I, like most of you, am still reeling from the implications of last night’s election. Not only because of the rather bleak financial outlook and how that will impact my personal life, but also because I am witnessing history repeat and it is devastating.
More important than how I feel, however, are how marginalised groups are doing. The fact that we now have a Republican controlled House, Senate and President isn’t the key issue here. The key issue is that we have elected someone who was endorsed by the KKK– who are now celebrating a very white victory. If this is anything like what happened with Brexit, which it is looking very similar indeed, then many of our friends and loved ones might be fearful over the repercussions of this election.
This is not a message of sensationalism or over-reaction, this is a message of love, compassion and preparedness. I sincerely hope that hatecrimes do not rise 58% this week, like they did the week after Brexit, but something in my gut tells me they might.
We need to be prepared to deal with the fallout of this election by helping others. Think of this blog post as a call to hugs*.
Look out for your LGBTQ friends, your friends of colour, your friends from non-dominant faith groups, your immigrant friends, your friends from lower socio-economic backgrounds, your mothers, sisters, aunts, and other ladies in your life.
Regardless of who you voted for, check in on your friends and see how they are doing. See how they are coping with the fact their marriages might become invalid, they might lose their healthcare plan, or they might feel unsafe. Of course I am speaking in hyperbole here. Don’t actually ask these rather personal questions. Don’t ask anything at all. Offer a shoulder, an ear, or a cuppa. Listen and provide love and comfort.
This is a moment in which we can all show how much we care for each other. We can show our humanity and that will make all the difference. It could change history.
Until next time,
PS- Pix in this post aren’t relevant, but much needed.
*But also not hugs if some folks** don’t wanna be touched.
There’s a thing I like to do twice a year. I like to temporarily pause my vices in the name of charity. Its like Stoptober, with a twist. (Shout out to my design peeps who love the term ‘with a twist’).
The premise is simple. Rather than doing something for charity, do less. Give something up. Quit smoking, quit drinking, quit eating sweets, quit PSLs and then take all the money you’d ordinarily spend on cigarettes/beer/cupcakes/coffee/whatever and sling it to a charity of your choice. Not only does it help those in need, it also shows your concerned family members that your vice of choice is not a problem and you really can quit whenever you want.
So why am I blogging about this? To waft my smugness in your faces, of course. I’m a Good Person™ and look at all the Good™ I am doing.
Just kidding. I’m a terrible person and we all know that.
I’m actually blogging about my yearly sobriety sprints because I’m frustrated that there isn’t an app for this already. I was sitting down with a pen and paper trying to calculate how much money I have ‘saved’ from not drinking thus far and I got annoyed at the inefficiency. I ended up calculating a rough estimate of $4 a day out of pure laziness. Don’t get me wrong, $4 x 31 days= $124 which is a sizable chunk of change to donate, but now that I figured out the sum I find myself a) frustrated at the inaccuracy (type A people of the world unite!) and b) if the dollar outcome is predetermined, why not just donate the cash and call it a day?
I naturally turned to technology for help, but my app store searches came up with nada. So what did I do? I made some wireframe mock ups of what I envision such an app to be. I’m uploading my sketches here in the hopes some brilliant engineers will want to collaborate on making this app a reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no pretense of greatness here. I know that ideas are like assholes, everyone has 4, but I think an app like this could be successful. It’s got a lusory, competitive, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic which could make donating to charity fun. High horses not included.
Without further blathering, here are my sketches with annotations. The sketches are funny and convey the form/feel/aesthetic of the app. The annotations are dry and very ‘Ashley’. I’m sorry.
Note that CharityLOL is a working title.
Also note scrollbars appear on screen to indicate extra content. As this is developed for mobile, actual scrollbars will not be needed.
Image 1: Sign up screen.
The sign up screen allows the user to: set a location (to access local charities/ food and drink databases); set a start and end date for their ‘marathon’; and choose what they are giving up.
Scrolling down, the user is invited to either input average consumption and price (alcohol is used here as an example, but it could be cigarettes, sweets, etc…) or use the app’s database and barcode scanner. Like apps such as Fitbit, CharityLOL will have access to a user-generated database of consumer products. The idea behind this is to give users motivation to stay the course during high-pressure moments. For example, when at a restaurant with friends the user might be tempted to order a beer, but with the app they can opt instead to document the drink they turned down. This rewards the user for saying no, and gains more money for the charity in question.
