Monday, August 14, 2017

Sabbath Musings - The Spirit of Prophecy

Unknown Allegory With a Man Dancing, by Brian Kershisnik
Disclaimer: this is a post about my daily musings. These are thoughts I've had as I've pondered things throughout the day. They are not official declarations of doctrine, nor are they definitive statements of what I believe to be true. I'm trying to figure out what I think, and part of that process happens here, where I write down the stuff that occurs to me to consider. Posts like this can be pretty wide-ranging and might include some weird ideas. I don't have a problem with weird ideas, but their appearance here doesn't mean I'm fully adopting or endorsing them. Please read with that in mind. 

So it's been over two years since I posted. This isn't promising any kind of return to regularity, but I felt like writing something tonight.



A conversation at church today got me thinking about prophecy. Prophecy. It's quite an audacious claim we make in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: that the men who lead our church are prophets in the biblical sense of the word. Men who speak directly to God and receive from Him instructions and guidance for not only God's people, but the entire world. But I wonder if it isn't more audacious to remember that this same spirit of prophecy is made available to all as one of God's spiritual gifts. In fact, if Paul is to be believed, it's one of the gifts we should seek after most earnestly. From 1 Corinthians 14:

"Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy." (verse 1)

And later in the same chapter:

"Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy..." (verse 39)
From various passages in the scriptures (one example), it seems this spirit is to be obtained through fasting, prayer, and study of the words of the prophets. It's not a special privilege of the few chosen to lead. It's a guide for the benefit of all who speak in the name of the Lord, or who desire to understand their words (see item 9 in the link). Its use is also not reserved for the realm of the purely spiritual. The Old Testament is full of examples of this, but I'll call out one from The Book of Mormon because it uses the words. From Alma 16:5, emphasis mine:

"...now Zoram and his two sons, knowing that Alma was high priest over the church, and having heard that he had the spirit of prophecy, therefore they went unto him and desired of him to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites."

In the story, it works. Alma asks the Lord, who answers. Then Alma gives them advice on where to go. They listen, and are successful. That's how prophecy operates.

It's worth saying that Zoram and his sons could probably have gotten this same help themselves, if they had spent their lives cultivating the spirit of prophecy. They may well have done so, but this was an emergency and they wanted to be sure. We tend to have a lot more faith in the ability of our leaders to be divinely directed than in our own ability to do the same. Hard to blame us, when we consider that they are literal Prophets (note the capitalization).

So what is the spirit of prophecy? As with many things the scriptures give us a very helpful definition:

"...the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Revelation 19:10)
Let's think about that for a minute. It's easy to think of the testimony of Jesus as a simple belief that Christ lived and completed His atonement. For Mormons, it's easy to extend that to include a belief in Christ's restoration of the gospel and organization of the church. That's a necessary beginning, but I think it's more.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in his book Christ and the New Covenant, says that faith, in order to be living and effective in a person's life, must be based not only on things of the past, but on things of the future. That's a pretty logical concept. Faith pertains to things we don't yet know and, as muddy as history can be, the past is still the realm of the known. Or at the very least, it is the realm of what can no longer be changed by our choices, and therefore could be known if we could find a reliable source of information.

For our faith to make a difference in our lives - for it to matter at all - it must bear relevance to something that can still be influenced (i.e. the future). It must be centered on a god whose power extends to the future. So faith in Christ, to make any difference in our lives, must be centered on the Christ to come, not just on the Christ who came. It is the living Christ, not just Christ crucified, who we worship.

Well, what do we call the ability to perceive or know things pertaining to futurity? Generally we call it prophecy. So if our faith is centered on a Christ who we believe will someday return, then John's statement in Revelation appears aptly descriptive. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. But it's not the mere acknowledgement of general belief in Christ. It has to be the living belief that everything - our hopes, our successes, our joys, our blessings, our families, ourselves, our entire futures - hangs on the promises of the gospel being true. It has to inspire us to live with this conviction: that the promises are true and that we therefore must live up to them or fall short of our potential, because someday Jesus will come again. That day can hold hope for us or dread, but for our testimonies to be vital - to be prophetic - we must expect that it will come.

