Friday, January 30, 2015

Smartphones and iPads: How Did Parents Distract Us Before Technology?

Have you ever noticed a toddler walking around with an iPhone? Or kid in a stroller playing some game on an iPad? Nowadays it seems to be increasingly popular to distract/entertain young kids with digital technology in the form of phones and tablets. A lot of young kids even have their own cell phones (presumably in order to text/call their parents maybe? Because what do 8 year olds really have to talk about with each other?) It is interesting to see how parents have changed the ways that they entertain their children as technology has evolved over the past decade or so.

When I was a kid, cell phones didn't really exist commercially (beepers, anyone?) and smartphones weren't even almost a thing, so obviously parents back then (when did I get old?) did things a little differently. If we were out and about, or even sitting at home, and my parents wanted to keep me occupied so that they could tend to other things, I usually had a picture book, or crayons, action figures, obviously legos because I'm an engineer, and naturally good ole Nickelodeon. Not to mention books like the Bernstein Bears and kids really read that much anymore? Hm. While the television still exists as a means of occupying a child while they're at home, you seldom see kids actively playing with things for extended periods of time anymore. 

Not only does it seems like the digital babysitters are the preferred method of entertainment, but that when real toys are used, the kid seems to get pretty bored pretty quickly. For example, when I'm up at my grandparent's house visiting, we always hang out with the people next door with whom we are very close. They're a younger couple (she actually used to babysit me), and they have a son who is 4 or 5, still in pre-school. So when they come over to hang out with my family, they sometimes bring some toys for their son (he also has a little toy bag at my grandparents' house) to occupy him so the adults can have some sort of conversation with one another. Now, these toys do get played with, but within a few minutes he's on the iPad showing me a bunch of TMNT or dragon games that he likes to play, along with a few of his other favorites. It's also worth noting that he's more proficient with that iPad than my aunt...

This new wave of children and technology begs us to consider its influence on parenting. Is it positive or negative? Are parents now lazy, impatient and uncreative, or is it just the way that culture has progressed and this is now just the new norm? It could be a little bit of both, but talking about that is what the comments are for. 

Humans of New York

Humans of New York

                Many of us have never heard of the name Brandon Stanton but most of us have seen his photos.  He is the man behind the camera who posts on the “Humans of New York” Facebook page.  While “mindlessly” scrolling through my Facebook news feed, I came upon an article that caught my eye that a friend of mine had shared.  The title read “The Guy Behind ‘Humans of New York’ Raised over One Million Dollars After This Photo Went Viral.” So I clicked on the link and began to read.

                The title of the article says it all doesn’t it? That Brandon Stanton took a picture, posted it, and raised one million dollars.  What is the big deal right? We see things like this all the time right? No.  I got to thinking about what he did for the students that go to that school and how he directly impacted all of those students’ lives.  I began to think about how if he didn’t have social media or is social media and the internet didn’t exist would that be possible?

Brownsville, Brooklyn is generally considered a place that not many of us would like to live or visit since it has the highest crime rate in New York City.  However, Mr. Stanton went there and met this young boy and a teacher that both inspired him to try to do more.  The principal of the school seems to genuinely believe in all of her students and try to inspire them to be better.  I believe these attributes contributed to Mr. Stanton wanting to help.

I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe social media can be a great thing.  Look at what it has done for those kids at Mott Hall Bridges Academy.  Instead of mindlessly scrolling through the internet like we have discussed in class maybe we should all be a little more cognizant of what is actually there.  When we scroll through our news feeds on Facebook or go through our Twitter pages or like something on Instagram we shouldn’t turn our minds off, but stay aware of what we are looking at.  The people who donated to the school certainly did not just scroll by like many of us do.

I am NOT saying that donating to any and all causes is a must.  I am NOT saying that everyone who posts a sad story or something bad that is happening we should support unconditionally.  What I am saying is that there is genuine suffering and injustice in America and abroad and not enough people pay attention.  I am saying that maybe just once instead of scrolling through your Facebook news feed, Twitter, or Instagram maybe look for something that could be thought provoking.  Maybe think about something other than the funny cat video your best friend just posted and become aware of what is going on.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Humans Need Not Apply