The application will be tied to the user’s bank account/credit card for daily donations in much the same way many mobile games require a card on file for in-app purchases. Think of the daily donation as an in-app purchase which goes right to the charities they support. This is designed so that if the user terminates the application or stops using it charities will still receive the funds earned up until that point.
Integral to this app’s functionality are partnerships with local charities, which is shown on the left screen above. This is so the user is able to see the impact their donations have firsthand, and also this is how CharityLOL will be monetised- but not for profit. Following JustGiving’s 5% model, a charge is applied to charities who sign up to receive donations which is then re-invested into running and maintaining the application.
Whenever a user logs in to check how much they have given or make an entry, they will be greeted with a progression screen. The progression screen will show how much they have given, the charities they have helped, and the number of days they have gone without their favourite vice. Options to share progression on social media are offered to encourage the user to reach their goal.
Image 3: End screen.
Upon the completion of the user-identified time period, a congratulatory screen will appear which summarises the user’s experience and awards them with an achievement. The user then has the option of sharing their success on social media, which will allow congratulations and additionally spread word of the app’s existence.
Image 4: Fail state.
As this is not a game, there is no real fail state, but there is negative feedback to the user. Providing negative user feedback is important to encourage completion of the set timeline. It is also important to ensure there is value to the app’s badges. In the above example, the user would become ineligible for the October alcohol-free badge until next year, but they would still be eligible for other, smaller milestones such as Two Weeks without a Drink badge.
And that’s it. That’s the mock up I have. Who wants to make it?
Until next time,
Sidenote 1: Students (who I assume are the bulk of my readership, lol) might be wondering why I didn’t use a game design document to illustrate the app’s functionality. Good question. The short answer is: because its a UI wireframe. The long answer is: I wanted a clean, easy to read, direct depiction of the app’s UI without much detail about what the user does. There is no game design verb here. Mostly the user clicks boxes. Thus, I need to show which boxes the user clicks- not the experience of clicking. Make sense? If not, email me.
Sidenote 2: The feature photo of this post has nothing to do with the content. Also, it came from The Best and Worst Photo Blog and even though it was labelled for re-use on Google images, I thought I should give them a shoutout.
In case you haven’t heard… I’m leaving! I’m leaving my job at Brunel and the United Kingdom in general for a new life in the New World. I’ve thus far avoided most mentions of the change on social media because I wanted to say my goodbyes in person- and because 140 characters is rarely enough to discuss anything, much less a total change of lifestyle. So here we are- a blog post.
Rather than use this space to discuss my reasons for moving, which can be summed up in a single word: family, I’ve decided to use my word count to instead discuss the nomadic nature of academic life. Let’s begin with a magical example from my past, shall we?
In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I remember finding out my favourite professor was leaving our university. She was my favourite professor not only because she taught a module called Death and Dying, by which my young gothic self was totally enraptured, but also because she was straight out of Hogwarts. She wore a plain black outfit to every class and made up for the lack of colour in her garments with fabulous accessories. She would wear a ring on every finger and silver linked belt studded with matching semi-precious stones. One class it would be turquoise, the next class tigerseye, the next jasper, and so on. She had style.
One day, towards the end of term, she interrupted her usual overview of that week’s content to inform us she would not be returning to the university the following autumn. Her exact words, I still remember them, were “I’ve very much enjoyed my time here, but two years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Siberia”. I’m sure she qualified the last part of the statement with an explanation of what she planned to do in Siberia, but I was so dumbfounded that I forgot to listen. Two years? A long time? She couldn’t be serious… How can you do anything in two years?
Now this professor was certainly quirky, so I think the ‘two years’ and ‘Siberia’ thing are fairly unique to her, but the general sentiment stuck with me. The nature of academic life can be a nomadic one. It might not always be possible or desirable to put down roots in the city you take a job. Whilst I know plenty colleagues who have settled down and stuck to one university for the majority of their professional lives, I know an equal number who bounce from place to place. In some cases this is down to the necessity of following funding, in others it is taking advantage of opportunities to work with specific people, and in a good number of cases, it is down to an unfortunate increase in zero hour contracts and budget cuts. And, I suppose, it is also possible that some folks just like roaming the planet. I probably fall into the this latter category.
