenda, the colonists’ desire for independence—that culminate in a senseless war; leaving the reader with a sense that both Mars and the colonists have been changed forever. The characters feel like giants, but they seem like nothing next to the primal forces of Mars. Robinson captures the beauty of the way they persist or break down.

“We terraform the planet, but the planet areoforms us (253).”

As a writer, Robinson is unique in the level of scientific detail—not only in his theories of terraforming, in the harsh realities of Mars that he doesn’t try to simplify—but also in the way that the scientists perceive the world. Having been fascinated with Mars and researched it his entire life, Robinson is uniquely qualified to write this epic.

Below the fold I will describe my reactions to the novel, why it is extraordinary from both a scientific and literary standpoint. (Warning: spoilers)

Posted by: holdenlee | April 11, 2013

## Learning should be fun

Today Scot Osterweil gave a talk in our educational games class (11.127).

## What is play?

We can argue over definitions, but the salient point is that a player’s motivations are entirely intrinsic and personal. When you are forced to play, it is no longer play: you have to want to do it. Scot lists the four freedoms of play:

1. Freedom to experiment
2. Freedom to fail
3. Freedom to try on identities
4. Freedom of effort (to invest as much effort as one wants)

Given that play is something people do naturally, the key question is the following:

How do we channel play into learning activities while still allowing for play’s fundamentally free nature?

## Play and learning

Often people think learning is inherently boring, and has to be “made fun” through games. They think learning and play are seem as opposites on a spectrum.

But learning and play aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, they should be seen as two independent axes. (One student suggested we should replace course evaluations with a simple question: where does this class fit on the graph?)

His advice for us in designing educational games is, don’t find a topic you want to teach, and then ask how can I make it fun? Instead, find a topic you find inherently intriguing and ask, how can I bring out that beauty out in a game?

Often educational games are used as drills–practice after students have learned a concept. But educational games can be so much more.

When he was a kid, Scot said, he played with blocks. There were square 1×1 blocks and 1×2 rectangular blocks; when one put two rectangular blocks together they make a bigger square. Thus he learned the idea of 2+2=4 even before he formally learned arithmetic. If you’d given me a test after I played with blocks you wouldn’t see that I “knew” arithmetic, he said, but the play provided the basic conceptual building blocks for learning arithmetic.

My boss Mathew also made the same point: he suspects that the reason why some kids grasp concepts more quickly than others is not because they are innately more intelligent, but that they have had an opportunity to play with the idea before. For example, playing with blocks where several smaller blocks add up to larger blocks would give students an idea of fractions so that when they actually learn fractions, it seems like a formalization of what they already know!

Scot showed us Labyrinth, a math game he helped create for middle-schoolers that takes around 20 hours to complete. It gives a series of puzzles to students, where every time they have to figure out what’s going on. He put the puzzle on the projector without instructions and asked what to do? We all gave various ideas, telling him what to click and drop where. A bat dropped from the top of the screen when he clicked and dashed away when it hid the bottom; however, when he dragged and dropped some blocks, the bat went over a space when it hit the block.

See how chaotic that was? he asked, referring to our excitement to figure out how the game worked. You’re probing the game, forming hypotheses, and testing them out. That’s what the process of doing science, history, math is all about! And kids are naturally good at it: give them this game, and they’ll do it all without provocation.

The particular puzzle he showed was about vectors and negative numbers, even those the mathematical symbols never appeared anywhere in the game.

After the game a teacher could bring the class together and ask, “How did you solve the problem?” A teacher could then leverage the discussion to talk about vectors, because the teacher is drawing on ideas the students already has a relationship with.

Scot gave another example, of the game Vanished! which ran in April-May 2011. Students aged 10-14 were given a MIT Mystery Hunt-esque video where the gamemasters said, We had the game all planned but it crashed! Go to this site and help us figure it out. And embedded in the video were 10 random letters (and everyone got different letters, a different piece of the puzzle). Eventually, after an hour, some people had the idea that the letters formed a code, and searching online for codes, guessed it to use a rotation cipher. We were worried at first, Scot said, because we didn’t provide them with the tools–we thought of giving them a hint that the letters were a code–but it worked better having them figure it out themselves. Then they were “contacted” from the future and told there was some disaster between now and then that erased all historical documents, and they had to figure out what happened through a series of scientific investigations.

