Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Political Correctness at the Ontario Science Center

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The Forest Fire Game

First part of the day was at the Ontario Science Center. My family came when I was 13, and we ended up spending multiple days. They have a huge assortment of hands-on exhibits on all sorts of physics and biology related subjects. You get to roll the balls around, shock yourself, walk through optical illusions, and so on.

My favorite part during my first visit (1982) was an arcade-like game they had about forest fires. A square of forest fire started somewhere on a screen that represented forest, river, rocky areas, and a nearby town, all randomly generated. You had to put out the fire before it engulfed the nearby town. At your disposal were nine things: three water drops, two clear cutting teams, two fire brigades, and two something else's. Each time you deployed one of your things, you had to wait about 10 seconds while it did its work before you could deploy it again.

There were three ways to play the game. The first way was to quickly move your trackball to the forest fire. If you were fast enough, you dropped two water drops right onto the fire and that was it. One wasn't enough. As I played the game, this soon became trivial

The second way was to try to contain the fire: drop all sorts of things in the eight squares surrounding the fire. Since a single water drop wasn't enough to stop a fire, only delay it, the fire tried to spread through it into neighboring squares. If you were fast and lucky, you might be able to recover your other items and get them to surround the fire in the direction it was spreading. If you could, it would die out. This was sometimes challenging, depending on how hot was the original fire.

The third way was to just try to clearcut and soak a firebreak around the town. You had to get this done before the fire could reach any part of it. In this scenario, you happily watched the fire destroy the rest of the world, but that's ok because your town didn't get burned up. This was a challenging approach, since the town area usually took up a good quarter of the board.

I played it for hours.

The second time I came to the OSC was around 9 years ago at age 29. I came with my new wife and kids. My kids were so thoroughly misbehaving at the time that the entire experience was ruined for us and we had to leave early. In any case, they no longer had the forest fire game, but they had seemingly the same exhibits, which were still cool. We also saw Cirque de Soleil as an IMAX movie.

Gadgets and Gizmos

Monday was Family Day in Toronto, a brand new holiday that doesn't seem to have any particular point. The OSC was crowded with families. The lines getting in were like lines into an amusement park. I talked to a few of the families.

Every one that I talked to, including the kids, told me that they came on average once every nine months to the Center. The main attraction for repeat visits seemed to be the kids area, which is a lot like an amusement park / playground filled with things you can climb, build, drop, roll, and so on.

This is just one small part of one of the structures there. It is a vast Rube Goldberg device where you drop balls into various parts and watch them circle around, rise, fall, jump, spin, clatter, and so on, until they eventually come rolling back to you.

I can see the appeal.

As for myself, I think I've run my course on the experience, as too much of the center is too familiar to me.

They have special exhibits, such as the currently running Titanic exhibition, which I skipped. I came especially to try out a one-day only "Gadgets and Gizmos" workshop. It was disappointing. At 10:00, they provided scissors (not enough of them), stapler, a plastic cup and a pencil, and instructions on how to build a whirligig. And at 2:00 they provided scissors, cardboard, and string and instructions on how to build a spinning disk.

My tablemate building a whirligig

My spinning disk

Both of these were fine gadgets and gizmos, but I was kind of hoping for about fifteen to twenty things like this happening in constant time and at different table, not just one thing to do for around ten minutes and then you're done.

PC at the Center

I amused myself watching parents react to their kids as they wandered around the beginning of the human reproduction area, which had pictures of the internal workings of reproductive organs and videos on birth control, STDs, and safer sex.

Some of the parents yanked their kids away from the area and hustled them on to other locations while saying that they were too young. Some just looked around while their kids looked around and then walked away. For their part, the kids poked and spun and moved the things just like they did in all the other areas of the center and then moved on.

Then I hit upon a new exhibit which kind of annoyed me. I have no problem with exhibitions on racism and prejudice, but I'm kind of mystified as to what one is doing in a science center. The overriding theme seemed to be one about how people don't know what they think they do and that truth is subjective.

They had objects showing acupuncture and that no one knows exactly how or if it works. But the points in the body corresponding to the "chi" also seem to have increased nerve endings. They had one on how the skin color of people is determined by only one gene out of thousands, and not really an important guide to comparing people's genetic makeup.

Then there was one which displayed the writings of "western" philosophers and showed how, despite whatever good things they may have written, they wrote a lot of prejudiced and sexist material as well: "The scientific achievements of the western world are rooted in the writings of great philosophers. But these philosophers were human, and despite their greatness, they were biased. Their ideas mirrored only the beliefs of European culture." And goes on to knock Darwin, Hegel, Plato, Nietzsche and twenty other philosophers with their various quotes about woman and blacks.

I'm guessing that the exhibit was supposed to be cautionary about the limits of scientific knowledge and reliance on culturally-normal ideas. But it seemed more appropriate for a museum on tolerance than one on science.

After the museum, I hit a used book store near Yonge and Eglington, picking up a few books on games and comics (some cheap ones the guy let me have for free; nice). Then kosher food shopping, then home.


1 comment:

Marc Majcher said...

I have vivid memories of playing that firefighting game, and the feeling of futility if you missed that short window of immediately water-bombing the fire as soon as you could. I don't think I ever managed to cut an effective fire break if the fire got out of hand, but boy, did I spend a lot of time trying.

I think the engagement that came out of that very limited scenario (and the lo-fi technology) was one of the things that pushed me into trying out the game development thing myself, as a kid. One of my favorite bits at the museum, along with the computer voice that said "COFFEE" at various speeds and pitches.