Game on (part two)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 1, 2015

Having registered for Harvard Computer Science 50, an online course famous for changing people’s lives, I left off downloading Scratch, an MIT-generated program designed to teach children fundamental computer programming. The first homework assignment takes me eight hours. I am supposed to finish the nine-week course by December 19. I am thinking that means no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no morning walks, and no interaction with any people or pets in my family.

I give myself three days to recover and refresh from Problem Set 0, overly pleased with myself for having masterminded — using interlocking puzzle parts simulating “code” — a set of fortune cookies moving through space that are clicked on for various effects and messages. My personal zenith? One of the cookies randomly hitting the edge and then ricocheting off over and over again. I call the game (which has no beginning, or end, or way to win) “Space Fortune.” It says very little — or perhaps it says everything — about my ability. It speaks volumes about my proclivities. A fortune cookie moving through space barking proverbs? I’m there.

But do I use enough events and operators, loops and variables and controls?  Are my sprites and backdrops and sound effects adequate? [Insert shrug here]. I like the Radiohead soundtrack I choose. I’ve always wanted to be a fortune cookie editor.

In the meantime, in real life, I bump into a few people wanting to explore the idea of online learning. “How rich,” someone says. “How empty”, says another. What is the future of learning without personal interaction? What exactly is learning? Good questions. Since I don’t see myself in a classroom at this point in my life (one never knows, though), I am content remaining unseen, a statistic. It’s the great leveler. No one knows my age or how fast my hand doesn’t shoot up to answer a question. Cool, right?

Yeah, until Problem Set 1.

Problem Set 1 requires the downloading of a very large Harvard “appliance” (essentially a computer inside my computer) that facilitates writing real code. I listen to three hours of lectures, thinking, “Wow, the world runs on mega-bazillions of bits of code authored mostly by men.” It takes me a couple of hours to download the appliance and learn how to use the terminal and write some basic code (with lots of remote hand-holding). “Hello, world!” is what we code to print on the screen. Those two words. Okay, I say to myself. Okay.

Then I read the actual assignment problems.  I watch all the side bar videos. How hard could it be, creating a half pyramid for a Mario game out of keyboard characters and then printing it out?

But I have no clue where to start. Sincerely yours, A lost person. I watch the hour-long walk-through on YouTube and see distant blips of light in the self-scan of my brain. If I watched the video again a couple of times, I could probably figure out PS1 in fifteen or twenty hours.

Meanwhile, I want to get to know this young woman walking me through. She seems nice. What did her parents do? Is she as smart and well-adjusted as she seems? I like the gap in her teeth. I want to look her up; but I resist the temptation. Briefly.

Fact is, for success here, I would need the sleep-away camp version of CS50, the remedial one offered in a secluded cabin island-bound off the coast of Maine, and I’d have to temporarily exit my life for that to happen, which is not an option right now. Maybe in another decade.

Well, gee, I start to wonder: who are my contemporaries in this class, anyway? Turns out, only 20 percent of the 150,000 or so registering in 2013 are female. Their median age is 29. The completion rate of all those who registered is 0.9 percent. Because of my life and responsibilities and natural disability with the subject, I am part of the 91.1 percent spectrum of people who do not complete it. (On campus, 99.6 percent complete the course.) Where do I stand now?

I stand corrected! I will not take on challenges so airily (copy 50 times). I will tend more toward the things I am good at and be less fascinated with what is difficult (copy 100 times). I will continue to explore online learning to enrich my mind (beginning with UCSD’s top-ten-listed Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects!).

For now, though, I am just saying one thing: I am a Harvard dropout. At least that has a ring to it.


Game on (part one)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 18, 2015

There’s no happy ending to this story, just to let you know up front. Because in a happy ending version, I am wearing a CS50 tee shirt, my brain is slightly more encephalized (bigger) and I have successfully reinvented and rerouted myself into mini-career number six or seven or whatever it is. That would be the long view of the happy ending. In the short view, I would be saying something like “Dang, this is interesting and applicable. And I’m getting it! Maybe I’ll finally get a big girl job.”

That doesn’t happen, though. And what you are getting instead is the reality version, the one where, for starters, I fall for the oldest trick in the middle-aged book: I hear my daughter tell me what all the young people at her job are doing and I get riled. “Well, if that’s what they’re doing, maybe that’s what I should be doing. Get with the program and think like a young person. Yeah. Yeah! Bring it on!” I slip on their lingo, the lingo of mass culture and parodies of mass culture, and the pep squad quadrant of my brain, up on its feet and shaking its pom-poms, adds, “Game on!” An expression I’ve never once used. This is what usually happens before I do something impulsive.

So I sign up. For Harvard’s Computer Science 50 (CS50), which, like lots of other classes at Harvard (and other universities), you can audit for free in an online version (via I don’t research how hard it will be or I’ll never do it. It’s not like I’m setting myself up for failure, I’m just giving myself a chance to succeed. I’ve done this before.

