YouTube is extending my 8 year old’s vocabulary

A faggot of wood
I’m as guilty as the next parent for letting electronic devices do a little free babysitting for me while I knuckle down and catch up on the housework or sleep. And over the last few years I have noticed a gradual shift in what my son likes to do with screen-based entertainment. Currently, it seems it’s less about playing games and more about using YouTube to watch other people play games.

And for the most part it been an okay deal. My son was into watching The Diamond Minecart, who is aware a lot of his audience comprises people under the age of ten, as opposed to SkyDoesMinecraft, who has saltier language than a sailor at the annual “Get Ya Salt Out” salty language competition.

But then two things happened. Because of the general disruption of loud YouTubing at 7am on a Saturday morning when I do some intense catching up on checking the inside of my eyelids for leaks, my son started watching YouTube on the iPad with headphones. Combined with this was the feature of YouTube videos ending with a list of recommendations, not really knowing who the viewing audience actually is.

So I was a little taken aback last night when, in tucking him off to bed having brushed teeth and done stories, he asked me “Dad, what’s a faggot?”

Admittedly, I wasn’t too surprised, as the previous week he asked what “teabagging” was.

My mind went in two different ways. Of course there was the obligatory “What an incredibly irresponsible father I am and need to immediately turn myself in to child protection services” mantra, which, after years of chewing at the back of my mind is getting easier to subdue. The second direction was “What do I tell him?”

Although my private life tends to be a thin tissue of lies that seem alright at the time but later becomes a raging awkward social monster that I have to deal with while cursing myself for not telling the truth in the first place, when it comes to my son I have always tried to be honest. This began when he was quite young when I refused to baby my language for him. That isn’t a “birdie”; it’s a “peacock”. We’re not in a “brum brum”; I’m driving a “car”. Don’t call that a “monster”; it’s “The great and terrible Cthulhu who waits dreaming in his house at R’lyeh”. It’s gratifying years later when he sometimes pulls out words that are three syllables or longer in general conversation, and I can barely contain my pride.

So I began by asking where he had heard it. And, yes, it was a Let’s Play of a computer game on YouTube. “You’re a faggot, Harry,” was the context. I took a deep breath, and plunged in.

“A faggot…” I began. I outlined that for a long time in our society, people who identify as gay have been seen with fear and/or loathing. As such, there are bad names for gay, and faggot is one of them. And people sometimes call each other faggot as an insult. And that faggot was once a word meaning “bundle of sticks”.

Actually, it was less like a lecture and more like a conversation. He was initially frightened that he had done something wrong, but was engaged with listening to me. When I told him faggot used to have a different meaning, he chimed in to say that he knew gay once meant happy. Ultimately, I want him to understand that the world of words is a large and powerful place. To use a word like faggot as an insult is also demeaning to a whole group of people. I told him I didn’t want him using that word, and he agreed. We also agreed to have a longer conversation about some of the things he’s watching on the Tube of Yous.

My instinct is to not shy away from difficult moments with “Uh, I’ll tell you when you’re older,” and instead engage them head on now with the intention to build a social responsible young man who might be able to one day engage with his peers in telling them that faggot is not an appropriate word to use unless they are collecting firewood. My son is going to engage with media in places where I don’t have direct control over it, and being open to his questions about what he has seen and heard is the first step in helping provide a framework for understanding the greater world out there. I want him to be polite and socially responsibly, and most importantly, know who Cthulhu is.

Marscraft, the beta

I have uploaded the VSSEC Marscraft beta to my public Dropbox. Download the files here.


1. Unzip the Marscraft to somewhere convenient.

2. Inside is a folder called “The Resource Pack”. It has a single folder called “Marscraft”. This needs to go into the Minecraft resourcepacks folder. The easiest way to get to it is:
o Start Minecraft;
o From the main menu, go to “Options…”
o Go to “Resource Packs…”
o Click “Open resource pack folder”.
o Copy the whole “Marscraft” folder into “resourcepacks”.

