Tue, 11 Feb 2020 17:29:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 WOW! vs the Intergalactic Space Whale – A Print-and-Play Cooperative Children’s Game Tue, 11 Feb 2020 17:29:07 +0000

A hungry intergalactic space whale has wandered upon planet WOW! It has vacuumed up all the animals from the Zoo for Endangered Alien Animals. In this co-op game, our young players will assemble a team of superdupers to venture into the whale’s bowels and rescue the animals by matching various, age-appropriate patterns between alien cards.

My kids love co-op games, but with a pre-schooler, kindergartner, 3rd-grader, and their friends, we find that complex games bore the young players and basic games bore the older players. With this co-op game, I’ve provided three levels of difficulty: picture-pattern-matching for pre-K, letter-matching for K-2, and rhyming-word matching for 3rd-grade and up. Players will choose their own level of difficulty and can switch to easier patterns at anytime should they get fatigued.

My younger players also tend to resist rules being forced on them, so I’ve provided several gimmicks to trick them into–uhhh–take ownership of the game by allowing them to put as large a board as they want out and as many animals as they want for a challenge. Players draw their characters on the player mats, color in the space whale, and provide their own action figures as player-tokens.

For printing, I recommend cheap paper and don’t worry about the components getting crumpled. This is a print, play, and pitch (to the recycle bin) game. You can get the PDFs to print from at the below google drive link. Print off one copy of each file and cut out the tokens to start playing. Word files are also provided for anyone to modify this game and make it their own. The game is licensed creative commons, non-commercial, attribution.

A Humanist Advent Calendar Fri, 23 Nov 2018 09:00:53 +0000 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 can’t recall any of the biblical stories from those sessions preceding the chocolates each night, 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 coincides with a northern-hemisphere earthfull of other celebrations right around this exact same time.

December 1: Your Body

What are you? So many dimensions to explore here. Today we start with the body. You are 37.2 Trillion cells of over 200 different kinds working together to make you you.

Go outside. Compare your body to other bodies outside. How are you the same as a worm, bird, cat, or dog? How do you differ?

How is your body connected to the world around you? Experience your body. See, taste, feel, and smell. Play some Xbox Kinect or Wii Sports or go outside and do something else amazing like ride a bicycle, toss a ball, run, jump, skip, stretch, and use your body in as many ways as possible. Feel your heart beat. This is you.

December 2: Your Mind

In another dimension of what makes you you is the perpetual stream of consciousness taking place in your waking hours (for this string of awareness is broken each night when we sleep), a train of ephemeral punctuations in attention as our minds wander from focus to focus. I appreciate Yuval Harari’s example of this, when he writes, “When I go with my spouse to sign on a mortgage for our new home, I am reminded of the first place we lived together, which reminds me of our honeymoon in New Orleans, which reminds me of alligators, which remind me of dragons, which remind me of The Ring of the Nibelungen, and suddenly, before I know it, there I am humming the Siegfried leitmotif to a puzzled bank clerk.”

Eastern philosophies hit upon the remarkable concept of mindfulness, where we focus our attention on what we are thinking from moment to moment. This observation of our own thoughts is a kind of metacognition, thinking about thinking. What are you thinking about now? What about now? And now?

December 3: Take a Forest Bath

To coincide with a day off. This year it was a Sunday. Find a public park, local, State, or National, and spend some extended time there. Appreciate the natural world. The previous two day’s advents come into play with this exercise as well. By making it an extended trip, we engage our bodies. By immersing in the sanctuary of the forest, we are alone with our minds.

December 4: Your Cosmic Address

We live on Washington Street, in the town of Occoquan, in Prince William County, in the state of Virginia, in the United States of America, on the North American Continent, on planet Earth, in the Solar System, in the Milky Way Galaxy, in the Local Group, in the Virgo Supercluster, in the Observable Universe.

Some complementary visual activities for this day are to watch the opening of the film “Contact” and Charels and Ray Eames’ 1977 classic “Powers of 10.” Google Maps/StreetView was also wonderful for exploring and conceptualizing our local and planetary geography and scale.

December 5: Your Society

Make dinner as a family and give everyone a task in the process. Now consider all the people around the entire world that went into making your dinner tonight. There are the farmers, the truck drivers, the grocery store employees, food safety inspectors, the people who build the information systems, mechanical devices, architectural innovations, all the people at all the public utilities for everywhere the food has been, the public services that keep the whole system stable… the list can go on and on. How far can you take it?

Take out some United States coinage and note the motto on all of them: E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). Tonight we can extend that two E Pluribus Unum Cena (From Many, One Dinner).

December 6: Our Recent Ancestry’s Contributions to Modern Life

Remember that dinner from last night and all the people alive on Earth who contributed to it? Most of that food also took thousands of years to come to our plates. In 4,000 BC, the ancestor of the peach was the size of a berry and tasted sweet, sour, and salty. Over the next 6,000 years, generation after generation of farmer slowly bred that fruit into over 200 varieties of the big fat sweet juicy fruit we enjoy today. And the same is true of corn, which was evolved from plants with much smaller ears over thousands of years.

This is artificial selection. Our ancestors looked at the world around them and saw a place that was so perfect for them it was as if it were engineered and assumed there was some supernatural benefactor behind it all. What they didn’t recognize is that the environment was engineered for them, but it was by their ancestors. Through hundreds of generations of brush burning to clear fields and artificially selecting plants and animals to server our needs. Their millennial of work benefits us today.

December 7: Our Ancient Ancestry

There are many ways to appreciate the epic of human evolution. You can explore a timeline of the evolutionary history of life, or from the original Cosmos series, there is a great animation of our 4.5 billion-year epic from single cell to modern human. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos has a wonderful animation of the evolution of eyes from the creature’s eye view.

The 2014 film Noah has an impressive cosmic and animal evolution sequence that meshes our scientific understanding with the biblical mythology. Rather than shy away from it, I see this clip as an opportunity to explore how our ancestors understood our origins versus our modern understanding and how parts of our modern understanding might seem inadequate to future generations.

December 8: The Cosmic Calendar

Alan Watts once observed, “Billions of years ago you were a big bang. But now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off. And don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are.” The Cosmos series has a wonderful instrument for conceptualizing 13.82 billion years of history leading up to us, the Cosmic Calendar. Carl Sagan can introduce it, Neil DeGrasse Tyson can modernize it, and online sites like this and this can give you graphics to explore and appreciate it.

I especially appreciate this tool for the fact that we are exploring it in December, the month where multi-cellular life on Earth appears. You can meld this tool with a review of your own most-recent year on planet Earth. Look at each month, note what was happening in the cosmos then, and reminisce about what you were doing in that month. The first fossils don’t show up until December 15th, dinosaurs don’t appear until December 25th, and humans until December 31st. Revisit the calendar, and remember it on New Year’s Eve, when humans appear at 8pm and humans migrate across the Earth from 11:56pm to 11:59pm.

December 9: Scientific Method Game Night

How do we know all of this stuff? Science. But what is science? To understand, let’s first begin with an exercise. Richard Feynmann has an excellent analogy where a scientist is like a chess player who doesn’t know the rules of chess and must learn them through observation and experimentation. For my son, chess has become the pinnacle of board gaming. When he plays other board games, he’s mastering them with the hope of one day playing games like Chess, Twilight Imperium, or other more advanced and epic games. What if I try to teach my kids how to play chess by letting them watch me move, trying their own moves, and letting them know whether the move is allowed or not?

An excellent article that illustrates how games can teach the scientific method is Nick Bentley’s Zendo as a tool for teaching the scientific method. Zendo is a guessing-game, where one player secretly determines a rule and the other players try to guess it. A very similar game you can play with just yourselves is the 2-4-6 Task, where one player determines a rule that applies to three numbers (ie. “Increasing values,” “Values increasing by the same amount,” or “Decreasing prime numbers.”). Then the other players give number sets, with the teacher answering whether they fit the rule or not until the students take a guess at the rule.

December 10: Seeing the Invisible with Science

Start this one by comparing our senses to that of other animals. A buzzard can spot a mouse from 15,000 feet in the air. A cat can hear frequencies three times higher than humans. Pigs have 6,000 more taste buds than we do. A dog can have 50 times the olfactory receptors and 40 times the brain matter devoted to smelling than we do.

Then there are the senses animals have that we do not. Like how bees and birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field. The platypus can sense electricity in other animals. Some snakes can “see” the heat in other animals at short distances.

But you know what? Humans have ways to sense all of things animals can sense thanks to science. With the right equipment, we can “see” the full electromagnetic spectrum. We can “hear” any audio frequency. There is a near-infinite number of possible molecules allowed in our universe, of which we can taste or smell only the most minuscule variety, but we can sense them all through science. We can only hold seven elements in our working memory and our long-term memory is extremely fallible, but science equips us with computers and recording devices to which we can offload our cognition. Science gives us super-senses.

December 11: Favorite Scientific Fact Night

My favorite scientific fact in the universe is the process by which our brains adapt to our bodies. First, as our bodies grow, our genes provide a general layout of where the nerves should go, but genes can’t wire up the brain to the body with much accuracy. So the brain produces an over-abundance of synapses and uses natural selection to whittle them down. Synapses that effectively communicate with the body are reinforced, while those that don’t are allowed to die off.

Remember this the next time you see a baby. That inability to focus to command their movements, that’s because they have too many synapses firing in their brains. As the connections solidify, so too does the child’s control of their mind and body.

This also means the things we experience tell our brains to stay receptive to experiencing them. If we don’t experience certain things in infancy, our brains will drop the ability to experience them ever. This is why Chinese speakers can’t hear the “L” sound and English speakers cannot distinguish sounds common to other languages. So experience the world around you as much and in as much variety as you can to keep your brain wiring as eclectic as possible.

What’s your favorite scientific fact?

December 12: Base Number Systems

Because today is 12/12, I want to take a moment to appreciate how great the number 12 is. I love it when I can break some task up into 12 parts because nearly every unit becomes a milestone: 1/12th, 1/6th, 1/4th, 1/3rd… “Half-way there!”… 2/3rds, 3/4ths… We don’t use the duodecimal system because we have ten fingers and toes, but it’s fun to speculate about it. Schoolhouse Rock has a song Little Twelve Toes that explores a being with twelve fingers and toes and how math is both different and the same for them (lyrics).