This is just a post about today's musings, but if I'm driving at a point, I suppose it's this: we need the spirit of prophecy in our own lives. We need it desperately to survive spiritually in a world that has adopted an admirable form of godliness, but denies the power thereof. We need it to help our families navigate the "war of words and tumult of opinions" in the midst of which we must operate our earthly vessels. It's more than simply believing in Christ. It's what that belief inspires us to do. To study his words. To seek communion with him through fasting and prayer. To live according to his commandments. These actions open a channel to the God of truth who cannot lie, and who can help us comprehend the truth as he does.

"And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;" (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24, emphasis mine).

In other words, truth includes a knowledge of the future. For parents, this might include the ability to see the potential of their children - to perceive them as the beings they may become if they choose. For an individual, it might be to see this same potential in themselves. It might be a flash of inspiration warning to make a specific choice or avoid a certain failing. It might be a vision of a time to be, even if that vision's purpose isn't clear. It might be flashes of insight into the consequences of certain choices or the conditions that will result from the interaction of external forces. It might be the discernment of a subtle error in a popular philosophy that, if adopted, may cloud the way to greater understanding. It might be guidance about what to study to succeed on an upcoming test. To list all the forms it might take would be impossible, but its scope can range from the most grand visions to the most mundane concerns. It is any time we receive by the spirit of God a knowledge of things to come, even if we don't recognize it as such at the time. This is the spirit of prophecy.

I don't say that we should all seek to be Prophets (note the capital P), judging the world or issuing universal commandments from on high. But within the realm of our own stewardships: in our families, quorums, relationships, callings - in our individual discipleship - we have the privilege to be prophets. We are already called to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Let us behave as though we believed it, and seek the spirit of prophecy.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Some Thoughts on The Lord's Prayer

As the final part of his preface to teaching what would come to be known as The Lord's Prayer, Christ gave this instruction:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).
At first glance, this almost seems counterintuitive to the notion of prayer: don't ask for things over and over even if you really need them because God already knows about it. At the very least the teaching undermines the "squeaky wheel" philosophy taught elsewhere. In the past, I've always read this to basically mean that when you're asking of God, once is enough. As a parent, I can get behind that. I know what my kids need most of the time and when they ask me I give it if I can. I don't need to be asked every five seconds. Indeed, that kind of behavior from my kids usually irritates me and makes me less likely to grant their request in the short term, especially if it's for something I see no benefit in.

It's that last part that came home to me today. When my kids ask me for things I know they need, I gladly give them, even though I might not have given them - or at least not so soon - had they not gone to the trouble of asking.

The Savior's reminder that God already knows what we need doesn't remove from us the requirement of asking, but informs our purpose in doing so. We're not letting God know about our needs. Instead, we're demonstrating to God that we ourselves understand for what we should be asking. Nephi reminds us that God will give liberally if we ask not amiss. Maybe we can define "not asking amiss" as any request that is born out of a sincere desire to do God's will. I believe that God guides such requests when we carefully consider them, and helps us gain a better understanding of what we truly should be asking for. After all, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done..." encapsulates pretty much everything we are instructed to ask for other than food, forgiveness, and protection from evil.

So we ask in faith for the things that God reveals to us are requisite to the furtherance of his plan, or otherwise aligned with his will. This makes some things easy. Pretty much any time we pray charitably for others, we've got the right idea. But it prevents us from being lazy. This kind of prayer can only be given in harmony with the spirit of revelation - which in my experience doesn't usually come only at the moment of prayer itself. It works best when the words we speak are based on promptings we've pondered over a period of time, spoken as part of a specific prayer because of their relevance to that prayer's purpose. That means work: constantly seeking to discover God's, and pursuing ways of building up his kingdom. That... sounds remarkably like what we should be doing anyway.

We might repeat words and phrases in following this pattern, and we might well end up asking for many of the same things we would have before, but those repetitions won't be vain because they are inspired and the requests will be motivated by a sanctified desire to do God's will, not selfishness. Such prayers defy the definition of the word vain because they invoke the will and therefore the effectual power of God. Jesus' teaching that God knows what we need before we ask doesn't complicate prayer, it focuses it on things that we can truly expect affirmative answers to, all of which fall under those few categories laid out below:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread.And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.



