Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A few tips for CS social media

The social media team for my department asked us for "Computer Science Tips" that they could share. I thought it might be fun to sketch some out here. This way, my regular readers can be way ahead of the curve.

  • Connect to your passions. There is a potential everywhere to apply computer science, so take something else you love and write some software around it. Soccer scoring application? Quilt pattern catalog? Marvel villains database? You can connect computing to everything!
  • Learn a new language. There are countless programming languages for all sorts of different purposes. Try a new one and see how it compares to what you already know. You might discover a new way of framing old problems.
  • Read some great books, like The Pragmatic Programmer, The Mythical Man-Month, and Clean Code. These books collect the wisdom of practitioners.
  • Keep a notebook on hand. You never know when inspiration will strike!
  • Talk to alumni. There are many paths into and around a career in computing, and each alumnus will have a different story to share.
  • Practice writing. Whether you're in school or at work, a lot of computing involves writing clear, readable prose. Practice by writing in a mode you love: reviews, rulebooks, poems, plays, short stories, D&D adventures--practice makes perfect!
  • Make a game! There are many game programming libraries and game engines available.
  • Try a game jam or a hackathon! These are timeboxed events, often over a weekend, where communities challenge themselves to make something new in a short period of time. It's a great way to meet people, be creative, and practice your skills.
  • Start a blog! Nothing crystallizes your understanding like teaching it to someone else. Write about things you learned, and things you want to learn, and how you feel about your learning. It doesn't matter if you have one reader or a million: the reflecting writing will make you stronger.
Those are a few things that came to mind while I'm sitting here, waiting for students to show up to my zoom hangout hour. So far, it's been a bust.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Something new for Fall 2021: Zoom Hangouts with Dr. G.

Back in Summer 2020, when I was engaged in a series of three complete course redesigns (CS315CS445, and CS215 née CS439), I was looking into options for holding casual office hours via streaming on Twitch or YouTube. I got the technology working, but I never did integrate it into the semester: it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

The whole concept of fixed "office hours" is problematic, really. A practical consideration is that there is no chance that I can choose a set of hours during the week during which all of my students are available to attend. As a result, such office hours favor the privileged and the lucky. While the intention is not bad, the requirement is ancestor worship. Previous generations had to come to office hours because these were the only way they had to reach their professors, but now, everyone is on email all the time. It is easier than ever for students to reach us.

For the previous academic year, I ended up not holding any fixed office hours and, instead, holding all of my meetings by email. Either we resolved issues that way, or we used email to set up Zoom meetings. As far as I could tell, this was the best situation for both me and my students.

One of my colleagues pointed out during last Friday's department meeting that many students misunderstand the term "office hours." They think that these are the only hours that we are in our offices and available to help them. In that way, I wonder whether traditional office hours are a barrier to students asking for help, even over email, especially those who don't know the ropes of higher education. This would be a good topic for a research study.

Also at Friday's meeting, however, the new chair of the CS department did ask us all to have some fixed office hours during the week as well. I decided to try something different for this semester, then. While I will continue to do all my usual consulting via email—with a revised and clearer explanation for this process now live on all three of the semester's course plans (CS215, CS222, CS315)—I have also set up weekly "Zoom Hangouts". It's just an hour each week, scheduled between usual class slots, where I plan to be on Zoom. Last year got us all to be pretty comfortable with that platform, and I figure I can use it like open-door office hours: work on low-priority items that can be interrupted at any time.

I have no idea if this will be of any interest to the students. I fear that, as described above, some my misconstrue this as the only time I am available, but I hope that the naming helps. This is a "hangout", not "office hours." On the course plans, I describe the policy under the heading, "Consulting with the Professor," with strong encouragement to email first, and to come to the hangout as desired.

We'll see how it goes. Right now, the link is only shared on Canvas to my current students. I'll post an update once I have more data and experience.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Painting Gloomhaven: Chock Full o' Spoilers

My son and I had a great time playing Gloomhaven. I have a blog post from March 2018 about painting the six starting characters, and he and I coauthored an article in Well Played about our play experience. The last time we played Gloomhaven was August 24, 2019, and so I think it's fair to say that we are done with the game. We didn't complete every single scenario, but we definitely finished the main story arc. This morning, we tore down the box, unsleeved the cards, and opened the four character classes that we had not unsealed as part of our two-player campaign.