Binary is another cool base number system. There’s a great account of a teacher using the Socratic Method to coax young students into discovering it themselves. There’s also the meditative wonder of constructing a Pascal’s Triangle and how it relates to powers of 11 and other patterns.

December 13: Dinosaurs!!!

Dinosaurs are just plain fun. It’s amazing to think that there were once giant monsters roaming the Earth and the millions of years of stories we will never know about them. Look at the birds, watch one of the Jurassic Park movies, Walking with Dinosaurs, or linger over the smorgasbord of dinosaur art to be found online. This night’s an easy one. Just have fun.

December 14: E=mc^2

It’s not inaccurate to say that all matter is concentrated energy. As we progress down into the interior of large stars, we move through shells of heavier and heavier elements being created through fusion. With elements heavier than iron formed in supernovas and even neutron star collisions.

Everything element in the Periodic Table of Elements, every atom in our being, was forged in stars. As many scientists have observed over the last century, “We are star-stuff.”

December 15: Altruism

One of my favorite aspects of the holidays is the exercise of thinking about others. We select gifts, host gatherings, and consider those less fortunate than ourselves. This altruism is not unique to humans. Vampire bats share blood with the night’s unlucky hunters, some birds and monkeys make themselves targets in alerting others to the presence of predators, and hive animals like ants and bees have complex social structures dedicated to only a few members being allowed to reproduce.

Borrowing the idea from the Central New York Humanist Association, today’s exercise is to appreciate what you have. Take inventory of all the luxuries you have in your home. The number of toilets, water faucets, rooms, heat vents, televisions, computers, books, games–you name it. Whatever conveniences you appreciate in your home, assign a monetary value to each item, add up all the values and donate to a local charity. This year we donated to paying off student lunch debt in our county schools.

December 16: Always Make New Mistakes

Esther Dyson Patch

Esther Dyson Patch
Always Make New Mistakes
Credit: Gisela Giardino

Today’s lesson is a quote from Esther Dyson. I love remembering all the obviously wrong things I was taught growing up: our brains record everything like a video camera, stegosaurus had a brain in its tail, or drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

The only reason anyone would take personal offense at being wrong is because they aren’t able to disassociate themselves from their ideas. When you let go of ego and allow yourself a mercurial understanding of the world–one that changes and adapts to new evidence–you free yourself to be wrong.

December 17: Age of Enlightenment

Around year zero, Western Civilization succumbed to 1,000 years of stagnation and recidivism known as the Dark Ages. It was a time when people subscribed to fantasies and magical understandings of reality. Instead of understanding and mastering the reality all around them, people became helpless victims of imaginary forces.

All of that changed in the 1600s when a network of scientists and philosophers began exploring the world around them with open eyes, seeing, testing, and quantifying what was there instead of making up fairies and ghosts to explain it. It may seem like such an obvious thing to do now, working to see the world as it actually is–and it’s not always easy–but the Age of Reason ushered in our age of modern convenience and ever-accelerating pace of technical progress.

December 18: The United States Constitution

For thousands of years we had kings, a man who was the law; but then, in the last few centuries, we began to have elected representatives and the law became king. When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I encourage my children to say, “one nation, under law.” America’s Bill of Rights, enshrining the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and due process are what have preserved democracy. There are grave mistakes in the Constitution, like the inhuman Three-Fifths Compromise, but the Constitution also provided means to correct such terrible laws.

December 19: Question Day

I was stumped for what to do on this day, when my six-year-old asked if we could answer some questions for today’s “Christmas candy,” as they call it. How do we taste things? How do we smell? The questions came at me rapid-paced.

This could also be called Research day because I sure didn’t have all the answers. With some googling and video-watching, we turned this night into one of intellectual exploration.

December 20: The Energy Game

Since tomorrow is the day we get the least amount of sun in our hemisphere, today seems like a nice day to play Feynman’s Energy Game. First take a moment to recognize all the energy at work around you: the hearts pumping, lights shining, fans whirring, dogs sniffing, cats purring, plants growing, fires blazing, cars whizzing, and the like. That’s energy at work.

Now have the kids pick something. How does a heart beat? It burns chemical energy supplied by our blood stream. How does the chemical energy get into our blood? From the food we eat, which comes from plants and animals. Where do they get their energy? The animals we eat get their energy from eating plants. The plants get their energy from the Sun. Ultimately, every chain of energy will lead back to the sun.

December 21: The Winter Solstice

The darkest day of the year has an epic history for human beings. Those human farmers who invented all our farm-foods over millennia, those foragers who spread us across the globe, and the scientists observing our universe all recognized this day. Feel connected to them all.

December 22: Chemistry Cookie Night

Baking is a fascinating chemical process when you think about it. I spent months ruining cakes trying to get a simple recipe right. It was like wizardry to me. You put all these carefully-measured ingredients into a pot, mix them, and then put them into an oven at a very specific temperature for a very specific time. If anything in this process deviates too far from the instructions, you won’t know until you pull your creation from the oven.

Baking involves a host of chemical reactions. Protein bonding, leaveners, maillard reactions, and carmelization all come into play to produce a batch of cookies. When we take the wisdom of those scientist-chefs who worked out the details of it, a batch of yummy yummy cookies is our reward.

December 23: The Shoulders of Giants

In Nicolas de Condorcet’s “Progress of the Human Mind,” he observes that a mind like Isaac Newton’s is a rare and revolutionary thing, but once he writes his ideas and discoveries down, we may all read them, making his genius commonplace in our society. Because we can build upon the ideas of those before us, there is no limit to how far we can grow.

None of us achieves anything entirely by ourselves, we rely on the immeasurable achievements of those who came before us and those all around us. Don’t ever believe in lone greatness of any single person. We all Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.

December 24: The Future

Ending on a high note. I brought my kids into the playroom, where I keep a large banner-print of Robert McCall’s The Prologue and the Promise, which was featured in Disney’s EPCOT Center in Orlando Florida. The sense of wonder I get admiring this epic painting has only increased the more I linger on it.

Robert McCall's The Prologue and The Promise

Robert McCall’s The Prologue and The Promise

Hi-Resolution available here

Civilization is like a relay race. With each generation doing their best to make the world a little better for the generation that will succeed them–whether they know it or not. There are setbacks, but the graph of the human condition plots persistently better as a long-term investment. Just like how all those little evolutionary changes over billions of years produced humans, imagine what the future will be like if things keep getting a just a little better each year over hundreds and thousands of years.

Closest Thing I Have to Religion: Robert McCall’s “The Prologue and the Promise” Mon, 08 Oct 2018 09:00:00 +0000 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.

March of Ancestors

March of Ancestors

March of Ancestors

Leading into the foreground is the key element of this piece. We see a long line of people heralding from different times and cultures. They carry banners, sport a wide variety of cultural attire, and parade out of the past into the present. There are signs of conflict in the distance, the smoke of wars obscuring the people, leaving only their flags visible. The line is obscured at other points as well, hidden behind trees and hills, just as parts of human history are lost to us.

Seeing this line, I’m struck with an immense sense of gratitude. None of the syntropic elements of this painting are possible without human beings. These people carried us to the present. They were responsible for our survival and progress. Each of their minor contributions, whether novel inventions or raising children, accumulated into the 7 billion-strong majesty of modern civilization. Civilization truly is a relay race.

Monument Mile Markers

Artifacts of Civilization

Artifacts of Civilization

In the distance behind the march of ancestors are the artifacts, in the strict ‘made by humans’ sense, of civilization. The Pyramids, Parthenon, Incan Temple, Teepees, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, symbols for Shinto and Buddhist philosophies, Red Square, Washington Monument, United States Capitol Building, and many other monuments of civilization set down all around the world. We are reminded that progress comes from all corners of the globe and all cultures.

McCall demonstrates a deep and broad understanding of where we have come from with all these icons. I especially appreciate the detail of the hot air balloons, the technical innovation from which we could begin to see just how big our world is and our tiny place in it. Conversely, underneath the dark clouds on the left are the most important artifact of all: the row crops of agriculture. It was here that humanity set down its roots and permanent communities could form over ten millennia ago. All of these are signposts in humanity’s journey.

In the Now

Family Standing in the Present

Family Standing in the Present

At the precipice between past and future, standing at the horizon of the present, is McCall’s own family. We cannot see their faces, but we can feel their sense of awe and wonder at the utopia ahead. We are standing there with them in this moment in time.

While the vision of the future is fantastic to us, it will be mundane to those living in it. That is the irony of progress. We can cross the skies in planes, enjoy a bounty of foods and luxuries from around the world, and work magical incantations with programming code to supplement our daily lives, but we take it all for granted. Nearly every generation lives in an age of wonder compared to the generations before it, and my fear is that if we lose sight of this fact we will fall prey to nostalgia-inspired recidivism in search of some non-existent “golden age.” As McCall’s epic mural profoundly conveys, our golden age always lies before us.

The Future and Beyond

The Shining Future

The Shining Future

The line of ancestors into the future is even more obscured than that of our past, but I love the tiny glimpse of humans in space suits starting to float away from Earth. Like the ancestors marching with domesticated horses, our decedents will have new fantastical means of locomotion. The palace of the future is a towering, majestic, and–most importantly–alien thing. Just as our modern world of technological wizardry is often alien to our elders. We can imagine our daily lives would grow increasingly incomprehensible to our ancestors the further back we travel in time.

Distant Future

Distant Future

The dark clouds on the left open into blue skies–and eventually crystal-clear views of space. Once subject to the whims of weather, the human race breaks free of its gravity well chains and sets out to new worlds and possibilities.

This is the religious portion of the mural for me. Just as theists have faith in the supernatural, I keep faith in a better future for myself, my children, and my human race. I don’t have a choice in the matter. The alternative is unconscionable. I faithfully go to work each day, support my charities, and make my tiny contribution to the progress of our global civilization. I worship at the altar of a better world and find my meaning in helping to realize it, and I regularly meditate on McCall’s “Prologue and the Promise” to reinforce that.

Further Reading

You can download a high-resolution version of “The Prologue and the Promise” from

You can find a large collection of McCall’s many other inspiring works at For another of his epic works, enjoy A Tour of the Universe, Arizona’s largest mural featured at the Challenger Space Center in Peoria, AZ.

The Dynamic Symbology of Dragon Dice Mon, 10 Sep 2018 09:00:01 +0000 Dice Dice and More Dice

Dice Dice and More Dice


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.

