Chilies: May 2017 update

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Tepin x Lemon Drop hybrid is the tallest plant at the moment. It has also started to bear fruit, already!

I have been growing a variety of chili peppers for a few years now, and the most of summers 2015 and 2016 were spent building and then testing the Juliana greenhouse that we use for extending the warm season here in Finland. This year however, April was the coldest in record, and there was no point in taking plants outdoors, when it would had just meant having the electric heater working around the clock (which means: expensive chilies!) Now, at the end of May, it finally looks like the unseasonal snow storms could be behind us (knocking on wood…) and this weekend has been the one when the greenhouse has been set up for business, most of the chilies have moved into bigger pots, while there has been also plenty of other work going on in our garden.

As I wrote earlier, I tried out the simple Ikea hydroponic system in germination and sapling phases. The early steps worked very well, and it seems that for indoor chili growing the setup is good for these first steps. However (partially due to the deferred Spring), I kept the saplings too long in the hydroponic setup – if large plants like chilies are grown in hydroponic manner, it needs to have a water pump installed, that keeps the nutritious water flowing over the roots, rather than just soaking them. I did not have the pump, and ended up in troubles, with growth of some plants suffering, and even losing a couple of important chili varieties. I moved the remaining plants into soil and pots in early April, if I remember correctly, but I should had done that much earlier. The growth was strong after the move, even while growing plants had to get along on the windowsill, without any extra plant lights from that onwards.

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Scorpion, one from Messukylä school sale.

Luckily, there was the school yard sale in the local Messukylä school, where again hundreds of plants, dozens of chilies included, were available, so I could supplement my selection. I lost all my Aji varieties, and both of my extra hot varieties, “7 pot Brain Strain Yellow” and the Bhut Jolokia. But from the school sale I managed to get both a new Bhut Jolokia, as well as a Moruga Scorpion – both traditionally top of the line, as long as heat is measured. And there were also a couple of interesting habanero varieties that I picked up, as well as something that was called “Jalapeno Hot”. I have only tried rather mild japapenos so far, so it is interesting to see how that will turn out.

Here are some photos from the chilies at this point, 21st May: the school yard saplings are much smaller than the ones that I had grown in hydroponics and then in pots starting in January. The “Naga” (Bhut Jolokia) is particularly small, hopefully it will survive the move into a larger pot, it does not have particularly strong roots yet.

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My “Madame Jeannette” habanero is growing strong, though still indoors.
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Pequin Firecracker is also making nice growth right now, it should move to the greenhouse in near future, I think.

Talking about roots, I try this time using a specific commercial nutritient, Biobizz “Root Juice”: it is an organic “root stimulator” designed to boost root growth. As I had a gift voucher to a local chili gardeners’ store (thanks, Gamelab colleagues!), I have now also other nutritients to try – sticking to Biobizz products, per shopkeeper’s advice in soil based chili cultivation.

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“Root Juice”.
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My other tools in testing: “Top-Max”, “Bio-Bloom”, “Bio-Grow” by Biobizz (company is originally from the Netherlands), and also the Finnish classic, “Jaakon taika” (a photosynthesis booster).
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Gardening can provide many rewards.

xx

Thunderbolt 3, eGPUs

(This is the first post in a planned series, focusing on various aspects of contemporary information and communication technologies.)

The contemporary computing is all about flow of information: be it a personal computer, a mainframe server, a mobile device or even an embedded system in a vehicle, for example, the computers of today are not isolated. Be it for better or worse, increasingly all things are integrated into world-wide networks of information and computation. This also means that the ports and interfaces for all that data transfer take even higher prominence and priority, than in the old days of more locally situated processing.

Thinking about transfer of data, some older generation computer users still might remember things like floppy disks or other magnetic media, that were used both for saving the work files, and often distributing and sharing that work with others. Later, optical disks, external hard drives, and USB flash drives superseded floppies, but a more fundamental shift was brought along by Internet, and “cloud-based” storage options. In some sense the development has meant that personal computing has returned to the historical roots of distributed computing in ARPANET and its motivation in sharing of computing resources. But regardless what kind of larger network infrastructure mediates the operations of user and the service provider, all that data still needs to flow around, somehow.