It’s fascinating, Scot said, that even though the students knew this was a fiction, they didn’t feel like they could make up answers. They did serious science exploration in the service of fiction! Give students something to fire up their imagination, and they’ll think hard about serious stuff.

## Learning SHOULD BE play

Consider a spelling bee versus a game of Scrabble, Scot said. In a spelling bee, most people go in thinking they’re going to fail. When they sit down, they’re relieved, because they can be resigned to the fact that they can’t spell. There’s no conversation like “hey, that’s an interesting way to spell so-and-so” or “that has a Greek not a Latin root so it should be so-and-so.”

That’s not the way it is in Scrabble at all. Even if you may not be winning, you have your own local goals, can I get that 3x tile? Can I use all my tiles in one turn? Can I beat my own record? Is that a real word? And there might be discussions.

Scot gives the startling statistic:

7% of students graduate high school thinking they’re good at math.

So we’re teaching 93% of students: you’re fail at math. Sit down. Don’t do math again.

A lot of students get the impression that school is an unpleasant thing that one has to go through until you’re free, and you never have to do it again. But school should teach people to love life-long learning; school should be a launchpad for learning outside of school.

The four freedoms of play are the same as the four freedoms of learning.

1. Freedom to experiment
2. Freedom to fail
3. Freedom to try on identities
4. Freedom of effort (to invest as much effort as one wants)

These are not the four freedoms of school in a traditional environment. For instance, people are taught to fear failure, even real problem-solving is about patient failure. Scot gave us all some advice too (listen up prefrosh!): a lot of you have gotten here by learning how to play the game of school. And some people will get through MIT that way. But MIT can be so much more than that, if you see it as a learning=play experience. A student said: instead of work hard play hard, it should just be play hard. Why should work $\neq$ play?

One student brought up the point: A sincere teacher just wants to get out of the way. Student should be driving their own explorations, and that the teacher should be a guide (a very important guide!).

## Take-away points

1. Learning and play are not mutually exclusive. Games shouldn’t make learning fun, they should bring out the fun in learning.
2. Play sets up a foundation for learning. Games can be used to have students explore a new topic (rather than simply as rote practice), because it gives students a “safe space” to experiment and fail, and students *naturally* experiment and fail in a game.
3. Team play teaches students to work together and enables them to learn from each other.
4. A game that comes with a narrative sparks a player’s imagination and adds fuel to the fire.
5. As you learn, are using your four freedoms of learning?

## College Math Education

Coming from the angle of a future math professor, I think even college courses can be taught this way. Back in high school, I loved power rounds in math competitions: whole math team has to solve a long problem proving several big results in about 10 parts. It’s quite chaotic, and we had to organize ourselves to make the most use of our time. The problem is challenging and not something we’ve seen before but we dive into it and learn so much from that hour or half-hour. Call this a more grown-up version of a game, if you will.

Somehow, after math competitions, I never had another experience of a “power round.”

But what if one were to start a class, not by giving a lecture on the material to be learned, but having students dive in and experiment, like a power round? This is in fact similar to Moore’s method. I would love to try such an idea together with a flipped classroom.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 8, 2013

## Classroom observations

This semester, for my education class (11.125), I’m taking ~3 hours to observe at a local high school every Monday. Our class is writing blog post on classroom observations at http://stepstories.edtechresearcher.com/. They’re quite an intriguing read. You can find the posts I’ve written here: http://stepstories.edtechresearcher.com/author/holdenl/.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 7, 2013

## Communities of Play

I want to share a summary of a reading I did a while ago for 11.127 (Educational games). In Chapters 5-6 of Communities of Play, Pearce tells the story of the community around Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, a massively multiplayer online game released in 2003.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 6, 2013

## On Talking to Strangers

A while ago, I thought of asking on Quora, under what circumstances do people spill their life to strangers? I mean, it happens in books and stuff, but in real life? Hard to imagine.

Looking around, I saw that my question had really already been answered, at “What is the best way to get to know someone in a short amount of time?” The interview with Maurice Sendak mentioned in the first post is the most beautiful interview I’ve ever heard. (Go listen to it.)