Humans Need Not Apply by CGP Grey

Last Year I watched a YouTube Video entitled “Humans Need Not Apply”. The Video was created by CPG Grey who has a fantastic YouTube channel that I would recommend to anyone interested in learning. The premise of the video is that machines and computers are doing more and more of the work that humans do. Grey warns us to think about a future where there will be few jobs left for people. While watching this the first time I was extremely resistant to the idea. Despite my original resistance I think it is a good thought experiment. Try to imagine a world in which we have built robots to be better than humans at everything. I am assuming that it is possible to build a machine better than a human. You may fundamentally disagree that such a machine could be constructed. You may believe that there is something special about humans that cannot be recreated into a machine. While I do believe humans are pretty amazing, I don’t think that it is impossible for us to create a machine better than us. No one would argue that we have developed machines that are better than us at specific tasks.  For example I don’t think anyone can calculate square roots of 10 digit numbers as fast as wolfram alpha. I believe that machines will be better than us at much more than just tedious computation.
You may think we will at least need humans to build and repair these machines. That may be true at first, but is seems likely to me that we will be able to build robots who are better at designing robots then we are. Someone may respond to that saying we will stick to creative endeavors, but I also think it is likely that we will build robots who will be able to more creative than any human. Imagine a computer program that could make the most amazing music, paintings, and sculptures. Or imagine an AI that is the best philosopher in the world and can beat anyone at an argument. What is scary to me is what happens when we make a computer program that is not better than us at any particular task but a computer program that is better than us at being human. A computer program that is more self-aware then we are, that still understands and appreciates our flaws more than us, and that can write plays and make jokes better than anyone has before. A computer program so great people want to hang out with it more than with other humans.

It is interesting to imagine how society would structure itself in world where human work had virtually no value relative to the work done by machines. It seems like we may end up living in some sort of welfare state. This world is so different from ours I think it is hard to imagine what exactly would happen.  I think that’s what made me resistant to the idea when I first watched the video. I could not wrap my head around all the implications and that is scary. I am not really scared of some sort of terminator machine takeover. I am scared of not knowing what the future holds for society if we have technology better than us at everything we do. Hopefully these machines will be so smart we can ask them the best possible way to go about living meaningful lives. 

Is Google Making Us Omniscient?

            In the future, I will try to stick to articles outside of the ones assigned for class, but the “Is Google Making Us Stupid” article was very interesting to me. It discussed a few points that I enjoy thinking about within the topic of the exponentially growing information age. The main idea of the article was that using computers changes the way we think and that this expanding use may bring about important societal and behavioral changes within our species as a whole. On top of that, I think that this synthesis between our own consciousness and the vast wealth of knowledge known as the Internet can bring about biological and evolutionary changes for humanity as well.
            The author of the article, Nicholas Carr, opens and closes his piece with a connection to the artificial intelligence system from 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000. Carr writes that through the fast paced absorption that comes with learning on the web, he is unable to stay focused on lengthy works of writing and in general, learn the way he used to. He feels his brain changing, much like the death of the AI in Stanley Kubrick’s film. Now that so many people have smartphones and social media accounts, practically all of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips. For those who are wary of this advanced technology, they say that this easy access to infinite knowledge will make us lose the importance of remembering anything at all. In opposition of the naysayers, and with the growing technology of Google Glass, cybernetic implants, and nanocomputers, the next logical step for ease of access to the Internet would be to directly sync it up to our consciousness and thought processes.
            Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are a relatively common technology nowadays, mostly used for neuroprosthetic devices meant to restore lost or damaged hearing, sight, or movement. While the medical applications of BCIs towards repairing sensory-motor functions are astounding, its uses for altering cognitive functions can be just as extraordinary. Imagine being able to Google anything with just a thought. There are many different ways that this process would be able to be implemented. One way is to replace the common computer desktop outputs, such as the monitor and speaker system, with direct outputs into your own biological inputs, i.e. eyes and ears. Within your field of view, signals from a chip can interact with your occipital lobes and impose a computer screen on top of your vision. Whatever you would normally hear in that moment could be overlapped with music or whatever other sound effects occur when you are interacting with the desktop in your mind. Another way to implement BCIs is to more directly connect our thoughts to the internet so that we can browse different web pages as if we were browsing our own thoughts. This version of implementation is a bit more complicated, but would provide the user with a more streamline connection to the Internet’s vast arrays of data.
            Both of these BCI implementations have their pros and cons. Obviously, the psychological effects of having an entire world wide web attached to your mind could be catastrophic to any mere human. But if our species were to somehow connect our conscious minds to the Internet, it would be one step closer to the singularity, an event predicted by computer scientists and mathematicians where artificial intelligence would either merge with our own collective human intelligence and radically alter the evolution of our species, or completely exceed human capacity and control and eradicate our civilization. Either way, the increasing expansion of our technological ability and dependence is a very concerning subject that could have a wide array of consequences for our society. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

ESPN Enters the E-sports Arena

Link to Article

What are esports? By wikipedia definition they are "Organized competitive video games". This includes all games with competitive scenes. However, there is one game that has pushed esports to the front pages of newspapers and magazines. That is League of Legends, which is published by Riot Games. But it would not be wise to not mention the other games that helped pave the way for Riot Games' biggest and only title.