The key technologies for information and communication flows today appear to be largely wireless. The mobile phone and tablet communicate to the networks with wireless technologies, either WiFi (wireless local area networking) or cellular networks (GSM, 3G and their successors). However, all those wireless connections end up linking into wired backbone networks, that operate at much higher speeds and reliability standards, than the often flaky, local wireless connections. As data algorithms for coding, decoding and compression of data have evolved, it is possible to use wireless connections today to stream 4K Ultra HD video, or to play high speed multiplayer games online. However, in most cases, wired connections will provide lower latency (meaning more immediate response), better reliability from errors and higher speeds. And while there are efforts to bring wireless charging to mobile phones, for example, most of the information technology we use today still needs to be plugged into some kind of wire for charging its batteries, at least.

Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel
Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel

This is where new standards like USB-C and Thunderbolt come to the picture. Thunderbolt (currently Thunderbolt 3 is the most recent version) is a “hardware interface”, meaning it is a physical, electronics based system that allows two computing systems to exchange information. This is a different thing, though, from the actual physical connector: “USB Type C” is the full name of the most recent reincarnation of “Universal Serial Bus”, an industry standard of protocols, cables, and connectors that were originally released already in 1996. The introduction of original USB was a major step into the interoperability of electronics, as the earlier situation had been developing into a jungle of propriety, non-compatible connectors – and USB is a major success story, with several billion connectors (and cables) shipped every year. Somewhat confusingly, the physical, bi-directional connectors of USB-C can hide behind them many different kinds of electronics, so that some USB-C connectors comply with USB 3.1 mode (with data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbit/s in “USB 3.1 Gen 2” version) and some are implemented with Thunderbolt – and some support both.

USB-C and Thunderbolt have in certain sense achieved a considerable engineering marvel: with backward compatibility to older USB 2.0 mode devices, this one port and cable should be able to connect to multiple displays with 4K resolutions, external data storage devices (with up to 40 Gbit/s speeds), while also working as a power cable: with Thunderbolt support, a single USB-C type port can serve, or drain, up to 100 watts electric power – making it possible to remove separate power connectors, and share power bricks between phones, tablets, laptop computers and other devices. The small form factor Apple MacBook (“Retina”, 2015) is an example of this line of thinking. One downside for the user of this beautiful simplicity of a single port in the laptop is need for carrying various adapters to connect with anything outside of the brave new USB-C world. In an ideal situation, however, it would be a much simpler life if there would only be this one connector type to worry about, and it would be possible to use a single cable to dock any device to the network, gain access to large displays, storage drives, high speed networks, and even external graphics solutions.

The heterogeneity and historical layering of everyday technologies are complicating the landscape that electronics manufacturers would like to paint for us. As any student of history of science and technology can tell, even the most successful technologies did not replace the earlier ones immediately, and there has always been reasons why people have been opposing the adoption of new technologies. For USB-C and Thunderbolt, the process of wider adoption is clearly currently well underway, but there are also multiple factors that slow it down. The most typical peripheral does not yet come with USB-C, but rather with the older versions. Even in expensive, high end mobile phones, there are still multiple models that manufacturers ship with older USB connectors, rather than with the new USB-C ones.

A potentially more crucial issue for most regular users is that Thunderbolt 3 & USB-C is still relatively new and immature technology. The setup is also rather complex, and with its integration of DisplayPort (video), PCI Express (PCIe, data) and DC power into a single hardware interface it typically requires multiple manufacturers’ firmware and driver updates to work seamlessly together, for TB3 magic to start happening. An integrated systems provider such as Apple has best possibilities to make this work, as they control both hardware as well as software of their macOS computers. Apple is also, together with Intel, the developer of the original Thunderbolt, and the interface was first commercially made available in the 2011 version of MacBook Pro. However, today there is an explosion of various USB-C and Thunderbolt compatible devices coming to the market from multiple manufacturers, and the users are eager to explore the full potential of this new, high speed, interoperable wired ecosystem.

eGPU, or External Graphics Processing Unit, is a good example of this. There are entire hobbyist forums like eGPU.io website dedicated to the fine art of connecting a full powered, desktop graphics card to a laptop computer via fast lane connections – either Expresscard or Thunderbolt 3. The rationale for this is (apart from the sheer joy of tweaking) that in this manner, one can both have a slim ultrabook computer for daily use, with a long battery life, that is then capable of transforming into an impressive workstation or gaming machine, when plugged into an external enclosure that houses the power hungry graphics card (these TB3 boxes typically have full length PCIe slots for installing GPUs, different sets of connection ports, and a separate desktop PC style power supply).  VR (virtual reality) applications are one example of an area where current generation of laptops have problems: while there are e.g. Nvidia GeForce GTX 10 series (1060 etc.) equipped laptops available today, most of them are not thin and light for everyday mobile use, or, if they are, their battery life and/or fan noise present issues.