For those of us who have made career moves overseas, the constant pain of saying goodbye is a familiar one. I’m sure it is also painful to say adios to family when you live a city, state, or province away, but short-long distances have to be better than long-long distances. Living and working overseas for me has meant that twice a year for the past eight years I’ve made an absolute ass of myself at the Sky Harbor airport crying and hugging family members goodbye. Although it also sucks to say goodbye to friends and colleagues before I go on holiday, I’ve thus far managed to spare the good folks at Heathrow from my ugly-crying. When I board the plane this time, however, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back.
But that’s academic life for a good number of us. We move around, we spread knowledge, we travel. And, even if our family and job are in the same city, we still experience a steady stream of greetings and farewells during conference season. When you’re an academic, you probably have a good number of academic friends, and given the probabilty they’re nomads like you, the chances of running into each other can be so slim they feel more like internet buddies than real-life friends.
So why choose this life? Because it is worth the pain. Every year is an exciting adventure which leads to the discovery of new ideas, new research, and new people. And isn’t discovery why we’re in this business?
And so dear internet friends, to paraphrase a famous professor, I’ve very much enjoyed my time in the United Kingdom, but eight years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Utah. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put down some roots there.
I have finally gotten around to the inevitable World of Warcraft movie blog post. I know it comes a couple weeks too late (the film was released on 30 May in the UK after all), but a late review seems fitting given the film itself is 10 years too late. Had the film come out in 2006, perhaps coinciding with The Burning Crusade expansion release, it would likely have had a much bigger and more positive response and I probably would have blogged about it sooner. Blogs existed back then, right? 😉
As it is, the film has been tanking the aggro of plenty of negative reviews (27% on RottenTomatoes, FYI). In addition to proclaiming it ‘unwatchable’, Variety magazine wrote, “It shouldn’t take a mage to foresee that this pricey and preposterous adaptation of an online gaming phenomenon was preordained for artistic mediocrity.” Not to be pedantic, but mages can’t predict the future in Warcraft lore- that’s more of a shammy thing. Accuracy of game references aside, the primary critiques seem to be that 1) the film takes itself too seriously, and 2) it is inaccessible to non-players. In my opinion, and I am not a scholar of film by any means, I completely agree with the first critique and completely disagree with the second.
Let’s start with the first. The film was far too serious to be associated with the Warcraft brand. Sure the game’s lore often deals with serious themes and the Warcraft novels, which provide much more background than the game series by the way, question grave themes like racism, genocide, faith, and tradition, the games themselves do not feel somber. Blizzard’s brand has always been the lighter side of fantasy, both figuratively and literally.
When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, its aesthetics were a departure from the faux-realistic art style of Dark Age of Camelot and the high fantasy trappings of Everquest 2. Visually, it was a departure from the drab greens and browns of even its own Warcraft RTS series (although Reign of Chaos comes close to sharing WoW’s bright blues and reds). WoW allowed you to play gnomes with tufts of cotton-candy coloured hair, dance on mailboxes, and annoy fellow players with in-game items like the toy train that made everyone in the vicinity /train. Scattered among life-or-death battles in Azeroth are exclamations of “Me not that kind of orc!” or “You no take candle!” The fact characters could /silly is a testament to the cheerful feeling and form of WoW that made it so distinctive from other fantasy RPGs.
It therefore comes as a total shock that, aside from a few well-placed Easter eggs, the film feels humourless. This is reflected in all the reviews calling it boring. I won’t bother to cite them all here, just look on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is drab and lacks the bright visual stimulation of its MMO counterpart. It tries for gritty and grown up without realising that viewers have Game of Thrones for that. A huge opportunity was missed to bring the cheeky and cheerful charm of the game to the silver screen.