3. In the “Select Resource Packs” menu, move Marscraft from “Available Resource Packs” to “Selected Resource Packs”.

4. Now for the “Marscraft 3.3″ folder in “The Save Game”. This needs to be copied to “saves” folder in the “minecraft” folder (just under the “resourcepacks” folder.)

Playing the Marscraft Adventure Map.

You are an explorer on Mars. You wake up one bright Mars morning in the Gale Crater to the sound of alarms. The Lovecraft rover has gone haywire, and needs to be retrieved.
Your mission is to:
1. Track down the Mars rover.
2. Repair the return trail between the base and the rover.
3. Write down the Rover report data, and note it down its location on this sheet.
4. Ride the rover back to base!

If you download the file and try it out, do let me know! Drop me a line either to my email (subject line: Marscraft beta) or contact me through Twitter @seanmelliott. I will put your name down on the “Testers” credits, and will send you a thank you present.

Rough Science: LIFE. The wrap-up.

It was several months ago now that I put in the application to be part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe. The final night for the show was on Saturday, and had an amazing sold-out performance, and a really great review!

It’s left me today reflecting on a few things over the past few months that made Rough Science: LIFE the success that it was. (Images by Fenstar Images.)

Rough Science on Stage

To get it on stage, I ran a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible. This is the second time I’ve run a Pozible campaign, with the first one being an unmitigated disaster — a disaster I learned quite a lot from. This time I had a closely planned budget, carefully thought-out rewards, and all of my social media posts lined up for the next few weeks. The campaign finished past the funded mark, with two people going for the extra-special $200 reward of a Rough Science birthday.

Rough Science: LIFE Pozible

It’s not a One-Man-Show
The next time I do something like this, I will be pulling together some kind of production team. In the meantime, I had a small and brilliant group of volunteers helping out at various stages of the project. (Though I couldn’t pay people, where I could I arranged Fringe Artist Passes, which get you into other performances for free and discounts at the Fringe Club.) They were: Astrophysicist Katie Mack, Astrophysicist Ruth Pearson, Paul Elliott, and Fenstar Images.

And my parents stepped up to the plate every night.

The Performances
Ira Glass has this quote where he talks about the disappointment we may feel when our work does not live up to the image in our heads. When I performed Rough Science: LIFE at the Adelaide Fringe for the very first time, the gap between what I had presented and what I wanted to present was enormous. In the twenty-four hours between the first and second performance, I had some coaching from Cobi Smith, plus I added something new to each section. That second performance was closer to my vision.

Several months later, and the Rough Science: LIFE experience was still closer to what I wanted to present. It had moved away from being a lecture, to being a more dynamic and engaging science show.



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For next time
It is possibly time to put Rough Science: LIFE to bed and move onto another project. What happens next? Well, if (and when!) I write another show, I am definitely going to put together a team to help with all the aspects of the production. As much a I want to have my hands on all parts of the show, the last few weeks have been intensely stressful!


Breaking even, and possibly making a profit, is intrinsic to making the process sustainable. Another Pozible is definitely in the future.

In the meantime, there is a mass of goodwill and good feelings from the audience who came and the people who supported the show. I love you all!

Turning Height Maps into Contour Maps

One of the items I want for students to use in Marscraft is an actual, real world, physical map to write down the data being shed by the broken rover.

The Marscraft surface has been created using a height map of the Gale Crater on Mars, which is a greyscale image. Each pixel’s shading represents the surface height at that area. Black is the lowest point, and white is the highest, with all the shades of grey being a height in between.
Height Map of the Gale Crater
It was two functions within Photoshop. First I reduced the number of colours used in the height map using Photoshop’s Image > Adjustments > Posterize… This blends the areas into a smaller set of averaged colour groups. In theory, these new areas are within a certain height range.
Posterize Function in Photoshop
The second step is to find the edges of these contour blobs. Filter > Stylize > Find Edges This creates a line drawing, which is now our contour map for the original height map.
Gale Crater Contour Map
Changing the number of levels in the Posterize step varies the number of contour lines.

Next: creating the student worksheet.

Pozible: Rough Science LIFE at the Melbourne Fringe

Earlier this year I took Rough Science: LIFE to the Adelaide Fringe. Now I get a chance to show it in my home town. But before then, I am raising money on Pozible bring it to the stage in September.