Razer, a American-Chinese computing hardware manufacturer is known as a pioneer in popularizing the field of eGPUs, with their introduction of Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook, which can be plugged with a TB3 cable into the Razer Core enclosure (sold separately), for utilizing powerful GPU cards that can be installed inside the Core unit. A popular use case for TB3/eGPU connections is for plugging a powerful external graphics card into a MacBook Pro, in order to make it into a more capable gaming machine. In practice, the early adopters have faced struggles with firmwares and drivers that do not provide direct support from either the macOS side, or from the eGPU unit for the Thunderbolt 3 implementation to actually work. (See e.g. https://egpu.io/akitio-node-review-the-state-of-thunderbolt-3-egpu/ .) However, more and more manufacturers have added support and modified their firmware updates, so the situation is already much better than a few months ago (see instructions at: https://egpu.io/setup-guide-external-graphics-card-mac/ .) In the area of PC laptops running Windows 10, the situation is comparable: a work in progress, with more software support slowly emerging. Still, it is easy to get lost in this, still evolving field. For example, Dell revealed in January that they had restricted the Thunderbolt 3 PCIe data lanes in their implementation of the premium XPS 15 notebook computer: rather than using full 4 lanes, XPS 15 had only 2 PCIe lanes connected in the TB3. There is e.g. this discussion in Reddit comparing the effects this has, in the typical case that eGPU is feeding image into an external display, rather than back to the internal display of the laptop computer (see: https://www.reddit.com/r/Dell/comments/5otmir/an_approximation_of_the_difference_between_x2_x4/). The effects are not that radical, but it is one of the technical details that the early users of eGPU setups have struggled with.

While fascinating from an engineering or hobbyist perspective, the situation of contemporary technologies for connecting the everyday devices is still far from perfect. In thousands of meeting rooms and presentation auditoriums every day, people fail to connect their computers, get anything into the screen, or get access to their presentation due to the failures of online connectivity. A universal, high speed wireless standard for sharing data and displaying video would no doubt be the best solution for all. Meanwhile, a reliable and flexible, high speed standard in wired connectivity would go a long way already. The future will show whether Thunderbolt 3 can reach that kind of ubiquitous support. The present situation is pretty mixed and messy at best.

Future of interfaces: AirPods

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Apple AirPods (image © Apple).

I am a regular user of headphones of various kinds, both wired and wireless, closed and open, with noise cancellation, and without. The latest piece of this technology I invested in are the “AirPods” by Apple.

Externally, these things are almost comically similar to the standard “EarPods” they provide with, or as the upgrade option for their mobile devices. The classic white Apple design is there, just the cord has been cut, leaving the connector stems protruding from the user ears, like small antennas (which they probably also indeed are, as well as directional microphone arms).

There are wireless headphone-microphone sets that have slightly better sound quality (even if AirPods are perfectly decent as wireless earbuds), or even more neutral design. What is here interesting in one part is the “seamless” user experience which Apple has invested in – and the “artificial intelligence” Siri assistant which is another key part of the AirPod concept.

The user experience of AirPods is superior to any other headphones I have tested, which is related to the way the small and light AirPods immediatelly connect with the Apple iPhones, detect when they are placed into the ear, or or not, and work hours on one charge – and quickly recharge after a short session inside their stylishly designed, smart battery case. These things “just work”, in the spirit of original Apple philosophy. In order to achieve this, Apple has managed to create a seamless combination of tiny sensors, battery technology, and a dedicated “W1 chip” which manages the wireless functionalities of AirPods.

The integration with Siri assistant is the other key part of AirPod concept, and the one that probably divides user’s views more than any other feature. A double tap to the side of an AirPod activates Siri, which can indeed understand short commands in multiple languages, and respond to them, carrying out even simple conversations with the user. Talking to an invisible assistant is not, however, part of today’s mobile user cultures – even if Spike Jonze’s film “Her” (2013) shows that the idea is certainly floating around today. Still, mobile devices are often used while on the move, in public places, in buses, trains or in airplanes, and it is just not feasible nor socially acceptable that people carry out constant conversations with their invisible assistants in this kind of environments – not yet today, at least.