Before esports were truly big, there were many local tournaments, and even tournaments at a national level for esports that went unnoticed by the greater majority. Only those truly devoted to the games would know the schedules and where to find the few broadcasts that existed of these events. Games like Counter Strike 1.6 (now CS: Global Offensive), Super Smash Bros. Melee, and the Call of Duty franchise. All these games had their own competitive scenes that went unrecognized until esports truly became popular recently.

But what exactly separates League of Legends' competitive scene from the rest of esports? The best way to observe this is by looking at one of Leagues' number one competitors, Dota (Defense of the Ancients). Dota is a very similar game but has a much higher learning curve to get into, while the competitive scene requires somewhat similar skills to League. However, because of that steeper learning curve, Dota is a much worse spectator sport per say. In other words, it is much harder to follow what is going on in a competitive game of Dota as compared to League. In addition, the way the competitive scene is set up very sloppily in Dota. There are multiple matches in the professional leagues that are at the same time or there are large gaps where there are no matches whatsoever. In addition, the way this information is presented on Dota's website is very hard to follow and even avid fans have complained about this on both the Dota and League of Legends subreddits on Reddit.

One of the biggest things that League of Legends has is its format. Riot Games copied one of the most popular professional sports in America in order to optimize its appeal to fans, football. Riot Games created the LCS, League of Legends Championship Series, in order to mimic the NFL's layout for the most part. There are two different LCS Leagues, EU (Europe) and NA (North America). However, there is also a third series called OGN, (OnGameNet) that covers the Asian teams. In the LCS, 10 teams compete in NA LCS as well as another 10 in EU LCS. There are preset "Splits" in the spring and summer followed by an international "Worlds" tournament in the fall. This regimented schedule allows viewers to know exactly what is going on when. All matches are broadcast through Riot Games' official channel on both and In addition, by just watching the streams, you can see how professionally the casters act and speak. In a lot of the other esports, the fan base consists mostly of younger individuals who have no experience with appearing on video at such popular events and sometimes don't have the confidence necessary to provide good commentary during the game. However, because everything is done in-house at Riot Games, they are able to put together a very professional ESPN-like experience for the viewers.

These few points are the reason behind why Riot Games was able to make such a new game like League of Legends truly stand out in the public eye and in turn, be shown on ESPN. Like the article stated, ESPN is working with the major names in esports to really have a presence at well known sporting events such as the X Games. However, as League and other esports grow in popularity, it is possible that there will be dedicated time slots for professional gaming events much like there is now for baseball, football, soccer, etc.

A broken game and a million broken hearts

Being a game developer can be an incredibly rewarding job, financially and socially; however, the rewards do not come without hard work. Some may look down upon gaming as just a hobby or a silly way to pass time, but big blockbuster games with multimillion dollar budgets have much more to offer than that. There are global tournaments with real cash prizes, large communities where people, including myself, can make real lifelong friendships (and rivalries), and, yes, gaming is also a fun way to pass time. But what happens when the release of one of those big blockbuster titles does not go as expected?

Such was the case with Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a game developed by 343 Industries. It is the culmination of all the previous Halo titles, games that shaped first person shooters as we know them starting 13 years ago, all remastered and upgraded to run smoothly on the current generation Xbox One console. Sounds great, right?

It should have been. The game shipped with numerous game breaking issues, and it is currently assumed that the developers knew it was broken when it went gold (they have denied this, but evidence to the contrary makes their claims hard to believe). The most notable failure is the matchmaking system. Matchmaking is where you can go online, solo or with friends, and be matched up with other players around the world based on skill for competitive gaming. At any time of day or night, no matter what my friends are up to, I can go online and play intense competitive team or solo games, big or small, whatever I want. Not only that, but it allows for me to make new friends with some of these random people I've been matched with and foster the community element of the game. In the case of the Master Chief Collection, this was impossible. The game would most often search indefinitely for matches, producing no results. When the search was actually successful, there would be uneven teams, the game would crash, load improperly, or (best case scenario) you would be matched with people way more (or less) talented than you, making the matches fast and boring.

The matchmaking was not the only issue with the game. There were other issues, one of which being the person who came in first place would see “1th Place!” on their screen, a glaring error that made people wonder how much effort really went into testing this $60 product for which millions of people were buying a $500 console.

The community was hopeful for a quick fix at first, but when update after update came and went and the game was still cripplingly broken, players began losing hope that their purchase would ever fully work. Many people demanded refunds from Microsoft, or sold the game back to the retailer. Others just stuck it back on the shelf to collect dust and returned to the last game they were playing. Others gave up and just started working on their homework.

You may ask, so what? Big deal, it’s just a game. It will probably be fixed eventually. What does this have to do with society?