Now that I’ve been somewhat agreeable, let me disagree with the second critique that the film left non-players in the dust. To me, albeit I’ve been a WoW player since 2004 and a roleplayer at that, the film was no more ‘inaccessible’ to non-players than the Game of Thrones TV show is to non-book readers. Yes, you have to pay attention. Yes, the names are tricky to say. Yes, you might get a sense that not all threads are being tied up for you like the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Its a fantasy film based on a fantasy world which has over 35 novels written about it, its going to have a lot going on and a lot of characters moving relatively quickly.
I actually think the film was too watered down for non-player audiences. The few memorable highlights for me were when we caught a glimpse of a murloc, when a sheep spell was used, and when a cork with iconic blue and red feathers was seen bobbing in a river. The film could’ve gone further with the in-jokes and game references. I would have liked to see a mage get scared and spam arcane blast until they OOM’d, or I would have died laughing if Lothar had asked Medivh to conjure refreshments after he climbed the stairs of Karazhan. Now I’m not saying that a Warcraft film should go full Barrens chat, but a few nods to the game’s humour would go a long way.
The ultimate verdict? Although the film misses good opportunities for fan service and humour, it is entertaining enough to merit the ticket price.
Foreword: This post mixes my personal experience with an academic framework to discuss the loss of a dear friend and the mess of emotions digital lives create. It uncomfortably straddles the private/public, personal/professional divide and this is intentional- it reflects the friendship I had with the deceased. I post it publicly for catharsis and in memoriam of the lost friend. No identifying information is provided out of respect for those who are grieving, so please be courteous and respectful when leaving comments/discussing.
I had just sat down with a water bottle and a book to wait for my grandmother. She had fallen and injured her shoulder on a Monday afternoon in a (and I mean this in the best way possible) rural town in Northern Mexico. Our options for out-of-hours treatment were an emergency room or a sports therapy masseuse, so we went for the latter.
Knowing I’d be in for an hour wait, I decided to perch myself in some shade overlooking the Sea of Cortez and read about peculiar children and imaginary monsters with the sound of the tide in my ears. Exceptionally hot for May, the beach in front of the spa was deserted and peaceful. My phone auto-connected to the local WiFi (I may have been there before…) and my tranquil reading was interrupted by Facebook notifications galore. A sinking feeling settled in my gut when I saw one message was from a friend I’d not spoken to since I moved to London. Apprehensively, I touched his disembodied head on the screen and read the message. A friend, who I had also not spoken to since the move, had tragically passed away.
I won’t mention specifics or go into details here out of respect for those who are grieving. Also, I don’t think details are necessary for the point I want to make, which is, the loss of friends is inevitable, but finding out through social media is a surreal experience.
I clicked the side button on my phone to shut off the screen, sat it on the table next to me and looked out at the sea. I remember thinking what seemed like a peaceful, sunny afternoon only moments ago suddenly felt sinister. The tranquil quiet I’d enjoyed moments before suddenly seemed a deliberate, silent malice engineered so that racing thoughts could become an amplified cacophony. I remember feeling tears slide down my cheeks, but I don’t remember wiping them away. In retrospect, I suppose the breeze off the ocean took care of that for me.
After an unspecified amount of time I picked my phone back up and responded the only way I could, “I’m sorry to hear that. Fuck. Thanks for letting me know.” My response is almost amusing now. A mix of measured, reasoned and polite with raw and incredulous, and really, that’s a good way to describe communication through the medium of Facebook Messenger.
This friend is not the only I have lost, and they are not the only passing I have discovered through social media. That I have experienced loss in virtual spaces before doesn’t make the discovery of death any less strange and it doesn’t make the ensuing experience any less surreal in its painfulness. Seeing dead names tagged or the accounts of the recently-passed active through requiem posts is like seeing a ghost. A fragment, a shell, a piece of the person passes before your eyes as you scroll through your newsfeed and your heart catches in your throat and you can’t breathe because for a split second your bastard brain makes you think they’re back. It is uncanny. Literally uncanny. They’re existing, and yet not. They are trapped in a time capsule that is ever present, ever changing and ever updating itself. That you must bear witness to these updates seems cruel, even as you are sitting on a beach in the usually cheerful Mexican sun.
