Productive Collaboration: Team Fortress 2 Manual

SomethingOne of the coolest games I’ve ever played is Team Fortress 2.   While it’s tons of fun to play, one issue with it is that it doesn’t come with a manual.  Just over a week ago, reddit user ‘lolard’ posted this to the new to tf2 subreddit, asking us to solve this problem.  The reddit community responded.  We fired up an etherpad clone and got to work.  Here’s what we accomplished:

  • In less than 24 hours, we had written nearly 8,000 words.
  • Today, we’re close 13,000 words.
  • More than 50 people have contributed in some way.
  • 28 people have contributed substantially.
  • Gone through at least two major transitions in the style of writing: from 2nd person to third person, and from the voice being used.
  • 4 different websites (3 etherpad clones and
  • My copy of the manual is 56 pages long, formatted.
  • There is now a website:
  • We were flexible enough to neutralize trolls who deleted all our work.

The list can go on.  The message is clear: this has been a massive collaborative work that has produced something amazing in a very short amount of time.  I’ve been involved throughout the whole process, stepping up soon after lolard made the first post.  From this perspective, I’ve learned several things.

  1. The future is live collaboration at the level etherpad (and it’s clones) tried to provide.  Wiki’s are last generation technology that only slow things down.
  2. None of the etherpad clones were able to fully function at our level of collaboration, including the new Google Documents.  We used ietherpad, openetherpad,, and I privately tested Google Documents.  All of them experienced difficulties dealing with both the number of collaborators and the size of the document. functioned the best of the bunch.
  3. Crocodoc is awesome, but does not scale up to groups of more than 2-3, especially for a 50 page document.  It’s flash driven, and was extremely slow.  It claims to be ‘live’ in the sense of etherpad, but it really isn’t at the levels we were using it.  I had to refresh the page to make sure I was viewing all of the changes.
  4. Do not use the time slider on any of the etherpad clones.  This basically made the document useless for everyone over the next 20 minutes as the website did who knows what.  This feature worked great in the original etherpad, so I’m not sure why these clones have trouble with it.  Even had this trouble.

I can’t emphasize enough how much this changed my view of collaboration.  This has been collaboration how it’s supposed to be done.  While reflecting upon this experience, I’ve identified several reasons I think this went so well.

  1. We’re passionate about the subject.  Of course this is important and must appear on the list.
  2. We’re passionate about the community.  This is not necessarily an extension of the first point.
  3. There was no barrier of entry.  Once the pad was created, we could simply spread the URL around, and once people arrived on that page, they could start editing.  There was no registration, no waiting.  They could immediately jump in and start writing.  This was true for all the etherpad clones as well as crocodoc, and I applaud all of those websites for that.
  4. The latest work was immediately available, down to the keystroke.  We could see exactly what others were typing as they were typing it.  Corrections could be done within seconds, and they were not always done by the person who made the mistake.
  5. Version control was transparent.  We didn’t have to think about keeping track of a history; the application did it for us.  Hypothetically, we could even playback that entire history as it played out, but that feature was broken on every website we tried.

The biggest theme is that while we were all very good with technology, the technology was completely transparent.  We didn’t have to think about it (except when it broke, like with the time slider).  We just focused on what we were trying to do, and then we did it.

It’s been an amazing experience so far, and while this project is far from over, our parts are winding down.  Soon, we’ll have a nice manual for team fortress 2 users to go with all this valuable experience we’ve gained.

When Science Meets Anti-Science

As the war between PZ and the folks at the Intersection heats up again, I can’t help but throw my own voice into the cacophony.  The argument is age-old and tries to answer the question: “Why are people so gosh darn ignorant?”  On one side, the answer is because they cling to superstition and ritual.  On the other side, it’s because scientists aren’t good enough educators.  To be fair, the previous two sentences were gross over-simplifications of the respective positions.

To a certain extent, both sides are correct, but it’s not a debate I’m really interested in.  As an educator, the reach of my influence is greater than the common person, but not that great, and I’m personally satisfied with what I’m doing.  I can’t do anything about the rest.

The question I have seems to be the one that the accomodationalists (that is, the people who think scientists should focus only on the science) have yet to answer.  What should be done about those people who are not merely ignorant, but ignorant and proud of it, and actively work against known truth.

I don’t have a problem with people believing evolution is wrong and the earth is only 6000 years old, until those beliefs start influencing public policy.  How should those demonstrably harmful beliefs be handled then?

I don’t have a problem with people taking homeopathic medicine and other alternative medical treatments, but how should those beliefs be treated when they’re foisted upon children and others who are unable to protect themselves?

How should the psychic who preys on the weak and hurt be treated?

How should the faith healers who use honest belief as instrument for personal profit be treated?

