Read on paper, love better?

Five years after it was published, I finally just finished reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. It was a sobering read. Sobering in the sense that he makes the compelling case that digital media is changing us, in possibly irreversible ways. We are adapting to distraction but may be losing our ability to think deeply in exchange. What he doesn’t address as much is the anxiety that many of us feel as part of the change.

The the book is a downer in that if offers no solution. It painstakingly describes how our brains are changing, and what we are losing, but it doesn’t offer any magic bullets. This is the neurological equivalent of all those conversations we have about dying newspapers. We know that digital media is killing them, but ten years in we have no clear idea how to keep journalism alive. Digital media, it seems, puts us in a perpetual state of epiphany-delayed in whatever area of endeavor it attacks. When it comes to dealing with digital distraction I think we’re all be waiting for our epiphanies for a while.

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A World Without End – I wish it were more real

This piece, World Without End, in the New Yorker got me really excited. Briefly. And then it disappointed me. Mostly. This is the opening that grabbed my interest:

“The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them.”

My mistake was to assume that they were using real physical laws to create this universe. I jumped to the wrong conclusion though. Like every video game, they are relying on made up algorithms to create realistic-looking-but-ultimately-artificial places. The distinction here is probably minor, because no application of math could recreate the universe as it is, but I was hoping, naively I realize now, that they were attempting to re-create a universe at least based on some basic physical laws.

Why do I care? Why not just have a game that, like any fiction, conforms to an internal logic that doesn’t need to be derived from the real world? Maybe it doesn’t much matter, but I increasingly find fiction and games that play fast and loose with basic physics empty and dissatisfying. The tropes of infinitely available energy, hyper drives, and the like, in my mind at least, feed a kind of false optimism about our prospects off of this planet that are at some level counter-productive. We are not going to save human kind by finding another planet. If we can’t make a go of it on the one we evolved on we’re screwed. Let’s take better care of this one.

Also, and maybe more pragmatically, I grew up in a world of physical things. I made model airplanes, worked on cars, and took apart every toy I ever got. Working on (and breaking) things in the real world gave me useful intuition about how that world worked. Intuition that was useful to me later as an engineer. Today, virtual worlds like Minecraft are a substitute for a lot of the real world play of my day. They are amazing playgrounds that let the imagination go wild, which is really cool, but I don’t think they help intuit how our actual world works. In fact, I think they create false intuitions in the way they tweak physicality.

Anyway, this still promises to be a really interesting game when it becomes available. The sheer scope of the universe they are building will be vast, and probably the biggest problem they’ll have to face with gameplay (just like we experience in real life with our still silent SETI endeavor) will be coaxing interaction between players who start off billions of light years apart.

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Run a vanilla Minecraft server on Raspberry Pi

My partner has a teenage son, Michael, and like a lot of adults with a kid in their life I’ve come to know Minecraft. I even kind of like it. I was scared the first time night fell in survival mode, but I’ve made it from uber-noob to mere noob now and can usually make it through the night huddling in a basic wood block structure. I won’t get points for the aesthetics of my creations, but I survive and even have fun with it. Michael still makes fun of my noob’ness and will regularly switch to creative mode, grab a diamond sword, and off me just for fun. But whatever, I’m learning.

Michael and I have been playing with a Raspberry Pi lately. Actually, we bought two of the 1Gb Pi 2 Model B’s. These things are actually quite powerful little quad core computers so after a few simple projects we decided to use one of them as a dedicated Minecraft server.

The Raspberry Pi already comes with a cut down version of Minecraft that you can play directly on it, but that’s not what interested us. We wanted to create a “real” Minecraft server that we could leave running indefinitely and connect to from our local LAN anytime we wanted to.

There are quite a few tutorials out there on how to get this working, but most of them are of out of date. For example, we wasted a lot of time on our first try installing Java onto a Pi that already had it as part of the OS install. So, having gone through the process a few times, we figured we’d write this up for anyone else looking for a how to.

We should start with a note of caution. This is an installation guide for a vanilla server, and it frankly doesn’t perform very well on the Pi. On our first installation we got lucky and ended up with a seed for a really simple island world. The server runs flawlessly with that simple world. However, other worlds with more complexity have consistently crashed the server with two users. We’ll include the seed for “Michael and Jim’s island world” later in this post so you can use it if you’d like. Or, you may decide to modify this tutorial and install a Bukkit server. It should perform better but we haven’t tried it.

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