No, I don’t yet know that the class has preeeettty high difficulty and workload levels, that a lot of those touted no-prior-experience-with-programming stats just cannot be true (they say 78 percent). That, realistically, probably not a lot of women of a certain age — from art and writing and retail backgrounds — are signing up in droves. They’ve even asked me if this is out of my comfort zone, and I’ve replied, “Not really” or whatever the equivalent is, because learning is within my comfort zone, and I don’t yet know how far out of it learning programming might or might not be.

The online resources for this class are impressive. Wow! But I don’t really have time to explore them because I’m supposed to be done with the whole thing in nine weeks — by Dec. 19 — so I’d better get going. It’s not like I have lots of free time, you know. I don’t even have time to use the Facebook and Twitter sites and the study groups because there’s a real urgency here to dive in, even without my knowing, yet, that this class, which has been around since 1989, has snowballed itself into something legendary. It’s the biggest class at Harvard College (nearly 900 in 2014). A class with producers, managers, dozens of TAs, audiovisual staff, sponsors, a reputation for humor and quirk and a virtual cult of personality around its current professor, David J. Malan (Harvard ’99). (The course was first taught in 1989, and Malan took it himself in 1996. Whereupon a self-proclaimed uptight government major jumped the tracks and changed the course of his own life.)

Yeah, he’s good. Almost too good. I learn so much in the first lecture, I wonder what rock I’ve been living under my whole life. Oh, that’s what binary means! (And: hey, aren’t the men who understood this concept of programming from the get-go running the world now? How did that happen?)

There’s a lecture hall full of bright young diversified Harvard faces, and hands shoot up with every call for volunteers. They get novelty prizes for participating. There are bells, whistles and light bulbs, and at the end, students are invited to have lunch once a week with other CS50 students and staff and relish the rich learning environment. It’s not just a class, it’s a happening. A scene. So utterly other-planet from my late- ’70s college experience — where upper-level courses might have five or 10 students — it’s mind-blowing. In 1980, Apple had just created its first PC, and IBM was just about to. No normal people knew about this stuff back then.

But times have changed, and I’m on board with it. Yeah. Game on.

At the end of Week 0 and the first set of lectures, which I watch from the comfort of my own couch, covetous only of the CS50 tee shirt Dr. Malan is wearing, I click my way to Problem Set 1 and watch the adjunct videos of “walkthroughs” to help me. I download a program called Scratch, developed by MIT to help kids (and adults) learn the basics of programming, and do my first assignment, an assignment that takes me how many hours? And what does my elementary “game” (there’s no winning or losing or anything in between, just random clicking), Space Fortune, have to do with anything relevant?

Stay tuned for part two to find out.



Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, April 19, 2015

We all have our own personal histories with water, do we not, in most cases beginning with the water that came straight from the source — mothers’ milk. Which is nearly 90 percent water.Right from the start, therefore, youguzzled your water like a pro, which would come in especially handy, as a habit, if your destiny were, eventually, to include residing at 9,000 feet where the consumption of water is nothing short of part of a day’s work. But we’ll get to that later.This wasn’t exactly the case for me. I came along late in the career of an army wife who had already had three children and a miscarriage. Thirty-five — practically a crone in the view of a male-dominated world of bars and stripes and stethoscopes — was considered past the age of safe breastfeeding. I kid you not. So I was put on a ‘50s version of soy infant formula — which I was allergic to. And then on milk-based formula, which I was also allergic to. Finally, a liquid, animal-based protein was provided, which my mother, always with a squinched-up and disgusted face when she said it, referred to as “liquid meat.”

I came into this world, therefore, a sort of toothless carnivore — without a doubt not getting enough water into my system from the get go. I think I am realizing the significance of this now.

There has never, however, been any shortage of reminders of the importance of water in my life. I was born not far from the Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers, and by the age of three was walking the beaches of Carmel daily. At four, I boarded an ocean liner and crossed the Atlantic for six days with a dark and violent sea beneath me, and then lived on the banks of a lazy tributary of the Loire River. At eight, I lived on Lake Washington and frequented the ferries of Puget Sound. In New York, I lived in the shadows of Atlantic maritime mist, wedged between the Hudson and East Rivers. And here in the San Juan Mountains, I live five minutes from an icy and undammed river, and just a few short miles from alpine lakes so turquoise they hurt my eyes.

Water, water everywhere — yet it appears I never really drank enough. I don’t recall any serious commitments to hydration (on my part, at least) in the old days at altitude 20 and 30 years back. There was no clipping water bottles onto backpacks for a two-hour stint at the library, let alone a half day of hiking. There were no CamelBaks. I don’t even remember simply pouring out a glass from the tap and taking the time to drink fully of this mysterious and life-giving fluid. (Though my memory could have dehydrated, as well.)

I remember lots of beers and sucking those up. I remember swilling down coffees at 4 p.m. to get through the rest of the day. I might remember plastic squeeze bottles at certain key bike-riding moments, and filling up gallon jugs in the desert.

About 10 years ago, I finally began carting water bottles with me to work; yet, still I failed to empty them, still I returned home with water (or dumped it, to rid myself of guilt). Did I need a better bottle? Did I need to add salt to it? Did I need ice? Was I mistaking thirst for hunger, as I’d read about? Would coconut water be better? Did herbal tea count? Was I, actually, unlike everyone else, not really in need of more water? No, no, no.

