Monday, May 26, 2008

It's a Thin Line...

This is my 1970 Dodge A-108 Tradesman van, affectionately named "Scooby" based on it's similarities to the mystery machine in the Scooby-Doo cartoons. I bought it in 1999 around this time of year from a gentleman who owns Howard Prairie Resort, about 30 minutes NE of Ashland. I first laid eyes on Scooby when Christy and I were looking for real estate in the late 90's - we still lived in Seattle at the time. We had dropped by Howard Prairie Lake to eat lunch, recapture some of her childhood, and check out cabin properties.

Prior to '99, Scooby had spent the last 10 years as a linen delivery and cleaning supply van at the resort. Prior to that it was a trapped in a barn for the previous 10 years, and was given up to cover a debt that was owed. Who knows what that van had been through previously. I asked the owner if she was for sale, and he said that it didn't run but I could buy it for $600. Even though I knew that it was worth less, I bought it and had it towed to a lazy mechanic in Talent, Oregon. We left town and returned to Seattle that week, but Scooby stayed for repairs. Roughly $1,500 dollars (oy!) of engine work and a week passed before I flew from Seattle to Medford to pick her up and drive her back to Seattle. The engine on this thing is a 318 V8 and it literally sits between the two front seats in what's known as a "doghouse", otherwise known as the devil's cauldron! The radiator is enclosed on the front end and it gets very hot.

The trip to Seattle was brutal. The doghouse seals were broken, so it was like sitting in a closed oil drum with hot air and exhaust all around you. I only made it just south of Portland before calling Christy to tell her that it would be a two day trip. I remember driving it up to our house with that little boy enthusiasm for a new toy. Later at a friend's barbecue, I remember bragging about how cool it was and Christy said, "...Scooby sits somewhere between cool and pervy. You really could go either way with that thing." This is particularly concerning given the van trends of the seventies. For a frightening dose of the vannin' lifestyle check out, "The Van."

Perhaps I was born in the wrong era. No one really appreciates these vans like I do. For 10 years now, I've fought the recommendations to sell it, to put curtains in the windows, to give it away. I even sold it to my friend Tyler for six months and bought it back. Scooby is part of me, and whenever I drive it there's a smile on my face. You complete me. Now, if I can just find the money to convert Scooby to electric power...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Thinking Machines (a geeky hardware bio)

I've been spending a lot of time with my laptop lately, sometimes at the exclusion of my friends and family. At my current rate of usage, I'm either headed for a techno-break this summer or an addiction intervention. My current "ride" is a Dell Inspiron E1705 - which features a 17" wide screen and a recent video card mod. I picked up a Nvidia 7800 GTX last winter in order to handle some of the new games on the market, any more power and this thing is going to melt. The laptop was originally a gift to my wife, who used it for about a year before admitting that it was a little large for her tastes. I know, shades of Homer Simpson giving Marge a bowling ball with his named engraved on it. We ended up buying her a smaller laptop, which was a better aesthetic fit for her writers lifestyle. If you know Christy, she's on a constant quest for all things tiny (case in point, check out the ASUS Eee PC). Ok, enough chatter, on with the infinitely interesting hardware bio categorized for your convenience.

70's: Home Gaming Consoles
If any of you grew up in the 70's, undoubtedly you'll remember the living room invasion knownas Pong. A kid on my street was the first to get the Magnavox Odyssey. I'm not going to describe it because this video will provide everything you need. Who would have known that light blocks were so captivating!?! This progressed to several other iterations like the Sears and J.C. Penny's knock-offs until the awesomely wood grained Atari 2600 arrived on the market. This machine gave us the closest thing yet to a real arcade experience.

80's: Personal Computers Arrive
Contrary to the idea that the Apple IIe started it all, the gaming console plowed the way for PCs to enter the home in the 80's. Colecovision was the starting left tackle, making way for the Donkey Kong touchdown. Also, Intellivision football remains etched in my mind. Apple's and IBM's were still too expensive for my social caste, so the Tandy TRS-80(a.k.a. Trash 80) was my first real computer experience. I first learned to navigate DOS, and hilariously simple text adventure games using this machine.In high school, my class used Atari 400's to learn BASIC and make simple games using Atari's Player Missile Graphics system. Typing on its mylar-beeping keyboard was quite a challenge, not to mention that a few pages of code would fill it's 8k of memory. I loved this machine, and I still have one today. Later in high school, my friend Jay picked up a Commodore 64 which led to early bulletin-board piracy, and a creepy visit to a local illegal game seller (on 5.25" floppies, no less!). M.U.L.E. and JumpMan were both awesome games on that platform.

