A Humanist Advent Calendar

Posted on 23rd November 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays
Boys with Advent Calendars

Boys with Advent Calendars

My mother took my siblings and I through a Christmas Advent calendar one year. A new-ager raised Christian, she held a positive view of the Bible I would be disabused of when I actually read the thing. Unsurprisingly, I can’t recall any of the biblical stories from those sessions preceding the chocolates each night (since there was nothing to anchor them to our daily lives), but I do have a fond nostalgic memories of the familial fellowship.

So last year, I thought I would try my own advent countdown to the holidays in the spirit of tradition. Except, we would focus on appreciating the empirical world around us as it informs our Humanist worldview. After all, Christmas simply co-opts the Yule, which co-opts and coincides with a northern-hemisphere earthfull of other celebrations right around this exact same time.

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Closest Thing I Have to Religion: Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise”

Posted on 8th October 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment
Robert McCall's The Prologue and the Promise

Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise”

I was unfamiliar with the name Robert McCall when I first stumbled upon “The Prologue and the Promise,” the mural he painted for Disney Epicot’s Horizons attraction in 1983, but I was very familiar with his visionary artwork. His imaginative futuristic designs feature in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and numerous NASA conceptual artworks envisioning future habitats for humanity.

His mythic painting of human past, present, and future has never lost its breathtaking effect on me since discovering it a few years ago. I once posted the mural to a forum of scientists sharing their favorite paintings with the caption “closest thing I have to religion.” I was moved when another community member solemnly replied, “I just learned something about myself.”

The reply reminded me of my own experience in discovering I was a humanist. I had a vague sense what I believed but had never heard it articulated until authors like Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut made me aware there was a community of people who believed in their fellow human beings. I strongly suspect the world is full of humanists, people believing in the power of our human collective to achieve great things through science, reason, and progress. It’s just that so many of us don’t realize it. Humanism is an ever-evolving belief system that depends on a myriad of diverse voices trying to express and define it.

That’s why I find McCall’s mural so powerful. Without words it inspires me more than the best prose. It sums up in one single epic image the Humanist worldview, our appreciation for all who have come before us and our optimism for a better future.

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The Dynamic Symbology of Dragon Dice

Posted on 10th September 2018 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out
Dice Dice and More Dice

Dice Dice and More Dice

Introduction

Games are played in the contexts of rules, play, and culture. A game of chess played a century and a half ago would have a very different context and meaning between players than a game played today. Those players would be more likely to see one color of abstract playing pieces as Napoleon’s army. While I can imagine players today taking a more generic view of the pieces as something less meaningful to our historical context. The thread connecting the game today with the same hundreds of years ago is the rules–but even rules can change.

In 1995, my gaming group and I were eagerly anticipating TSR’s collectible dice game Dragon Dice. We were super-excited, having enjoyed Magic, The Gathering for several years at this time. We picked up starter sets, traded into the races that appealed to us (there were only four races at the time), spent a day playing, found the game extremely unbalanced (one magic-heavy player dominated every game), and never played again.

Fast-forward 22 years to 2017, where I pick up a copy of the Dice Commander’s Manual at a used book sale. In it I find five races I’d never heard of, but I also find that the game is still alive and well among a diaspora of fans online. I learn that, after TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast, the company SFR literally saved the Dragon Dice inventory from being dumped unceremoniously in a landfill and continued publishing the game, revising the rules, and adding new races. Their gambit appears to have worked, because they have sold off and reprinted many dice over the years.

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Ten Mechanics to Make Candyland Bearable or Even Awesome

Posted on 13th August 2018 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out
Chutes and Ladders Actions and Consequences

Chutes and Ladders Actions and Consequences

My young kids hate Chutes and Ladders. They hate the complete randomness of spinning that stupid wheel. They hate the complete lack of player agency as there are zero choices to be made. In fact, the game has its origins in teaching children about karma and accepting one’s fate. The modern theming of the board, with artwork of children making good/bad choices before the experiencing the consequences of going up a ladder or down a slide, is completely contradicted by the game’s mechanics. Even very young children recognize they are being bamboozled and quickly lose interest in the game.

CandyLand is a completely random game, completely devoid of player agency. Children take turns drawing color cards and advancing their pieces to the next matching color spaces. Like Chutes and Ladders, candy cards can leap them forward or backward along the path. The games are practically isomorphs of one another, substituting candy and shortcuts for slides and ladders and color cards for a spinning wheel.

Kids LOVE Candyland.

Candyland

Candyland

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The Illuminating and Enigmatic Daisyworld Thought Experiment

Posted on 16th July 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,Pure Speculation
Daisyworld Simulation

Daisyworld Simulation

I’ve previously written about James Lovelock’s Daisyworld, a thought-experiment meant to support the Gaia Hypothesis. This is the idea that complex ecosystems create a self-regulating environment conducive to perpetuating life. Examples of this include increased plant growth reducing CO2 in the atmosphere or bacteria drawing salt out of the oceans stabilizing salinity levels.

Ten years ago, I was enamored with the hypothesis, but am much more skeptical now seeing it tested on our own planet. With rising CO2 levels, fertilizer runoff effects, plastic, and other pollutants impacting ecosystems across the Earth, I only see destabilizing feedbacks as a result. Yes, the environment could become so destabilized as to kill the human race and let nature evolve new ecosystems–a pessimistic view I don’t share as I believe we are smarter than the challenges we face–but such an outcome is easier explained with straightforward evolution and adaptation.

My skepticism aside, I still love Lovelock’s planetary fable as something to ponder. Daisyworld is a planet covered in white and black daisies. When there are too many white daisies, the planet gets colder as more light is reflected into space and allows the black daisies to thrive as they absorb more solar radiation. When there are too many black daisies, the planet warms from the solar energy being converted into thermal. Then the white daisies thrive by keeping cool in the heat. Eventually the planet reaches an equilibrium of white and black daisies that maintain a stable temperature in which they can both thrive.