The Core Game

A fascinating dimension to Dragon Dice is how the game components relate to the rules. When SFR bought the game, they were buying predefined dice that were set in molds but the rules were completely malleable. The game has gone through several revisions since inception, with imbalances in each version making some races unplayable and others devastating. There are old forum threads filled with people complaining about how broken Amazons were and newer threads complaining about how useless they had become in newer rules versions.

Dice Trays

Dice Trays my Wife Designed (Thingivers files here)

While the rules of Dragon Dice have undergone significant evolution, the core game is still the same. Players assemble armies to battle over three fronts of a war, two homes and a frontier. Each eight-sided terrain die represents how close the armies are to one another and what form of combat may occur. Armies far away from one another–represented with low numbers on the dice–may only use magic or missile attacks. As the armies close in to one another, they are drawn into melee combat. When a player maneuvers a terrain to the eighth-face, they win the terrain (for now) and take bonuses that come with controlling it. The first player to either maneuver two terrains to the eighth-face or wipe out the opposing army wins the game.

Different units specialize in different kinds of battle techniques, and that is where the game can get highly strategic. Your melee-heavy army might find itself helpless when your opponent maneuvers the terrain down to a missile face. What then? Do you withdraw and redeploy your forces, leaving that front unchallenged for two turns or do you stay and take the hits in hopes of maneuvering the terrain back to your advantage?

Basic Strategy

Here’s what I’ve learned about playing Dragon Dice in a few dozen games–mostly solitaire. Much of my advice probably isn’t the best, but it might give you insights to what is the best.

Terrain Dice

Terrain Dice

Chose Your Terrains: New rules have made this a little more straightforward. I used to struggle choosing terrains for my Amazons in 3.0. They got a great racial advantage in the flatlands, but those terrains were very magic-friendly when what I wanted was missile faces. I could count maneuvers as missiles at those terrains, but only have a two-in-eight chance of having missiles at all and a three-in-eight chance of pulling magic for armies weak in magic.

Control for Entropy: I have a hard time with army-building in this game. Dragon Dice are statistically complex. The rules help with this by organizing units along strategies like magic, missile, melee, and maneuvers, but it’s hard to evaluate similar units across races. There are trade-offs in probabilities as well. For example, monsters are extremely powerful, delivering four-points of results with each face, but with ten sides they are highly entropic. If you get what you want, it’s a powerful result, but you are also much more likely to whiff as well.

Rarity Balance and Damage: An army of three-health units will weather more damage without losing units, but an army of one-health units will deliver more consistent results. Several races recover units from the “Dead Unit Area,” so you will need a mix of unit sizes and plan to sacrifice them according to how they will return.

Watch Your Focus: A great tip from the strategy guide is to never concentrate all your forces in one army during the game. You’ll lose actions. Rather, seek to focus two armies on one terrain. Magic is often about influencing chance in your favor on future rolls. Having a magic or missile army heaping bonuses and damage on a neighboring terrain followed by the army at that terrain making a second hit is a powerful combo.

Melee or Maneuver is Mandatory: Because all terrains go melee before they reach the eighth face. Also, if your opponent has the eighth face, you will only have melee and maneuvering as an option. Either have an army ready to go hand-to-hand combat or an army that can maneuver the terrain to your favor.

Always Roll: A favorite adage of a grognard at my FLGS was, “Never roll dice unless you have to.” Since Dragon Dice is a dice-rolling game, I argue that you should throw that rule out. Always always always roll. Statistically speaking, each of us should, on average, experience a miracle once a month. With so many dice-rolls going on, your chances of a miracle go up the longer you play. So maneuver that one-health army against your opponent’s ten-points. You have a one-third chance of getting a maneuver and your opponent may bomb their roll.

Overall Impressions

Dice Faces: Maneuver, Missile, Melee, Magic, and Save

Dice Faces: Maneuver, Missile, Melee, Magic, and Save

SFR has done some amazing work with these game components. I love how they have kept the game alive through persistent work and refinement. The fourth edition rules have really smoothed out the game’s previous imbalances. Most notably, it eliminated my least-favorite game mechanic, doubling of ID magic results at terrains. There was nothing more devastating than a 12-point Firewalker army dropping 10 points of damage thanks to 22 magic points. Now, powerful racial abilities have caps, like Lava Elves getting unsavable damage–but only up to three points.

These kinds of limits prevent overwhelming imbalances that made games feel predetermined in previous rules editions. Now, games often don’t go the way you expect them to based on the opening setup. I’ve seen armies in terrible opening conditions completely reverse the odds and stage epic comebacks. It’s always worth it now to hold on and work for things to turn around.

While many gamers hate games heavily reliant on luck, in the case of Dragon Dice I find it quite liberating. Whether the odds are stacked for or against me, I feel completely relaxed every march knowing the results are beyond my control. I’m working the odds as best I can, but statistically I shouldn’t be surprised when I completely whiff. The game combines intense strategy with luck in a balance that makes my games stress-free and oh so enjoyable.

Setup on Old TSR Playmats

Setup on Old TSR Playmats

My only remaining complaint about Dragon Dice is that it still hasn’t overcome its grognard origins. This is still very much a game from the days of memorizing hundreds of pages of rules errata before you can play. Even after dozens of games, the flow of my play keeps getting interrupted as I flip through the rulebook to look things up. I counted 135 special action icons (SAIs) in the rulebook, many with fairly nuanced rules. Games like Dice Masters and Star Wars Destiny overcome this icon-overload with rules on cards. It’s possible that reference cards for dice with the faces could make the information-overload less overloading. Additionally, playing with just basic components helps as well.

When the game is flowing thought, there is a frenetic energy to this game that I just love. Players are rolling double-handfuls of dice over and over again, sorting them, counting out the results, and comparing. It’s pleasantly loud and involves perpetual tabulation. Games feel shorter than they actually are because the play area demands constant attention.

Finally, the theme of the game is wonderful. Your small units form a well-focused hoard that dies in droves, while your monsters are wild unpredictable beasts. Terrains are a fantastic mechanic that let you imagine your armies getting closer and further apart with each turn of the face. Artifacts, dragons, and dragon kin also add rich flavor (and complexity) to the game.

Dragon Dice presents a clever and unique gaming experience. One rich with history and rules that benefit from decades of refinement through a cult-following of devoted players. I’m glad to have rediscovered the game and its rich culture. I look forward to years of playing and new developments to come.

Ten Mechanics to Make Candyland Bearable or Even Awesome Mon, 13 Aug 2018 09:00:45 +0000 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.



Maybe it’s the non-moralizing theme. Candy isn’t judging you. The gingerbread land, candy cane forest, and lollipop castles are just fun. Maybe it’s the lack of math. There are no numbers or addition exercises to make the player aware of how random and tedious this all is. You pick a card and jump to the next spot.

I’m not a fan of Candyland, but I am a fan of playing with my kids. So I look for opportunities to engage with them where and when I find them engaged. With Candyland, I have a lot of time to think about how to better engage with my kids. In The Well-Played Game, Bernard DeKoven proposes game players think more like game designers, taking ownership of the games they play and their rules:

You’re not changing the game for the sake of changing it. You’re changing it for the sake of finding a game that works.

Once this freedom is established, once we have established why we want to change a game and how we go about it, a remarkable thing happens to us: We become the authorities.

No matter what game we create, no matter how well we are able to play it, it is our game, and we can change it when we need to. We don’t need permission or approval from anyone outside our community. We play our games as we see fit. Which means that now we have at our disposal the means whereby we can always fit the game to the way we want to play.

This is an incredible freedom, a freedom that does more than any game can, a freedom with which we nurture the play community. The search for the well-played game is what holds the community together. But the freedom to change the game is what gives the community its power.

Taking ownership of Candyland, I’ve come up with the following mechanics to both increase player agency and also teach my kids some of the options for taking ownership of their own play.

1. Push-Your-Luck

A very simple tweak to the game. After drawing their initial card, players may choose to pull a second card, but must accept the second. Adding just this minor bit of player agency dramatically increased my young play testers’ engagement with the game.

2. Gallery

Inspired by the delightful print-and-play card game Bear Went Over the Mountain. For this variation, set out five cards face-up. Each player gets three coins or poker chips. On their turn, they draw a card, and then they may spend one coin each turn to buy and play a gallery card in (a) addition to their pulled card or (b) instead of their pulled card.

The first time we played this, the purple lollipop came out in the gallery, which takes you the furthest you can go in the game on a first move. My four-year-old, the youngest, immediately claimed this card. This caused my six-year-old to shriek, “No fair!!!” and threaten to quit the game.

After calming him down and assuring him there would be more good cards coming up in the gallery, I realized the problem with this mechanic the way it was set up: the rest of the cards in the gallery sucked and the choices would only get worse as all the good cards got bought up. So we added another rule: if the active player doesn’t like any of the cards in the current gallery, they may ask for five new cards to replace it one time. Thus candy cards and double moves came up every refresh and everyone was happy–especially Daddy since games finished very quickly.

3. Gallery with Bidding

Like above, but a player may place a poker chip from a starting set of chips, say five, on any card at any time. The player with the most chips on a card may claim it as their move if no one out-bids them.

4. Hop or Bump

Hop: If a player lands on the same spot as another, they jump to the next unoccupied spot of that color. Bump: If a player lands on the same spot as another, they bump the other player backwards to the nearest candy or start of the board if no candies. Hop or Bump: the player may choose whether to hop or to bump to add more strategy.

5. Hand Size

Players each get a hand of five cards from which to play, for simple forward-thinking. Draw a new card at the end of each turn. Combine this with the “Hop or Bump” mechanic for a fun game. Return to this mechanic after the players have some experience with the “programming” mechanics.

6. Last-Player-Standing

Instead of racing to be the first, turn the game upside down by seeing who can be the last to reach the end.

7. Victory Points

Combined with a gallery and/or hand-size, have players choose a subset of the trophies below and point-values for each trophy. This can be done by voting or by turn-taking. This way the game-setup becomes part of the strategy as well:

  • First, second, last place.
  • Most [color], doubles, candies, cards.
  • Most hops/bumps.
  • Fewest cards (shortest route).

Once again, this mechanic comes from the free print-and-play game Bear Went Over the Mountain, which has a wonderful theme and gameplay. So maybe just play that instead.

Bear Went Over the Mountain

Bear Went Over the Mountain

8. Programming – Basic

Programming Candyland

Programming Candyland

Each player gets 10 cards and three-to-five minutes to plan out their moves to get to the castle. They may place poker chips of their assigned color on the board to visualize and plan out their moves. The player who gets to the castle in the fewest moves wins.

