Trees, Ficly Trees, Tree Metaphors

June 15, 2010 at 11:06 am (Metaphors and Allegories) (, , , , )

I am not a computer science major, but I am acquainted with the Tree structure. If you are familiar with Ficly, you might realize that Ficly stories are arranged like a tree-like structure. What I like about Ficly though, is that their trees are much closer in form to real trees.

Every story in a Ficly tree has one very important relationship: the story that spawned it, except in the case of the very first ficlet written in that tree: the ultimate seed. Ficly allows for users to compose not only sequels to a story, but also prequels. Much as a tree grows both up as branches and down as roots, Ficly trees grow forward with sequels and backward with prequels. Much like a tree’s thick trunk, the most content is usually concentrated around that ultimate seed. As well, any story can spawn more content both forward and back in time – much like the Banyan tree can drop roots from its branches.

The problem that arises with actually reading through Ficly trees is that there is no single thread that a reader can follow – the stories cannot be arranged in any ordered way along a line that will make sense. What Ficly needs is a way to view the entire tree. I have participated in other’s trees, and have spawned a tree of my own – the story of Verdanus and Tertius which I tagged with “Elysium” for easy searching. There are 14 stories (13 by me), and reading them in the order they appear in the search may or may not give you any idea of what is happening. However, after fifteen minutes of crude photoshopping, I’ve come up with this:
Tree structure of the Elysium stories on Ficly

I imagine that, if this was implemented, a “See this ficlet’s tree” link would lead to a similar view, with each node clickable. Whether it would be an HTML5/CSS3/Javascript object, or simply a visual arrangement of links I can’t say – I’ve no idea what it would take to make such a tree look beautiful regardless of what the story arrangement in it was. However, it would be nice to see the ultimate seed – which I outlined in red – and perhaps arrows along those lines pointing to what each ficlet spawned. The story from which the tree was opened might be highlighted in some other ways, and stories which the user viewing has written might also be marked – as might stories the user viewing has commented on. The number of comments that each story has, or the rating that it has received might also be included in the tree view.

I’m not the programmer for the job – but you might be. If you have any experience with programming visual displays of node-to-node relationships, then this is right up your alley.

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Marketing Tools and Learning Metaphors

February 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm (Metaphors and Allegories) (, , , , , , , )

As a CMU Delt, I often partake in Delt activities, make use of Delt resources, and hang out with my Delt brothers. I, probably more than anyone else, know how difficult it is to drive the herd to a new pasture. In the distant past we tried rolling out a BB, a phpBB 3.0 forum, a Shareflow, and now a Drupal wiki. Getting everyone to register on the same network, no matter how great I or the respective admin think it a step forward, is one of the most grueling, frustrating, and unproductive processes that I have ever undergone. The worst is that even when a majority of the users have finally registered, there is no incentive to actually make use of the system.

Until now. One of my brothers came up with an internal game: each brother must declare himself the absolute best at some unique activity within our fraternity. Everyone else can then challenge their title, and claim it if they win the challenge. The massive e-peen style bragging rights of owning multiple titles is already driving brothers to challenge each other. With half of the brotherhood claiming their titles, and 8 challenges already announced, I consider this a successful venture given that it has only been one day since I rolled it out.

The marketing tool: I started the title signup over e-mail, but I placed the list of titles and challenges behind the Drupal Wiki registration. So half of the brotherhood has declared a title and are now committed to the game, but must register for the wiki resource to keep track of everyone else. Frequent visits to the wiki will hopefully prompt more involvement in filling it out with content, but at least the registration problem has been surmounted!

On the other side of the table I’ve been reflecting on how I learn. Back when I was taking the various levels of Calculus, I always suggested that I understood the material best after we had applied it to the next topic. Unfortunately, this often came after the exam, so my self-appraised knowledge meant diddly squat in the calculation of my grade. It appears that in my Conflict and Dispute Resolution class I’ve hit the same problem (along with the rest of the class). We were all called out on our unanimous failure to complete the assigned reading, which is a breach of our “learning contracts.”

After forgoing the intended topic and instead discussing our problem, the best argument that we were able to come up with was that some of us learn better when we are given an active chance to exhibit the topic in class, or are provided with an example first, and are then given the option to research the theory more deeply afterwards. I illustrate this with the hallway metaphor.