Sunday, March 1, 2015

How Our Current Grading System Directly Undermines the Goals of Education

As should be so obvious it hardly needs stating, the purpose of most any class is to take someone with a certain baseline of knowledge in a subject (ranging from nothing to quite a bit) and add to his or her competence in, understanding of, or exposure to the relevant topics. In other words, classes are designed to facilitate learning in some way. We go to school to learn. Is it safe to say we can all agree on that?

My purpose is not to address what, why, or (mostly) how we learn. Those are all weighty topics that deserve their own attention. I just want to point out that the way we evaluate learning is, at its most fundamental level, not only flawed but directly counterproductive. 

I'm talking about letter grades. 

Given our initial assumption, that in a class we should start at the relative "bottom" and work our way upward, we should theoretically have an evaluation metric that mirrors that progression. Instead, we have the opposite. Here's my inartistic and incomplete visual metaphor for how grading currently works:


The balloon in this drawing represents the student, who starts at the edge of the cliff and, with an initial updraft that comes from excitement, energy, a teacher, a parent, or personal determination, gets off to a great start. Of course, not all students are like this, but let's be optimistic. Very soon, however, a problem develops. The student makes a mistake by flying into the path of a well-meaning sportsman (riiight). The question is answered incorrectly, the assignment failed, and now the student has a less-than-perfect score. Under our current grading system, although the student begins the class at the bottom of the developmental scale in the subject, he or she also begins with the assumption of top marks: there are no strikes against him or her, so the student coasts along with an "A" grade. As soon as the student makes a mistake, however, ground is irretrievably lost. Sure, there's credit recovery, make-up tests, and other interventions, but without some sort of deus ex machina, it is now impossible for the student to achieve a perfect score (i.e. the highest possible grade). If continued, this translates to closed doors down the line as secondary schools, employers, and others withhold opportunities, seeking instead the students who made the grade.

Recognizing this, schools, legislators, parents, and well-meaning individuals and organizations try all manner of strategies to help kids "get their grades up," thinking this will equate to a meaningful solution. Sometimes it does. Some kids genuinely get on the path to more effective learning, improve themselves, and become better prepared for later life. But sometimes people work the system, pressuring teachers to give kids grades they haven't really earned, or to grandly reward the most token efforts in the name of positive reinforcement. Some teachers, loving their students, do these things on their own, trying to preserve opportunities for students whose potential they can see, but who for some reason haven't taken control of their own lives. Sometimes teachers do this to avoid the wrath of parents who want to make sure their kids get "good" grades, or to preserve government funding based on student performance, possibly because of administrative pressure or simply to feel good about how they're doing their own jobs - temptations people in all professions sometimes succumb to. 

This, in turn, conditions students to focus on what letter grade they have, rather than how well they have progressed in the subject matter. Many kids may not see the difference, but pay attention to a teenager sometime. Ask how he's doing in school. Ask about her grades. Odds are, she will start telling you stories about negotiating with teachers for better grades, making up a poor grade by doing far less or different work than it would have taken to get the grade in the first place, or a time when he suffered some kind of extreme stress because of a grade, whether or not it was deserved.  

Furthermore, notice how often a single failure - an absence from a key class period, a poor score on an important assignment, a failed test, a negative relationship with a specific teacher - features as the main reason for the bad grades in these stories. Sometimes these failures are skewed out of proportion, but many times they are all too real. Doing poorly at the wrong time for any reason can, and often does permanently damage a student's grade to the point that making it up requires special accommodation. 

Now, I'm not saying the concept of letter grades is the source of all educational ills, but we have set up a system that only rewards perfection, and even then the reward consists merely of maintaining status, not any kind of growth or increase. Even when the ground to be gained in subject matter is daunting, the only way to be rewarded above and beyond simply keeping the same grade you had at the beginning of the class is to complete extra credit, meaning additional tasks that further increase difficulty, and, for the high-performing student, offer little increase: from an A to an A+, a nominal distinction with few if any benefits beyond a proud feeling and increased expectations for the next class.