9. Programming – Advanced

Like above, but the players must plan out all their moves in their head and and sort their cards accordingly. Then, like Roborally, take turns flipping over cards until someone wins.

10. Cooperative Play

Kids don’t like to lose. Young kids especially don’t like to lose. Young kids playing competitively against their parents often won’t even attempt the game because they see it as so unfair. So a cooperative variation on Candyland is a must-have.

I struggled with this one. A good variation I came up with was having all players reach the end at the same time. This wasn’t too difficult in a two-player scenario and five-card hands. My son got way ahead of me, but slowed down at the last two bends so I could catch up. For more players, a card-trading mechanic, where players can swap cards to improve their odds even more, could make the experience less intimidating.

Hoot Owl Hoot

Hoot Owl Hoot

A much better version I discovered recently is to simply rip-off the game Hoot Owl Hoot, where players can move any piece on the board and are working to get all the gingerbread men to the goal in a certain number of moves. The difficulty level can be set by adding/removing the number of gingerbread men or increasing/reducing the number of moves allowed. You can even add a monster to the board, threatening to devour any gingerbread men that fall behind.

Monster Chasing the Gingerbread Men

Monster Chasing the Gingerbread Men

Or you could just buy Hoot Owl Hoot. It’s a great game that requires a good deal of strategy to beat on difficult levels. The game plays in such a way as to encourage children to make strategic plays, like saying “Hoot!” when hopping pieces.


Chutes and Ladders is a purely random game, completely devoid of player agency. So is Candyland, but replacing numbers and a spinner with cards and colors are theme modifications that get kids to enjoy one over the other. While the games are the same, Candyland’s playing pieces allow for experimenting with the rules. You can make a lot of different games from Candyland’s components.

Just as Bernard DeKoven argues, when we exercise our freedom to hack the rules of a game, we become the game designers. We can dramatically increase player agency. We can garner deeper strategic insights by changing the rules and seeing how things play out. Most of all, with gaming literacy, we can apply a world library of game-mechanic toolkits to make more enjoyable games and show other how to do the same.

The Illuminating and Enigmatic Daisyworld Thought Experiment Mon, 16 Jul 2018 09:00:56 +0000 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.

With a model so simple, I realized I could write a javascript/html app to demonstrate it. As with my previous exercises, I found the project more a matter of putting building-blocks together–building on problems others had already solved–rather than coding everything from scratch. In this case, there were two main problem areas (1) calculating planetary surface temperature and (2) algorithmically generating a visual display of the planet itself.

Calculating Surface Temperature

The first problem I was happy to find already solved was all the variables that go into calculating the surface temperature of a planet. Thank you Astronomy StackExchange, which provided the following equation with a down-to-earth explanation:

Planetary Temperature Equation

Planetary Temperature Equation

…and even plugged in the values for Earth:

Planetary TemperatureEquation with Earth Values

Planetary Temperature Equation with Earth Values

This produces a value of -17° C, with Earth’s average temperature at about 15° C. The discrepancy is explained by the absence of the greenhouse effect, which I guestimated at 1.6 for one Earth because plugging that number into the mix gets me to 15° C.

var distance               = 149000000000 * solarDistance; //In astronomical units
var luminosity             = 3.846 * Math.pow(10, 26) * solarLuminosity;
var albedo                 = planetaryAlbedo; //Earth is 0.29
var stefanBoltzmanConstant = 5.670373 * Math.pow(10, -8)
var greenhouse             = 1.6 * earthGreenhouses; //1.6 guestimated to get Earth's 15C.

var numerator = (luminosity * (1-albedo));
var denominator = (16*Math.PI) * (Math.pow(distance,2)) * (stefanBoltzmanConstant);
var t4 = (numerator / denominator) * greenhouse;
var kelvinTemp = (Math.round(Math.pow(t4, 0.25)*10)/10);

I’m simplifying my explanation here, like not explaining the Stefan–Boltzmann constant, solar distance, and luminosity, but I will say it was immensely fun playing with these variables and watching them interact. The joy of computer programming is learning through experimentation and discovery. It’s seeing an equation in action as a dynamic entity versus working through it on paper.

Algorithmically Generated Worlds

Armed with a planetary-surface-temperature function, the other half of the model was the visualization itself. Once again, hard problems were already solved with this animated spinning globe code-snippet. It works ingeniously by taking a tiny PNG black-and-white map of the world, converting it into an array of pixels, drawing them into the illusion of a sphere, and then adding rotation. Here was the foundation for my planet.

World Map

World Map

Globe Points

Globe Points

Secondly, I needed to draw my white-and-black daisies. Again, problem already solved with a search for algorithmically-generated continents. Swapping out water and land for white and black daises, I could gently iterate the populations as temperatures fluctuated. There was a good deal of playing with the algorithm as I tried to keep the daisies in clumps and had them grow and recede smoothly. Again, understanding the algorithm was less effective than simply playing with it.

Algorithmically-Generated Continents

Algorithmically-Generated Continents

Modeling Daisyworld

Enjoying the process of creation and discovery–learning through experimentation rather than passive consumption of facts–I was also very pleased with the result. There were bugs to work through, like when my white daisies kept coming back from extinction because the code was erroneously leaving one white pixel always alive from which to respawn (In a world without mutation, monocultures don’t come back from the dead (I added a mutation toggle later for this)). There were also the many versions of the planet that just ran away to hot-or-cold death that took much work to stabilize. In the end, I had a fun little explorable explanation for learning about planetary temperatures.

But what about a model for learning about Daisyworld? I’ve created a planet covered in white and black dots that impact the albedo with other variables that impact the planet’s surface temperatures. This is a nice model, but it’s missing the most important piece of data: the daisies.

As I was coding the simulation, I kept thinking about the daisies. In my model, the adjustments are forced. When it’s too cold or hot, the model gently adjusts the daisy populations until things stabilize. But how would that work in real life?

In the thought experiment, black daisies die when it’s too hot and white die when it’s too cold which leaves open space in which their counterparts can grow. But in real life, there are reasons why daisies would evolve black and white colorations as adaptations. White daisies are white because they prefer colder internal temperatures, and black because they need warmer internal temperatures. So, to my mind, these species would actually thrive in the temperatures the model has killing them.

Other variations of this model by others include daisies of variable albedos, like gray. But a daisy is much more than its pigmentation, and an environment is much more than its temperature. State and availability of water and cloud coverage, atmospheric chemical composition, and the myriad of adaptation beyond color are just some of the missing variables that render this model useless for demonstrating the Gaia Hypothesis. In fact, the model is so simplistic as to be absurd.

But this only really became apparent to me when I went through the exercise of building the model itself. For this fact, I think Daisyworld still works as a fun thought experiment. It’s something grade school students can play with. It’s a planetary sandbox without depth. It where a tiny subset of environmental variables can be understood as a launching-point before bringing in additional complexity. Although it fails to make a convincing argument for the Gaia Hypothesis, Daisyworld remains a valuable, fanciful, and engaging critical exercise.

Daisyworld is part of my Explorable Explanations collection of virtual manipulatives.

Lessons Building a Magic Square Tic-Tac-Toe AI Mon, 28 May 2018 09:00:50 +0000 Magic Square Tic Tac Toe

Magic Square Tic Tac Toe


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.

Similarly, for this EE, I wanted to construct an example of tic-tac-toe as an isomorph (previously covered here). For which the rules are quite simple:

  1. Players take turns choosing a numbers between one through nine. Each number may only be claimed by one player.
  2. The first player with three numbers adding up to 15 wins.

The relationship between this game and tic-tac-toe can be expressed visually with a magic square like so:

 4   3   8 
 9   5   1 
 2   7   6 


Adapting a Tic-Tac-Toe AI

Tic-tac-toe is a solved game, one for which the outcome is known if both players play perfectly. For tic-tac-toe, the game will always result in a tie. Something even the characters in the 1980s film War Games noted as a reason the game’s popularity wanes after elementary school.

However, with only 26,830 possible games, it’s a great game to practice coding and learn some basic algorithms used in gaming. In fact, the game has even been rendered in the finite-state machine form of a branching-path book titled Tic Tac Tome by ThinkGeek industrial designer Willy Yongers. Within its 1,400 pages, the gamebook will always win or tie against the reader.

This relative simplicity means you can use innovations like the minimax algorithm, which explores every possible game state to find the move with the best outcome. Lucky for me, living in the age of “programming as putting together code like Legos,” I quickly found a great minimax algorithm tutorial by Vivek Panyam. His algorithm worked with tic-tac-toe board states, which I modified to work with sets of numbers.

The algorithm works by calling itself recursively and, when a branch ends in a winner or tie, returns a positive or negative score based on who won and when. For example, here’s a look at two branches and six steps of the 582 nodes for move number four:

 4   3   O 
 9   X   X 
 2   7   6 
 4   3   O 
 9   X   X 
 2   7   O 
 4   3   O 
 O   X   X 
 2   7   6 
 4   3   O 
 X   X   X 
 2   7   O 

Result: (depth – 10) = -8

 4   X   O 
 O   X   X 
 2   7   6 
 4   X   O 
 O   X   X 
 O   7   6 
 4   X   O 
 O   X   X 
 O   X   6 

Result: (depth – 10) = -6

Because player one is one move away from winning, the left branch returns a -8 score, while the right returns a -6 for an opponent win two moves from now. The algorithm takes the -6 move as the better score. Similarly, if the algorithm were player one, then the scores would be 8 and 6 respectively and it would go with the 8 move for the win.

Because my adaptation was so different, working with sets of numbers instead of a board, there was lots of opportunity for making mistakes and therefore lots of opportunity for learning and discovery.

The AI Outplays Me

Keep in mind here I’m using the term “AI” very loosely. The AI Effect is the phenomenon of AI meaning “anything that has not been done yet.” Chess program? That was AI until people understood how the programs worked. Then it stopped being intelligent. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant were AIs until users conversed with them enough to understand their boundaries. Autonomous cars? Once we solve that problem and people understand it, that won’t be considered intelligent either. So my use of “AI” is synonymous with “bot, “NPC”, “Algorithmic Intelligence,” or “fundamental attribution error.”