The popularization of science is not going to make the young-earth creationist change their mind.  When they come to the schools and attempt to gut science curriculum, what should be done?

Education will work in the long term.  We see it working already.  But it will take decades before we get the kind of literacy society really needs.  What are we supposed to do in the meantime?  Sit silently and hope we don’t destroy ourselves out of ignorance?  What can we do right now beyond education?

These are the questions I’d like answered by the accomodationalists.

Paper: Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds

As I work through my Educational Technology Masters Degree, one of the things I’m very interested in is the use of video games for educational purposes.  So when I saw this article (pdf) entitled “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” a few months ago, I couldn’t wait to read it.

This particular study focused on the users of the popular massive multiplayer online role playing game (mmorpg) World of Warcraft, and specifically an online discussion forum used by players to communicate.  The abstract sums up their findings:

Eighty-six percent of the forum discussions were posts engaged in “social knowledge construction” rather than social banter. Over half of the posts evidenced systems based reasoning, one in ten evidenced model-based reasoning, and 65% displayed an evaluative epistemology in which knowledge is treated as an open-ended process of evaluation and argument.

The paper itself it very accessible, and doesn’t take long to read.  The findings are surprising, and I think important for educators to be aware of.  Since I’m not much of a gamer, I was unaware of the level of detail and care gamers put into playing this game, although after reading “Everything Bad is Good For You” last fall, this really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.  From the paper, here is an example of what I’m talking about:

The calculations correctly show that mind flay [spell]
receives just as much +damage percentage as mind
blast. However mind blast has a 1.5 second cast time,
and mind flay has a 3 second cast time. And therefore
mind flay receives half the dps [damage per second]
boost it should. (post #2609.43)

There are two things about this kind of thinking that really demonstrates something I hope I can foster in my own classroom: the depth of analysis, and social knowledge construction.  The user in this case, wasn’t satisfied by the damages given by a particular attack; they took it a step further and came up with their own method of identifying what kind attack is better (damage per second).  While this particular example seems simple, since it only involves one issue (a single tactical decision), it’s important to realize that this is just a piece of a much larger discussion that involved many more variables. From later in the paper, here is an example of a more complicated, user generated equation:

For Mindflay, SW:P, and presumpably VT [3 priest spells]:

Damage = (base_spell_damage + modifier * damage_gear) *darkness * weaving * shadowform *misery

The second thing they did was post their analysis in a forum, generating discussion and debate.

It was this paper that inspired me last semester, when I was assigned to create a lesson plan that integrated some form of technology, to use Schorched3D as a way for students to create models for learning about trajectory and range.  While I wasn’t able to give this lesson to actual students, and it’s outside the field I actually teach, I think this kind of integration will be necessary in the classrooms of today and tomorrow.

For further reading, there is a wealth of information to be found in the citations of this article.  I also recommend the book “Everything Bad is Good for You.”  Finally, check out Constance Steinkuehler’s website.  She’s done a lot of great work in this area.


  1. Steinkeuhler, Constance & Duncan, Sean (2008). Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17 (6), 530-543

Book Review: Educating Esmé

Earlier this week, I found myself at the public library.  During my browsing, I ran across a book that had been recommended to me by a friend, so I picked it up and checked it out.  The book was Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year.  I’ve been pretty busy this week, but tonight I couldn’t get to sleep so the opportunity to dive in presented itself and I took it.  This book is a relatively quick read, but also contains some emotional depth.

Esmé is a first year teacher at an inner city school in Chicago.  The diary entries contained in the book haven’t been censored for publishing, so it reads as a very authentic look into her perspective.  There are both great victories and terrible defeats, representing the full spectrum of experiences (including some very humorous anecdotes), from a student who stabs a teacher in the back with a pencil, to another student who brings their 2 year old brother to school because there’s no one to watch him at home, to a class yelling “play ball” after the anthem in a very inappropriate (but hilarious) setting, to a class coming together and awing the school with a literature show they put on.  I felt Esmé’s despair and helplessness when considering the situations her students found themselves in, but also her deep pride in their eventual successes.

Working at a university, I am largely ignorant of most of the issues confronting public school teachers, except for those issues relating to educational technology.  This book was very eye-opening in that regard as Esmé’s nemesis throughout the book was the one person who should have given her complete support: the principal.  It was disheartening to read about his repeated meddling over completely irrelevant issues, such as what name Esmé should answer to.  The principal really represents must of what is wrong with public education in this country today.

The hardest part of reading this book is watching the idealism fade away and a near-cynicism replace it, only to see the pride in her students at the end of the book.  About halfway through, I began to worry: was I reading yet another story of a wonderful creative inspirational teacher that would quit after her first year, or third?  According to the Washington Post, half of all teachers quit by their fifth year, so this sort of outcome would not be out of place; in fact, it’s all too common already.