Since we're finally and irrevocably done with Gloomhaven, I decided that it's time to share my set of painted miniatures. Whenever we unlocked a new class, I would prime and paint the miniature, so that it would be ready to play as soon as another one retired. Many of them were unplayed, and all of them were painted before mid-August two years ago. For most, then, I have little recollection of specific techniques or colors, so the commentary below is minimal.

In case it does not go without saying, there are spoilers ahead for those who are still playing! This post is for people who have finished the game or who don't care about surprises.



The sawbones is one figure about which I have specific memories. First, the bonesaw in his hand was much too long, so I chopped off a bit of it. Second, this is one of very few figures that I've "spattered" with paint. The card art includes blood splatter, and figuring we would probably never play this character anyway (we didn't), it was a chance to try it. I used the technique where I loaded up the brush with dark red, then I pulled back on it with my finger and let it splatter forward. I quite like the result, it was fun to pull out and photograph this miniature to revive these memories.



The Sunkeeper is one of the two characters that we were running when we stopped playing. She was played by my son and had reached her maximum level. I like the contrast of the metallics and the cloth on this figure.



I played the Quartermaster for a while, and he was a lot of fun. I remember having a really powerful card recycling engine that meant I rarely had to rest. My only criticism of the figure is that it's not a very exciting pose. Sure, a quartermaster would occasionally be handing out scrolls and carrying an armload of spears, but it made him look bureaucratic rather than adventurous in the dungeon.



My son and I could not actually remember if anyone ever played the Doomstalker or not, which is strange, because it seems like he would be memorable.



I played the Berserker for just a few sessions. 



Like the Sawbones, the Plagueherald was never played and for a similar reason: the Sawbones looked like a support character for larger parties, and the Plagueherald--who damages his allies to hurt his enemies--seemed too dangerous for a small party.



This is the character I was playing when we wrapped up the game. The card art clearly shows this aesther as being translucent, but of course, there's no way to paint a plastic miniature to get this effect. I tried to capture the shadowy essence of the card art in the muted palette of a clearly-opaque miniature.

The four classes we never unlocked were Beast Tyrant, Elementalist, Soothsinger, and Summoner, who all looked like they had interesting ideas to offer. I had assumed that the Beast Tyrant would be a lycanthrope from the fact that it had two miniatures and a wolfish face for an icon, and so it was nice to finally have that mystery solved. I don't expect to paint these miniatures and will likely hand them off to the younger boys for family painting time.

I had stored all the painted miniatures in their little boxes for protection, so this is the first time I've looked at them in two years. I really dig the cobblestone bases using the technique I picked up from Ghool. I am tempted to go back to my Massive Darkness characters and add these sometime. It doesn't take too long, and it adds a lot of visual interest... but it's not as much fun as painting the miniature proper. With my large collection of unpainted miniatures, I probably won't revisit those bases.

With the trash man already having come, Gloomhaven is now gone, and so these are my first real orphan miniatures. In a sense, it is a relief. I have a few other games where I have painted the miniatures but not touched the game in years. This gives me some peace with the idea of getting rid of a non-legacy game and keeping the minis. Perhaps it's time to build a wall-mountable display, the Home for Orphan Miniatures. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for checking out my paintings. Of course, I backed Frosthaven, so I'll be back in Cephalofair's fantasy setting for more painting whenever that wraps up production and gets into backers' hands.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Sharing my notes from watching MST3K with the family

I'm a longtime fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I have enjoyed sharing this fandom with my family. Some episodes are better than others, and some are really just inappropriate for kids, in my opinion. I have never seen this factored into a published list of favorite episodes. Some episodes stick out so strongly in my mind that I know I would never watch them with the kids, like Sidehackers. Others though have led us into honest mistakes: a few years ago, some of us watched the fan-favorite classic Space Mutiny, and I had completely forgotten about the uncomfortable sexualized dancing and implications of the main characters' sleeping together. 

All four of my boys enjoy watching the show, and we have been able to enjoy many episodes together without any uncomfortable parental reactions. I decided that this experience may be something interesting that I can share with the community. Hence, I started a new project: MST3K with Kids. It's a simple page on GitHub where I have shared my list of some of our favorite episodes, some episodes we watched but didn't enjoy so much, and some that we're just keeping away from the family for now. I hope that someone finds it useful.

I put it on GitHub rather than here since I figured it would be easier to update. I suppose I could be open to community contributions as well, although I recognize that interpretations of family-appropriateness are sometimes subjective.