A few more drab sentences were exchanged that afternoon between myself and the bearer of bad news. Polite, yet raw. I remember closing my eyes tight and pressing my head against the beach chair I was sitting on and thinking ‘This isn’t real’. It was, of course, real. Unfortunately real. Catching the time when I opened my eyes, I realised I needed to collect my grandmother (who is fine by the way) from her appointment and get on with the challenges of my own reality as it was unfolding halfway across the world from where the loss occurred.
Removed by timezones, oceans, countries, and languages, I was baffled by how ‘real’ the news felt as intangible as it was. I wished I had a letter to hold in my hand. As odd as it sounds, I wished a courier pigeon flew all the way across the Atlantic (and almost to the Pacific) to drop off a piece of parchment for me to hold because that would have made the news easier to take I suppose. It would make more sense if I could feel the weight of such heavy news in my hand. It would have been nice to have a letter to crumble or clench in a fist, but I had only the ephemeral waves of WiFi going through the air and to my phone, and those waves are weightless. Unlike the waves crashing against the sandy beach, they don’t even make sound. Not that sound is tangible, but, well, it at least hints that there is something or someone there and makes you feel less alone.
As I sit in my flat accompanied by the click-clack of laptop typing almost a month later, the finality of the death has thoroughly sunk into my brain. Although the death has crossed my mind almost every day for one reason or another, the surreal feeling of loss on the beach that afternoon in May is gone. A bit of time has provided the distance necessary to reflect on how the Facebook medium is the message (you just knew I’d cite McLuhan, didn’t you?), but also to reflect on how loss is experienced in the virtual world.
As a scholar of videogames, I experience virtual loss every time my avatar misses a jump (I’m notoriously bad at platformers), but this is different. This is real loss experienced, at least in part, through a virtual medium. Typically in games, and in techno-mediated-life in general, loss is usually inconsequential. Whilst moderately annoying or inconveniencing, the on-screen death of a character or the loss of a file (with some major notable exceptions) is not an insurmountable blow. It is a setback, yes, but it is not the final end. There is always an option to restart from the last save, or system restore to last operable point, but not when it is a human who has been lost. There is no undo, no restart, no ctrl+z that can bring them back. For me this makes the situation feel even more confusing and brutal.
To wrap this piece up, let me be clear: I do not fault the medium, the message, or the sender for the delivery of bad news. That would be utterly ludicrous. I don’t fault anyone or anything for the circle of life. In the end, as Kelly has said, we all become worm food. (Oh, sorry, I should have included a spoiler alert for Life). Of course some folks believe death is a beginning rather than an end, and that’s cool, but I won’t go into that here. Rather I want to end by saying the experience of loss is a privilege (and a curse) afforded to those who live long enough to experience it. I am much more aware of the life around me, even as it occurs on virtual platforms, because of having experienced loss. The ‘Memories’, timehops, tags, and memorial posts we all witness daily are virtual gravestones which mark out life; and the ache in the chest and the sting in the eye we have when we see them is a physical manifestation of our humanity as gifted to us by these virtual reminders. There is no stronger evidence of how the virtual and real are intertwined than in the example of death via Facebook notification.
And here is where this blog post ends for my living, breathing readers. The message below is only for my worm-food friend on the assumption the recently deceased are as tech-savvy in death as they were in life.
Until next time,
My dear comrade, this blog post comes nowhere near the commemoration I would have liked to give you. I think a stern carving of your frowning face in marble to preside over a library of under-funded, over-caffeinated postgrads would have been ideal, but alas… Funds don’t allow. I hope I have achieved the appropriate word-cocktail of scholastic, cheeky, and vulgar that I know you always enjoyed. If not, please come haunt me because I miss you.
Kelly has convinced me that Pinterest is an MMO. No, really, think about it. It is online, accessed by millions worldwide (10 million users in 2011), based in fantasy, and even gives you quests in the form of recipes and projects. It has fully replaced my pre-sleep gaming hour and this baffled me until I, with the help of Kelly, looked at why it feels so game-y.
Very little on Pinterest simulates everyday life but rather an idealised world full of gorgeously styled homes (decorated by you), pristine antique furniture (reupholstered by you), adorable animals (raised and groomed by you), and calorie-free cakes made from fanciful ingredients (baked by you). Or at least that’s what my slice of Pinterest looks like.