Regardless of this, Apple AirPods are actually to a certain degree designed to rely on such constant conversations, which both makes them futuristic and ambitious, but also a rather controversial piece of design and engineering. Most notably, there are no physical buttons or other ways for adjusting volume in these headphones: you just double tap to the side of AirPods, and verbally tell Siri to turn the volume up, or down. This mostly works just fine, Siri does the j0b, but a small touch control gesture would be just so much more user friendly.

There is something engaging in testing Siri with the AirPods, nevertheless. I did find myself walking around the neighborhood, talking to the air, and testing what Siri can do. There are already dozens of commands and actions that can be activated with the help of AirPods and Siri (there is no official listing, but examples are given in lists like this one: https://www.cnet.com/how-to/the-complete-list-of-siri-commands/). The abilities of Siri still fall short in many areas, it did not completely understand Finnish I used in my testing, and the integration of third party apps is often limited, which is a real bottleneck, as these apps are what most of us are using our mobile devices for, most of the time. Actually, Google and the assistant they have in Android is better than Siri in many areas relevant for daily life (maps, traffic information, for example), but the user experience of their assistant is not yet as seamless or integrated whole as that of Apple’s Siri is.

All this considered, using AirPods is certainly another step into the general developmental direction where pervasive computing, AI, conversational interfaces and augmented reality are taking us, in good or bad. Well worth checking out, at least – for more in Apple’s own pages, see: http://www.apple.com/airpods/.

Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

Hydroponic chilies, pt. 2

My experiment with the Ikea hydroponics system has now produced a nice selection of small chili seedlings. The next step is moving them from the nursery box into the cultivation kit. Below are some photos: the idea is to completely bury the stone wool “starter plug” (now penetrated by chili roots) into coarse pumice stone pieces, within perforated cultivation pots. After those are placed into the cultivation kit, one just needs to fix the kit with a mix of fertilizer and water in suitable ratio (half capful into 4 liters of water is Ikea’s own Växer recommendated ratio, I did put in a bit more).  Those pots which are not in use should be covered with provided lids, as this prevents algae growth in the kit. The pumice stone gravel absorbs the liquid, providing chili seedlings with both water, nutritients, and access to air. Let’s see how this goes on from this…

New chili season, 2017

In January, it is again time to sow the seeds for 2017 chili crops. This time, I have a theme: colour ‘yellow’. Well, almost all my chilies this season are yellow, but not quite, as you can notice from below.

Another new concept this year for me is hydroponics. The idea of hydroponic gardening is to use no soil, but rather just expose plants to water, nutrients and sunlight. The plants’ roots will be circulated by a mineral solution, and there is some supportive, non-organic material used to keep the plants growing up in firm position.

I will most likely not develop a full hydroponic system when these chilies move to our greenhouse, but I will try it out in the germinating and seedling growing phases. To make things as easy (and as cost-effective) as possible, I got the entire system from IKEA. They have also some videos about the hydroponic indoor gardening and the techniques and materials they had chosen in their website at: http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/indoor-gardening/.

IKEA shopping
IKEA shopping…

The germination process is handled with a simple tray with holes, some plugs made of stone wool (a fibrous mineral material), a water box below, and protective plastic cover with some air ventilation holes.

IKEA nursery box
IKEA nursery box.

As not all seeds germinate, it is a good idea to put 2-3 seeds per plug.

Chili seeds on stone wool plugs
Chili seeds on stone wool plugs.

The optimal temperature for most chili varieties’ germination is around 27-29 Celsius degrees, so I use an electric warming mat below the nursery to keep the temperature even. There is also a LED light with plants’ wavelengths in the IKEA system, the cultivation insert set for seedling phase is intended to be combined with the pumice stone (volcanic rock from Iceland), which allows roots support and access to hydroponic growing solution, while also allowing airflow to the plant roots.

IKEA cultivation insert set for hydroponics
IKEA cultivation insert set for hydroponics.