I am updating props, and there are posters and programs I would like to print. Plus, I would also like to hire an Auslan interpreter for the final night.

There are a bunch of rewards for contributing to the campaign. It would be awesome if you helped out! Check out the Rough Science: LIFE! Pozible campaign page for more details.


The news of Robin William’s death floored me.

He influenced me. I named him as a role model in an RE class when I was in Year 10. I remember being inspired by his confidence.

In university, I taped an interview with him and Martin/Malloy, which I listened to over and over. The difference between their comedic styles was stark: Williams effortlessly made jokes about whatever subject they were talking about. It seemed to be the tip of an iceberg of massive eclectic knowledge of the world, powered by confidence.

All of this went into the hopper of what became my own stage presence. Robin Williams, Jim Carey, Rowan Atkinson, and Bill Cosby were my comedy touchstones.

Energy, wit and confidence. I remember the delight when I recognised Williams when I was eleven and singing along to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” filmclip.

(Years later, I would do my own version of Bobby McFerrin’s pentatonic scale demonstration during my second Evening of Rough Science stage show.)

At some point, probably after Bicentennial Man, I stopped caring so much about the films he starred in. Good Will Hunting was the last film he was in that I connected with.

Now I suppose there will be newspaper and blog headlines: “The day the laughter died.” I’m sad, and I feel his loss. At time same time, I look back on my past, and see the moments when his presence in the world touched my reality, and I am glad he was alive.

Duolingo’s Être/Avoir lesson

So far in my progress with learning French using Duolingo, I have mainly need to focus on vocabulary. Now that I have got to the higher level lessons, I am getting into the meatier grammar. It has taken quite a lot of attempts to pass the Être/Avoir skill level. There was nothing for it, but to memorise the following:

être (to be)
je suis
tu es
il est
elle est
nous sommes
vous êstes
ils sont
elles sont

avoir (to have)
tu as
il a
elle a
nous avons
vous avez
ils ont
elles ont

(Pro-tip: if you want to type ê on a Mac keyboard, press option-i followed by e.)

The 360 Holographic Video Display That Isn’t

Image from Science Alert
The daily grind of looking for technology breakthroughs to report on must become struggling. Take for instance this report on a 360 Holographic Video Display I’ve seen now on Science Alert (This Star Wars-like 360-degree video can be seen from different angles) and CNet (Help Me Obi: Is this the first true 3D video?)

Video Objects from Helson and Jackets on Vimeo.

I found the effect that the inventors have created pretty cool and interesting. Though I was wondering to what extent that was a 3D image, as I found myself asking some questions:

1. Why is it in a darkened room?
2. How did they film that baby from multiple angles at once?

The second question was easy to answer: they didn’t. All the images being displayed in this demonstration are anchored in 2D.

The first question can be answered by looking carefully at the ‘medium’ that the images is being projected onto/into. It’s blurred. It’s dark. It appears to be transparent.

A comment on the CNet page pointed me in the right direction. I think it’s a piece of angled glass spinning at high speed. A projector is underneath pointing up, and the image you see is a reflection off the glass. Now it makes sense that it is a 360 degree projection: no matter where you stand in the room, you can see the displayed image. It also makes sense that the installation is in a darkened room. Too much light will wash out the image.

Like I said, the effect is cool. But I have reservations on how it’s reported, which brings me back to the Science Alert and CNet articles. Take this line from Science Alert:

“And besides looking amazingly cool, the 360-degree video object could have many industrial applications, including 3D drawings, computer assisted design, and mesh models” (Science Alert)

Yes, it does look very cool. But there are no industrial applications here yet. Even if you had a 3D CAD drawing, everyone in the room will still be seeing the exact same 2D image. Not a 3D image from different angles.

It got me thinking. You could get true 3D if, as the mirror rotates, the system projects a different image for each viewing angle. If you get the timing right, the viewing lines from different parts of the room will see different sides of the object. This would need quite a lot of processor power to render all the images on-the-fly. Or, have many pre-rendered images ready to project. The potential is there for true holographic 3D, but this prototype is not it.

