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Brainiac

Fact-checking the ‘300’ movie

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

It’s kind of unfair to fact-check a movie like “300: Rise of an Empire,” the swords-and-sandals blockbuster that raked in $45 million in its opening weekend and makes no pretensions towards accuracy of any kind. But the movie really does start with a claim on history: There was a Persian king named Xerxes who waged a revenge war on Greece; and he did indeed face off against the Greek hero Themistocles.

Beyond that, though, things start to go off the rails. Last week on the Oxford University Press blog, University of Cambridge historian Paul Cartledge made good sport out of explaining five major errors in a movie he terms “at best un-historical, at worst anti-historical.”

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One concerns the role another regional power played in deciding the outcome of the climactic battle (to spell it out here would spoil the ending). A more central exaggeration has to do with the historical significance of Persian queen Artemisia, whom the movie casts as a leader of the entire 600-ship Persian fleet. Cartledge, playing the party pooper, says in fact she had just a handful of ships to her name.

He also takes issue with the javelin that, in the movie, kills Xerxes’ father, King Darius I, at the Battle of Marathon (probably not, given that Darius wasn’t even at the battle of Marathon) and—perhaps especially disappointing to some of the movie’s fans—he throws cold water on the idea of a lurid encounter between Themistocles and Artemisia, enemies who, in director Noam Murro’s telling, found time to copulate between battles.

The landscape in “Fallout 3.”

Why gamers like ruins

Video games can be set anywhere, but with surprising frequency they take place amid ruins—the crumbling remnants of a lost city, or the barren landscape of some post-apocalyptic world. Why does a high-tech medium have such an affinity for decay? Earlier this month the video game magazine Kill Screen ran a smart essay with an interesting explanation: Video games are a natural fit with “the aesthetic of ruins” because “almost every game begins from a place of disorder,” and it’s the player’s job to put things back together.

To make his point, David Chandler, a PhD student who studies video games, begins with “Tetris,” which has addicted two generations of players simply by asking them to put randomly tumbling blocks in neat order. In more recent and more complex games—he mentions “Fallout 3,” “The Last of Us,” and “BioShock” among others—broken landscapes contain the possibility of reconstruction, if you’re good enough to achieve it.

It’s also possible, of course, that ruins, like big guns and blowing things up, are just cool, in a medium where the aesthetics of cool carry outsized weight. There may also be a practical motive: Just like an oriental rug hides stains, the ruined look helps to cover graphical limitations. Computer-rendered new buildings tend to look a little too smooth, but a decomposing house with cracks, age, and patina? That’s texture.

Quiet, Harvard students, we’re filming for the MOOC!

The rapid growth of MOOCs—those massive open online lecture courses you can take for free, from anywhere in the world—has raised concerns about how Internet education will end up affecting real, live education on campus. One consequence surfaced in a recent Harvard Crimson article, which reported that students in the class “Poetry in America” had been requested not to ask questions for the first 60 minutes of some 90-minute classes, so that the lectures can be recorded without interruption for rebroadcast via Harvard edX, the university’s free online education platform.

The report triggered concern on campus, with former Harvard dean Harry Lewis wondering in a blog post whether an “educational Rubicon” has been crossed—whether, in the realm of online education, the tail has begun to wag the dog.

After the Crimson article came out, I e-mailed with a Harvard edX spokesperson and with Elisa New, the professor teaching the class, who said the situation isn’t quite so simple: It was New’s decision to limit questions, they said, not the videographers’, and New told me that she has a longstanding preference for holding student questions until she’s finished delivering her lectures. “I find that this produces a more robust and informed conversation among the students,” she said. As for whether the filming influenced her decision this year, she said, “course design from semester to semester is always shaped by a variety of factors, whether or not the newest technologies are among those factors.”

The actual pedagogical impact of the “no questions” request has likely been limited—students rarely ask questions in most large lecture classes anyway—but to say that the story tapped into a vein of concern is an understatement: After I blogged about this last Tuesday, it quickly became the most-read Brainiac post of the year. MOOCs are still in their infancy, and it remains to be seen how universities are going to balance their global ambitions with their commitment to the students who actually attend.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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