It wasn't until college that I started to see the Apple Macintosh show up in my dorm. I lusted after the Mac but again it was too expensive, only the spoiled kids had them. By this time, the acronym "PC" had come to mean a DOS-based platform. I survived the early iterations of Microsoft Windows with several 286/386 machines in the late 80's. Let's remember that this was the era in which Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect ruled the desktop. Microsoft wasn't a powerhouse in anything but MS-DOS at this point, and that wouldn't change until Windows 3.0 came out in 1990. As a quick sidebar, when I left Microsoft in '96 we had over 85% market share in word processing and spreadsheets - shows you how voracious Microsoft was in the 90's. Another odd factoid, my first machine at Microsoft was a Macintosh which I used for the first year I was employed at the company until Windows 3.1 came out and all our Macs were replaced with PCs.

The Obsolete 90's
I was really frustrated with PCs during this decade. I remember buying a Dell Pentium 90 when they first came out in the early 90's. I spent a little over $2k on a machine that was basically obsolete in a little over a year. It's coolest feature was the new CD-ROM drive, which could run illustrious "multimedia" titles like "Microsoft Frank Lloyd Wright", "Myst", and "Seventh Guest". Moore's Law was pounding my bank account. Essentially, there was something infinitely better coming out every six to ten months, that would totally change your life. This is the first time I remember caring about the processor/RAM/video card combinations in my machine. Laptops were still incredible heavy in the mid 90's. I remember lugging around a buggy Compaq laptop in some of my consulting gigs. In retrospect the best value of the 90's was the much-ridiculed eMachine. It was like an old sock, if you found a hole in it you'd just throw it away and buy a new one. Unfortunately, my wife inherited most of my old socks - indifferent to my fanboy tech needs...

The New Century of Customization
Around the turn of the century (I love that we get to say that now, it sounds so important), I started building my own PCs based on all the readily available components on the Internet. I definitely had the DIY bug up until about 3 years ago when I became a Dell zealot. I have built everything from the obnoxiously large server tower case to the a tiny shoebox-sized machine with a handle - because you never know when a LAN party might bust out and you gotta jam! Now in 2008 I'm all about the laptop - portable, powerful, and flexible. Alright, that last line was like a bad tag line. I'm amazed if any of you are still reading at this point, time to type "CLS" and go do something else.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


In my game programming class, our last assignment was to create a Pong game using Flash and ActionScript. I usually create a game along with my students to keep my coding chops fresh. Behold, I give you RoboPong! A mix of 8-bit nostalgia matched with dorky cylon-inspired robots, and painfully nerdy sound effects... Click here to play.

Amazingly, all of this comes in a tiny 48k file. Props to vector graphics and compression! Please email me with any bugs. Miles, I'm waiting for you to return serve. Later.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Small Schools

I am part of a small school that operates within my large comprehensive high school. I work with a team of teachers and students within the BACH school, which stands for "Bridging the Arts Communications and Humanities." The simple definition is that I teach in a performing arts school, but it's much more interesting and complicated.

Our efforts are funded by the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, a program of E3: Employers for Education Excellence. We're in the fourth year of a $1.25 million dollar investment from this organization, and it's yielded some excellent results both in student performance and in teaching practices. The basic idea is to split large comprehensive high schools into smaller learning communities to recapture educational rigor, build better relationships with students, and make the whole experience more relevant to real life.

Educational institutions are a hard ship to steer. Schools are essentially operating under the same basic constructs since the early part of the twentieth century. It goes like this:
  • Students attend mandatory school where they participate in several important classes for roughly eight hours a day, five days a week.
  • The teacher delivers subject area knowledge based on their personal views and experiences, usually beneath the guidance of what the state government believes are the appropriate curriculum standards.
  • If the student completes homework and tests, follows the teacher's directions, and "learns" what the teacher deems important... ta-da, they pass the class.

Doesn't this seem like a dangerously delicate strategy for learning? There are so many things that have to go right in this scenario for real learning and not just playback to occur. As a teacher, I feel this pressure in the classroom. How do I keep all students interested, imbue the exact, cutting-edge knowledge they need, try to relate everything to real life, all while ensuring that I'm not using my own personal and cultural bias in my selection and delivery of curriculum?

In a world that is scheduled in 15 minute increments, with vast amounts of knowledge available 24/7 on the Internet, and the ability to communicate globally within seconds - we're still forcing young people to sit in a desk and take notes for 60-90 minutes per class. We have the technology to enable students to choose the world's greatest teachers, but we don't let them use it. We have the ability to let students teach each other, but we're too afraid of losing control. I know, I'm ranting, but I feel strongly about these issues. In my seven years of teaching, I've seen far too many students sleeping at their desks while teachers are up front having a great time listening to themselves talk.

So... what to do? Reform the system, reform teaching practices, allow students to choose their own learning paths, let the community come into the classroom and vice versa. There is much to do, it is a monumental task, but I'm really proud that we're starting to turn the ship around.