This time, the chili varieties I chose for growing are: Pequin Firecracker (c. annuum), a hybrid Tepin x Lemon Drop (c. annuum x baccatum), 7 Pot Brain Strain Yellow (c. chinense), Lemon Drop (c. baccatum), Goat’s Weed (c. annuum), Peito de Moca (c. chinense), Bhut Jolokia (which is now classified as a c. chinense x frutescens hybrid from India?), Aji Cristal (c. baccatum), Aji Fantasy (a commercial Finnish c. baccatum hybrid of Lemon Drop x PI 441551), a non-specified ‘Thai’ chili variety (c. annuum), Habanero Hot Lemon (c. chinense), Fatalii (c. chinense), and my old favourite, yellow Madame Jeanette (c. chinense, a habanero chili from Suriname). Old familiar ones, and new acquaintances. Happy new chili season, all fellow chili-heads!

Chili growing is a multi-form hobby
Chili growing is a multi-form hobby.

PS. Here is also a cheerful video by IKEA about the joys of hydroponics:

Retrospect, 2016, 2006, 1996, and beyond

I am not particularly good in remembering things, which makes annually returning cycles of breaks and opportunities for reflection challenging, yet also very useful.

Year 2016 was exceptionally burdersome year for many reasons, but among much sadness and strain, there were also many happy things, and quiet progress that is important, but that will most likely surface only later. If I’d have to name one thing, I would say that 2016 was the “Year of Pokémon GO”, as both in personal life as well as professionally, that single location based, social experience coloured much of the latter part of the year in particular.

Randomly sampling the past, in ten year intervals, in 2006, I notice from my records that I was making several public talks about ludic literacy. For example, in one publication I sketched six dimensions of skill sets that each build on top of each other: 1) fundamental ludic understanding (“this is play, game has rules”), 2) functional gaming skills (“this game works this way”), 3) strategic and meta levels of game skills (“this way of playing is interesting / makes sense for me”), 4) social ludic skills (“this is what makes playing fun for other, this is why these people want to play”), 5) creative and productive game play skills (“this game can be extended, or reimagined in these ways”), and 6) literacy related to media in general (“this game is produced to make money this way, its marketing and business strategies rely on this kinds of principles”. (I seem to have worked on a longer article on the topic, but the last draft of that was marked “version 0.5”, so I guess other worked ran over that one.)

In 1996, I was working on the manuscript of Koneihminen article anthology (The Man-Machine), which was a wide-ranging exploration into the multiple cultural roles that technology holds in our lives – as a living environment, as an integral element that extends as well as shapes, and limits our individual and social subjectivy and agency, as well as an evolving and chancing source of various aesthetic experiences. It is interesting to read about the reflections of technological ambivalence, and critiques of 1990s techno-romanticism today, when two decades have changed the landscape of technology into something considerably more pervasive, but also into something more banal. It is certainly true that in 1990s we were considerably more naive regarding the pace of cultural change, and what was really important and what not so, but looking around at turn of 2016/2017, much of both the utopian and dystopian elements of technological imagination are now reality. The more philosophical dimensions of technologically informed subjectivity would clearly benefit from a revisit, or two.

In 1986, I was early in my studies of comparative literature in the University of Tampere. Sadly, it seems that I do not have any digital notes saved from the time before 1991, due to the multiple changes in those years, one of the most important technical ones being the move from Commodore 64 to some early 286 PC that caused me losing my records. Only some backups coming from my Unix account from early 1990s has survived. The C64 floppy disks still just might be somewhere, but I have neither hardware or software to access them, any more. Digital amnesia? But I still remember for example typing rather long essays and seminar works on C64 “Sanatar” word processing software (AmerSoft, 1984) – and then using the same home computer at nights to play AD&D adventure “Pool of Radiance” (SSI, 1988), slowly, sometimes with painful failure rate, but endlessly fascinated. Long Finnish summer nights were filled with light and bird song, also in 3 or 4 am, when I remember holding a break in my upstairs student apartment, stepping outside of the Forgotten Realms for a while.

Remembering is good for us. I link below the slides that I prepared for “Personal gaming histories” course this fall – no commentary this time, but maybe the pictures also tell some stories. Times, they are a-changing.

(PS – these exercises remind us, how our lives do not equal to “life stories”, consistent, logical, progressive wholes. They just present us these constant challenges for sense making, always more or less retrospective.)