Category Archives: Stories

The Zombie Treehouse and Teaching Problem Solving

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It’s tempting to think that modern parenting is somehow fundamentally different from the generations that have come before. Kids have access to devices that carry access to the sum of human knowledge in their pockets; they plug machines more powerful than the entire Apollo program into televisions with more resolution than the naked eye can process and play elaborate games with them.

It is different; don’t get me wrong about that. There are social changes afoot that we won’t really see until we are all dead and buried – or alive and cybernetically enhanced, perhaps? – but it’s hard to know what is a superficial change versus a fundamental one.

Take, for example, Minecraft.

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I have a lot of good things to say about Minecraft for kids in moderation. Kids can build amazing things when they have the tools for it. My daughter builds elaborate roller coasters out of mine cart tracks. My son recently made self-harvesting farms using redstone circuits. I have hit the point with something on a computer where it is easier for me to ask my kids to do it for me, because figuring out pressure plates is too much for my middle aged brain.

Minecraft is both a lego set and a treehouse. It’s a place where kids can go – a virtual place, but that is still a place – and it’s a place where they can build whatever their imagination directs.

So, like parents of generations before, I set out to build my kids a treehouse and set up a Minecraft server at home.

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A few weeks ago I noticed that my Mac Mini where I’d installed Minecraft was suddenly really slow. Really, really slow. I checked in and saw that the server itself was crashing. My son was home on holiday and I would see the same pattern – he’d log in, do a few things, and then the server would crash. Grumpy noises would ensue from upstairs, and then a muffled “DAD RESTART THE SERVER” would float down from his high command post up in his room.

Finally, this happened enough that I logged in to see what was going on.

He’d spawned thousands of villagers in a single village and then flying around them, trying to interact with different ones. The Minecraft server couldn’t handle that kind of load (I’d limited it to 1GB RAM) and then … boom. Down it went.

“You have too many villagers in one place,” I called up. “They’re overloading the server.”

“Okay, Dad!” he called down. “I’ve got it.” Occasional server crashes followed, but I was working on other things so I restarted the server as requested but tried not to think too much about how he was solving it.

About an hour later he came downstairs.

“Dad, I have a problem. I went ahead and dropped zombies on top of the villagers.”

“Wait, you did WHAT?”

“Well, I dropped a zombie on them, which started turning everyone into zombies.”

“Buddy, that’s … kinda awful, isn’t it?”

“No, not at all. See, zombies burn up in the sunlight.”

Oh. Of course they do.

“But not the baby zombies.”

“What.”

“See, the villagers had kids, and they turned into zombies, only those zombie babies aren’t burning up in the sunlight and they’re still crashing the server.”

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“Okay. I will handle it tonight.”

“But…”

“No buts, this village is crashing my computer, it’s got to be fixed.”

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I don’t know much about zombies in Minecraft. I’ll be the first to admit it; I play with my kids in Creative mode, I can build things but I haven’t felt compelled to figure out all the ins and outs of the Minecraft ecosystem.

What I do know is that things burn if you pour lava on them.

Lots of lava.

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Now, the boy had warned me that the zombie babies were really fast, and he wasn’t exaggerating. I had to chase down zombies and fling fire on them as fast as I could at times. They roamed in large packs, swarming towards gaps in the fence line.

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I’ll be the first to admit that things got a little out of control.

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However, after about 20 minutes of flinging lava and burning down the village, I had rooted out the last pockets of zombies and restored stability to the server. No more crashes, no more zombies, and a somewhat eerily beautiful ruined town standing as a reminder of our folly as modern people.

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I showed the boy the village the next day.

“DAD. WHY DID YOU DO THAT???”

“What? It HAD to be done.”

“Why didn’t you just build an Iron Golem? That was what I was going to do!”

“A what?”

“A Iron Golem. You take four blocks of Iron and a pumpkin and make them into a Iron Golem, whose only purpose is to defend against zombies. It would have wiped them all out without you having to destroy anything.”

I just sat there, deflated. Oh, of course, just build an Iron Golem, anyone should have known how to do that. Just stick a pumpkin on it.

“Sorry, bud,” I said.

“It’s okay, Dad. You didn’t know.”

“Let me rebuild your fence for you.”

“Okay. I’ll get started on cleaning up the lava.”

While I might not have approved of his Rube Goldberg-esque approach to problem solving, it certainly would have involved less cleanup.

(But burning down a zombie village is kind of fun, let’s be honest here.)

Suddenly Freedom

Yesterday was the strangest day I’ve had in my professional career. I was having a productive morning with my boss – we’d found an error in the LTE vs CDMA implementation of a few of the rate plans for a carrier who was launching this week – when we got an email from our CEO at 9:38. Mandatory meeting at 10:30. No exceptions.