More than just presenting catalog-quality homes and gardens and families for the pleasure of the Pinner, Pinterest suggests that you too can have it all. Most images are accompanied by a brief description of how it was achieved or where to buy. Even artwork is accompanied by a DeviantArt, Etsy or blog link which offers opportunities to purchase or re-create. Even if these opportunities are not followed, Pins invite the Pinner to imagine a fantasy world where they own a sea-side home, have the time to make gluten-free, honey-glazed lemon bars, or design avant-garde fashions.
There is an assumption on the part of the Pinner, and academic research which hints at this by Gilbert et al (2013), that a Pin does not a project make. To Pin something is to mark it for later. “Oh, I might get around to making this. Maybe on a rainy Sunday when there’s nothing on TV…” I’m not sure firm stats exist concerning how many Pins translate to actual projects, but I’d imagine it is less than 10%.
In an ever-growing quest to indulge my epicuriousness, I decided to try to take some of these ephemeral recipes and make them a reality. As you can see from the picture above, it went well. Rather than going for the mundane, I decided to tackle the wonderful and weird world of paleo, raw, and gluten-free baking. This is of particular interest because these recipes target those trying to lose weight in addition to those who have a restrictive diet due to medical issues. The key, fantastic message encrusted within each is that you too can have it all! Dieters, don’t worry, there’s a way to make cookie dough healthy! Yes, you read it right. If you just put the effort in, you can eat the most sinful things all the time without guilt or weight gain! Don’t even get me started on what a load of rubbish this is. It isn’t healthy. Even if you use bananas, coconut oil and palm sugar, cookie dough is a sometimes-treat, not a twice-daily snack.
Anyway, before I get to my recipes and pictures, the most immediate issue I need to raise is the near-impossibility of gathering ingredients in terms of availability and cost. Honestly, the Pins might as well have suggested I substitute fairy dust for sugar and snow from the eaves of Santa’s workshop for flour. The ‘healthy’ replacements typically recommended include the aforementioned coconut oil and palm sugar in addition to almond flour, unflavoured whey protein powder, medjool dates, tapioca flour, and almond milk. Most of these aren’t impossible to find- larger groceries stores will have most ingredients- but depending on where you live, you might need a trip to the health food shop. Also, these are EXPENSIVE. 500g of coconut flour is £3.99 compared to 1.5kg of wheat flour for only £0.80. These recipes are simply not sustainable for the average person, further emphasising the ‘sometimes-treat’ reality of cooking with this section of Pinterest.
The rest of this blog post contains the results of a weekend trying out the fantastic. Pictures included. I’ve rated each recipe according to ease and taste.
This recipe is the epitome of Pinterest. A load of health food mixed and served in a mason jar. I’ll just leave it at that. Recipe here.
Ease: It is literally pouring raw ingredients into a mason jar and then shaking it. Fairly fool-proof. I used raspberries instead of bananas because I’m a free-thinker.
Taste: It tastes like mushy oatmeal in yoghurt. I honestly don’t know why I expected any different.
Paleo Carrot Cake
I love carrot cake and I’m quite good at making it… normally. Instead of making the frosting, I opted for fatfree yoghurt the first time (pictures) and low-fat soft cheese the second time because it was easier and just as tasty. Probs means it is no longer paleo, but I don’t really understand paleo anyway. All you want is some tang to cut through the sweet. Oh, look at me talking like I’m Amanda Freitag on Chopped. Recipe here.
Ease: This was no more difficult to make than a ‘normal’ carrot cake. Except for the coconut oil. Coconut oil is a solid below 24 degrees C. And I don’t mean solid like how butter is a solid when you keep it in a fridge. I mean solid as in candle wax. You have to chip it out of the glass jar it comes in with a spoon or soak the jar in warm water to soften it. It is messy and time consuming. The little flakes of solid oil get everywhere, including your hands. Guess what that means? Butter-er-coconut-oil-fingers! Coconut oil belongs in Lush products, not food.
Taste: The texture was nice, which according to my gluten-free friends is a real issue with baking. It wasn’t grainy or sandy but bouncy, light and spongy. The problem was, as you can see from my face, the taste. I doubled the recommended cinnamon, added nutmeg and allspice and still found it bland. Perplexing as the coconut flour and oil smells so good when it is baking and the batter tasted awesome. Yeah, that’s right, I live on the edge, I eat raw batter. #yolo. Anyway, defo-recommended for trad-flourless friends.
