Category Archives: Personal

Infographics

One infographic I’ve used in class recently is this 3-D plotting of millions of player deaths in a particular videogame. Can a video be an infographic? If so, I think this is one. I used it to try to make a point about maps. How versatile they can be – how useful knowing how to represent different kinds of information and to read different kinds of maps in geography can be, not just for understanding the physical world, but for understanding all kinds of systems and constructs, even virtual ones.

Maps and related geographical tools aren’t just about reproducing the locations of mountains and rivers in the real world – they can display any variable(s) the mapmakers want, in any kind of space, and are ways we can make sense of just about anything, even if it’s something as strange as determining where the deadliest areas of a particular video game are.

I also just like this video because there’s something so weird and poignant about it (helped by the music) – these tiny points of light are places where people died, but they weren’t people, they were just characters in a video game – and what does that mean? Is it possible for statistical information from a video game to evoke a genuine emotional response? What’s the point of all this deadly, simulated shared activity we’ve embarked on, anyway? Is it just to have fun or are we contributing to something larger? Can we start to bring out those deeper implications using things like this video? etc.

While we’re on the subject (artful presentations of mind-bogglingly high multiplayer video-game statistics), I also like this infographic on the first two weeks of Red Dead Redemption:

What I like about this one (setting aside the moral issues involved in all the crime players seem to have quickly racked up playing this cowboy game) is the way it uses statistics and thought-provoking real-world analogies to indirectly boast of a game’s popularity. I’d rather see something like this than a more traditional advertisement. I wonder how many of the “jobs that don’t even exit yet” that we’re supposedly preparing our students for will involve detailed statistical analysis of imaginary worlds?

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Educational Games Big In Japan

I just wanted to quickly point out that in Japan, the best-selling video game for the last two weeks running has been the latest in the series of Professor Layton games. In the UK, a recent release of an older Professor Layton game has also apparently been a great success.

I am cheered by this news because these games are little more than compilations of old math and logic questions, spruced up with beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and old-fashioned animated characters.
When you play a Professor Layton game, the experience typically goes as follows: you wander through a lovingly drawn area reminiscent of the LucasArts-heyday backgrounds on Curse of Monkey Island, click on a quirky character who looks like a reject from The Triplets of Belleville, and he or she says something like “I will give you this shiny gold coin if you can help me, young man. I have a rowboat, a fox, a chicken, and a bag of feed…”

Each game has over a hundred hard-core logic puzzles, disguised by an atmospheric point-and-click adventure interface. I’m usually turned off by games that lean heavily on reheated old puzzles, like the infuriating “Tower of Bozbar” and “Peggleboz” from Zork Zero, but Layton’s design somehow makes the old logic chestnuts addictive and charming.

The fact that these adorable games are so popular shows that there’s an enormous audience out there for creative video games which are both highly artistic and educational. Of course, people have been similarly excited about the success of Brain Age for a couple of years because it’s educational, but to me the Professor Layton games are much more interesting because I have to assume that they appeal to a younger crowd than Brain Age.

Some of those nearly half-million Japanese people who’re already playing the newest game must be children, and it’s nice to think of their brains stretching to figure out how to row that fox and chicken across the river. (hm – note how that phrase I just wrote, “how to row that fox” is like a tongue twister or something. Four different vowel sounds from “o” as the second letter in a word. English spelling must be so annoying for learners).

Also, nothing against 3D backgrounds or animation, but the fact that these are hand-drawn 2D is a tiding of great joy to me, both for nostalgic reasons and because I think it’s an eye-pleasing use of the small DS screen, where 3D environments can look like a blocky mess. There’s clearly still a place in the gaming industry for people who can draw and paint old-fashioned backgrounds, and that’s a nice thought.

These particular games are quite clearly loaded with logic puzzles, but even less overtly educational games these days usually incorporate a grab bag of educational elements like math (keeping track of your Pokemon’s statistics can get quite tricky), resource management, spatial relations, mapmaking, etc. Not to mention the now-popular genre of music simulators (Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution et al.), which are basically teaching a generation of students how rewarding it can be to learn to play music or dance well. Many of the most popular games of the last five or ten years, like the dancing games or Wii Sports, are really only fun when played with other humans, which explodes the old stereotype that video gamers are antisocial. In my opinion, everyone who has ever ranted from a podium about how video games are violent or detrimental to children should reconsider just what they’re opposed to. This possibly includes, with all due respect, our next president.

 

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Monuments of unageing intellect

I wrote the post below for another blog, but think of the educational uses, a couple of years down the road, of virtual field trips to ancient cities. I know that that sort of virtual experience is what constructs like Second Life are aiming for, but I’m a lot more interested in projects like the one below, which strive for a high level of historical accuracy.

I’d like to embark upon a brief ekphrasis of a unique website, byzantium1200.com.

