Educational games from 3500 years ago

Freeborn children [of Greece] should learn as much of these things as the vast throngs of young in Egypt do with their alphabet. First as regards arithmetic, lessons have been devised there for absolute beginners based on enjoyment and games, distributing apples and garlands so that the same numbers are divided among larger and smaller groups.

…The teachers, by applying the rules and practices of arithmetic to play, prepare their pupils for the tasks of marshalling and leading armies and organizing military expeditions, managing a household too, and altogether form them into persons more useful to themselves and to others, and a great deal wider awake.”

This is Plato, writing around 360BC, about how Egyptian children learned about maths through ‘enjoyment and games’ [Laws 7,819].

I heard this during the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast about the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from 1550BC, which “contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose.”

Reading on the iPad is fantastic

Reading on the iPad is fantastic. I don’t care what other people have said, I just know that after using it for a fortnight, I can tell that it’s changed the way I’ll read forever.

I used to spend several hours a day in front of my iMac at home, using a combination of Google Reader and tabs to systematically plough through dozens of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and blog posts. It worked well enough, although it was rather antisocial and tiring, plus I often got distracted by the various widgets and chat windows on my monitors, not to mention regularly checking Google Reader and Gmail for new content. Still, it certainly didn’t seem to me that this was a bad setup, since I could get an awful lot done.

With the iPad, at least half – maybe two thirds – of my reading now takes place on my iPad. Since most of my reading was online (with the exception of the New Yorker and The Atlantic), this means that I spend a hell of a lot of time reading on my iPad.

My ‘readflow’ is very simple – I use my iMac to go through my various feeds, saving everything longer than 300 words or so to Instapaper, a free online service that saves webpages for reading later. When I open the Instapaper app on my iPad, it automatically synchronises those pages, stripping everything from them except for the article text and any images they contain. Since you can customise Instapaper’s layout and font, the reading experience is often very comfortable.

By presenting webpages as just text and images, an article from the New Yorker looks exactly the same as one from the New Republic or BBC News; they have the same font, the same leading, and the same layout. Since you lose all the traditional cues that mark out one magazine or website from another, like the colours and feel of the paper, the only cue you have left is the writing style. I’m not sure whether I like this, since I appreciate good design and layout in a website or magazine, but then I also appreciate not having ads and other webpage cruft crowding my eyes when I’m trying to concentrate.

On a similar note, I find the iPad’s lack of email and chat notifications to be refreshingly helpful in keeping me focused on what I’m reading. Like the iPhone, the iPad doesn’t have ‘windows’ – it has apps that fill the screen, so reading – whether in Instapaper or apps like iBooks or the FT or New York Times – is a much more intimate and less distracting experience than on a computer; the text fills the screen without any wasted space or other windows competing for your attention. Even the ads look better.

What’s more, the iPad’s size means that it can be carried around for reading in various odd environments, like while cooking or walking between rooms. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s surprising how that portability makes you more inclined to read at any given moment.

All of this adds up the sensation that when you’re using the iPad, you’re not using a computer, you’re using a magical book. It’s hardly surprising, because the iPad shares so little with traditional computers – it doesn’t have a keyboard or a mouse, you don’t need to consciously close or open apps or root around for hidden windows – you just touch it, and things happen. As someone who’s grown up with computers, I find this very intriguing, since the iPad is basically a computer that doesn’t feel like a computer. I wonder where else Apple is going with this.


A few people have complained about the weight of the iPad – namely, that you can’t hold it comfortably in the air with one hand. They’re correct, but then I have more than a few books that the same could be said of, including almost every hardback I own (Neal Stephenson’s Anathem actually weighs more than the iPad); so unless you exist on a diet of light paperbacks, I consider talk of the iPad’s weight to be mere quibbling.

Reading and buying books

One real problem with the iPad is the absurd price of books in the iBooks Store. As the Bookseller has pointed out, the vast majority of books available can found for significantly less on Amazon UK, or on the Kindle Store, or in Waterstones. I certainly don’t value the convenience and speed of iBooks more than owning a physical copy, so I hope it doesn’t take too long for publishers to come to their senses (as they inevitably will, either through competition or piracy) and lower prices by, say, 50%. You need only look at the iBooks Store charts to see that people are extremely price sensitive – right now, none of the top 10 books are above £9, and the top two are £2 and £4 respectively.

Frustrated by the iBooks Store, I turned to the public domain and used Feedbooks to download Peter Watts’ Blindsight, a hard SF novel I’d been meaning to read for some time. Unlike the agony of adding books to my Sony Reader (admittedly, this was three years ago), it was pretty easy to add the Blindsight ePub file to iTunes and then sync my iPad*. I then spent a few hours reading the book, and you know what? It felt just like reading a normal book. I didn’t become blinded by the supposed harsh brightness of the screen, I didn’t go cross-eyed from the pixels, I just read it and enjoyed it. However else other people feel about reading on the iPad, I know that it works fine for me.

After years of being told that computers and the internet are rewiring our brains so we only read superficially, there’s finally a device that can change the tide and help us focus. It works for me – maybe it’ll work for you.

*Of course, it should be as easy as just clicking on a link to an ePub file in Safari on the iPad…

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2

Read Part 1 here…

Day 3: Valletta (Malta)

Malta isn’t a place that I would go out of my way to visit. Its capital, Valletta, has plenty of charm and interesting architecture – a legacy from the incessant invasions and occupations by Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, French, British, and a bunch of other people you haven’t heard of before – but when you’re on a cruise that’s also going to Carthage, Naples, Rome, and to the Cinqueterre, you can’t help but think Malta is a bit of a filler.