About halfway through the book, Esmé makes the following poignant observation:

“In my opinion, the prefabricated curriculum and board mandates that are concocted to hide [inner classroom workings], can work both ways.  They can be benign suggestions to make talented investors out of teachers.  Or they can make it so people who don’t have anything to share can still work, since their scripts are made up for them.  Nobody really knows which is happening when the teacher closes the door.  At worst, mediocrity.  At best, miracles.”

Have we created a script that anyone can use to “teach?”  I haven’t been able to sleep tonight as I am coming down with some sort of cold, but I think it’s this observation above that will keep me up for just a bit longer.  If you get a chance, especially if you’re a teacher at any level, I highly recommend this book.

This is Actually Happening

Creative Commons License photo credit: TheArtGuy

This post contains BREAKING NEWS.

I haven’t been blogging lately, or keeping up with all my blog subscriptions.  While my Google Reader is telling my I merely have 37 unread posts, this is at least partly due to the judicious use of “mark all as read” button.  But why is this so?  Well, I have my final two grad courses for this semester to finish up this week and the next, and I”m also putting the “finishing” touches on the CMS I’ve written for my School.  But yesterday something was offered to me, and today it was confirmed that has thrown a huge load of work on my shoulders.  I don’t mind one bit, however, because this is something I am *really* looking forward to.  What is it?

*I* am teaching a class here at the University next semester.  My *own* class!  It’s in the catalog.  Students are registering for classes.  I keep pinching myself.  This is *actually happening*.

So what class is it that has my heart thumping in equal parts fear and excitement?  TE385, also known as “Teaching and Learning with Technology.”  Basically I’m going to teach future teachers how to be more effective students and teachers (and people in general) by utilizing technology.

I have many ideas about what I want to cover in this class.  I’m not the only person teaching this course; there are other sections, so there is a basic set of things I need to cover, and then we can move beyond that.  I’ve started the process of creating the syllabus, and the collosal size of this task is starting to set in.  I have a lot of work to do in the next month if this class is going to be successful.

Book Review: Everything Bad Is Good For You

Back in August, my MBP developed some hardware issues that required a visit to the Apple store.  The Kansas City Apple Store happens to be on the famous Plaza, and very near to a Barnes and Noble.  So during this time, I ended up spending a large amount of time browsing books at said store.  As I went through the store, I happened to wander over to the science & technology section where my eyes fell upon a book with a very strange title:  “Everything Bad Is Good For You.”  If that wasn’t enough to pique one’s interest, the subtitle would be: “How today’s popular culture is actually makeing us smarter.”

Needless to say (but I’ll type it anyway), I was extremely skeptical.  Never-the-less, it was a provokative enough title for me to pick it up and turn to the first few pages.  The author, Steven Johnson,  begins with a discussion about a precursor to the modern fantasy sports games.  The story was engrossing enough that I went ahead and purchased the book, and once I was home I devoured it.  I just couldn’t put it down.

Johnson describes what he calls “the sleeper curve.”  His basic argument is that popular culture requires an increasingly complex involvement by the consumer to fully enjoy.  He supports his arguments with several specific examples taken from tv shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Sopranoes” and video games like “Zelda.”  I’m not much of a popular culture participant, and was unfamiliar with all three of these, but this did not hinder my understanding of his argument.  While I had started reading the book quite skeptically, by the end, I felt like he had made a good case using the examples that he did.  However, I do think his argument benefited from a selection bias to begin with.

One of my main criticisms is how citations and the bibliography were handled.  There were no in text citations.  The bibliography contained a snippet of the text where the information was used and then the source itself.  It’s a painful way handle sources.  One nice consideration was a section on suggested further reading, however.

Overall, this is a very worth-while book, and while I’m not completely convinced by his argument, I have to agree that Johnson is certainly on to something.  Published in 2005, it is available from, and other retailers.

Other Book Reviews Coming Down the Pipeline:

1) The Tipping Point and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

2) The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

3)  Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner

I realize I’m a bit behind the times, especially with gladwell’s books, but I don’t personally know anyone else who has read them.

Being Critical of Anything is Good

This story gets under my nerves.  A professor asked his students to write an essay critical of U.S. VP Candidate Sarah Palin.  The article doesn’t provide any details of the assignment directly, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason why such an assignment would be wrong, especially at the college level.

This isn’t about your views.  This isn’t about whether you like or dislike Sarah Palin.  Reading the sentence on it’s own merits, it doesn’t even necessarily mean finding flaws in Ms. Palin:

1. To find fault with: criticized the decision as unrealistic.
2. To judge the merits and faults of; analyze and evaluate.

I would like to draw your attention to the second definition, as it is the one most commonly used in higher education.

