Friday, May 30, 2008

Exposure '08 and Some Very Cool Ceramics

Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Noordelijk Hogeschool Leeuwarden logoExposure is an annual student showcase sponsored by the Northern College of Leeuwarden (which is pronounced "LAY-var-den," approximately). This school has one of the most interesting game programs I've ever heard of. All the assignments are actually work projects with real game development studios. The companies approach the school looking for student labor; the school Exposure '08 logohelps to match them up appropriately; and the students learn on the job. It isn't always full-time work, because the students also take classes in the usual way. Exposure is the great matchmaking event of the year, where the students show off projects of their own, and employers wander around and look at the exhibits. They also have a number of invited guest speakers, and I was asked to give a lecture by Tim Laning of Grendel Games, who's also a part-time instructor at the college. I also had some very interesting talks with Albert Sikkema, who heads up the program. We're trying to see if there's a way I can be more involved.

Leeuwarden is an ancient and extremely pretty town in Friesland, the northernmost province of Holland. Like many Dutch cities, it's full of canals that once brought trade from all over the world. I snapped a picture of the original weighing-house, at which merchants had to stop and prove that they were providing honest measure before they could take their goods farther on up the canal to the market.

The weighing-house.

Art Nouveau vase.I had some time on my hands after my talk, so Tim dropped me off at the Princessehof Ceramics Museum, whose building, as luck would have it, is also the birthplace of the artist M.C. Escher, beloved of programmers, mathematicians, and nerds generally. The museum has an extensive collection of works from Holland's history, as well as a number of other Islamic and Asian pieces, including some Ming dynasty vases from China. (Looking at them, I couldn't see what the big deal is about Ming vases, but I'm probably just a philistine, or perhaps the ones I saw aren't necessarily the best examples.) My favorite collection was the large group of Art Nouveau plates and vases, of which this is one example. But the museum isn't limited to historical works; it also contains a number of modern items such as this dramatic statue of Eve as a dominatrix, holding two male demon-figures in chains and crushing the serpent under her foot. (The full title is E.V.E. 1: Erotics Versus Evil. This is one of the things I like about Europe -- precious few American art museums would dare have something like this in their garden.)

Statue of Eve.I also like these geometric works by the artist Wim Borst, most of which don't have any pretensions to functionality.

After my talk the organizers of Exposure gave me a present -- some tasty spiced cookies rather reminiscent of Italian biscotti, and a bottle of something called Meekma -- a 60-proof liqueur which seems related to gin or the Dutch genever (from which gin derives). Both are characteristic of Friesland, apparently. I'm looking forward to my next visit.

Monday, May 19, 2008

More Workshops at DeVry Arlington

Arlington, VA

May 13

DeVry LogoHaving completed my visit to RIT in Rochester, New York, I headed to Arlington, Virginia for three days of events at DeVry. I had been there before and enjoyed it a lot -- some of the best students I ever encountered. Although the events went well, the trip started badly when I got to my hotel and found that my booking had mysteriously disappeared. Someone, somewhere, had cancelled it and there were no other hotel rooms to be found in or near Arlington. I ran up a $140 cab fare driving around trying to find one. Even American Express Global Assist was unable to help me. They came to my rescue when I lost my wallet in Zurich, on the way to Santiago, Chile; but in this case they were distinctly disappointing. They found me one hotel room which turned out to be in Richmond, close to a hundred miles away, and when I called back to ask for something else, they found me another one in Arlington, Texas. After that I gave up and slept on the floor of Washington National Airport, as one place where I knew I could stay and be safe, and find transportation in the morning. It was a frustrating and thoroughly uncomfortable time, especially as the airport played loud music all night, presumably to discourage people like me from sleeping there.

May 14

At about 7:30 AM I called Hilton's national reservations number and discovered that, mirabile dictu, my original hotel had rooms available for the next four nights. I caught their shuttle and went blearily back to the place I had started 10 hours before, where the desk staff were kind enough to hurry up the cleaning process and get me a room by 9:30 AM. Check-in time is normally 3 PM, so this was a lucky break. I was supposed to have the 14th free to be a tourist, but in the event I spent the whole day sleeping.

May 15

My first day at the DeVry campus; I went over in the early afternoon and had a chat with the professors, then gave a lecture on job-hunting to the current students while they ate pizza. That evening I went back to my hotel room and cooked up an impromptu lecture on the history of computer programming.