Now let's consider a different model:


This looks like a warm, fuzzy illustration of many years of rhetoric about how we all have different paths to follow and are all at different places on our path. The funny thing is, it also looks like how students actually learn. Some coast along above the rest of the class, not knowing any more but grasping the material more easily. Some struggle the whole way up the slope. Others hang out at a specific spot for a while before moving on (or not), and still others zip to the top and would keep going far beyond the scope of any single class, if we would only let them. 

What if there was a system in which everyone in a class started not with the assumption of a perfect score, but with the much more realistic assumption that they have a lot to learn? What if we started at the bottom and, as the gamers say, leveled up as we went along? What if rather than having a single standard for perfection that could only be maintained or fallen from, we had a standard of progression that was, quite literally, unlimited? Imagine a student being able to achieve a level 13 in math - a respectable accomplishment that might get you up to geometry - while another could get all the way to calculus at level 25. A third, struggling student, might only reach level 6 in a given year, but that would be OK because instead of having fallen from grace, that student would still be getting rewarded for every right answer. Every effort would bring with it a tangible benefit. Failure and misunderstanding would result in additional attention from the teacher, but not in a punitive way. There would be no ground to lose as long as the student was trying. There would be no shame in retaking a class if you could start at the level you left off on before. In fact, you could mix all kinds of ages and ability levels in the same class, provided the curriculum was well designed (more on that another time) so there would be no per se re-taking a class. It would just be Math, a class shared by all, and students would progress as fast as they were able.

Plus, the long-term benefits of subjects like math would remain. These benefits, in my opinion, do not reside in being able to compute advanced statistical formulas - that's only useful on a day-to-day basis for statisticians and a precious few others. The rest of us have helps and shortcuts for things we lack true aptitude for. The lasting benefit is in the development of the mind that comes from practicing the logical, analytical thinking that math requires. That's just one example. Something similar could be said for any subject. 

This is far from a Utopian solution, of course. Parents would still demand performance at a specific level by a specific age. Students and others would still look down on those who progress more slowly. Governments would still want to impose one-size-fits-all metrics for purposes of funding and evaluation. Colleges, universities, and employers would still show preference for the highest-performing students. Most of the pressures I've already described would remain, and not all of them are bad things. But one key element would change: fear. 

There would still be standards and expectations, but fear of failure would evaporate, and we could focus on helping students genuinely learn. Grades would actually mean something because they would reflect actual understanding, achievable only by performance. Kids would progress faster because they wouldn't be afraid of being punished, and they could help each other along more easily because they would be more confident in their own skills. They might only earn a Math level 7 by midterm, but that could be improved with extra effort, while perhaps backing off for a while in a subject that comes more easily, and this could be done with no negative repercussions. Students who lack an aptitude for math might easily excel in language arts, social studies, fine arts, or some other area, while still continuing their gradual but rewarding progress in the harder subjects. Instead of worrying about an all-inclusive and over-simplified GPA, a student might graduate with an accumulated level 12 in math, level 30 in English, level 26 in social studies, level 17 in science, and level 32 in art. Of course it could (and likely would) get more complex than that, but you get the idea. This would give counselors a better idea of how to direct student ambitions, and students themselves would have a better idea of their true strengths and weaknesses. Schools could still set benchmarks, but they could be based on competency level, not grade level. Best of all, students would be empowered to achieve as much as they can, without arbitrary limits. Hopefully I don't have to go on listing the benefits, because they should be easy to extrapolate from here. 

I have a lot more to say on restructuring education, but what are your thoughts about this most basic element: how we evaluate progress? What have I missed?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thinking About Labels

I feel like this is a subject we get lots of mixed signals on, and it's one I've struggled with for many years. We learn even in elementary school about the obvious stuff: it's bad to label others in a way that reinforces biases, stereotypes, or negative feelings. So we don't toss around words like loser, freak, or worse when we're talking about those around us. Except that kids these days do just that as a show of affection, of all things. We also don't apply harmful labels to ourselves. Except most of us do that too. But we shouldn't, and neither should the kids. Right?

So much for the easy part. The problem is what you do after that because we have a natural need not only to comprehend the world around us, but to better understand ourselves, and part of that is classifying things. That's a tree. That's a type of table. Mars is a planet but Pluto isn't because it's too dwarfish, or something. As for that panda over there: it's either a bear or a raccoon, and someday someone will figure it out for sure.