Imagine that any theory is a hallway lined with doors to rooms. The rooms are examples: situations where the theory works to explain something concrete, singular. Reading about the theory first is like hearing tales of Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the eclairs, the river, without actually seeing it. I propose instead that we start in a room, and explore it the way CSI might explore a crime scene, searching for the events that lead to a murder. I propose we explore that example, which hopefully makes no sense, until we apply the theory, which is provided by the instructor. It is like opening that door and realizing where the room was located in space. Now that I am facing the hallway, I can walk around and open other doors, apply the theory to other situations and examples.

The alternative, where the theory comes first, starts me in the hallway. It tells me things about that hallway that I have no way of anchoring, and tells me so many things that by the time I need them, I will forget most of them. When I am finally placed in the hallway, I am placed facing into a room, looking at one example. I start applying the theory right away under the assumption that it was correct, without ever trying anything else. And now my memory is of how this example pertains to the theory, rather than of how I used the theory to dissect the example. I will not realize that there are other doors behind me in the hallway – I will never apply the theory in situations that are incongruous with that first example.

I learn by curiosity: I frame things as problems, and look for their solutions. It isn’t fair to tell me what the solution is without first giving me a stab at the problem: I get nothing from seeing the answers to the SAT without first struggling with the questions. How then, is it fair to prime my learning by making me read the theory before I’ve had a chance to stumble onto it myself? Am I a wikipedia page, taught to spew forth aggregated knowledge, or am I a difference engine, capable of solving problem by processing information?

I say down with required reading. I didn’t teach myself PHP because I read a book: I read a book because I wanted to use PHP to make a website. My brothers didn’t register for the Drupal Wiki to become contributors: they registered to solve the problem of having no access to the content they wanted.

I wont learn anything by reading a book before I come to class: I will read the book because what I learned in class made my curiosity itch for more.

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I told me so, was right, and should have taken my own advice.

May 29, 2009 at 2:12 pm (Metaphors and Allegories) (, , , , , , , )

Several years ago when I wrote Username God I also wrote a second short essay, Chapter 2, which I have been unable to find. It was an overextended metaphor wherein each person was a car (literally, an automobile). I took the essay too far, surely, but came out with a “moral of the story”.

That moral was to stop, and help someone out. Regardless of who you were, where you were going, where you came from, the essay damn-near preached to perform unprovoked good deeds. I followed my own advice minimally (almost hypocritically so), and primarily while on the road (almost ironically so) but without actually stopping. I tended to drive (each summer that I had a car and worked more than 10 miles from home) as unobtrusively as possible. I would let someone who needed to get to an exit change lanes ahead of me, rather than speeding past them and having them fend against the driver behind me. I would let someone making a left turn get it over with (so long as my action wasn’t impeding traffic), and I would let someone pull out of their driveway when I was heading towards a red light anyway.

A normal person would say those fall under basic roadway etiquette, and yet so few drivers actually stick to non-aggressive driving. Well, apparently, I should have taken my selflessness advice to all aspects of my life, due to Upstream Reciprocity. Doing something nice (on the roadway) that makes another driver think “Oh, why thank you!” rather than “What an asshole!” should ideally spread forward, pushing that driver to repeat a nice action later on, increasing the levels of overall happiness. In smaller circles (among friends), altruistic acts come back to improve your quality of life by having your recipients become your suppliers, of happiness.

Better late than never, right? Time to hub away, being an unselfishly selfish person. The alternative would fall along the lines of being an inefficiently selfish person, so I’ll stick with the former (everyone is selfish, but this way we win the Prisoner’s dilemma!). And it doesn’t hurt: if I further my ends by furthering yours, you reap the benefits anyway. Just make sure to reciprocate if you want to preserve the arrangement.

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God, Sims, Spore, Matrix, Reboot, MiB

September 27, 2008 at 6:11 pm (Metaphors and Allegories) (, , , , )

In ninth grade I watched Men in Black and had a thought: Why not? The last scene, where the locker door reveals a window to a meta universe of exponentially larger life to contrast the aforementioned Orion Galaxy, coupled in my mind with the Sims and The Matrix, and I came up with Username God. Since then I have made several revisions after playing Spore, watching Reboot, and learning to program.


Username God

Setting aside the beliefs of the usual everyday religious activists, and those who believe in the generic all-powerful God, I observe that the world evolves in all aspects, starting with us. Of course, other creatures evolve as well, but only our evolution is truly notable, for no species is able to comment upon the evolution of all others save for ourselves. And as time marches inexorably, and as we watch the incessant sway towards entropy, we find that intelligence and will and thought can no longer be housed within a set of singly instincts, but rather within a pseudo-infinite processing unit that is our brains. Why pseudo-infinite? Our brains are only matter, in our eyes, and thus, cannot hold more than their limit. However, since so few neurons are at work at any given time, the true capacity of the human brain is really quite large, by proportion far greater than any amount of knowledge needed for basic day-to-day survival.

