Declaring Victory on the First Month!

Goldy Gopher welcomes me to U of M

Goldy Gopher welcomes me to U of M

One thing I learned from my new colleagues at University of Minnesota is that we don’t end meeting, we declare victory on meetings. I started this job on August 25th and I think it’s a great time to declare victory on the first month and reflect a bit.

Here are some things that stand out the most to me from these first few weeks:

  • Student Are the Best: I find that my motivation and energy are benefitting tremendously from contact with students. Guest lecturing to promote my new seminar, editing CHI papers together, running a project meeting, helping with fellowship apps — all of these activities are really fulfilling for me on an emotional level and beneficial to my research on an intellectual level. I can’t wait to teach next semester!
  • First Grant Is Hard: While I’ve written smaller grants before, this was my first time writing an NSF grant. The process felt different and I needed a lot of guidance. Luckily, I had a lot of help: NSF program directors (Kevin and Wendy), U of M staff (Julia and Claudette), professors at U of M (Brent, Loren, Joe, and Amy K.), and old friends from GT who shared their past applications and successful proposals (Amy V. and Erika). Even though this grant could only have one PI, I feel like it took a village and I’m incredibly grateful for all the help.
  • Time is Limited: I’ve heard this a billion times, but this month really drove the point home. There are tons of opportunities but there are only 24 hours in a day. I want to do this while still maintaining my commitment to my own health, sanity, and work/life balance. I did say my first “no” to a major opportunity this month, which I hear is an important skill to learn. One challenge for me over the next few months is in pursuing the right opportunities and learning how to protect time for the activities I find most important: working with students, writing, and hands-on research. From those who have been doing this for awhile: any advice on keeping your time from getting fragmented? any advice on picking opportunities and saying yes or no?
  • Emotional Support is Key: Honestly, just knowing that many of my good friends are going through the same thing is a big help. Some of my friends have started a “Professor Cohort 2014″ group on Facebook (let me know if you want to join) and it helps me remember I’m not the only one facing the anxieties and the challenges. I’ve also connected with some of the new faculty in other departments through the new faculty orientation and a few social outings since then. And of course, old friends are gold — Eugene and Kurt will always be my first line of support (can’t wait for our reunion at the GVU Foley Scholars Dinner at the end of October!).

Will I still have time to blog in this new life? I better! This is one of the things that connects me to students and emotional support. It gives me a new perspective on my research. I also think protecting this time to write will be a good test of how I’m balancing the various priorities of this job — whether I’m being successful at keeping the “urgent” from getting ahead of the “important.” In a way, every post will be a declaration of victory!

What I Do Explained Using 1,000 Most Common Words

I love xkcd and one of my favorites is this comic that tries to explain a complicated concept using only the “10 hundred” most common words in English! Even cooler, somebody built a tool to help others do the same thing! I thought I’d try it out with my own research and see how it goes. Here’s the result:

Some of my work is about helping parents and children talk when they do not live together. Some parents are not married or move around a lot for work, so they use the phone to talk to their kids. But phones are boring for kids, so they don’t want to use them. I love making new computer stuff that’s better than the phone, like games and fun stuff to do without needing to be in the same room.

Some of my other work is about helping kids play with each other even if they’re not in the same room. Instead of making games with fighting or killing where the story is already made up by a grown-up, I like making computer stuff and games where the kids have to make up their own stories. That’s better for kids because it helps them learn to be better friends and more interesting people.

I also like making computer stuff that helps grown-ups make good friends and become better people. One time when this is really important is when a person is trying to stop smoking, drinking, or using bad stuff. If they can’t stop on their own, that’s a type of being sick and they need friends who are going through the same thing who can help them. Sometimes they meet these friends in rooms where they tell each other their stories. Other times they meet these friends on the computer. I make computer stuff to help them make their get-better friends and get better together.

All in all, my work is about helping people be friends and become better together.

I thought that the exercise was quite helpful. I would love to hear your experiences and elevator pitch blurbs if you try it out to explain your own work!

Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.