Coconut Protein Balls
This was the recipe I wanted to succeed the most, so naturally it didn’t. I’ve been hunting for a low-cost protein bar alternative which is low-carb, low-sugar. After a workout, I need something to stabilise my sugar levels because I’m prone to hypoglycemic spells and passing out. Most commercial bars are far too sugary which gives me a spike and then a dangerous crash. The bars which don’t mess with my sugars cost around £3 each. You see the problem. These seemed like a fab compromise.
Ease: Oh, I messed this one up. Oh boy, I messed this one up. Something went wrong early on which meant I couldn’t form balls. The mixture was too dry and kept crumbling apart. This is probably because instead of using coconut cream (which I didn’t have), I tried to make my own. It works with butter and milk, so why wouldn’t making cream work with coconut milk and coconut oil? I don’t know, but it didn’t. So, I decided that instead of balls, I’d flatten the crumbly mixture out into a cake pan and fridge it to make bars. As you can see below, I used a round cake pan so I actually ended up making triangles. I added chocolate chips because at this point it was going to be a dessert instead of something I’d put in my bag and take to the gym.
Taste: It tastes like if you were drowning and the only rescue was mouth-to-mouth from an ancient Egyptian mummy who had recently eaten a Bounty Bar. Dry and uncomfortable. I binned it.
Frozen Banana Protein Shake
I’ve seen lots of posts about banana-based fro-yo and decided to give it a go. This two-ingredient recipe seemed like a good choice, but instead of making ice-cream bites, I modified it to make a creamy milkshake.
Ease: I followed the recipe up until blending. I used fewer chocolate chips, added coconut milk and 1 scoop of soy protein powder. I know I talked about whey protein powder above, but it was whey too expensive for me so I went with soy. In retrospect to prevent clumping, I would have added the protein powder gradually as the other ingredients blended.
Taste: Nom. This is by far the tastiest recipe. It doesn’t taste like a milkshake, but it does taste like a frozen chocolate banana. 10/10 would blend again.
Coconut Flour Pancakes
For me, pancakes are a twice-a-year food. I’m not keen on sweet things for breakfast, and if I am, I’ll opt to pour some maple syrup on some burnt strips of fatty belly-bacon rashers. Part of this has to do with how rubbish the spike in sugar makes me feel and part of it is down to preference. This low-carb, no-added sugar, grain-free recipe seemed like it might be a go-to for family breakfasts when my siblings want something sweet.
Ease: Everything started great. Baking soda make the coconut flour bubble just like its wheat equivalent. Then I went to flip it. The image which started the post says it all really. Second one went better. Less batter is more for these.
Taste: Not grainy, which is a plus. Tastes like bananas. And pancakes. /shrug.
Writing this blog post required a back-and-forth between my website and Pinterest. My low-quality photos appeared side-by-side with the glossy ones at the top of the recipes. The images serve as a stark contrast between the fantasy world of Pinterest and the real-world of at-home baking for the average working adult. At the very least, it highlights the fact I don’t have a professional-grade camera or lighting rig. Nor do I have pretty glass ramekins, fancy cooking gadgets, or the time or money to invest in them. Whilst I can see myself repeating one or two of the recipes in future, I have to say that I am more than happy to let Pinterest remain a fantasy world of perfection I visit every night before bed. Just like I used to visit Azeroth.
Its 8:20 in the morning and I am sprinting down a small footpath behind the library. I didn’t leave campus until 9 last night and in less than 12 hours I am back again. I’m exhausted. I check my watch, my heart pounding in my chest. Good, I think, no one should be around yet. I bolt up the stairs of the lecture centre and slap a piece of A4 on the door. Somewhere nearby a hoover starts. No! The cleaners. What if they tidy away my clue? No time to think of that now, I gotta get back and hang up the posters which will serve as the trailhead. “The lecture has been cancelled. The lecturer is sick”. The message repeats across a sheet of A3 and the bolded letters form the first clue: check Blackboard. I stick blue tack in the corners and my heart is in my throat. What if they don’t realise it is a puzzle? What if they all leave?
