The thing about Minecraft

I don’t know exactly what attribute our next generation of engineers and scientists will have. They’ll obviously need exceptional reasoning skills and no small amount of creativity, and likely will need to pair those with a willingness to collaborate. Beyond that? <shrugs>

But if I were a betting man, I’d put fair money on one interest they’ll all have in common: a long-standing love of Minecraft.

(If you haven’t heard of Minecraft, it’s a sandbox game packed with 3-D blocks and tons of objects, tools like axes and fishing poles and creatures like cows, chickens, and exploding monsters. You can play in two modes, “survival” and “creative.” The first is a “game” in the sense that there are goals to achieve and obstacles to overcome toward a final end. In creative mode, you have access to unlimited resources to build whatever the heck you want. If you’re still curious, just search for Minecraft stuff on YouTube, but beware: it’s a slippery slope of awesomeness.)

We first became a Minecraft household after our five-year-old daughter watched a neighbor friend play the Pocket Edition (much the same game but with fewer components). I’d heard of Minecraft but knew nothing about it, so we started with a “Minecraft Lite” for our iPad from Toca. It was a hit, so we moved onto Pocket Edition. That was an even bigger hit, so I sprang for two versions of the full desktop version, one for me and one for my daughter.

And since then, well, there are few things my daughter and I enjoy more. We play it individually and we play it together, which is pretty astounding. I don’t just play it with her in the same way that I watch Octonauts with her, which is to share something with her that only she enjoys, basically. And it’s not me shoving Doctor Who at her, which she enjoys but mainly because we can share it as a family.

No, this is something that we both enjoy. Not always for the same reasons, but enough to matter, and all of those reasons, both mine and hers, are pretty good reasons.

They all essentially boil down to limitless possibility. Placing blocks invariably led our daughter to try to build familiar locations, like our house. Animals and fences led to her creation of wildlife preserves. I would counter with odd sculptures of things like giant black cubes or big yellow smiley faces, and she would counter with fountains and her name etched into the ground and filled with lava. Recently, she discovered a village, automatically created and populated by the game, and she began to interact with the villagers, trading stuff to them for emeralds and spinning a narrative the whole time, including dialogue between herself and the on-screen characters.

If you’re counting analogues, there are about a half dozen: building blocks and LEGOs, action figures and imagination play, the creativity of drawing and coloring … again, limitless possibility. But the game scales from there, particularly once you start tinkering with the game. Want to learn about networks? Set up a Minecraft server. Want to learn about navigating settings and configurations? Play around with mods. It’s quite impressive.

Ok, I gotta get back to my world. Just a couple more obsidian and then I’m building a nether portal.


‘Trophy Wives’ at the HCSCC


My most recent Forum story focused on an installation by seven artists currently on display at the HCSCC. It’s a great idea: all seven of these artists used the notion of “trophy wife” as a springboard for some rather poignant commentary on gender, objectification, and a slew of other ideas. I loved their energy, and theirs is a textbook example of the power of collaboration in art. Give it a read.

On a more personal note: the above image (posted originally to the ARTSpulse Instagram account) instills in me a bit of pride. One of the photos I took for this story ended up on the A1 flag–front page, above the fold, basically. I think it’s probably the first time a photo I took was on the front page of anything, let alone a daily newspaper. It’s flippin’ cool. Selfhighfive!

Why I converted to Linux, why you should, and why you shouldn’t

A couple months ago, my wife and I went through a major overhaul on our kitchen (you might find a couple photos on the #trygkerzrenovation tag). While I was excited for the end result–a kitchen that can more comfortably fit more than one butt–I was not quite as excited for the work.

And it wasn’t really the work. It was the fear of screwing up that got me. The fear of knowing that we could cause irreparable harm to our home and have to end up paying double to have someone fix it for us. That and, without the confidence to know that we could make major renovations ourselves, the worry of not being able to make progress.

I’m happy to report that a little bit of shirt-sleeve rolling, elbow grease, and dozens of trips to Menard’s, we got the kitchen in (mostly). And in the process, something weird happened: I began to have confidence in my ability to build and fix things.

I’m not used to confidence. It’s nice.

