Jan 29
2013

Brad’s Media Reviews: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

This will be the first in a series of posts where I review the media that I consume.  These will differ a bit from your standard critques in that I’d like to use them as a forum for documenting techniques to use in my own work.  Without further ado…

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert A. Heinlein
Novel / Science Fiction / 1966

The_Moon_Is_A_Harsh_Mistress_(book)

First and foremost, TMiaHM is a book about politics.  It chronicles the revolutionary action of a group of colonists living on Earth’s moon, which had previously been established as a penal colony, although has since evolved into something more since the original convicts have procreated.  It happens to take place on the moon, and this is the fact that puts it squarely in the realm of science fiction, but if you changed locales, I’d argue that the core of the book, and much of it’s merit, would still be very much in place.

This is a story that works as a thinly veiled metaphor for disenfranchised people anywhere.  But it’s not necessarily a story that thrives on grandiose themes.  Ideals like patriotism and government’s social contract with its constituents are certainly present, but they took a back seat to the details.  For me, what made this book work was the meticulous care with which the plans of the revolutionaries were constructed.  It almost read like a how-to manual at times. The way that these pragmatic plot elements were married with the loftier social/political/moral themes was exquisite.

I’d highly recommend this book not only to fans of science fiction, but to anyone interested in revolutionary political action, even in the more conventional sense.

PROS

+ While at first I found the terse dialect of the Lunar inhabitants irritating, it was natural enough to make for smooth reading once I became accustomed to it (versus something like A Clockwork Orange, ughh).  I eventually found that the characterization it provided for the entire group of protagonists (they needed to speak quickly because they lived in such a dangerous place) far outweighed my initial queasiness with it. +1

+ Many of the fictional concepts were based on social or soft sciences, rather than purely embellishing on concepts of physics or technology (for example, marriage practices or the lack of a police force).  I found this refreshing and it also made for a more accessible plot.  It was easier to relate to the characters because they weren’t living in some far distant future that made their lives incredibly different than my own.  They found ways to deal with their particular situation (living on the moon) that related more to human needs and nature than dreamy scientific concepts. +5

+ The lack of a focus on technology also helped to create a timeless quality.  The book was written in the mid-60s, but there is very little to give that away (the focus on revolutionary politics notwithstanding).  The best science fiction accomplishes this feat effortlessly (albeit it is easier to accomplish in print than with film).  There’s nothing that can take you out of the narrative faster than reading about a distant future that seems far too rooted in the near past. +3

+ The political ideologies in the book were pushed more as ideas than ideals.  While I suppose that the author’s ideological leanings were clear in the text, I never felt like they were being forced on me (*coughcough, Ayn Rand).  Instead it felt like an open invitation to consider lots of different ideas.  This may partially be based on my expectation that Heinlein was notorious for writing Rand-esque propaganda pieces. +2

+ Overall the themes were very humanist.  How do people react to social/political pressures? How do you motivate those that are unhappy to take action?  For that matter, what really makes people happy?  Placed against the backdrop of the cold, inhospitable setting and especially contrasted/highlighted with one main character, who happens to be a thinking machine, these themes made for a compelling read. +4

CONS

- I found the overall plot structure lacking.  The interest curve seemed to peak too early and drop off too soon (i.e. I found the best parts were in the middle of the story).  The climax was a bit of a let down (relative to the rising action) and the denouement was protracted. -4

- The character development left a little to be desired.  It didn’t bother me tremendously, but I felt that the characterization of groups of people left individual characters out in the cold more often than not.  Many of even the core group of characters felt somewhat hollow and redundant.  It wasn’t as critical an error as it would be in other novels, however, since the narrative focused more on the plight of the masses and ideological matters than any individual threads. -½

OVERALL

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11½ Lunar Penal Colonies

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Nov 14
2012

Borderlands 2 & Social Media

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a Borderlands 2 addict. I think something about the oodles of loot to be collected speaks to my hunter-gatherer caveman brain. Gearbox Software did a lot of things right with this title, but they did one thing that I find particularly innovative: they created strong ties between their game and social media channels.

Social media has become more than just a buzzword; it’s free advertising and viral marketing, it’s getting existing customers invested in your brand. Okay so maybe it is just a bunch of buzz words but I think there is no denying that it is powerful. This is the medium that single-handedly launched Gotye‘s career (345 million YouTube hits and counting).

