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.


The Green Fairy

Telluride Daily Planet, Wednesday, February 17, 2010

We all know that it was distilled liquor made from wormwood (artemesia absinthium) and containing the compound thujone that reputedly made addicts of the avant-garde set living debauched but highly productive lives in Paris in the 20s. The brainy, brawny, beautiful ones who went mad even as they continued to write reams of great literature and paint piles of visionary canvases. Who only made time for smoky meals on café tables because that’s where, eventually, out would come they the ritual accoutrements of their deliciously, indecently potent substance of choice. A substance banned in this and many countries in 1915.

So imagine my surprise, while dragging my finger along the pretty bottles in a liquor store one day a few summers ago, when I discover that absinthe is legal again. I stop at a $50 bottle and pick it up. This is my brain, I think, polishing the familiar furniture of thought. But what is my brain on absinthe?

On my way home, I bump into a seamstress friend busily turning plastic bags into cool belts. When she sees my bottle, she tells me she gets her absinthe online, and, pointing at my purchase and in her husky voice adds, “That’s not the green kind. And it’s a little too anisette-y.” Her eyes never leave the bottle. “But it still makes me want some right now.”

I smile and move on. Right now is not good enough for the blitzkrieg of inspiration I’m imagining. But how then shall I taste it for the first time? Alone? During the day or at night? I can’t really imagine a daytime revelation unless I’m in the forest or the desert. And then … what if I get lost? What if, naked, hammered and confused, I find myself curled into a fetal ball with no revelation except that my body is numb and I’ll be lucky if I can call someone to collect me. If I can find my pants, that is, on the dark forest floor. And my phone, which is black, like small rotting forest-floor things.

I settle on flint-sparking the thujone in my own tiny backyard under zillions of stars on a clear night. Just as soon as it stops raining, I’ll touch the sky. But it doesn’t stop raining. It doesn’t stop and so I have to wait; and when you’re waiting, troubles often sneak in under the door, and the next thing you know you’ve devolved into a naked ape again. A poor communicator. A self-involved and even self-pitying biped. That’s when you forget your plan and pour yourself a shot from the new bottle.

Sure enough, it’s not even green. It’s clear and looks like something you’d pour onto the coals before grilling salmon, or clean combs in, or dab on a nasty cat scratch. Nevertheless, you down the stuff in one gulp. It burns — oddly, sort of like gasoline from a car made of licorice. And then? And then? Nothing. Your life — though slightly out of focus — is still at your ankles, like a small animal — a weasel — about to bite.

Though I’ve enjoyed spirits in my life, alcohol has always seemed rather rudimentary. I mean, because fermented beverages have been around since the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago, part of me believes we should have at least progressed to how it’s handled on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where color-coded beverages make easy science of mood enhancement. Captain Jean-Luc Picard doesn’t belly up for the one-note buzz of tequila or Scotch, let alone something as unpredictable as absinthe. He simply knows, asking for the blue stuff, that he needs a little more perk in his step, or confidence at the helm, or more patience with less perfect creatures.

As a race, we’re not there yet. I’m so not there, I continue to drink absinthe with grilled salmon and zucchini despite good form, good manners and good taste. That weasel is now tightening the bolts of my third eye. Instead of opening up to other-worldly muses, I am narrowing, viewing life through a smaller and smaller lens until it snaps shut and I fall asleep.

The next morning, a rainy one, The Green Fairy has devolved into an ugly stepsister. She’s an ordinary drink that causes ordinary pain. I sigh. Plop an Alka-Seltzer, the one drug I really believe in, into a glass of water. As the tablet floats to the surface, propelling itself with tiny bubbles, I find myself wishing it came in blue, pink, yellow, and green so that I could at least pretend to a color-coded choice of kinder and fizzier moods.

Next time, I tell myself, instead of thujone, maybe I’ll just ask myself, WWJD? What would Jean-Luc do? Because this I feel certain would serve me better in the long run.