The whole situation gives birth to a range of new questions and topics separate from the technical details of the game. First, the community wonders why it is okay for these developers to (allegedly) knowingly ship a broken product when everyone else in the world simply gets fired when they do not meet their deadlines. Why should exceptions be made for game developers? There were most certainly missed deadlines at 343. People also wonder why it is okay to have spent $60 on a product just to find out that it does not work as advertised, and then to get hassled when trying to get their money back. Would people be happy if they bought a new coffee machine which just happened to drip all the grind into their mugs? No, they would fight for their money back. Same goes for Halo.

It also brings to question the topic of preordering. Preordering is when you can pay for a game long before it is released to be guaranteed a copy on the release date. There is now a large initiative among gamers to stop preordering games, because so many people paid for Halo under the assumption that it would work come release. They think preordering allows for developer laziness, since they have already been paid for the product before it is even finished. What incentive does this give them to finish on time? They argue that if nobody preordered, word would have spread about the status of the game before people got around to buying it. Since money talks, the community is confident this would have resulted in a quicker fix.

Today, significant progress has been made towards repairing Halo, and a big overhaul update is going to be made in the coming weeks that should (hopefully) get everything working as it should have been in November. The developers have compensated the community with a free month of Xbox Live and tons of new in game content. As for the game itself, however, gamers are worried that the damage already done to the community is irreparable. The fear is that most people have already moved on to greener grass, and that when (and if) the Master Chief Collection works problem-free, nobody will care. People say that they paid $60 for the community and experience of Halo, and that even once the bugs are worked out, if the experience is not there, they have not gotten what they paid for.

I'm confident that the game will be fixed and there will still be other people to play with when that time comes. There are definitely quite a number of drama queens in the gaming community, but in this case, they raise valid points. I have learned to be a little more cautious about paying for things before I'm sure they're going to work. Especially as a college student, $60 is a lot of money to pay for grinds in my coffee.

The Distraction Addiction, Her, and other musings

 I've only been in this class a week and some of the things I've learned about myself already make me uncomfortable. Over the weekend, I printed out the reading assignment so I wouldn't have to be on a computer to read it - because duh I would get distracted. I even put my computer in another room and had my mind set to get the reading done in a reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately, I forgot to put my phone in another room. I noticed that and just told myself that I know how to buckle down if I need. The phone shouldn't be a distraction. I know you already see what happens next coming, but I honestly didn't. A friend of mine started talking to me about the movie "Her"(10/10 would recommend.) I wasn't being distracted; instead, I was being a friend. It would have been incredibly rude of me to just ignore her. So I didn't. I even told her that I was working on something and couldn't talk for long, and yet I talked - at least for another 45 minutes. 45 precious minutes. It's uncomfortable to realize how addicted I am to distraction. While reading about the various software that exists to help people focus, I thought about how cool the idea was but how I would never use it for myself. All the programs the he talked about required the strong will of the user to actually work. January 26th Reeba does not have that type of will, and that's a sad thought. 

So I had to ask, "Why am I so addicted to distraction anyway?" The answer's simple. I don't view my most frequent distractions as well distractions. Friendship, conversation, dialogue about a topic of interest - those are all things I value. That's what I was doing instead of reading "The Distraction Addiction." My texts were enhancing my human experience. What I fail to see is that I was avoiding key aspects of what make up that human experience, mainly being responsible with academics. Bare with me as I try and make the following connection. In the movie "Her" the main character Theodore Twombly falls in love with his operating system who calls  herself/itself(who knows?) Samantha. I like a good love story so of course some part of me thinks it's kinda charming. However, I couldn't shake the underlying discomfort I was feeling while watching the movie. Here was a man who essentially convinced himself that technology enhances the human experience to the point that he relied on technology for one of the most important connections we as humans enjoy. He enhanced his experience, but really he was just escaping it. He was distracting himself. And what better distraction than the voice of Scarlett Johansson. As real as Samantha felt, at the end of the day she was a piece of technology. The real world and love in the real world seemed hopeless to him. Therefore, he essentially distracted himself with Samantha. 

So what the heck am I trying to say about distraction anyway? At least for me personally, I think distractions are what we use to trick ourselves. We tell ourselves that we absolutely have to do something now. Who cares if there are 80 pages to read? My friend's watching a movie and obviously she needs my attention more than school work. We tell ourselves that it makes us better friends or smarter individuals (for when I spent hours clicking through Wikipedia articles). Technology and all its methods of distraction are obviously positive enhancements to our lives, and not purely excuses used to avoid homework. Essentially, distraction is a form of escape we've convinced ourselves is a form of enhancement. 

Sorry Teddy. Samantha didn't enhance your life, but it did help you escape.