Gearbox obviously knew this (they may or may not be Gotye fans) and actively planned for a system that almost guarantees their customers will get involved in their social media channels. How’d they do it? With free stuff of course!

Mmmmmmmm... treasure.

Right in the central hub of the game world is a big, sexy treasure chest that you just know is stuffed full of delicious equipment for your character. But alas! You can’t open it! Not without a Golden Key. And how do you obtain a Golden Key? By signing up for the Gearbox social media service Shift. Oh but what’s that? You’ve had a touch of this tasty treasure and now you want more? Where can you get more Golden Keys? By following Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford on Twitter, of course! As a bonus, you can find even more by  watching the YouTube videos “produced” by one of the in-game characters, like this one below:

So Gearbox is getting tons of followers for their social media streams that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. These suckers customers are now all ears for all kinds of nifty news: downloadable content (DLC) they can purchase, upcoming titles they can pre-order, etc.

Gearbox nailed this one on the head. To summarize, I’ll leave a list of all the features that make this social media tie in work so well:

  1. It’s built right into the game experience. The player will receive items that make their experience better. It’s not some sort of arbitrary hub that exists outside of the game (ahem, Call of Duty Elite).
  2. It’s free! It’s free for you and me and it’s free for Gearbox. They offer up some digital items in game that don’t cost them a dime. Randy Pitchford can post to Twitter for free. The YouTube videos need someone to produce them but it costs nothing to distribute them.
  3. It’s repeatable! If you just got the first key as part of this arrangement, this would be a one and done affair. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. But because they are releasing new keys all the time at random intervals, the audience is captive. They are almost foaming at the mouth for new keys to drop.

 

 

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Nov 02
2012

A Slower Speed of Light

The MIT GameLab has just released a new game highlighting the effects of relativity called A Slower Speed of Light.  The game uses a very simple mechanic (object collection a la Pacman) but employs a variety of real physics phenomenons in the form of visual effects to increase the challenge and acclimate players to the intricacies of travelling at near light speed.

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Oct 31
2012

Gamification of Healthcare

University of Pennsylvania recently held a competition for multi-discipline student teams to create serious games that help solve real world problems related to healthcare in the city of Philadelphia.

http://www.healthcare-informatics.com/blogs/david-raths/gamification-healthcare?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+healthcare-informatics+%28Healthcare+Informatics%29

I personally believe that we are right on the cusp of a huge trend where gamification and/or crowdsourcing become major players in the Healthcare/wellness sector.  Healthcare is serious business.  These are our lives; our minds and bodies we are dealing with here.

But Healthcare is not exactly an engaging topic.  ”Gee I can’t wait to go to the doctor and get some tests run,” said no one ever ( I apologize for the cliche).  Gamification represents a great way for healthcare providers to get their clients engaged and active in their own health.  As the spouse of a healthcare professional, I know that patient responsibility and following discharge instruction plays a huge part in a care plan, and that it is often the area that is overlooked or ignored by the patient (which in turn leads to return visits, higher costs, etc).

But gamification can address this by providing both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for the patient.  It can provide an intuitive platform for tracking of behaviors and other metrics for individual patients or entire populations.  See the rise of social media-enabled fitness tracking portals (e.g Fitocracy, Livestrong.com) for just a small dose of where we are headed.

https://www.fitocracy.com/

http://www.livestrong.com/

And gamification is already making a difference in healthcare in another big way.  By combining gamification and crowdsourcing (my favorite combo!), designers can empower the entire world to help solve some of the world’s toughest health-related problems (and lots of other problems too).  Games such as FoldIt enable users to solve puzzles that are analogous to challenges by researchers in the real world.  In the case of FoldIt, players arrange molecular components to find the 3D structure of enzymes.  These structures are important for understanding diseases and developing new medicines and other therapies.

http://fold.it/portal/

The genius here is that human players are much better at solving these kinds of puzzles than computers.  Our brains allow us to very quickly identify and eliminate incorrect solutions while computer run simulation must painstakingly test every possible solution (which is a lot of possibilities for something as complex as the 3D structure of an enzyme).  Ultimately this means that we can solve these types of problems much faster than machines; we just need the framework game mechanics to do it.

As the world gets more complex and our lives get busier, I think gamification will emerge as one of the next big trends to help us make sense of it all.  And by building the platforms and doing the research now, we can create a future where we can leverage the minds and creative power of the entire world to make it a better place.

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