Some of my favorite poems by my favorite poet dwell on the splendor and mystery of Byzantium. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern Roman Empire, and not entirely out of Gibbonish dispassionate historical interest, but for some of the more romantic reasons that I assume attracted Yeats: the enticingly tragic idea of a vanished civilization; the strange and fascinatingly odd persistence of a shard of the Roman Empire into the 1400s as a shadowy, besieged offshoot made strange by ecstatic Christianity and Eastern pomp; golden mosaics and clockwork songbirds.

As such, my idea of Byzantium is usually the sort of thing that regrettably looks less interesting the more closely you investigate it. Each new book I read about the history of the place threatens to diminish the allure of my romantic preconceptions. However, today I stumbled across something which is securely grounded in the actual history of the city yet which also, I feel, shares something of Yeats’s Platonic, clockwork-and-mosaics sense of wonder.

The website is nothing less than some driven person’s attempt to make a virtual reconstruction of the entire city of Constantinople. For some reason they decided to pretend to focus on the year 1200 A.D., but obviously the virtual edifices tend to have a timeless, golden-age quality. Over sixty buildings have been resurrected from nothing but dust, documents and the few stones which remain.

It’s not a museum exhibit, scholarly paper, movie backdrop or a video game, but something which intriguingly combines aspects of those more familiar types of project.

In fact, if you ask me this isn’t just an elaborate exercise in simulated 3D architecture. It’s a work of art that spits in the faces of Time and Ruin, and an example of mankind’s ability to put a heartbreaking amount of energy and effort into any sort of imaginative pursuit, no matter how clumsy or prosaic the tools involved might have seemed when they first appeared. Honestly, when you first saw Tron or played Pac-Man, did you think that in a decade or two people would be conjuring long-dead cities into minutely detailed virtual existence – for fun?

The site’s links section points to several other, similar online projects. I have a feeling I’m going to be spending the next couple of days perusing these – and wondering if I could ever do something similar with my pitiful skills in SketchUp.

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Language Acquisition

In order to be a good language teacher, I figure you must also know something of what it’s like to be a language learner. I’ve always enjoyed learning about different languages, and I like to think I’m pretty good in German, French and Italian. But Thai will be a challenge.

Since I get embarrassed speaking nonsense to strangers, I like to try to learn language by reading. In the past, I’ve begun German studies by slogging through Grimm’s fairy tales, and learned rudimentary Spanish by proofreading translated 401(k) brochures at work. In order to help me learn Thai, I looked around for a book that I knew well enough already so that I wouldn’t be confused by the plot. I found The Return of the King by Tolkien, an ideal choice in terms of my familiarity with the material, but probably about a thousand pages too long for my purposes. Undeterred, I bought it and started right in. Let the grand project begin!

The Thai version of the series title is, oddly, the same as the English one; it actually says, more or less, LORD AAF DAA RINGS in Thai letters. You’d think they could have come up with their own version.

The book also came with a removable map. Thai pretty much looks like some kind of mutant Elvish already, so seeing Tolkien’s map actually in Thai letters is fascinating. Those big letters say GONDOR.

I just spent about an hour translating the first sentence. Thai has no spaces between words, and the vowel notations are a bit obscure to me at this point, so to my untrained eye, after figuring out what I thought the letters were in English, the first sentence in the book looked like this:

PPPNMNGLDAAKMAJIJTSAKLMKANGKNDLF

Not very promising. But wait! PPPN? KNDLF? I know those rascals! Things snowballed from there, if snowball is the right verb to describe an hour of agonizing dictionary research. Soon I had produced the following translation:

“Pippin watch pass through out come from under dressing gown of Gandalf.”

Not exactly a masterpiece of lucid prose, right? I must have gone wrong somewhere, right? Nope! It’s pretty much on target. The English version is:

“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak.”

I was close! Apparently, I can translate Tolkien from Thai. One sentence down, many, many thousand to go.

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Same Game, Different Rules

photo-197.jpgGreetings from Bangkok! We’re starting to get settled in, and so far everyone at the school has been unbelievably nice – as have all the locals we’ve met. Our apartment is great, the neighborhood is lovely, and I think we’re both feeling a mix of jet lag, excitement and disbelief that the move went so smoothly.

We’ve only been in Bangkok for two days, and I’ve already accomplished one of my most feverishly anticipated goals, which was to find a Thai chess set. I got a cheap plastic set with a newsprint board in Carrefour for peanuts, and it’s pretty cute although I had to cut off a lot of leftover plastic on the mold lines.

The Thai version of chess is called Makruk and is, from what I can tell, the closest extant version to the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga. So Makruk is a lot like the original version of chess from which our European chess, as well as Chinese Xiang Qi and Japanese Shogi (seen below).