Note: I'm labeling this version of this song as "not my favorite."

Classifying things can be helpful, but for some reason we're forbidden from doing it with the most influential things in our lives: people.

Or are we? A lot of times our reaction to negative labels is to flood the world with positive ones: that kid isn't geeky, he's smart. She's not brutal, she's athletic. But last year a coworker of mine put out an email linking to information on why we shouldn't reinforce our students by calling them smart. It had to do with unintentionally encouraging kids to rely on innate intelligence while devaluing effort. If a kid is "smart" (s)he doesn't need to work hard in school, etc. and the most important thing becomes maintaining the impression of smartness and not actually learning new things. I understood that because I struggled with it personally in school and I've seen other kids deal with it too, but does that mean all positive labels run the same risk? You're really brave. Well, then I guess I have to do stupid, dangerous things to maintain that label. You're such a good person. In that case, I certainly can't show any kind of weakness. Even our most powerful labels might fall prey to this conundrum. I am a child of God. Then I must be certain to never appear to struggle with anything that anyone might possibly call "sin" no matter how ill-conceived their definition of it may be. In fact, I better not struggle at all and just pretend everything makes sense to me. Either that, or we don't have to try to be good after all. It's pointless because we're all sinners.

We can even make it more mundane (ack, label!). I'm white and American. Does that mean I have to be arrogant and ignorant? Does it mean I have to try really hard to prove that I'm not arrogant or ignorant? Actually, despite my looks, I've never considered myself "white" or even caucasian because my family history is really quite ethnically diverse. But there isn't a quick word for that. Do you see what I'm saying? Either way we go we're setting up expectations: we're putting people into boxes they may not wholly fit into. They may not want to fit.



The problem with labels is this: they positively identify people and things as belonging to a category, which means they also carry additional meanings that may not be suitable for a given context. The big advantage of labels is this: they positively identify people and things as belonging to a category, which means they also carry additional meanings that may be suitable for a given context. They both aid and hamper communication.

In high school I watched a documentary about some of the great jazz musicians of years gone by. One man recalled Duke Ellington's hatred of labels, saying that the greatest compliment one could receive from him went as follows: "you are beyond category."

That seemed so open and full of possibility that it really appealed to me at the time, but it's frustrated me since because it's still a label, it's just in denial about it. This makes it even less useful than other labels because it's basically saying, "here's a label for you that means that no other labels apply to you so you can't really be anything. Either that, or you have to be everything."

Can I call Duke Ellington a musician? That's a label, and it does what labels do. It tells me about him and it establishes expectations for some aspect of his existence. But what if he wants to transcend that label? Can I call him an artist? That's more broad, so it gives him more wiggle room, but it might also be more restrictive because it implies certain personality traits more strongly than the label "musician." How about human. Can he be a human? That's such a big box that he doesn't even have to do anything to fit inside it. But what is a human? Well, I know it's not a Panda, but aren't we all genetically a little bit deviant from one another? Well then, can Duke Ellington be one of the X-men? Whoa, I think we're moving in the wrong direction now. Maybe I'm just being (label!) cynical.

We have to use labels, otherwise we could never communicate efficiently. Even giving a name to someone is giving them a label, as my daughters will tell you. We recently had a talk about the meanings of all of their names and boy (girl?), was that a mistake. I ended up saying terribly awkward things like, "Not everyone's name can mean everything, girls! Just because her name means the name of some good quality doesn't mean you don't have that quality too. Her name doesn't mean the name of the good quality that your name means..." Blech. What do they want from me, to call them all by a list of desirable virtues? That would certainly make life better for them.



We have to use labels, but we also have to careful about how much stock we put in them, either on the giving or the receiving end. I had a conversation once about how we define ourselves by our limitations, and that's a good thing. By the way, even "good" and "evil" are labels, and they can be some of the most powerful we have, and some of the most damaging when misapplied. Point is, saying "I am a child of God" can feel incredibly liberating and empowering, because a child of God has limitless potential. Paradoxically (yay!) that label also implies extreme limitations because there are many things a child of God is expected to do and not do. The label lays out a course for life: not all the details, perhaps, but a path that is at the same time generic and specific. It grants direction and momentum by eliminating movement in all but a select few directions. The same is true of any label. Perhaps which directions are cut off and which are enabled depends on how we receive the label.