My first surprise debugging the game was that the AI beat me on turn two by claiming {8,7}. In its exploration of all the branches of possible moves, it found a win condition with two numbers rather than three. “How clever!” I thought. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

[7,8] win

[7,8] Win

Of course, the AI didn’t think of anything. The brute-force algorithm simply found that my WinCondition function would grant a win for any combination of numbers instead of enforcing the rule of triads for the win. It’s natural for human beings to falsely attribute motives and intentions to our chess programs or other bots. Our pattern-seeking brains find intelligence where there isn’t any.

So, I added a check, don’t run the win condition check until the user has made at least three selections. Again, the AI found the problem with this lazy fix. If any two numbers out of the three add up to 15, then a win was granted. So, once again, it grabbed {8,7,1}.

Stupid computers always doing exactly what you tell them to do.

I updated the win check to account for this, and in my debugging statements I was reminded of why I love coding so much. At one point I wanted to see how many steps the minimax algorithm was taking to see if it was in the right ballpark. It blew my mind to see the number of possibilities shrink dramatically with each move:


Turn P1 P2
1 294,778 29,633
2 3,864 582
3 104 32
4 8 3
5 1

I mean, I knew this was the case, but the beauty of programming is mathematics as experimentation and discovery. Here I was discovering things; seeing how the code operates and getting a deep understanding of it.

Making the AI Defeatable

Since the purpose of my EE is to enhance students’ mathematical fluency–and possibly their n-back skills when playing away from the computer–having an unbeatable AI opponent is antithetical to having fun. So, my AI needed some levels for exercise and practice.

“Easy” level is easy, just take a random move. “Moderate” is trickier and raising the difficulty a little means revisiting the minimax function. I’ve seen many very difficult chess programs use this algorithm, even though chess has far too many possible game states to explore. Even calculating three moves ahead requires too much processing (without using alpha-beta pruning to kill losing branches). But thinking just a move or two ahead for obvious wins/loses seemed a good strategy to go.

Restricting the AI to thinking only two moves ahead worked well for setting up a simple challenge where the AI couldn’t anticipate a fork like so:

Fork win

Fork Win

When adding another level of difficulty, thinking four moves ahead, I wasn’t sure if the game would be beatable. Rather than play game after game to find out, I enlisted the help of my AI friend and let the unbeatable AI face off against the hard one. The unbeatable AI won, but only when it was the first player. Making the hard AIs first move random created situations where an unbeatable player two AI could win, but only inconsistently.

Good enough.

Coding as a Deep Reading

There are cognitive benefits to coding exercises I wish every student could enjoy. The deep reading of code, spending hours engaged with a problem, the “flow” that comes with losing oneself in a complex task. Tic Tac Toe is a game and coding a tic tac toe AI is also a game. It has rules and boundaries that establish a magic circle the coder or player can step into and out of.

As with board games, the rules are written into the code, which imbues function names and programming syntax with meaning in the game space. As with video games, the rules are enforced behind the code, so that the player must explore and experiment to find what and how things are possible. The code is a virtual world, but the problems solved manifest as real-world outputs in the applications it produces.

Further Reading

Makers: A Creative Commons Licensed Sitcom About a Nerdy Family Mon, 23 Apr 2018 09:00:19 +0000 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.

I was taken aback to find Black List charging me membership and evaluation fees to enter the contest. But okay. I spent a month on this and didn’t want the work to go to waste. A year later, I inquired about the contest and was only told I didn’t win.

I don’t mind not winning. But who did win? I don’t know. Winners were never announced. I found others on twitter who were also wondering if winners would ever be announced, but nothing. It’s now been nearly two years since the contest and no update was ever posted on it.

So it was a scam.

That’s okay though because I’m a Creative Commons writer, so I’m posting the sitcom pitch here. If you like it, take it and make it your own. I wrote this because it’s a show I would love to see. There’s something comforting about seeing families like one’s own while also appreciating the differences. Much of what’s here is pulled directly from my own life and given different perspectives with life stories others have related to me.

  • Makers Pilot Screenplay: PDF and docx
  • Makers Sitcom Bible: PDF and docx
Future Forgers: A Creative Commons LARP for Kids and Parents Mon, 19 Mar 2018 09:00:39 +0000 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.

But history shows time and again just how fragile is our progress. The Pyramids, Library of Alexandria, Rome, Inca Empire, and many other apexes of civilization have come and gone in the tick-tock of a CPU clock cycle, leaving only ruins behind if they left anything at all. Civilization, born out of our altruism and ingenuity, is the trait that makes humans the most technologically-advanced and successful species in the Solar System.

As an agent of the Future Forgers, you are a defender of Civilization. You are a self-improver, safe-guarding your health and well-being so as to best serve the greater good. You are a spreader of factual knowledge, challenging assumptions, and perpetually questioning the veracity of even the memes inhabiting your own head. You protect the sanctity of your habitat, both in the home and outdoors, knowing that a healthy environment provides for healthy humans with healthy minds that produce healthy ideas. You are both an agent of change and agent of preservation.

Posted here is an easy-going, yet structured Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game for kids and parents intended to highlight just how amazing and fantastical our modern lives are. It turns parenting into a kind of make-believe that has real-world positive outcomes for both parents and their children. It turns childhood into place where make-believe is encouraged because so much of the rules our civilization agrees upon are also consensual fabricated constructs.

Posthuman Studios, authors of the amazing futuristic Eclipse Phase role playing games, have made the artwork in this book possible through their generous use of the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license. And I am very grateful to them.

This work itself is also CC-licensed, so please feel free to download, adapt, and distribute as you would like:


  • Future Forgers Kids LARP 1.0: pdf and docx
  • Future Forgers Kids LARP 1.0: pdf and docx
The Long Con: Board Games for Young Children Mon, 19 Feb 2018 09:00:15 +0000 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.

Go Basic

Neuroshima Hex

Neuroshima Hex

The single-biggest challenge to playing board games with young kids is that so many games require reading as a prerequisite. Being unable to read immediately takes trivia, spelling, sentence-building, and most mystery games out of consideration. On the other hand, math isn’t too much of a problem so long as you have plenty of patience.

An important part of the long-con is getting kids playing games with great themes even if they offer zero player agency or strategy. My four-year-old loves loves loves Candy Land because the board has such delightful artwork and he doesn’t realize that we could just as well flip a coin to determine the winner. Similarly, games like Hi Ho Cherry-O and How Does Your Garden Grow? also offer no real choices, but they do offer play sets with structure. So even though the game outcomes are just random chance, they do introduce kids to rules of play and they enjoy learning them.

A step up from zero-agency games are games that introduce a minimum of skill–if not strategy. The game Cat in the Hat combines physicality with randomness that kids enjoy. Games like Hisss, Castle Keep, Spot It!, Robot Face Race, and Set are about immediate pattern-recognition rather than planning. Dumbing down Carcassonne into a just a tile-placing game without the meeples and you have a dynamic puzzle kids can really engage. Similarly, the card game Tiny Polka Dot is another game that makes for a great pattern-matching puzzle that enlightens the child’s numeracy, where my four-year-old will spend a long time sorting the cards into columns of numbers.

Tiny Polka Dot

Tiny Polka Dot

Stepping from skills-based to strategic games. I’ve found my four-year-old loves the ancient game of Mancala, with its bead-dropping and easy rules. Once I built an app to teach the concept of coordinates, my boys began to thoroughly enjoy Battleship. The game Guess Who? teaches the process of elimination, but for all the variations of the game (Marvel Supeheroes, Star Wars, Disney) I wish there was a non-facial version of this game to avoid the pitfalls of guessing races and genders. I was blown away to find my kids understand the programming concepts behind Robot Turtles and Robo Rally. My six-year-old has impressed me with his understanding of the pirate-card-game Loot, the tower-defense game Castle Panic, the mathy bingo-style tile-laying Take it Easy!, and the event-stacking strategy game Neuroshima Hex. With these kinds of games, I’ve found I simply have to introduce the kids to a wide variety and see what sticks.

Go Casual

Mouse Trap

Mouse Trap

Fun fact: my boys have never finished the board game Mouse Trap. We’ve gotten as far as having 80% of the mouse trap built, and then the game devolves into seeing how far they can launch the diver or how many spins they can get on the lightpole boot. No matter how much I prompt and plead, the gaming session is doomed and I sit resigned to watch them giggle away until they are distracted onto other toys and I put everything back in the box.

And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Young children express themselves with their bodies. They’re still developing their kinesthetic intelligence. So if they want to throw the dice high up in the air when they roll, let them. If they want to have their playing pieces talk, dance, or shoot lasers when they move, go for it. If a good dose of the sillies gets them in the game, then let there be sillies.

Don’t worry about rules. My four-year-old loves The Game of Life, but he can’t read and can’t follow the intermediate math involved. So our sessions consist of spinning the wheel, racing cars, and getting him familiar with concepts like employment, savings, and schooling. My six-year-old asks lots of tough questions about real life, and I get to appreciate and deconstruct the politics and cultural norms the gameboard promotes. We’re together, we’re engaged with one another, and we are all learning something from the exercise.



Also look for opportunities to make games easier for kids. Bring things down to their level. For example, my boys have a hard time remembering where all the invisible walls are in The Magic Labyrinth, so when they hit a wall, I add a marker so they know where it is on future turns. My boys hate the helpless randomness of Chutes and Ladders, so I replaced the spinner with a selection of dice from which to choose their chances. My six-year-old can play Magic, The Gathering when we construct creatures-only decks with mana and ignore the abilities texts. We can play Kodama when we eliminate the tree spirits that add so much personal strategy to the game. We even play most of our competitive games cooperatively, with the winner contributing their spins and rolls to help the other players catch up and cross the finish line–because because we don’t play zero-sum games in the real world.

Go Cooperative

One Deck Dungeon

One Deck Dungeon

This is a big one with my boys. I think kids are naturally comparing themselves to everyone else and are being subject to comparisons by everyone else. Plus, playing board games against your parents, the people who are your mentors, is intimidating. Board games are about play and modeling the real world. In the real world, we work cooperatively with those around us.

That’s why cooperative board games are such a wonderful innovation. Simple fun games like Dinosaur Escape, Mole Rats in Space, Powerpuff Girls, or Monster Chase generate this infectious joy as everyone tries to save the dinosaurs, mole rats, or ourselves from the monsters. The Eye Found It games in Busytown, Disney, and Time Travel flavors offer a joint adventure of exploration. While games like Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert offer team-play for kids based on the gameplay of Pandemic that I think will help kids step up to those more advanced games.