I mention all of this because my experience with researching the history of the game of chess has been a lot like my experience with new languages and cultures. As I was growing up, I was certain there was only one kind of chess. If I had known that there were Asian versions of chess (I didn’t), I would have definitely said that the European version was the only and best.
shogi-1.jpg
Now I know that versions of the same game are played all over the world, and I can’t imagine only being interested in one version. It’s the contrast between the different versions, their spectrum of colors and shapes and sizes, and the history behind how the different versions arose, which seems interesting to me – more interesting than the game itself, even. I feel the same way about languages, and the same way about cultures. How could I be content with knowing about just one?

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We’re moving to Bangkok!

Things have happened very quickly over the last couple of weeks and I’m still slightly in shock, but I think it’s starting to sink in. My wife Kim has been offered a job at the International School of Bangkok, and we’ll be moving there this summer.

I will be sad to leave Kuala Lumpur and the school where I’ve been having so much fun and gaining so much experience, but I am nothing but excited about this new opportunity to strike out on a new path and to learn more about a new part of the world.

I’ve always been fascinated by Thailand, its culture and religion, and its unique status as one of the few nations on Earth which have never been officially colonized by Europeans. I can’t wait!

Photo source: http://www.guidetothailand.com/

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My Decision to Teach

The following is a brief personal narrative statement which describes my decision nearly two years ago to become an English and English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher after approximately nine years as a professional writer and editor.

One of my favorite writers, Thomas Pynchon, gave a book of his early short stories the title Slow Learner. I feel that I catch on extremely quickly in certain aspects of life, but in terms of finding the most fulfilling career path I would have to admit I have definitely been a slow learner. Thus I recently found myself, having just turned 30, realizing for the first time that I would love to get a Master’s degree in education and to become an international school teacher. At the time, my wife was upset that I had not made this realization years ago; she is just one of many friends, family and coworkers who have, over the years, pointed out that I’d make a great teacher. But we all figure things out at our own pace, and I’m just glad that I have taken the right turn onto this immensely rewarding path.

My decision to become a teacher struck me suddenly. It did not, however, come hurtling down out of a clear blue sky. It was one of those moments in life where a jumble of apparently unrelated puzzle pieces suddenly come together to reveal a picture of unexpected beauty.

One piece of the puzzle was my love of languages and words. I first began to sense this intense interest when, as a child, I read everything I could get my hands on. I began to better understand it when, as an undergraduate English and History major, I was lucky enough to study abroad in London and learn about my own language in the land where it first developed. I began to broaden this interest when, after graduating, I worked in a translation firm and was exposed to bits and pieces of dozens of different languages. Finally, I began to deepen my love of languages and words when we moved to Munich, Germany, and I started trying to teach myself, in addition to the German I needed in the workplace, several other European languages. Now, my work as a full-time replacement/substitute teacher in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, constantly brings new and exhilarating opportunities to share my love of English and of languages in general with students whose first languages range from Icelandic to Japanese.

Another piece of the puzzle which led me to decide to become an international teacher was my longstanding fascination with travel and foreign cultures. As noted above, I was lucky enough to study abroad during college and then live and work in Europe a few years after that, and I now live and work in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All these experiences have only increased my appetite for new countries and new ways of looking at the world. International teachers are triply blessed: they interact with students, teachers and parents from many cultures, they live and work in fascinating places – and on top of all that, they have opportunities to travel to even more new places during their free time. I can think of few careers which provide such exciting exposure to the diversity our world has to offer.

The third, and perhaps most important, piece of the puzzle for my decision to become a teacher was my genuine love of helping people learn. This is why I began tutoring and adult ESL instruction in Munich around five years ago, but even those positions never seemed to be quite enough for me. My excess desire to share my enthusiasm for learning would spill over into long speeches on any number of topics, given to anyone who would listen. My conversational forays often began with things like “Actually, during the Roman Empire those were called…,” “Another word with that same root is…,” or “Did you know where that expression actually comes from?” Soon after I began substitute teaching at an international school, I realized to my surprise that I had found a place where I could share knowledge in a way that could truly make a difference in people’s lives. Now, even during my short time as a teacher, I feel I have definitely inspired many students with my enthusiasm, creativity and humor, and it’s been an extremely satisfying experience for me.

Until recently these three skills or interests of mine, along with several other, smaller pieces of the puzzle, were parts of my life, but always separately. I worked in a translation company, which satisfied my interest in language, but while working there I was unable to see new parts of the world. Then I lived in Europe and worked as a writer and editor, which let me travel and play with language, but I never felt like I was making a difference. Now I feel that I’ve realized where I belong. Every moment of growth I’ve had along the way has helped bring me to this important choice. My nine years of real-world professional experience as a writer and editor, for example, have given me the background to be able to truly share with students both the exacting practicalities and limitless possibilities of the English language. As I mentioned at the beginning of this statement, I may be a slow learner – but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

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