Malta cruise terminal

A slightly odd thing about the otherwise lovely cruise terminal in Valletta is that it has two original buildings joined by a new facade, designed to blend in. Behind the facade is a car park – you can see it through the doors and windows. Maybe they ran out of money.

After walking around the alleyways, gardens, and cathedral, and having our first gelato of the trip, we headed back. On our way, we passed by a small park containing lots of lazy, contented cats enjoying the sun; their presence was explained by ‘Cat Cafe’ that gives away food and drink. Very nice.

Tonight, we were in Animator’s Palate for dinner. This is an interesting and gimmicky restaurant whose conceit is that, as the evening goes on, the white walls and empty painting frames gradually become filled with colour and pictures and videos. It sounds neat, and it probably was, about fifteen years ago, but today it comes across as rather low-tech for something that supposedly cost millions to build; it didn’t help that the video screen next to us wasn’t working. Of course, Disney’s new ship, the Dream, has an upgraded version with all sorts of new screens and display technologies that will look equally old in, oh, five years time.

The Animator’s Palate is unique on the Magic for another reason – it’s not trying to look like something else. Practically every restaurant and bar on the ship is modelled on some popular ideal; Parrot Cay is a fun Caribbean restaurant, Rockin’ Bar D’s (yes, that’s its real name) is a bar/club kitted out with retro yet cool posters and props, Cove is basically Starbucks but nicer.

You wonder what the point of this is, since in most cities, you’d be able to find places with more genuine atmosphere and history and quality than any of these ersatz venues; you could go to a great Caribbean restaurant, followed up by a bar with real character, and then (if you’re not in the UK), a good independent cafe. The two things you’d be missing are:

a) The fact that on the Magic, these venues are all a maximum of 5 minutes apart and completely safe
b) While they may lack genuine character, they are probably closer to the Platonic ideal of such venues held in the average American’s mind

Take Palo, for example. Palo appears to have been drawn directly out of the minds of millions of North Americans, just like Dumbledore using his wand to draw memories out of people in Harry Potter (I couldn’t think of a suitable Disney analogy). A silver-tongued maitre’d guides you inside with humorous tales of his travels, past all sorts of expensive looking wines and knick-knacks in cabinets, past an open kitchen (so you can see that you aren’t sharing the same food as everyone else on the cruise), to a table served by incredibly attentive waiters with perfect knowledge of the menu, always giving you appetisers and jokes, etc, etc. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 2”

Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about my 11 night Mediterranean cruise on the Disney Magic, and other Disney-related thoughts. I’m also (slowly) uploading photos to my Flickr.

On a Disney cruise, you never stop hearing about the fantastic time you’re having. Wasn’t last night’s Captain’s dinner just delicious? Didn’t you love Naples? The movie tonight is going to be simply stunning! Let’s give another round of applause to our cast for such an amazing show!

Most passengers on my cruise did, in fact, think that the dinner was delicious; they did love Naples; and they were more than happy to give a standing ovation to the cast for every show. It’s not as if they needed to be reminded of this, so why were the Disney cast members so insistent that everyone know they’re having a great time?

Here’s why. Try this experiment – find a pen or pencil, put it in your mouth and bite it for a minute.

How do you feel? A bit foolish or embarrassed, probably – but maybe a little happier, as well. The simple act of making yourself smile can actually improve your mood. It won’t take away a bad mood, but it can tip the balance from feeling indifferent to feeling happier. It can turn an indifferent or sulky teenager into a mildly impressed one, and of course, it can turn the average Disney fan into a devoted follower.

Docked in Malta

Disney understands the secret of great advertising. They don’t just want people to buy Disney products – they want them to be happy about what they’ve already bought, so they’ll buy more in the future. And a Disney cruise isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a brilliant opportunity to sell more Disney products – including movies, DVDs, games, toys, theme park tickets, clothes, and of course, more cruises – to a captive audience.

This may sound awful, but here’s the thing: the food on a Disney cruise isn’t bad. The ports – and the shows – range from average to amazing, the cast members are pretty good, the service and facilities are excellent, and the ship is by far the finest-looking cruise ship I’ve seen. Disney has plenty to be proud of. And so, just as Steve Jobs is fond of describing the iPad – a very good device, though not without its flaws – as ‘magical’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘unbelieveable’, Disney wants you to believe that its cruises – very good, though far from perfect – are just as magical.

(While plenty of other brands regularly exaggerate the quality of their beers, cars, soap, underwear, etc, in their life-changing abilities, people seem to be less bothered by them than by offenders like Apple and Disney. I think there are two factors behind this: firstly, unlike most other companies, it really does seem like they mean it when they say their products are magical. Secondly, there are an awful lot of people out there how really do believe these claims. These two factors combined are enough to enrage millions of anti-fanboys around the world).

The Beginning

The cruise I went on with my girlfriend was an 11 night tour of the Mediterranean on the DCL Disney Magic, departing from Barcelona and visiting Malta, Tunisia, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Ajaccio (in Corsica), and Villefranche.

Screen shot 2010-06-01 at 00.37.20

A basic cabin costs around $2000 per person, but thanks to a tip from HotUKDeals, we found tickets for half the price – a great bargain (probably due to the recession). We’d only been on one cruise before, with my parents to Cork (yes, in Ireland) last year. I found it to be a pretty interesting experience – after all, any ship with 4000 passengers and its own rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, and countless restaurants and pools, is bound to be interesting from at least a logistical, engineering, and cultural perspective. Plus it was pretty relaxing. So I wasn’t turned off from the idea of cruising. Continue reading “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1”