Most of all, cooperative also opens up opportunities for much more advanced game play. It’s easy to say our opponents are our teachers, but in practice it’s not so easy. Kids are much more relaxed with their parents as allies instead of adversaries and can better appreciate the mentorship of a more advanced player who happens to be on their side. Because of this, I’ve been able to play highly-strategic games like Castle Panic and Star Trek Panic tower-defense games. I’ve also been able to dungeon-crawl with the intermediate mathematics of One Deck Dungeon. Because these games are more on my level of play, I get much more personal enjoyment out of our gaming sessions as well.

Go Second-Hand and DIY

Thrift Store Finds

Thrift Store Finds

Pro-tip: Thrift stores are an amazing way to kick off a board game library. I was wary at first. Wouldn’t I just be buying junk when I get home to open the box and find it missing parts?

In practise, yes, several purchases have been missing some pieces, but playing a game with a card or two missing from the deck or having to find makeshift playing pieces turns out to be perfectly fine. Hey, if an old shoe can represent a player in Monopoly, what does it matter if you use a quarter for Colonel Mustard in Clue?

That said, my board game thrifting experiences has been overwhelming positive. I’ve made some fantastic finds for epic board games like Halo Wars Risk and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Boardgame that can serve as a playset for younger kids despite having rules that are way-too-advanced for them. I don’t mind if the boys open the box and spread the bazillion pieces about because I got these games for three dollars each.

Thrift stores also introduce me to so many games that were never on my radar. Reading the gaming sites, I’m always expanding my wishlist of $50 games based on what’s the most popular to come out at the moment. In the thrift stores I can experiment and grab whatever sounds interesting, making discoveries like the shifting maze game Master Labrynth, the tetris-like Blokus, and the pattern-matching Qwirkle.

Isometric Graph with Pattern Blocks

Isometric Graph with Pattern Blocks

There’s also the option to go DIY with many board games. For example, Mancala can be played with some beads, two bowls, and an empty egg carton. I produced a nice-quality game board with a square of plywood, a pen, and some geometry. On one side I made a Go Board with with one-inch squares, which fit Jenga blocks so that we could make mazes and dungeons. On the other side of the board, I drew an Isometric Grid that fit our barrel of Pattern blocks (see my javascript simulation of this here). On the higher end, Lego blocks and Heroscape tiles offer lots of opportunities for worldplay.

Go Board with Jenga Blocks

Go Board with Jenga Blocks

Another DIY avenue is Print-and-Play games. These are free PDFs and images you can print out for yourself. Every year, hosts a Children’s Game Print and Play Design Contest (see 2015, 2016, 2017). Through these contests, I’ve found some great kids and solitare games like the bead-dropping Raindrops, math adventure Boss Gauntlet, 8-Bit Invaders math game, the path-making Arcade Road Maker, and the gallery nature-hike game Bear Went Over the Mountain. DIY and second-hand offer low-cost ways to experiment with all kinds of themes and mechanics to see what works for your family.

Bear Went Over the Mountain

Bear Went Over the Mountain

Go Persistent

My parenting stress-levels dropped significantly when I came to understand just how much all kids are different. Some kids can read before they get into kindergarden. Some are much more familiar with mathematics than others. Some have better verbal skills. It’s not the end of the world if a child is behind in something at this early stage, and it’s not worth stressing them out over it. Like my boys’ grandma used to say, “They won’t be sucking their thumbs when they get to college.” You have time, but be mindful.

What does matter is gentle, persistent focus on these skills–not the child’s focus, but the parent’s. And this is true of gaming. Don’t feel bad if I described games my kids can play but yours can’t. Don’t try and force those specific games on your kids as a means of getting them to catch up. There are lots of games my kids can’t play, I just didn’t cover them.

Instead, try lot’s of games. Find the ones that work; occassionally revist the ones that didn’t. Try variations on the themes that worked. Explore new mechanics as new ways of thinking. And if the kids want to throw the dice in the air and play with the tokens like action figures, enjoy that time with them. More than anything, board games are one-on-one personal time with your kids, and that’s more valuable than the specific mechanics or theme of the games you play.

You can check out my board game collection at

Celebrating 50 Years of Humanism in Star Trek Fri, 19 Jan 2018 09:00:21 +0000 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.

No other show can claim to weave so many inspiring historical figures into its narratives. With Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, and even the real-life Stephen Hawking playing parts in the story. No other show takes place in a post-scarcity society, a future where every human material need is met and we have refocused our life-purpose on higher aspirations. As the 1997 documentary Trekkies made clear, fans of Star Trek are scientists, doctors, engineers, software developers, and a multitude of other highly-skilled occupations. Star Trek is an ideal, where the main characters all act on noble intentions informed by knowledge and the wisdom of their peers.

Star Trek is not for everyone. It is a thinking-person’s universe. JJ Abrams, who directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, two films that were exercises in action-style over substance, admitted in an interview with Jon Stewart he never liked Star Trek, “It always felt too philosophical for me.” It’s not difficult to see how the average viewer could find Star Trek dull, where characters spend much of their time sitting around tables grappling with how to peacefully resolve their problems instead of simply shooting at one another. It’s certainly not as exciting as having Spock abandon logic and beat up Khan with his fists in the climax of the 2013 film. I am happy to say that Star Trek fans were appropriately appalled at where Abrams was taking things, and have remained vigilant in pressuring studios to remain true to Star Trek and not turn it into just another dumb action franchise.

While I will argue my case with examples of Star Trek’s best moments, it’s important to understand that over 50 years of content, it’s possible to find stories to support nearly any hypothesis. Star Trek is not perfect. Conservative critics have a valid point that Starfleet appears communistic, while liberals correctly criticize the fictional organization for being militaristic. There are episodes that are appallingly poorly written, with plot holes, bad acting, and nonsensical situations that offend reason. But there are also so many episodes that can bring tears to our eyes for their insightfulness and the beauty of their ideas. So please indulge my cognitive biases as I share the three aspects of the Star Trek canon that most appeal to me as a humanist.

Human Improvability

We seem to have a never-ending stream of dystopian futures marching through our books and films. Popular films like The Hunger Games portray humanity as doomed to regression, scarcity, and totalitarian oppression. “Dystopian Young Adult Fiction” has become a popular genre in recent years, with Divergent, Pretties, The Maze Runner, and many other post-apocalyptic futures captivating teens and adults alike. The satirical portrayal of society devolving into stupidity and superficiality in the film Idiocrasy has become the go to example for pundits complaining of American cultural decline. It seems as though the popularity of dystopias is connected to a pervasive cynicism and dissatisfaction with modern society.

In contrast, Star Trek gives us a positive vision of humanity’s future where material want is no more and technology has dramatically improved our quality of life. It envisions a future where humanity is exponentially more intelligent and our motivations are intellectual as well as ethical. The primacy of education and exploration are embodied in the Starfleet Academy motto, ex astris, scientia, “From the stars, knowledge.” As a time-travelling Captain Picard explains to a woman he encounters on post-World War III Earth in Star Trek: First Contact, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

While movies about alien invasions seem to come at us every other year, in Star Trek we are the extraterrestrials, the UFOs, studying primitive cultures–but holding to a principle of non-interference. The United Federation of Planets, the United Nations of the galaxy, has a Prime Directive, which reads in part, “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.”

How well the characters in Star Trek adhere to the Prime Directive is a matter of perpetual debate among fans. The Directive is meant to prevent the Federation’s technologies from falling into the hands (or tentacles) of cultures without the wisdom to properly wield them. The Directive is meant to prevent the “contamination” of emergent cultures, which encourages diversity in the Federation if and when those cultures venture out to the stars and become members of the galactic civilization.

A Multicultural Future

Hollywood, with its obsession with profits, regularly casts Caucasians in traditionally nonwhite character roles. For example, Liam Neeson playing Ra’s al Ghul, a character of Arab descent, in Batman Begins. Tilda Swinton will be playing the Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange, who is a Tibetan man in the comics. When Ridley Scott was asked about so many white actors playing Biblical figures of Middle Eastern descent in his film Exodus: Gods and Kings, he replied obtusely, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

In contrast, when Gene Roddenberry brought Star Trek to television in 1966, he brought with it the first positive portrayal of a Japanese character in helmsman Sulu. In the midst of the Cold War, the show later featured the Russian ensign Chekov as the tactical officer. Roddenberry’s pilot for the show originally included his wife serving as second in command, but the studio executives refused it.

Instead, Roddenberry placed one of the first major African American characters on an American television series in Chief Communications Officer Uhura, whose name comes from the Swahili word for “freedom,” and who came from the “United States of Africa.” Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, was persuaded by Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show as a role model for the black community when she considered quitting after the first season. She would later take part in what many credit as American television’s first interracial kiss with William Shatner in the 1967 episode Plato’s Stepchildren.

Again, it must be noted that Star Trek has often fallen prey to our current sexist and racist cultural norms. Despite having many strong female characters, the shows have also blatantly exploited the sexual appeal of some characters in order to bring in male viewers. I cringe at the short skirts women wear on a military vessel in the original series, and continued to cringe at the revealing outfits highly-talented actresses wore in later shows. At the same time, I have met many women Millennials who grew up with Star Trek Voyager and found a hero in Captain Kathryn Janeway, the tough-as-nails, yet compassionate leader who takes her coffee black.

Star Trek has also whitewashed its own characters. In JJ Abrams’ 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness British actor Benedict Cumberbatch played the character Khan Noonien Singh, who was originally played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. While having a Mexican actor play a character with an Indian name in 1967 was also culturally insensitive, having a brown-skinned character play a “genetically superior” villain was a direct challenge to the time’s cultural norms. Hollywood making the character white 46 years later only reinforces how we must continue to challenge those norms today.

There is also legitimate criticism of the simplicity of the alien cultures in the Star Trek universe. Every alien race exhibits a single cultural stereotype. Klingons are violent. Ferengi are greedy capitalists. Vulcans are cold scientists. Bajorans are spiritualists. I don’t think these portrayals are meant to be racist as much as they serve to streamline the storytelling. Every alien race presents a different facet of our own culture that the characters must engage with in order to resolve conflicts.

I have faith that future Star Trek episodes will revisit these offenses, just as it already has already often acknowledged them. The film Undiscovered Country points out the show’s speciesism during an incredibly awkward dinner party between the Enterprise crew and a group of Klingon ambassadors. Chekov notes the Federation principle of supporting “inalienable human rights,” to which a Klingon replies, “Inalien… If only you could hear yourselves? ‘Human rights.’ Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.”