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Lessons Building a Magic Square Tic-Tac-Toe AI

Posted on 28th May 2018 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out
Magic Square Tic Tac Toe

Magic Square Tic Tac Toe

Introduction

Adding to my expanding collection of Explorable Explanations (EEs), I’ve been interested in isomorphs of various board games. For example, the game Snakes and Ladders / Chutes and Ladders (a game with zero player agency originally intended to teach Hindu children the concepts of karma and destiny), can be played with just a six-sided dice and some rules:

  1. Each player takes turns rolling the dice. Starting at zero, they add each role to their score.
  2. If a player’s score is any of the following, change it according to this chart:
    Value New Value Value New Value
    1 38 48 26
    4 14 49 11
    9 31 56 53
    21 42 63 19
    28 84 64 60
    36 44 92 73
    51 67 95 76
    71 91 98 78
    80 100    
  3. The first player to reach 100 wins.

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Makers: A Creative Commons Licensed Sitcom About a Nerdy Family

Posted on 23rd April 2018 by Ryan Somma in Creative Commons Works,Geeking Out

In 2016, I was notified by a friend of a new partnership between Google and The Black List to give grants to screenplays promoting diversity and challenging nerd stereotypes in film. There were articles about it referencing the Computer Science Education in Media program run by Julie Ann Crommett at Google.

So I spent a month writing up something I was excited about. Makers is a family-friendly sitcom that follows the Glasper’s, a family comprised of two geeky, parents who work as software developers. Nef, a mother of African American descent, telecommutes on various IT contracts from her highly-unprofitable makerspace/gaming shop that has been in the red for so long the IRS has made her downgrade it from a business to a hobby. Zack, the father, works in Laboratory Information Management systems, and is a heavy gamer off-hours. They have two young children, Sagan and Ada, named for Carl Sagan and Ada Lovelace. The episodes were to center around modern first-world nerd problems: torrenting, gamer trolls, H1B1 ethics, generational conflicts over technology, code-switching, and gaming addiction.

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Future Forgers: A Creative Commons LARP for Kids and Parents

Posted on 19th March 2018 by Ryan Somma in Creative Commons Works,Enlightenment Warrior
Tower of Board Games

CC-Licensed Artwork by Posthuman Studios:
“Neo-Porpoise Morph” by Jessada Sutthi
“Salamander Morph” by Silver Saaramael
“Infomorph Mercurial Investigator” by Daniel Clarke
“Flying Squid” by Joe Wilson
“Basic Pod” by James Mosingo
“Crasher Morph” by Jose Cabrera
“Menton Morph Brinker Genehacker” by Daniel Clarke

At this moment 7.5 billion human neocortexes are experiencing a world filled with technologies not even imagined just a century ago. Airplanes, roads, and the Internet make our world geographically smaller, but experientially larger. There are people living in space and circling the Earth every 90 minutes. There are hundreds of millions of people exploring virtual worlds on ome computers and game consoles. Advances in medicine and health education are extending our lifespans decades beyond that of our ancestors. The World Wide Web puts the sum total of all human knowledge at our fingertips.

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The Long Con: Board Games for Young Children

Posted on 19th February 2018 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out
Tower of Board Games

Tower of Board Games

An online friend started a board gaming club at his elementary school. Occassionally, he posts pictures of the free games companies send him. Other times he posts photos of his students engaged in play. I asked him about the games and what it was like teaching children so young board games.

“We have good and bad days, but we stick to it and try different things,” he told me. “It’s all about the long-con.”

In a world of easy entertainment like movies and dazzling entertainment like video games, I’m overjoyed to see boardgames surging in popularity in America. I’m glad to see adults embracing “child’s play” as a means of cultivating mental plasticity. Games keep our minds young by challenging us and prompting us to think in unusual ways.

Plato recognized the importance of gaming in childhood when he said, “[I]f a boy is to be a good farmer or a good builder, he should play at building toy houses or at farming and be provided by his tutor with miniature tools modelled on real ones… One should see games as a means of directing children’s tastes and inclinations to the role they will fulfill as adults.” I also see immense potential for gaming in education. I’m not talking about gamified education, which involves skinner-box methods of hooking children into learning for rewards, but rather game-based learning, which means using actual game play to teach and explore concepts.

Here’s what I’ve learned from a few years of playing board games with my young boys.

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Celebrating 50 Years of Humanism in Star Trek

Posted on 19th January 2018 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

The following is the full-length version of a shorter commentary I wrote for The Humanist in 2016. The version at the link has the benefit of editorial oversight and fact-checking. This version is the messier director’s cut:

Optimism for the Future

Optimism for the Future

It feels like we live in a culture where movie and television studios are perpetually finding ways to make stories darker. It’s a pop culture where viewers tune in for their weekly dose of misery on The Walking Dead, depravity on Game of Thrones, and where even classic children’s heroes like Batman and Superman are portrayed as mass-murdering vigilantes in Dawn of Justice. Comic book and science fiction fans have even coined the term “grimdark” to describe this apparent one-upmanship of doom and gloom constantly barraging us.

In contrast, through five decades and across three generations the Star Trek universe has remained positive, philosophical, and moral. Star Trek portrays a society built on Enlightenment virtues and embodies what a humanist future might look like. With six television series totaling 716 episodes across 30 seasons, 70 million books in print, over 40 video games, a new television series in the works, and this summer marking its 13th feature film, Star Trek endures because there is nothing like it in American media: a positive vision of humanity’s future based on rationality, science, and human-improvability.

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