I work remotely, so these kinds of meetings are usually a chance to catch up on email and get the scoop after the fact. My friend Patty, who had just moved to Florida to join the ranks of the remote workers, IMed me.

“How can you stand not knowing? This is driving me crazy!” she said.

“You get used to it. I go for a walk if I find I’m getting anxious or nervous.” I replied.

“I bet so-and-so is leaving,” she speculated.

“I think we’ve been bought,” I replied. “But I hadn’t considered that it might be about so-and-so leaving, that’s possible!”

“You’re an optimist, Brett,” she chided.

I didn’t have to wait long. By 10:45 my boss called me back.

“It’s bad news. They’ve shut down the company.” His voice was low, stunned. “I’m packing my things now.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. My brain was not keeping up. I’d worked at Simplexity and Inphonic for 11 years – how could it be gone? “You’re joking. No, you’re not joking.”

“No joke. They’re out of money. It’s over.”

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It was over.

The banks called in outstanding loans, drained the funds, and my employer was gone. I was not to be paid for the last 12 days of work, nor would I get the severance package that was part of my agreement, nor would I get any of the future bonuses which had been thrown about as incentive to stay.

Gone.

One by one, services were shut off. The VPN was first, cutting off all remote access. Then the main websites. Lastly the Exchange server went dark. After a few minutes of my phone rejecting the password I sighed and deleted the account. This wasn’t a joke, no matter how much I wanted it to be. I had a terrible headache, my stomach was in turmoil, my brain was trying to catch up. I talked to Merrystar about it all and she was in a similar state of shock.

But as the shock faded, a certain euphoria descended. I was free. I didn’t have any safe options anymore, I didn’t have a comfortable job to fall back upon instead of chasing something new. It was a good job, easy at times, hard at others. But I’d been doing it for 11 years. That’s a long time, even if I changed jobs within the company every two years or so.

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I’ve worked from home, remotely, for the past 7 years. I am a far more effective employee because of it – by visiting the office on specific days, I’m able to concentrate my productivity into those hours that aren’t spent building relationships in the office. I get a lot done this way.

Yesterday I missed out on the shared physical experience of Simplexity’s shutdown because I work remotely. I didn’t get called into a room and have to look the CEO in the eye; instead, I got a phone call, a disconnected voice over electrical wires saying that my employer was gone. It was like hearing someone had died but never seeing the body; grief but mostly disbelief.

So this morning I resolved that it was time to clean the ghosts out of my office. Today was a day to move forward, to accept that the company wasn’t coming back. Nobody was going to email and say ‘lol j/k’ – any credibility the organization had is gone. It’s not coming back.

So I looked around. A few test phones, a laptop I don’t use. Home router I’d been playing with getting the firmware to do what we wanted to do for a new project. A mifi from a client I’d purchased on my own so I could see what their experience was like. A collector’s edition Disney Mobile phone – one of the few souvenirs I’d ever gotten from a client –

and notebooks. Dozens of Field Notes notebooks.

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Building virtual things leaves very little behind. There’s nothing to grasp, nothing to point to, no buildings or monuments to your labor. I think we forget sometimes how important that is. It might seem childish, or at least child-like, to want to commemorate important events with ribbons and trophies and badges – but that’s unfair and unkind. Kids recognize a truth we try to forget as adults – a physical representation of an achievement gives you something to hold on to.

I’d switched to using Field Notes notebooks in 2006 or 2007, around the time I moved down to Williamsburg. In the 6 years or so I’ve filled 22 of them with tasks, notes, drawings, flow charts, client requirements, to do lists, plans to take over the world, temporary passwords, IP addresses. Twenty-two notebooks.

When I was managing Simplexity’s Transera launch – the only major IT project that launched on time and on budget that year, I should add – the other PMs would laugh at my little agricultural notebooks. I was a luddite for not using MS Project Server, for not having charts and plans.

Instead, I had scrawled lists and general timelines and when someone wanted to know how we were doing I could tell them. The teams I was using weren’t embedded in the MS Project ecosystems – it was a combination of vendors, clients, call centers, internal and external developers. But it all worked.

Years passed. I managed the telecom budgets with those notebooks and a few excel spreadsheets. Projects would get entered in, tasks would be tracked. I changed jobs and went back to working on MVNOs, and still the notebooks accumulated, a new one every few months.

Those notebooks are what I can point to. Those twenty-two slender volumes represent … something. Time. Labor. Things that I built which are no longer there, but dammit, they had value. I managed millions of dollars of telecom spend and projects with them. I brought in revenue with them.

It may have been for naught in the end, when you look at it from the company’s point of view. Simplexity was there yesterday, but it’s gone today.

But these notebooks are worth something to me.

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Kickass IT guy looking for a new challenge. I’ve got a fresh stack of Field Notes notebooks and I’m itching to use them.

My CV is at btp.me/cv/.

I’d love to hear from you.