As I slink to my office I re-evaluate my teaching choices for the term. Was running an ARG really the best way to teach students about puzzles and cryptography?
If you for some reason happened to check my blog on the morning of the 5th February, you may have noticed a post entitled ‘the riddle’. This was the final clue in the alternate reality game I ran to teach students what alternate reality games are. Now I fully admit that the narrative of the game was very weak. There was no government takeover, no conspiracy theory, no scientist-gone-missing, just a cancelled (?) lecture. If it would make you feel better to call it a scavenger hunt, then by all means do so. I’m not fussed.
The learning outcomes for this class were relatively straight forward: Learn about cryptography and puzzle making in a 3 hours. Really, that’s all I wanted to achieve. But rather than give the students some readings and a lecture, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn by doing. Solve some puzzles, run around campus on a Friday morning, and have a debriefing lecture with some puzzle-creation activities. So that they could see how I made the ‘ARG’, I made a (condensed) design document and an annotated timeline of events which I distributed in class. I’ve attached jpg scans of each below if you’re curious.
Creating and running an ARG, as small and flimsy as it was, was actually incredibly effective at teaching students the key aspects- and pitfalls- of designing an ARG. Not only did students successfully work together to solve the puzzles, but they did so very quickly. Much quicker than expected. This was a useful teaching moment as it allowed me to point out the difficulties in determining difficulty level for diverse groups of players. In a large ARG, like NIN’s Year Zero, puppetmasters can default to difficult in the knowledge that the global appeal of the band will result in large enough numbers of players to crack even the most obscure puzzles. For a 40-student, first year undergraduate class? That’s a relatively niche population who may or may not have had experience working with cryptographic puzzles before.
There was even a possibility that the students might’ve read the ‘lecture is cancelled’ sign on the door and gone home! I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t have been tempted to do similar when I was doing my undergraduate degree. The session is at 9am on a Friday morning… I was prepared for that eventuality. If the students had gone home, then that could’ve been a teachable moment as well. Actually, that would’ve been a compliment to my design skills as the tone of ARGs is meant to be: This is not a game. Combined with the serious aesthetic form of ARGs, there is also meant to be a high barrier to entry. Trailheads are meant to be barely perceptible as anything out of the ordinary. The best trailheads blend in with everyday life and everyday objects. Now I don’t mean to downplay how incredibly clever my students are, which they are, but I think that I made the game-ness of the first clue too obvious in retrospect.
After the students solved the final riddle and found the lecture, I held a de-briefing wherein I explained the ‘game’. I then also defined and explained what ARGs are, This is Not a Game was very useful here, and gave examples of some of the most famous- e.g. I Love Bees. After, I ran a workshop in which I handed out examples of cryptograms and asked students work out the logic of a particular method of encrypting and then, by means of reverse engineering, make their own. The National Puzzler’s League website and Puzzlecraft book were incredibly useful resources and a big thank you goes out to colleagues who pointed me to them.
As a workshop activity, this was met with mixed results. Some cryptograms are incredibly difficult and an hour to solve one, let alone figure out the logic to creating one, is simply not enough time. I think moving forwards, I will limit the types of cryptograms I challenge the students with. Anaquotes, riddles, printer’s devilry, and knight’s tour cryptograms seemed to be the most accessible in the given time frame. As an activity in general, I think it worked really well. Meta-skills like working together to solve a puzzle, using research skills to find auxiliary online sources, self-teaching and peer-teaching were true strengths of the workshop. It ended with students presenting the puzzles they had created to the class and the class (including me!) trying to solve them.
We rounded out the session with a discussion about how what they learned can be applied to other types of games. Since ARGs are niche- super awesome, but niche- it was important for me to highlight the larger applicability of puzzles to other genres. Platformers and RPGs were brought up as being the most amenable to puzzle mechanics, but I’m sure if there had been more time we could’ve discussed a dozen more.
Overall, I would certainly love to run this class again with a few minor changes. It was exciting and fun to shake up the normal lecture structure, and most importantly, I think the students got a lot out of the lesson. It was great seeing the group work and collective thinking going on during the workshop. Questions or comments? Don’t hesitate to get in touch!