May 16Image of an ASR-33 Teletype machine

In the morning I gave the students a game design workshop, then delivered my lecture on programming. I had been asked to address in a class on "why we do object-oriented programming," and I thought it would be fun to start with Ada, Lady Lovelace's program for the Analytical Engine and then work my way forward through FORTRAN, BASIC, Pascal, and finally C++, with examples of code and pictures of some of the old gear that I used to program on -- a keypunch, a teletype, and a DEC VT-100 terminal. Along the way I explained how the features of the languages changed. I was also able to find a facsimile of Edsgar Dijkstra's famous "GOTO Considered Harmful" letter to the Communications of the ACM. I have no idea whether the students enjoyed it or not, but I did.

That evening I had dinner with one of DeVry's brightest stars. Dorothy Phoenix already has a degree from MIT (!) but she didn't learn as much as she wanted there about games, so she decided to get a second degree in the Games and Simulation Programming program at DeVry. We've exchanged E-mail several times on the subject of female players and women in games, so it was nice to get a chance to really talk to her for a couple of hours. Remember that name, folks; Dorothy Phoenix is someone we'll be seeing more of.

May 17

Saturday was the big recruiting event, when DeVry has an open house for prospective students and their parents. I gave an off-the-cuff talk on the game industry and its future in the morning, had a brief interview with a visiting urban radio station, and then gave a game design workshop in the afternoon. It was very well attended and I was pleased that I managed to persuade several of the parents to take part as well. One of the game ideas I handed out was a favorite -- help slaves escape along the Underground Railroad -- and the team did a particularly good job of combining the associated challenge with a storyline.

May 18

My flight didn't leave until evening, so I had most of the day free. I decided to spend it at the Udvar-Hazy Center, a branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum not far from Dulles Airport. I took in an IMAX film, Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag, which included breathtaking footage of the Red Flag training exercises in the Nevada desert, and then just wandered around looking at all the aircraft. They had an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane that ever flew; the prototype for the Boeing 707, a plane I practically grew up in; MiGs from the Korean War; and then of course there's this:

The space shuttle Enterprise

The Enterprise was named following a long letter-writing campaign from Star Trek fans, well before the TV series was revived in the 1980s. Technically, it isn't a space shuttle at all. It did fly, but it never went into space. The rocket nozzles are mockups and the heat-shield tiles are fakes. Enterprise is a test vehicle to determine the aerodynamic characteristics of the shuttle design. They would take it up on the back of a 747, then turn it loose and see how it flew. ("Like a brick" is the general consensus.) The Enterprise was supposed to be refitted into a fully-spacegoing vehicle, but changes to the design made that too costly. Anyway it was great to see it up close.

May 19

And so home. On the way I got to try out United's new lie-flat business class seats. Definitely an improvement on the old ones, although if you're not really sleepy, you still aren't going to get much sleep on a six-hour flight. But they're a lot more comfortable and they have a real 110v power outlet!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Welcome Return to RIT

Rochester, NY

Logo of RITI first met Andy Phelps at one of the early conferences at Algoma University College in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He was a young professor at RIT in Rochester, New York, and later he was one of the first people to hire me to give a game design workshop -- to the faculty! Andy wanted to try to convey to the non-gamer professors at in the RIT Department of Information Technology just what this "interactive entertainment" thing was all about.

Our paths have crossed several times since then, and about a year ago he asked me to sit on the advisory board for RIT's game program. This spring I was supposed to go to a meeting of the advisory board, had the tickets all booked and everything, when it was suddenly canceled. It turned out not enough people could make it. Since the air tickets were non-refundable, I persuaded Andy to have me come along anyway and deliver a lecture to his students; that way they wouldn't throw the money away. That was good fun, and Andy and his colleague Erick Vick treated me royally -- a nice hotel and several good meals.

It turns out that Rochester has a lot more to it than Eastman Kodak. Andy told me it was one of last American stops on the Underground Railroad; from here, escaped slaves were smuggled on to Canada. Frederick Douglass is buried here, as is Susan B. Anthony, and the next time I get there, I want to visit their graves. I also plan to visit the Eastman House, which is Kodak's own museum.

Strong National Museum of Play exteriorI had some time before my flight on Tuesday, so Andy suggested I have a look at the Strong National Museum of Play. Margaret Strong was an avid collector, amassing thousands and thousands of dolls, toys, and games. Her collection was the basis for the museum, which also houses the National Toy Hall of Fame. I thought I would only want to spend an hour or so there, but once I got inside I realized just how much there was to see. A lot of it really took me back to my childhood. There was also a lot of interesting social and historical commentary; the collection of toys on the theme of atomic power and nuclear war, reflecting the concerns of the Cold War, really caught my attention. It's one thing to see one or two of these objects, but to have them all together in one place is something else again. We were really fascinated by nuclear war; as a cultural trope it resonates much more strongly than anything I can identify today. Even global warming, which potentially represents a greater disaster than nuclear war, doesn't get turned into toys.

Electrical static toy