Only recently (in the nick of time, actually, as my skin begins to crinkle) have I begun the daily work in earnest of drinking water, something precipitated by my chiropractor telling me she couldn’t properly assess me because I was dehydrated. Really? But after just two tiny Dixie cups — bam! — it was a go! In that moment, thinking about my laziness regarding hydration, I started to wonder if there wasn’t an app on my phone that would…

Well, of course there is. (Dozens, no doubt!) My silly low-tech app simply reminds me to drink eight cups of water a day, which I tick off, one at a time and get a cute sound effect. Eight sips of water, eight times a day.

My penance for over 30 years of dehydration? To remember what water is. Eight-three percent of my lungs, 73 percent of my brain, even 31 percent of my bones. It is 71 percent of the earth’s surface, and, as recently as last summer, has been discovered in gigantic (three times the amount of all the oceans combined) reserves 700 kilometers beneath the earth’s surface inside ringwoodite, a blue rock.

Water is the life of this blue planet, inside and out. It is the life of this body. Hardly a penance at all, repeating this.

Waiting room

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 18, 2015

I am sitting in the latest version of the waiting room at the dealership, a place I’ve been many times before in my three decades of Subarus. I’ve taken several leaves of absence. I’ve left happy, I’ve left mad and even vowed never to return. And yet here I am, swearing never to say never again, pressing a pod of coffee down and grabbing a bottle from the mini-fridge they have stocked for those waiting for the axe to fall. The axe of the hungry internal combustion expert to fall upon the vulnerable neck of the non-mechanical woman. That’s how I look at it.

Yes, I’ve had my Subarus. A gold early-80s model I bought for $500. Then the red Loyale, a lemon of a car that never made it up Lawson Hill over 23 mph, haters honking behind me. My silver Outback empowered me again, despite its CV joint issues and oil leaks. Finally, today’s model, the only new car I’ve ever purchased, a black 2010 Outback — with every single dash light currently blinking on and off even though it runs perfectly fine.

But this isn’t really about the cars; it’s about the waiting.

I come prepared this time around, with things to do. In the old days, you came unprepared, which was the only way to come. You had a novel, maybe a copy of the San Juan Horseshoe (I did cartoons for them back then and might have been doodling). Sometimes, you’d flip through the dog-eared copies of ancient Motor Trend and Sunset magazines, but mostly you’d fidget for a while and then settle in, thinking thoughts like, “Is coffee really as bad for me as I think?” And, “Who was that first person who roasted the beans, pulverized them and cooked them in water?”

Laptop. Phone. Bookkeeping project. Earplugs. I settle into a chair feeling smug with such wildly productive projected use of time. I eat a granola bar from the pile, dipping it in my pod coffee, wondering who buys a baseball cap with the word Impreza on it, or Subaru pint glasses. Someone must. Someone a lot like me, presumably, four Subarus later.

After 15 minutes of pod-coffee-driven data entry, I become particularly aware of the only other person in the waiting area, who is sitting kitty-corner from me in one of four Naugahyde faux-modernist club-style armchairs. A larger woman, about my age, maybe a little older, with long hair and a peasant skirt on. At first I figure she’s on the tail end of a wait, about to be handed her keys and liberated; but she continues to sit there. Half an hour passes and there she sits, peaceably doing nothing.

I’m not thinking of the old days now, I’m thinking, “How can she just be sitting there, staring ahead, hands folded?” No one does that. When someone she recognizes shows up, they chat about where she lives (Ridgway) and about mutual friends, and then he leaves and she is back to the sphinx-like meditation, even though I now know she’s actually in it for the long haul, she told him so. Hours of this old-school and minimalist behavior? How many hours, for goodness’ sake?

I stop my data entry when I realize I’ve misplaced my phone; and when my name is called in order to review the accordion-like estimate, I go into a phone finding frenzy, ready to retrace my steps. I call upon St. Anthony, patron saint of lost objects (my mother’s method), to help me, and within five minutes, I hear the ding of a text and realize the phone has fallen between the seat and the center console. Such relief! Because what on earth would I do without that phone?

Good question, and one that takes me back to the Flower Motors Sphinx and her ability to sit in a chair, to do that one simple thing, which is what is needed when one is waiting. This state, which scientists have identified as part of the brain’s critical down time — especially needed in today’s world of busyness and overstimulation — is central also to recent plethora of studies on boredom.

The right kind of boredom (the settle-in kind – known also as disengagement or daydreaming — that leads to something called Default Mode Network) is evidently crucial to the mental processes that affirm our identities and develop our understanding of human behavior. It is linked to better problem solving and creativity, and to un-congesting the brain. Daydream mode, in short, is compulsory for the health of the brain and for the human attached to it.

Stellar news! Now all we have to do is act on it. Relearn to sit. Wait. Disengage. Stare. And maybe notice that birdie on a branch, wondering how feathers work, and where it is these mysterious creatures actually sleep at night.