But how was all of this created? The big bang, the spontaneous generation of the first cell, the proper conditions and a well placed bolt of lightning. All by chance, or by God we say. But God is inexplicable or so say the Saints. We are told God is omnipotent and then try to disprove that with paradoxes life “If God is all powerful, and can create and destroy whatever God may wish, can God create what God cannot destroy?”. Surely God can, if God is all-powerful. This would mean God would by no means be able to destroy it. And thus, with an infinitely recursive set of negations we define paradox and move on. But does it matter that God is omnipotent? Why would we even bother with such a premise, if it were not to rebel against him and his word. Are we that unhappy, that to stifle our blather we need to be told that our powers against him are null and void? Perhaps that is true. So what is this “miracle” we call life, and who is this “God” that is so much more powerful than us?

Life is a game. Cliché, and yet, this expression might shed some light on the essence of God. Life is a game, a personal game of the Sims or Spore where the user has called himself God. Why? For preparation for the multiplayer gameplay, where new worlds and other beings are introduced and can interact. If we are in a game, then we are in some form virtual, programmed. Our world is quantized, composed of elementary particles, bits. There are fundamental laws, just as in programming we define how addition and subtraction works. And there are objects and routines and functions, and we are cells and people and our cells do things and we do things. We are the not-yet-conscious sprites of Reboot. We form corporations and objects interact in subroutines, and we theorize and philosophize and programs produce output and error codes. But our world, as much as it evolves, does not change at the most basic states: atoms are atoms, electricity is electricity, cells are cells. The game has been written, and God is just playing. So no, just as we are not omnipotent with regards to our creatures in Spore, God is equally not omnipotent regarding us.

The repercussions? We, as what appears to be the chosen race of God, share his personality just as our Spore creatures reflect who we are inside, if not outside. We are omnivorous, ruthless, and reflective. So must be God, a conqueror, considerate afterwards, willing to do what is necessary but at times depressed and angry for the decisions he has made. God is no figure to be idolized: he may very well be one of many such players and we are one of many sentient races. We’ll find out when we finally enter the Heinleinic Diaspora of the space age and meet some ETs. Perhaps adoring our God will make him happy with our performance: or perhaps he will be frustrated with our stale inaction and actually pleasing him lies instead in ruthless progress. So who is right, the capitalists or theists?

Written by Yuriy Zubovski, 2003, edited 2008.


I also had a frivolous discussion about “afterlife” just now, and had an alternative set of thoughts. It seems rather unfair that we live for ~80 years on Earth and are then thrust into an eternity of suffering. Which leads me to ask: did we sign up for this? We must have, if “sinning” leads to eternal damnation in the pits of one hell or another: something on Earth is so worth it that our meta selves, our souls, made the choice to dive in and experience life. So worth it that an eternity of damnation is totally worth it. Could it be love? Maybe souls can’t experience love. Physical love? Physical sensation in general? Or maybe there is no eternal damnation, and souls just line up, waiting for their turn to get a body, any kind of body, and experience the greatest attraction of the meta-existence? Choose humans, and you get the widest range of sensation and emotion, the largest variety of physical experiences, but also eternal damnation for a social misuse. Meanwhile, pick some other being and forfeit sentience, but once you’re out it’s over, line up again. Perhaps it really is worth it to live, to sin, to deserve hell and then experience it, for the sake of living and loving it. So yes, maybe being faithful to the higher powers, preserving the world order, maintaining existence for the next souls that come is some form of meta-public service, commendable and unrewarded. Destroying others and ruining the world for future generations then is the true sin, what really should be reciprocated with eternal damnation. If there is a limited number of souls, then the good will cycle while the bad will rot, and unless we screw up the world too early, the only souls left to fill the bodies of Earth will be the good souls.

So going back to that, the moral of the story: realize for yourself what is good and what is bad. Will the consequences of your decision directly harm the world, for others and for future occupants? Do your actions now bring an end to the sensation for some else? Don’t rape, don’t kill, don’t pollute. Perhaps those are the cardinal sins, the sins worthy of eternal damnation. Don’t live with malice in your heart or malicious intent on your mind. Perhaps that, and just that, is the key to fulfillment. Forget the other rules, laws, maxims, ultimatums, lessons, and the word of whatever gods: Live for yourself but together with others. Oh, and progress. God likes progress.

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