But let us suppose that this wasn’t the case.  The assignment really was to write an essay that found fault with Sarah Palin.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that either.  One thing any well balanced should be able to do is formulate an argument whether they agree with it or not.  It is a necessary part of being able to understand anything.

Where is the problem?

It drives me batty that anyone attending an institute of higher education would not recognize this.  It drives me batty that the press are even paying attention to this.  Isn’t the skill this lesson is aimed towards a fundamental part of being a journalist?

I’m planning on voting for Barack Obama this fall.  Here are a few faults he has:

  • His recent FISA vote was so wrong, that to completely explain why would not be appropriate for this blog post.
  • He appears to think it’s wrong to criticize other people’s religion.
  • A few of his commercials have not been completely honest in their criticisms of his opponent.

Those are three things right off the top of my head.  If I sat down to think about it more, I’m sure I could come up with several more.

I fear the real issue here is avoidance of being self-critical.  If you agree with Sarah Palin, criticism of her is criticism of you.  We can’t have that in the classroom, obviously.

Dammit, grow some courage, people.

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. -Carl Sagan”

Plagiarism and Copyright

As the drama surrounding the release of ‘Expelled‘ continues to unfold, there seems to be a lot of confusion around the difference between Plagiarism and Copyright violations.

A copyright violation is when you take the copyrighted work of someone else and use it in a way that they have not given permission for. Want to video tape an NFL game and show a portion in a classroom? That’s a copyright violation. Want to copy a DVD and give it to a friend? Technically, that’s a copyright violation. IANAL, so the subtleties of copyright continue to elude me, but that’s the basics.

Plagiarism is where you take the work of someone else and claim it as your own. If you take a photograph off of flickr that has been released under a certain creative commons license and you claim it as your own, that is not a copyright violation. It is plagiarism. If you take a copy of my .NET Geotagging library and claim you have written it, that’s not a copyright violation, since I released it to the public domain. It is plagiarism.

Taking a video, recreating it without the authors permission, and claiming it as your own? That is both a copyright violation and plagiarism. You fail.

P.S.  This great explanation has been posted over at ERV in the comments:

What the fuck is the matter with those people???

It’s beginning to look like some of them think that this is what scientists actually do all day. They muck about a bit, copy each other’s work, and ad lib their own bullshit on top. More cargo cult science. “Waah, why isn’t it working for us?” I don’t know how they are missing the parts where we collect new data and do experiments.

Scientific Literacy

Here is a recent article in Seed, written by Thomas W. Martin, entitled, Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse. Excerpt:

Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.

Can we make this required reading?

Mr. Martin hits upon another issue I have a real pet peeve about:

In the present cultural climate, altering one’s beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness.

Political races especially have illustrated this perfectly. It’s a side effect of not having any popularly accepted standard of truth. People would prefer to deny reality itself in order to ‘feel-good’ or, in the political arena, appeal to some sub-group of people.

Chlorophyll Extraction

I tried another experiment last night. I had heard somewhere that if you boil green leaves, you can extract the chlorophyll from them when can then be excited by exposure to light, making the solution ‘glow’ as electrons move around. So I dutifully went out, gathered several leaves and put them in a beaker, which I heated over my Bunsen burner.

Note to self: Get new Bunsen Burner. After heating it for about 20 minutes and it still hadn’t boiled, I decided a new tactic was necessary.

Note to self: Buy more Denatured Alcohol.

I poured some of the liquid into a test tube, and added some of the leaves. Now the water started boiling pretty quickly. The water wasn’t getting any greener, though. After observing it boil for a while, I decided it was as good as it was going to get, and cut the flame. Then I removed the leaves, and exposed the final solution to a light source.

I was underwhelmed, to say the least.

There are several possibilities I have thought of as to what went wrong:

  1. Boiling leaves is not an efficient method of chlorophyll extraction. Can be fixed by discovering a more efficient method.
  2. I didn’t allow the leaves to boil long enough and need to be more patient.
  3. My light source (a flashlight) was either not powerful enough, or did not give out light in the right part of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
  4. My original hypothesis, that extracted chlorophyll will glow when exposed to a light source, is wrong.
  5. Yet to be discovered.

A cursory search on google and I discovered that my original hypothesis appears to be correct, but my methods are lacking. At least I know I’m on the right track.

I’m purposely avoiding looking at how other people have done this in the past. I want to work it out on my own. Who knows what I might figure out along the way?

First, I’m going to try to find a better method of chlorophyll extraction. Alcohol might be a better choice than water, or perhaps an acid or base. I’ll also try boiling leaves in water for a longer period of time.

Second, I’ll find different light sources, perhaps a UV light source, like a black light, and an IR light source (a remote control perhaps?).

I think I’ll also try to locate some thicker leaves than the ones I’m using. Perhaps elm’s just aren’t a good source.

If I’m only changing one variable at a time, I’ll be busy for a while!