It’s not every day you get to see something like this happen in front of your face.

It was at a potluck/party. I missed everything in the conversation except the very end. I can’t say anything about it other than it was on something very dark/disturbing. But it convinced me these things really happen: strangers opening up to each other. It gets me thinking, how little we know about the people who we pass by everyday.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 5, 2013

## Grad school initiation

I’ve been busy visiting grad schools, trying to decide where to spend my next 4-5 years (for my Ph.D., after one year at Cambridge).

Grad students invite us to dinner and exude a quiet enthusiasm, a sense that math is a state of being. They feel like a community. They give me confidence: I’m on the right path.

What’s on my mind as I choose? The community of grad students. The professors: what are they interested in, and how they advise. The environment around the school. (Follow your gut, Gross says.) Princeton has a huge department, lots of professors in each subfield, so that the students in each subfield tend to form their own group. It’s in a small town, more isolated–but isolation can also mean focus. Harvard has a small department so that students in different areas interface more. It’s in Boston.

Sometimes they give me insights of how people do math, how the math community works.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 4, 2013

## Educational Games

Today in our class on educational games (11.127), our group presented the board game we’ve been working on for the past 3 weeks. Our game, Raging Robots, teaches students how a finite state machine works by having program a robot (the little bears in the picture) to pick up gold. One of my inspirations was Maslab, the robotics competition I participated in during IAP.

Here are two games in progress:

The other team made a game that teaches students geometric proofs, by asking them to build chains of reasoning:

Posted by: holdenlee | April 3, 2013

## The Connection Machine and Collective Intelligence

Today in 6.868 (Society of Mind)Daniel Hillis gave a guest lecture on the potential of parallel computing for artificial intelligence. Hillis created the Connection Machine, the first massively parallel supercomputer.

What fascinated me most was the following analogy that came up during discussion:

processor:parallel computer :: human:society

With a good architecture, a parallel computer can carry out certain tasks much more quickly than a single processor, and can be said to be more “intelligent.” In the same way a group of people can be said to be much more “intelligent” than a single person.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 2, 2013

## Morals of The Age of Innocence

Today at the MIT literary society we discussed The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Below is some of the discussion ingested with my own thoughts and tangents.

If you haven’t read the book, you can read the SparkNotes summary.

Posted by: holdenlee | April 1, 2013

## Spring Break

When people ask me what I did over spring break, what do I say?

I don’t do any very “exciting” things: I just go home for a week, don’t venture out of the house much, do “work” at a more relaxed place, brainstorm on tangents that I don’t have time to follow during the semester. I talk to Mom about random things, and she walks around the house like she always does and spouts off little stories about her and Dad: regarding her former collection of hairbands in all the colors of the rainbow Dad said, “How many heads do you have?”; she likes to keep the house clean, to the extent that Uncle said “you can put on a white glove and brush the floor and it’ll still be white” (a bit of an exaggeration); how they would plan vacation and Dad would just want to go one place but Mom would try to connect it up with various other points of interest until it becomes a “tour of the US;” how they used to go to book fairs and buying books was more exciting than the books themselves; etc. and it’s remarkable how much they’ve really changed each other.

Admittedly, I don’t think of family very much at school. I have to finish a story for 21W.757 Fiction Workshop this week (as well as Ilona Karmel!) and I was quite stuck for the first half of break, but after some of Mom’s stories I’ve started writing a story about family–a theme I don’t write on very often.

Saturday night before my flight back Mom was helping me pack my bag, and noticed that my left strap was coming detached. As she mends she says to me, she felt like that mom in the Chinese poem, 臨行密密縫, do I remember the rest? I remembered the next line, 意恐遲遲歸, and that was it, I’d forgotten the rest though I’d memorized it for Chinese class long ago. Mom still remembers almost all the poems from elementary school. Anyway, here’s the whole poem, which I now remember, with (my imperfect) translation:

How can we hope to repay a mother’s love for us?

This spring break I “just” went home to see mom, and it was an awesome spring break.

## Categories

Follow

### Follow “Mental Wilderness”

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 769 other followers