We could carry this on forever, extrapolating the implications of various labels, but I've already gone on for too long. This is just an insomnia-induced brain dump on the topic. In fact the specific label I was thinking of at the time I decided to write this post was "insomniac." I've had trouble sleeping for a couple of months, which I learned puts my problem in the box called "chronic insomnia" and I was wondering if I should think of myself as an insomniac. That made me feel icky. It felt like I was giving the word control over my life. Maybe there are some labels that we should allow to have control over us, but I don't think "insomniac" is one. At least not for me.

And now, ironically (or perhaps appropriately), I'm going to add labels to this post, publish it, and go to bed.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Puzzle Games: They Should Be Solvable

I like games. I don't spend huge amounts of time playing them, but I like them, both physical and computerized. One genre I'm particularly fond of is the puzzle game, and I've come across some real gems for iOS over the years. But this post isn't about those good experiences. Instead, as is so often the case, I'm only speaking up because of bad experiences. You're welcome.

Probably the most important thing that makes puzzle games work is the hope of solving them. That should be really, painfully obvious to even the densest of game developers. No matter how clever your concept, how fun the gameplay, how slick the design, how smooth or intuitive the controls, if the puzzle can't be solved, there's no point in trying. Isn't that immediately apparent from considering anything from tangrams to those little interlocking ring thingies? The thing that keeps people going at it for hours is that they know, no matter how impossible it seems, that there is a way to succeed.

Well, not anymore. I frequently try out new puzzle games on my iPhone. I'm cheap, so I only try the free ones, but anyone can tell you that there are lots of really good games for free these days. One that I recently tried was called Bubble Witch Saga 2.

Yeah, I know it's not a name that immediately jumps out to your average 30-something 21st century male, but I have lots of daughters, so give me a break. No gender stereotyping in this post.

In the game, you're given the task of shooting colored bubbles to make matches and achieve various goals. It might be clearing the board, it might be releasing cute little animals trapped inside the bubbles, or it might be freeing a similarly trapped ghost.

The gameplay is pretty fun, and new types of obstacles come up often enough that things don't really get boring. In fact, some levels are pretty tough, even assuming you get the right color bubbles to win.

Which brings me to my complaint. Probably about 70% of the time, you don't get the right bubbles to win. I mean, with the bubbles you're given by the game, there is literally no possibility of passing the level. It's an exercise in futility. For example, you might be tasked with clearing the top of the board, and be facing an impenetrable blockade of red and yellow bubbles. You have a limit of 14 shots in which to achieve your goal, and the game gives you absolutely zero yellow or red bubbles. So, for 14 turns in a row, you get a bubble that you have no use for except to build a thicker barrier between you and your goal.

As obnoxious as this is, I could deal with it if you could play unlimited times - there would eventually be a try on which you could win. But this game also has the relatively new and extremely irritating mechanic I like to call real-time regeneration. In other words, you have a limited number of lives, and every time you fail a level, you lose one. This is fine in concept, but the problem is that once you lose a life, it takes thirty minutes of real-time to get it back. This would also be fine, except that it often happens that within your five allotted lives, you are never given a legitimate chance to beat the level. 

So you spend your five lives trying to beat a single level and fail each time, not because you lacked skill or insight, but because succeeding is impossible. The game itself literally stops you from doing it. Then you have to wait at least thirty minutes to try again, probably a few hours since you're not really eager to subject yourself to this abuse again until you have multiple attempts built up. In the grand scheme, it's no big deal. Like I said, I don't play games that often. But when I do, I prefer not to have a pointless experience.

This is completely contrary to what my dad always used to tell me about our old Nintendo games growing up. If I couldn't make the jumps fast enough on Super Mario Brothers, it wasn't that "the game won't let me," I just needed more practice. Well, Dad would have been wrong about this game.