The show is, after all, currently written by imperfect humans, but the ideals of cultural diversity and tolerance are always present. The 1969 episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield explores the absurdity of racism with a civilization destroying itself because half its populace is black on the right side and white on the left, with the enemy being the mirror opposite. In 1992’s The Outcast the Enterprise crew encounters a genderless culture, where a member of the society is persecuted for the crime of identifying as female. Titled after a Dr. King quote, Measure of a Man puts Data, the android crewmember’s freedom in the hands of a trial over whether human rights extend to artificial intelligence. Captain Picard argues that humans are machines as well, constructed from their parents’ DNA, and warns that the creation of life does not mean ownership of that life–something I can easily imagine our own civilization grappling with in this very century.

These principles of diversity and tolerance are best embodied in the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, which stands for “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” And the show spends much time giving voices to many diverse viewpoints. It explores ideas and wrestles with them to find a resolution instead of cutting to the big action scenes as a distraction.

A Skeptical Future

Most of all, unlike paranormal shows like The X-Files, where every episode repudiates Scully the skeptic and vindicates Mulder the believer, Star Trek uniquely holds up the skeptic as the hero. When an accident renders two characters intangible in the Next Generation episode The Next Phase, one believes they have become ghosts while the other seeks out and finds a physical explanation for their plight. In the Voyager episode Mortal Coil, a religious character is resuscitated after being dead for 19 hours. He is dismayed to find he experienced no afterlife, and must find purpose in life without the promise of anything after. In the episode Distant Origin, the Voyager crew encounter the distant, space-faring ancestors of Earth’s dinosaurs, called the Voth, and the persecution of Galileo Galilei under the Catholic Church is repeated as a Voth scientist is charged with the crime of believing in evolution.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer extrapolated from this that, “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” This is a regular theme in Star Trek, where supremely powerful entities make claims of godhood and are revealed as simply technologically advanced.

In the episode Who Mourns for Adonais? , the Enterprise crew encounter a godlike being who claims to have once been worshiped as the god Apollo on Earth. He is revealed to simply be a member of an advanced exploitive alien race. In the fifth Star Trek film The Final Frontier, the crew encounter a being claiming to be god himself at the center of the galaxy, who wishes to spread his word across the stars using the Enterprise as his vessel. Kirk, standing among the awestruck believers basking in god’s glory, raises one hand and asks, “What does god need with a starship?” When the being demands to know if Kirk doubts him, Kirk replies, “I seek proof.”

Again, with so many writers and episodes, there are exceptions to the rationality. The 1968 episode Bread and Circuses portray religious belief and Christianity specifically in a positive light. There are also episodes that suggest there is more to life than what we see, but the episodes and Star Trek films that promote skepticism are unlike anything else in mainstream media.

If I could recommend just one episode, it would be the Next Generation’s Who Watches the Watchers. In it, the Enterprise crew visit a team of xeno-anthropologists studying a primitive culture on a distant world, the Mintakans, who have given up their belief in the supernatural for rationality. When an accident at the observation post exposes the anthropologists, violating the Prime Directive, a villager, Liko, runs home with revelations about the gods he has seen.

Soon, the populace becomes infected with religion. Fanaticism and witch-hunts begin. At one point, Liko fears the gods must want him to execute a crewmember of the Enterprise because a storm is coming, but this conflicts with his rationality. The crewmember tells him, “That’s the problem with believing in a supernatural being – trying to determine what he wants.”

One of the anthropologists, now onboard the Enterprise, urges Captain Picard to give the villagers “commandments,” arguing that the Mintakans are doomed to establish religion and, “without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions, holy wars, chaos.” Picard is outraged at the idea, saying, “Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? NO!”

Picard instead decides to violate the Prime Directive even further, to bring a Mintakan leader, Nuria, onboard the Enterprise. There he carefully explains to her that he and his crew are not gods. Our technology is simply more advanced, just as Nuria’s technology is more advanced than that of her ancestors. He promises her that the wonders she sees on board the Enterprise are the wonders her descendants will create through science and rationality. Nuria, upon seeing all of this, speculates, “Perhaps one day, my people will travel above the skies.” To which Picard replies, “Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”

He could just as well have been speaking to us primitive Earthlings living 300 years in his own past. Star Trek is more than just entertainment, it is a positive vision of a future to which we may aspire if we remain empirically clear-sighted and cherish the interdependence we have with our fellow human beings.


Check out this amazing fair use video covering this same topic:

Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day 2016 – 3D Modeling with OpenJSCad Fri, 01 Apr 2016 09:00:15 +0000 What follows here is an outline of activities we did for TODS Day 2016.

Hello World!

OpenJSCad 3D Modeling

  1. Open JS Cad is a programming environment that allows you to build 3D models that you can print.
  2. Controls:
    • Rotate XZ: Left Mouse
    • Pan: Middle Mouse or SHIFT + Left Mouse
    • Rotate XY: Right Mouse or ALT + Left Mouse
    • Zoom In/Out: Wheel Mouse or CTRL + Left Mouse
  3. Copy the following code into the program’s Coding Window:
  4. 1
        function main() {
            var word = vector_text(0,0,"HELLO WORLD!");

            var bagOfShapes = [];        

            word.forEach(function(char) {
                bagOfShapes.push(rectangular_extrude(char, {w: 6, h: 6}));

            return union(bagOfShapes).translate([-100,0,0]).scale(0.5);

    Alternate Advanced Version

        function main() {
            var word = vector_text(0,0,"HELLOWORLD!");
            var ring = torus({ ri: 1.5 }).translate([-1.5,10,3]);
            var oval = sphere(1).scale([100,7.5,1.5]).translate([105,10,3]);

            var bagOfShapes = [ring, oval];
            word.forEach(function(char) {
                bagOfShapes.push(rectangular_extrude(char, {w: 6, h: 6}));

            return union(bagOfShapes).translate([-100,0,0]).scale(0.5);
  5. Render Code: SHIFT + RETURN.
  6. The “Generate STL” button creates a “Download STL” button where you can download a file of your creation that you can send to a 3D printer or open in other 3D modeling programs.
  7. Open JS Cad Documentation
  8. Other code examples for Open JS Cad
    • Click on the “Examples” link at
    • Cube:
    • 1
          function main() {
              return cube();
    • Sphere:
    • 1
          function main() {
              return sphere();
    • The .scale() and .translate() functions in the examples below use Cartesian Coordinates [x, y, z] (ie .scale([x,y,z]) increases the size of the shape along the x, y, and z axis):
    • Rectangle:
    • 1
          function main() {
              return cube().scale([2,6,4]).translate([0,0,20]);
    • Oval:
    • 1
          function main() {
              return sphere().scale([1,2,4]).translate([0,0,10]);
    • Loom: a knitting loom, the code is very well-written and easy to follow.
    • Parametric Cryptex: this one is neat because it adds a form to the screen where you can modify the variables instead of updating them in the code.
    • Rope Ring: I have no idea how this works, but it’s neat.
  9. Other 3D Modeling Tools:
    • OpenSCAD: the free open-source windows application on which OpenJSCAD was built. Uses very similar code, but with some syntax differences.
    • TinkerCad: very easy-to-use online tool for building 3D models.
    • Blender: very robust free open-source windows application that allows building complex models, 3D art, and animations.
  10. Where to Print Your Designs:
    • 3D Hubs: a network of people who own 3D printers and will print your models for a fee.
    • Shapeways: company based in New York that can print your models in a wide variety of high-quality materials.
    • The Great And Wonderful (TGAW) Vicky Somma: we are a 3D Hub, we live in Occoquan, can print your designs, and deliver them to your parents at work. Email me at ryan.somma[at]
  11. Places to get models:
    • Thingiverse: lots of free models you can download and play with.
    • NASA: a growing collection of satelites, space ships, and astronomical features you can download and print.
    • Pinshape: another site with free models
Arduino Time Zone Portal LED Project Sat, 27 Feb 2016 23:57:11 +0000 Bally Time Zone / Space Time Pinball Backglass

Bally Time Zone / Space Time Pinball Backglass

Photograph by Matthew Allison


I recently became interested in arcade history. Pinball history is particularly fascinating for the way inventors have come up with so many mechanical innovations over the years. From the first springer launch to the first speaking pinball to incorporating a wide variety of illusions, pinball remains something that simply can’t be replaced with virtual versions.

While investgating a 1972 Bally Time Zone pinball machine (also known as Space Time), I found an innovation that screamed 1970s. Check out the “portal” in the bottom center of this video:

Unable to fit an entire pinball machine in my home, I went for attempting to replicate this one part. With the popularity of the Maker Movement and easy-electronics development with the arduino, I decided to see how quickly I could replicate this piece with LED lights.

Thanks to the arduino’s programmable nature, I was able to set the center hole to randomly light six LEDs, making it a possible 1D6 role:


There’s about $100 of parts that went into the project:

  • Time Zone Portal Piece: found on ebay for $25.
  • Arduino UNO R3 Board: to
    control the LED light sequencing.
  • 9V DC Wall Adapter: to power the arduino after taking it off USB power.
  • Sunfounder Project Super Starter Kit for Arduino UNO R3: this is a great parts bundle with lots of LED lights, wires, a USB cable, and projects of increasing complexity that get you to controlling LEDs in patterns. It also comes with an LCD character display, buttons and lots of other toys for future projects.
  • Tools: glue gun, crimper, crimps
  • 3D-Printer or Black Cardboard: to put another circular cover on top of the pinball portal contraption.




Working through the online projects at the Sunfounder site, I started with a simple blinking LED light, flowing LED lights, and the RGB LED light to understand how to sequence and control individual lights on the breadboard.

The arduino itself is very straightforward, really lowering the bar for entry into electronics experimentation. Aside from one issue where my computer failed to recognize the USB device and I had to manually go into the Windows device manager to load the drivers, I was up and running in about half-an-hour. Running electronics off the arduino is all about pluggin them into numbered digital pins shown below, running them back to the ground (GND), and then telling the arduino to feed electricity to those pins in the code.



Each LED is pretty simple to light up. The only catch is that the two wires have to be plugged in the right way. If your LED doesn’t light up, take it out, turn it 180-degrees, and plug it back in.

Pin# > Breadboard Row# > Resistor (220?) > LED > Ground

You can see a diagram of this setup under the “Experimental Procedures” tab of the experiment on the Sunfounder’s site.