But that confidence didn’t exactly translate into more house projects (as of yet). I wanted to get my hands dirty, but not “home improvement” dirty. For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to do the following:

1. Build my own computer.

2. Install a Linux distribution and learn it.

3. Learn the programming language Python.

4. Build and manage my own home computers and devices while also learning how to build projects using the Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

How did I arrive at that laundry list? No clue, really, other than perhaps all the time I’ve spent lusting over MAKE Magazine projects, like LED shirts or toasters with Twitter accounts.

If I could hazard a better guess, I’d say it has a lot to do with the thrill of DIY mixed with the possibilities of being able to work exclusively with F/LOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software). I’m growing wary of slick corporate environments and–more to the point–their chokehold on our devices, platforms, and online exchanges of information. For this viewpoint, I have to thank glitch artist Steven Hammer (I wrote about him on ARTSpulse; you should read it). As more and more corporate gloss is layered on our experience with technology (and our privacy and security become further endangered because of it), it seemed to me that cracking into it and learning more about what makes all of this run.

To take it even one step further, I began to look at how the tools of technology are being handed to our kids without much in the way of knowing how they work. I love that my kid can use an iPad. But, my kid can’t learn anything about how that iPad works from the iPad. However, she could learn something about that iPad by learning the Linux CLI, configuring her own networks, learning some code or, at the very least, learning how to use a mouse. From there, her own confidence might lead her to think of new possibilities with technology in her life and career to come.

So, it’s a DIY thing, a hobby thing, a fun thing, a free speech issue, an accessibility issue, and lots of other things. Mostly, I guess, it’s a curiosity thing. Fortunately, there’s a lot of places in the hardware/software world in which to invest that curiosity.

Should you convert to Linux? Would I recommend to you that you learn something about computers and software? Should you run out and buy a bunch of thick books about Python, like I did? Well, not necessarily. While I could certainly chat on and on with you about the benefits of the command line or the satisfaction of knowing how an operating system works, I don’t think that approach is for everyone, mainly because people become highly invested in a particular user interface with their machines. I’ll be honest: a lot of this stuff is highly technical, and many of the tasks to be done with any computer running Windows or OS X can be done quickly and easily because a lot of time and money has been focused on making them so. My wife, for instance, is a Mac power user (she’s a photographer). She loves that everything works right out of the box, every time. Mac stuff costs more, sure, but she needs a combination of reliability and usability that can really only come from their approach to hardware and software.

No, Linux isn’t necessarily for everyone, but it’s beauty is that it can work for just about anyone, plus you get to examine some of the inner workings of your machine while you’re at it. If you want to plunge headfirst into programming and tapping away on the command line, I say do it. If you want a no-frills and extremely reliable operating system, I say do it. If you want to learn a bit about whats going on under the hood of your computer or want to do some hobby electronics, I say do it.

But if you’re wedded to a set of programs and a certain way of doing things, then don’t switch just for the sake of switching. The first thing to remember is that technological tools are just that: tools. When you’re first priority is getting that report written or that slideshow created or that web page populated, then the politics of open source or the dalliances of programming really needn’t concern you.

Someday, though, if you ever get curious, there’s a whole world of fun out there just waiting for you. Believe me. It’s a real confidence booster.

Interviewing Lin Enger

For this week’s Forum and ARTSpulse, I interviewed MSUM English Professor and author Lin Enger. His second novel, “The High Divide,” is out this month from Algonquin Books. I haven’t finished it yet, but once I get around to it, it won’t take long. The story begins with a big emotional bang and drags you along with light and steady prose. In the article, he refers to the rigor around his revision process as being akin to a “draft horse,” and to continue the metaphor, his writing moves like one of those fast horses that does all the jumpies (an equestrian I am not) a quarterhorse.

Lin lives less than a block from me, so to interview him for this story, I just walked around the corner from our house to his. Talk about convenience. I took a photo in front of his garden mostly because the light was nice and his rhubarb is lush (and how appropriate that a Minnesota writer be pictured in front of his rhubarb), but also so I could sneak our house into the background:


It’s just off his right shoulder there.

I recommend picking up a copy of the book. It’s well-paced, compelling, and full of complex characters.

Also, I love our neighborhood.

Some love for Birthday Salad

I think I discovered Birthday Salad shortly after I got my Vine account. While I never really gained any traction on Vine (I think I managed around 20 followers), I did enjoy the oddball stuff that people were doing with it, six seconds at a time.