Eventually you will get the right bubbles to win, but it takes way longer than it should. Until then, you're playing the game with the wrong pieces. It's a transparent attempt to get people to spend money on in-app purchases, which consist of special power-ups that allow you to get around problems by blasting through them or clearing mismatched colors. You pay $0.99 for a single special bubble. So if you spent money for every time you encountered one of these problems, you could end up paying literally hundreds of dollars just to play a silly matching game.

This isn't the only game like this. There are many. I don't have a problem with IAPs or the "freemium" model as a concept. But if you're going to offer the game for free, it should be playable for free. IAPs that make the game easier are fine. But the model used by Bubble Witch and so many games like it creates such a frustrating experience for users, that you feel really taken advantage of by the time you figure out what's happening.

I haven't been foolish enough to spend so much as a penny on power-ups for this game. I don't care about it enough, and I refuse on principle to succumb to this kind of scheme. But apparently it annoys me enough to write about it. This sort of thing would never work with a board game, a card game, or really anything but a computer game, because if those games didn't allow you to achieve the goals they set for you it would be seen as a malfunction or a fundamental design flaw. The game wouldn't be worth playing at all, and would probably never even be sold.

So stop it, game developers. If you want our money, make the game itself worth paying for. Don't bait us with the words "free to play," then threaten us with a negative experience if we refuse to pay.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Lego Movie: A Creative Manifesto

I finally got around to watching The Lego Movie. Major spoilers coming. It was fun, fast paced, and overall really good. At the end, though, I realized that the film's core message could be taken a couple of ways.

Near the climax, the whole story is revealed to be taking place in the imagination of Finn, a young boy who is playing with his father's massive and impressive collection of Legos. There are carefully crafted scenes from all of the major collections and everything belongs in a specific place. So much so, in fact, that Finn's father (played by Will Ferrell) is planning to permanently fix things in place using a vast store of Krazy Glue, making this the last day Finn will have to play freely. Of course, this instantly sets the scenario up as a real-life mirror image of the imaginary plot, in which Lord Business is trying to freeze everything the entire world in a carefully constructed tableau using the "Kragle."

In the adventure story, a team of "master builders" led by the "Special" - a basically clueless construction worker named Emmet - set out to prevent Lord Business's scheme from coming to fruition by neutralizing the Kragle with the legendary "Piece of Resistance," which happens to look just like the cap to a Krazy Glue tube. In doing this, they show lots of ingenuity in reconstructing the world around them to fit their own designs.

This daring endeavor reflects Finn's desire to continue his habit of playing with his dad's Legos - building and rebuilding according to his whims.

Just as it seems Lord Business is about to win, Emmet finds himself suddenly in the human world, where he can finally see the reality of his existence, and we get to see Finn for the first time. Cue the entrance of Finn's dad (known to the Lego characters as "The Man Upstairs"), and a predictable but touching scene of reconciliation where dad's anger at finding Finn messing up his hard work quickly turns to introspection when he realizes that Lord Business - the bad guy of Finn's story who even looks similar to Ferrell's character - is meant to be a representation of him.

Of course, this causes a change of heart that is likewise reflected in Finn's fantasy. Emmet, frozen partially in place by a blast of Kragle, tells Lord Business, "You don't have to be the bad guy." The obvious interpretation is that the story is about building bridges between adults and children, fathers and sons. It's a timeless and heart-warming theme that really bears repeating, especially when it's done so well.

But I'm not sure that's the whole point.

I think this film can also be taken as a kind of manifesto for the new age of digital content creators - those whose work so often butts up against the system of carefully controlled copyrights and strict enforcement of laws against those who blur the line between IP theft and inspiration. It's a proclamation by the Creative Commons generation.

At the heart of Emmet's final speech to Lord Business is an invitation to look, both literally and metaphorically, out the window. Emmet draws the ruler's attention to all the common people enlisted by the master builders to resist Lord Business and his army of robotic Micro Managers, pointing out how wonderful it is for these people to be able to take the great world Lord Business has constructed and use its pieces to create their own works of art. Why, Emmet asks, would anyone want to suppress these people when they each bring their own special spark to the world - when each of them is capable of creating something wonderful from what already exists?