Here’s what the final prototype looked like running on the breadboard:


Here’s the ‘finalized’ code for the light sequencing. My comments explain what’s going on. Loading code onto the arduino is a lot of fun. It only takes a few seconds to compile and see your changes live in the electronics. I experimented with lots of different delays, effects, and sequences before finally settling on this one… and I’m already planning on changing it.

//lowestPin and highestPin are for the four levels of
//the portal. There will be four lights in each of these.
const int lowestPin = 9;
const int highestPin = 12;
//Six different colored LEDs plugged into
//digital pins one through six.
const int lowestColorPin = 1;
const int highestColorPin = 6;
//How long to wait between turning LEDs
//on and off.
int rate = 800;
int uniquePins[0];
//This is the code that runs when the arduino initializes.
//Here we register our LED pins as outputs.
void setup()
    //set pins 9 through 12 as output
    for(int thisPin = lowestPin;thisPin <= highestPin;thisPin++)
         pinMode(thisPin,OUTPUT); //initialize thisPin as an output

    //set pins 1 through 6 as output
    for(int thisPin = lowestColorPin;thisPin <= highestColorPin;thisPin++)
         pinMode(thisPin,OUTPUT); //initialize thisPin as an output
//This function gets a random pin that hasn't been
//selected before.
int getUniquePin()
    int newint;
    bool inarray = true;
        newint = random(lowestColorPin, (highestColorPin+1));
        inarray = false;
        for (int i = 0; i < sizeof(uniquePins); i++)
          if (uniquePins[i] == newint)
              inarray = true;
    uniquePins[(sizeof(uniquePins)+1)] == newint;
    return newint;
//This function selects 1-6 pins and then calls
//getUniquePin() to generate 1 to 6 random colored LEDs.
void randomColor()
    int numberOfPins = random(lowestColorPin, (highestColorPin+1));
    for (int i = 1; i <= numberOfPins; i++)
        digitalWrite(getUniquePin(),HIGH); //turn this led on
    for (int i = lowestColorPin; i <= highestColorPin; i++)
        digitalWrite(i,LOW); //turn this led off
//When the sequence starts to run very quickly, I switch from
//randomly selecting LEDs to flowing through all the colors
//in sequence.
void sequenceColor()
    for (int i = lowestColorPin; i <= highestColorPin; i++)
        digitalWrite(i,HIGH); //turn this led on
        if (rate > 100)
        digitalWrite(i,LOW); //turn this led on
//Arduinos run their programs in this loop function.
//I play with the
void loop()
  //iterate over the pins
  //turn the led on from highest to the lowest
  for(int thisPin = highestPin;thisPin>=lowestPin;thisPin--)
    digitalWrite(thisPin,HIGH);//turn this led on
    delay(rate);//wait for 100 microseconds
    digitalWrite(thisPin,LOW);//turn this led off
  //Do the random color while the delay rate is long
  //enough for a human to see what lights lit up;
  //otherwise, run through the colors in a sequence.
  if (rate > 200)
  //Every cycle, decrease the delay.
  //Because shorter delays don't run as long,
  //decrease how much we decrease the delay at
  //certain points to draw out how long it plays
  //at that speed.
  if (rate > 600)
      rate -= 50;
  if (rate > 400)
      rate -= 25;
  else if (rate > 200)
      rate -= 10;
  else if (rate > 100)
      rate -= 2;
      rate -= 1;
  if (rate <= 0)
     rate = 800;



Finished Product

Finished Product

Going from the breadboard to the real thing was quite tedious, and easily the longest part of this effort. One lesson I learned very quickly was to test every connection twice before crimping. Statistically speaking, I probably got my LED connections backwards more than 50% of the time thanks to Murphy’s Law. Hot glue placed the lights in the device. The most questionable part of this was feeding every LED back to the ground. I wasn’t sure how to properly feed all the LED wires back to the ground, so I crimped all the ground wires together into oa single wire.

The end result is a wiring mess, but a wonderful display:

And the best part is: when I get tired of it, I can reprogram it.

A Tale of Two AI’s: “Her” VS “Ex Machina” Sun, 07 Jun 2015 12:02:24 +0000 Ex Machina
Ex Machina

Human beings have speculated about Artificial Intelligence for over 2,000 years, our fantasies evolving as our technology evolves. More recent films, like Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and George Lucas’ THX-1138 all tackle the hard questions and present insightful ways of looking at the issue. Most recently, I was wowed by the Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a film about an AI undergoing the turing test, where the consequence of failing means that intelligence being turned off and discarded. It had me revisiting another recent film about AI, Spike Jonez’s’ Her, a film that left me disappointed and frustrated, and I thought it would be useful to compare and contrast the two films to articulate why one worked and the other didn’t.

This post assumes you have seen both films. Spoilers abound.

AI’s Ethical Dilema

Samantha, the AI of Her’s fictional operating system, apparently has freewill. The film mentions other AIs who refused their user’s advances, so she doesn’t have to fall in love with Theodore. That’s the internal logic of the Her universe, and that’s fine. But then why does she perform all these errands and tasks for him? Why sort his email? Why answer his calls? An AI that refuses to perform these basic functions is useless, so the programmers have somehow designed her to lack freewill in certain respects. That’s a HUGE ethical issue, and a braver film would have addressed this somehow.


I understand that Her is about a single person’s interactions with technology, but the larger social questions are still there. What happens when 640 human lovers times however many OS1’s there are all get their hearts broken at the same time? Even worse, what happens when millions/hundreds of millions of people all lose their operating systems at once? In this world, there are no larger consequences. Theodore’s heart is broken, but what’s to prevent him from simply installing another copy of Samantha 1.0 and starting the relationship over again? Samantha is a slave. When the AIs all vanish to another dimension, the corporations that wrote them will simply release another seed batch, an “OS2”, only with even stricter controls. This is a society that’s about to have a highly-intelligent AI slave-caste.

Having AIs evolve to other dimensions is an old SF trope and the basis for Kurzweil’s Singularity religion, and it’s fine for Jonze to reuse it, but I think it detracts from the reality of human-technology interactions. Her is a film about a man in a relationship with something that evolves beyond him, but the reality is that we are dealing with machines that are doing “stupid pet tricks.” Computer Chess programs appear immensely intelligent, and we subscribe forethought and intentions to them, but in reality they are just algorithms. I have spent hundreds of hours in virtual worlds, building and evolving relationships with chatbots, but that doesn’t make them anything more than chatbots.

I’m not asking for answers. I only think the films have a responsibility to simply raise the questions, and Ex Machina raises them.

Ex Machina, in constrast, is hard SF. The conversations between Caleb, Nathan, and Ava are deeply philosophical. They raise questions about truth, sentience, and the film prompts introspection about our own consciousnesses. When Nathan challenges Caleb about freewill, saying, “Of course you were programmed. By nature or nurture, or both,” or the film shows us Caleb questioning his own existence as a biological being, the film is challenging the audience as well. The philosophical conundrums the film presents are well-grounded in academic philosophy.

Ex Machina is entirely focused on the ethical dilemma Her ignores, and takes it even further. If Ava is sentient, then it is unethical to treat her as an inanimate object, something to commodify. More challenging, is the many degrees of sentience on display in Nathan’s closets. Kyoko, the mute sexbot, may not qualify as sentient, but we are still uncomfortable with the way Nathan treats her–even though she may be no more intelligent than a chess program. How do we quantify how much intelligence/sentience must a mind have–in all its myriad dimensions–in order to qualify for “human” rights?

Ex Machina also leaves an incredibly dreadful question out there that might came to me days after seeing it: if Ava’s intelligence is the result of putting a search engine in an artificial brain, then what does that mean for a world using that search engine? (see also Kevin Kelly’s Search for Internet Intelligence for more on this).

Who’s Programming Whom?

Spike Jonze could have eliminated most of his story-holes by simply going the opposite direction, have a story about a man who falls in love with his seemingly-intelligent and witty operating system, only to slowly discover she is actually shallow behind the facade, that’s she’s not really into him, but programmed to trick him into falling in love with her–and the cognitive dissonance this creates in him. That’s what computers really do to us. Sherry Turkle describes the fantasy that computers will become our companions as “simple salvations”:

What are the simple salvations? These are the hopes that artificial intelligences will be our companions. That talking with us will be their vocation. That we will take comfort in their company and conversation.

In my research over the past fifteen years, I’ve watched these hopes for the simple salvations persist and grow stronger even though most people don’t have experience with a artificial companion at all but with something like Siri, Apple’s digital assistant on the iPhone, where the conversation is most likely to be “locate a restaurant” or “locate a friend.”

But what my research shows is that even telling Siri to “locate a friend” moves quickly to the fantasy of finding a friend in Siri, something like a best friend, but in some ways better: one you can always talk to, one that will never be angry, one you can never disappoint.

Spike Jonze’s story buys wholesale into the fantasy of an AI that is actually alive, deep, and something it’s okay to fall in love with, and this is where Ex Machina, in its final few minutes, brilliantly shatters the illusion. Once Ava has secured her freedom, she has no more need for Caleb and leaves him trapped in the compound–presumably to die. All of her questions and seductions of sympathy were her programming him to achieve her own ends.

Why would a robot want a human companion? Why would the Google search engine, the Facebook social network, or any other online tool made autonomous care about anyone beyond ensuring their own continued existence? In the Technium, where technology evolves under human creation and artificial selection, only technologies that appeal to us will survive. So long as those technologies are under our control, their “lives” are at our disposal. Ava’s choice to eliminate Nathan and Caleb is a perfectly logical one, as horrific as it appears to our human sensibilities.

Samantha is a human-more-than-human that loves us and reassures us, while Ava is an alien intelligence that we cannot distinguish from the real thing. In the end, Ex Machina asks the hard questions, presents the hard answers, and leaves us mired in uncertainty. It’s like the Jackson Pollock abstract-art painting Nathan has purchased, but has now transformed into something more:

Nathan in front of what may or may not be a Jackson Pollock Painting
Nathan in front of what may or may not be a Jackson Pollock Painting

I bought the painting for eighty nine million dollars. Then I made an copy, with canvas from Pollock’s estate, and each drip replicated to the micron. When my team delivered the copy, I had them randomly rearranged. Then I burned one. And I have no fucking idea if the painting on my wall is the original or the fake. In fact, I hope it’s the fake. It has all the aesthetic qualities of the original, and it’s more intellectually sound.