Head and shoulders above most is Birthday Salad, a project by Brooklyn-based artist, musician, and illustrator Becky Lovell. Her Vines always loop perfectly–which was pretty hard to do before Vine introduced better editing tools–and juxtapose amazing found footage with awesome music.

I think Birthday Salad is now on the shelf. Lovell put the embedded complete collection of her Vines on YouTube a few days ago if you want to catch up. They’re a perfect waste of time … but not quite the same as having them loop over and over again. I recommend going straight to her Vine to watch these beautiful nuggets vex you ad infinitum.

Welcome to the (kindergarten) machine

My daughter had her first day of kindergarten today.

In the way I’ll often tell her things that are both not funny and over her head, I quoted Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” as we walked through the doors. It seemed appropriate, this being her first few steps into the public school system and the infinite joys that lay ahead.

Given the emotional roller coaster this has been for me, it’s hard not to be grumpy with her inevitable and inescapable march into civilized life. Sure, there’s the thrill of seeing my kiddo leave the nest. But there’s also the proxy horror of knowing what she’ll likely endure, stuff like peer pressure, bullying, and just plain ol’ fitting in.

But, like all parents eventually do, I arrived at a state of equilibrium through the realization that a fully functioning adult needs the experience of school behind them in order to make their way through the dizzying onslaught a world of tough choices, angst, joy, and despair. It’s not so much that they need the schooling (and they do need it of course … they probably need more of it, and better), but they need the knowledge of figuring out systems, finding coping mechanisms, and discovering which levers they can pull in order to forge a productive life, or at least the life that they want. They have to know how to work with people. Through all of this, they discover independence. Before today, my daughter lived in a bubble of Nerf as she picked up gross motor skills, played with chalk on the sidewalk, and sang songs. That’s been fantastic. But at some point, she needs to start branching out, learning new skills, and taking part in society. Today, as I left her in the care of strangers amid a teeming mass of darling elementary school kids (with their Disney backpacks and light-up shoes), I sent her on those first steps. There will still be plenty of Nerf bumpers, but the game has definitely changed.

And I’m so glad. I’m glad that we, as parents, have raised her to this point, where we can be confident in her ability to fully participate in this fascinating and heartbreaking world of ours. We have a long way to go, but today was the first day that I could see the signs that we aren’t raising a daughter. We’re raising a person.

The final word here, though, needs to go to my daughter, for whom life is pure, simple adventure. After I made my “welcome to the machine” comment, her response was spot on.

“It’s not really a machine, Papa,” she said, matter-of-factly and with a hint of condescension.

You got me there, kid.

Getting to know the ‘weird and creative’ at Seagrave Studios

Last week, I wrote and shot photos for a profile of Seagrave Studios in the basement of the Red Raven Espresso Parlor downtown. The article appeared in the Forum and on ARTSpulse.

Unlike many of the stories I work on for ARTSpulse, this one had a real sense of atmosphere. People in places doing things. It was easy for me to pluck out sights and sounds from the messy-but-purposeful art space and put them next to great quotes from the artists who call it home and love it, probably, more than they do their actual homes.

Also, this was a rare opportunity to disseminate the viewpoint of young artists whose work is cross-disciplinary and often-experimental. This is work that often lies outside of conventional taste and presentation modes, and it rarely finds a home in mainstream media. To paraphrase what one of the artists told me, this is work done by the “weird and creative,” and it needs a good home surrounded by people who leave judgment at the door. I like when my work can help support creative people who work on the fringes without a lot of money behind them since I can easily identify with the scrappy, resourceful, and defiantly creative spirit these artists show. Were I 15 years younger, I’d probably be hanging out there myself, trying to find ways to sew my loves of audio design, gadgets, music, and writing into one big, weird package.




Teaching WordPress

I’m currently working with a class of three students at the Moorhead Library, showing them how easy it is to create a blog with WordPress. We started at 6:30 p.m. and everyone has already picked out a theme and is working on their first post. My goal is to have them publish something to the internet within a half hour … and I think we’re going to do it!

Hey, I’m posting this from my phone, wut?!

Just installed the WordPress app and posting here–for the first time ever–not from my laptop.

The app is nice, good ux, but it took a few tries before everything got lined up. But yeah. Good from there.

Ok. As you were.