This strikes me as more than a reminder to parents of the glory and joy of their children's imaginativeness. It's a powerful and apt description of the creative philosophies that drive the rising generation of artists - a philosophy that perhaps we all once shared. Most of us who grew up playing with Legos will remember the familiar progression described by the film. When we get a new set, we start out by following the instructions to build it. We enjoy playing with it for a while, then, inspired by boredom, the example of a friend, or merely the growing mass of spare parts littering our bedroom floors, we decide to see if we can create something of our own. Possibly we never started with a boxed set, but just with a bucket of multicolored pieces and nothing but suggestions for how to use them. Either way, we eventually outgrow the instructions and start to experiment. This opens up new worlds of creativity for us - worlds in which the rules don't necessarily apply. We're free to make and unmake things as many times as we want, all in an effort to discover the best ideas we can, and in so doing to discover something about ourselves. Pretty soon, although we still admire the sets as they're intended to be, we simply can't be content with the instructions at all. We all want to remake the world in our own image.

The film doesn't ignore the difficulties of this desire, either. At the end, when both Finn and Emmet have triumphed, Finn's dad informs him that the new rules allowing for free play will apply equally to his sister, an idea that terrifies Finn. The film ends with crude Duplo creations invading Emmet's newly liberated world, implying that the problems are far from over, but the secondary implication is that these unintended consequences can be likewise overcome with creativity and teamwork.

The film hints that Lord Business himself might have come from a similar place as the Emmet and the master builders, but he allowed his need for freedom to morph into a desire for control. Instead of reveling in his own creativity and that of others, he became jealous, capturing the master builders and forcing them to create all the instructions for the world according to his own corporate, cookie-cutter, cubby holed vision.

Lord Business has two personas in the film. One, President Business, is a likeable, charismatic, and
energetic leader of Octan: the company that makes, quite literally, everything. The other, Lord Business, is an evil, scheming maniac whose nefarious plans will overthrow the world. Of course, the former face is merely a front for the latter.

The creatives behind this story seem to be both relating the history of their movement and pleading for its future. "We know," they say, in effect, to the corporate copyright-centric culture, "we come from your system. We got to where we are, at least in part, by following your instructions. But now we're ready to be free, and if you try to keep us locked up, it's going to ruin everything." The characterization of the existing system as a short-sighted but essentially good father-figure seems to be both a statement of rebellion and affection. This manifesto is a gentle plea by creatives to be seen for who they are, not a disdainful or vitriolic rage against the machine. The fact that it was released by a major studio adds to both the irony and effectiveness of this message. It's an attempt to change the system by working within it. It's a peaceful revolt that is nonetheless clear about its revolutionary intent.

This is also mirrored in the story, in which the master builders infiltrate Lord Business's office by doing the last thing he expects of them - by following the instructions. But in the end, that's not enough. The only way to ultimately save the world is not only for every individual citizen to rise up in their unique creative power, but to convince the powers that be that there need not be a conflict in the first place. The battle would be too one-sided and the young and creative would be the casualties. The movie is about building a better world together, and nobody has to be the bad guy.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cecil B. DeMille on Obedience to Commandments

“We are too inclined to think of law as something merely restrictive—something hemming us in. We sometimes think of law as the opposite of liberty. But that is a false conception. That is not the way that God’s inspired prophets and lawgivers looked upon the law. Law has a twofold purpose. It is meant to govern. It is also meant to educate. …
“… And so it is with all the Commandments.
“We must look beneath the literal, the surface meaning of the words. We must take the trouble to understand them; for how can we obey commands that we do not understand? But the Commandments too have an educative function—which you can see in the life of anyone who keeps them. They produce good character. The Ten Commandments are not rules to obey as a personal favor to God. They are the fundamental principles without which mankind cannot live together. They make of those who keep them faithfully, strong, wholesome, confident, dedicated men and women. This is so because the Commandments come from the same Divine Hand that fashioned our human nature.
“God does not contradict Himself. He did not create man and then, as an afterthought, impose upon him a set of arbitrary, irritating, restrictive rules. He made man free—and then gave him the Commandments to keep him free” (“Commencement Address,” in Commencement Exercises,Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [31 May 1957], 4–5).