In reporting a “new technology” I would encourage writers to think deeper about how stuff works. It will give the “future uses of this technology” part of their report more accurate expectations.

Dry July day 31: The End

Überverse House Party
Time is a continuum, possibly. Or it’s discreet intervals. Maybe it’s spreading in all directions, and maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Nevertheless, somewhere in the Überverse, there is a house filled with versions of myself from pieces of my timeline in this reality. It’s not all of me; that would look like one giant centipede stretching from when I came into existence until the moment I died. And that doesn’t make for a fun party.

At this party samples of Me from moments in my lifetime rub shoulders with each other in the rooms of this grand house. Me(18) is explaining why PCs are better than Macs, while Me(32) listens patiently before telling him some future computer purchases that might surprise him. Me(22) is making out with Me(34). By the stereo, Me(26) has just smashed Me(20)’s tapes of Tommy Emmanuel under his boot, and putting on The Pogues.

Somewhere in the kitchen, Me(Start of Dry July) bumps into Me(End of Dry July). Me(SDJ) is holding a glass of red wine as Me(EDJ) is pouring himself some soda water from the fridge.

Me(SDJ): Oh, hey! You’ve just got to the end of the month. Not going to have a celebratory drink?

Me(EDJ): Funny you should mention that. I don’t want one.

Me(SDJ): I’m sorry, I thought you were me from the future.

Me(EDJ): Yeah, I am, doofus. (Smiles.) And I’m not drinking right now.

There’s a pause while Me(SDJ) takes this in.

Me(SDJ): You realise you just called yourself a doofus?

Me(EDJ): I do it all the time.

Me(SDJ): True that. (Sips wine.) See I thought I’d get through the month, and still have the odd drink when it finished.

Me(EDJ): I know. And there might be an odd drink somewhere in the future. Just not right now.

Me(SDJ): Huh! (Sips again.) Any spoilers for the month.

Me(EDJ): Well…(looks into the middle distance) People will still put pressure on you to drink. Things like “Dry July? Why?!” And you won’t be able to get a non-alcoholic drink without it being questioned. That said, there’s support from plenty of others. They’ll cheer you on, and you’ll love them for it. You’ll start feeling physically stronger, emotionally stabler, and even start learning French. It will be a zen state like Cobi keeps saying. Feeling the craving, then letting it go. To test this, a crisis will arise in the last week, and you’ll still not drink for comfort.

Me(SDJ) takes all of this in and thinks it over for a bit.

Me(SDJ): Is stabler a word?

Me(EDJ): Sure it’s a word.

Me(SDJ): I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Me(EDJ): Stabler. “To have greater stability.”

Me(SDJ): I’m pretty sure it’s some dude who looks after horses.

Me(EDJ): Really?

Me(EDJ) looks up “stabler” on his phone while a realisation comes to Me(SDJ).

Me(SDJ): There’s probably more people at this party because of you.

Me(EDJ): (reading) …a person who runs a horse stable. Shit. Sorry, you were saying something?

Me(SDJ): Well, you’ve effectively giving the chance for the possibility of maybe a little longer in in the game of life. So (he gestures around) more people here.

Me(EDJ): Good point! I wonder how old we get?

Me(75) comes into the kitchen wearing a large metal backpack with wings.

Me(75): Check out the future, boys! They finally invented commercial Jet Packstm!

Me(75) blasts off, exiting the kitchen through the ceiling via a hole he makes with his head. Me(SDJ) and Me(EDJ) look at the hole as pieces of plaster crumble from it. Me(EDJ) clears his throat.

Me(EDJ): You don’t suppose…?

Me(SDJ): I hope not. I’m pretty sure I saw Me(82) doing the Dead Parrot Sketch with Me(29) in the lounge…hey doofus.

Me(EDJ): Yeah?

Me(SDJ): Proud of you.

Me(EDJ): Thanks. And good luck for the next thirty-one days.

They bump fists.

The party continues. Outside the noisy house, high in the star speckled night, an old man in a jet pack dances though the sky, careering to the future.