Sunday, December 1, 2013

George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior

This book is a bit of a scam, actually. The 110 "Rules of Civility" that are presented were not authored by Washington, but are somewhat older, traced back to a text written by Jesuit scholars in the sixteenth century. The editors of this book suggest that Washington had to hand-copy these rules at some point in his education, and that they may have had some influence on him. I suppose in that sense we can say he "wrote" them, but it seems like a bit of a stretch. The rules are a mix of the timeless ("#40: Undertake not to teach your equal in the art himself professes; it savours of arrogancy.") and the archaic ("#57: In walking up and down in a house, only with one in company, if he be greater than yourself, at the first give him the right hand and stop not till he does and be not the first that turns, and when you do turn let it be with your face towards him."). But mostly it is advice that is still good advice today. Dramatically, the final rule is a real capper, "#110: Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience." 

In order to better connect this book to George Washington, the editors then tack on four of his recorded speeches. This includes some farewell addresses to the army, his inauguration speech, and his, uh, exauguration speech, or "address at the end of his presidency." Generally, these were somewhat dull and predictable. But the final speech had some notes about the nature of the Constitution and the dangers of party politics that were striking. Check this out, for example:
Let me ... warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party ... the common and continual mischief's of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. 
If there is a better description of what is happening in congress right now, I haven't seen it.  So, hey, congress! If you won't listen to the current president, at least listen to George Washington, will ya? Set aside your party nonsense for the good of the country. After all, it's the civil thing to do.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Haunted Bookshop

Argh... what a disappointment this book is. I had so loved it's predecessor, Parnassus on Wheels, and the notion that such a wonderful book would have a sequel where the same characters now operate their own bookshop, and that the sequel was much longer than the original -- well, I very much was anticipating a really wonderful experience. And... well... no. Perhaps familiarity breeds comtempt, but it is much more than that. The first book was such a wonderful fantasy... riding the rural countryside in a horse-drawn cart, selling great literature to one farmhouse at a time. The sequel is set in New York City, and while it starts with some high-minded discussion on the true value of literature and its relation to bookselling, it quickly devolves into a third-rate detective novel. Probably the best part of it are the little glimpses it gives into the daily life of 1919... yes, young men smoked pipes regularly. And yes, people would roast marshmallows over the gas jets they used to light their houses! Anyway, it was wonderful to see Roger Mifflin again... but it would have been nice to hear more from his wife, who, after all, was the protagonist of the first book. Honestly, what this needs is a third book to wrap it all up. Christopher Morley is no longer with us... but, wow, what a NaNoWriMo that would be!

An Adventure in Space and Time

I've been a Doctor Who fan for a long time. Well, a relatively long time -- I came to the show kind of late, I didn't start watching it seriously until about 1978. In the past few years, I started collecting the DVDs from the beginning, and at this point have watched all the first and second Doctor episodes, and am into the third. I was very pleased that as part of the 50th anniversary of the show this weekend, the BBC produced this wonderful little movie that tells the story of William Hartnell, Verity Lambert, et al, creating Doctor Who. One thing that is singularly remarkable about the show is how much was defined in just the first few episodes. I was especially interested in the implication that the "surly doctor" from the pilot was Verity Lambert's mistake. Novices seem to so often create unlikeable protagonists, and then reverse that decision when it isn't working. Jason VandenBerghe once told me he thought that novices do this because it seems like such a fresh idea -- only later do they realize that no one does it because it doesn't work.

The best part about this for me was how much dignity it gives to William Hartnell. Nowadays, people often look back on Hartnell with disappointment. They accuse him of being egotistic and arrogant, mock his failing faculties and mannerisms, and shake their heads about the show being dull. What a refreshing relief to see Hartnell get his due, a respectful biopic that appreciates how difficult it was to create something that has lasted for fifty years, and will surely last for generations to come.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

King, Queen, Knave

I enjoy Nabokov a great deal, I'm not sure why. It has something to do with how he narrates, the way he lets us see the world through his eyes. I like his books best when they focus not on events, but on the thought processes of his characters. And this, his second novel, gives plenty of opportunity for that, having more or less exactly three characters. Every time I read his work, it makes me think about the nature of storytelling. He performs a marvelous piece of sleight of hand in this one, gradually letting the characters shift roles and (spoilers ahead) letting the antagonist become the protagonist, and the love interest become the villain. I can't say I've every experienced anything quite like that. I wonder if Nabokov was thinking this way, likening his characters to cards in a deck, and then performing a magic trick with them? Also, quite unexpectedly, the art of creating humanoid robots becomes a key part of the story... check this out...
The secret of this motion lay in the flexibility of voskin -- the very special stuff with which the Inventor had replaced live bones and live flesh. The two pseudopodia of the original voskiddy seemed alive not because it moved them (a mechanized "strollie" or zhivulya are after all no rarity, they breed like rabbits on sidewalks around Easter or Chiristmas) but rather because the material itself, animated by a so-called galvanobiotic current, remained active all the time -- rippling, tensing, slackening as if organically alive or even conscious, a double ripple grading into a triple dapple with the smoothness of reflections in water. It walked without jerking -- this was the wonder of it. 
Anyway, at first I thought this was going to be a rather straightforward and dull love story... but it changes directions again and again, and I found myself quite haunted by it. I can't say I'm sure how I feel about it, but I know I can't stop thinking about it. The characters and scenes won't go away, and I'm sure that Dreyer with a pistol was in my dreams last night.

And of course, there's a dash of chess and butterflies.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Bucket of Blood

I *love* this movie. I've watched it several times in the past, and it was on TV the other night for Halloween season, and I gladly watched it again. And I enjoy it every time. I stare deeply into its eyes, and it stares back, unafraid, and every time, I see something deeper, something I didn't see before. It's funny, I constantly am meeting people who have read my game design book, and not one time has anyone asked about the quote in the frontispiece:
I will talk to you of art,
For there is nothing else to talk about,
For there is nothing else. 
Life is an obscure hobo,
Bumming a ride on the omnibus of art.
                                                              -Maxwell H. Brock
It's a very bold statement, perhaps the boldest statement possible. And yet, no one who has read it there has ever occasioned to ask me who Maxwell H. Brock is. And I'm sure you don't care either. But I'll tell you anyway. He's nothing more than a fictional character in a low budget horror movie. But this is no ordinary horror movie -- this is a movie that somehow, in its ridiculous simplicity, explores the hall of mirrors of what it means to be an artist. And I think, quite possibly, more than all the philosophers and art historians and media digerati combined, this movie gets it right.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Social Game Design

I'll be honest -- I wasn't expecting much from this book. The authors (Tim Fields and Brandon Cotton) freely admit they wrote it in just 14 weeks. I don't envy them the task of trying to write a book about something changing as rapidly as the world of social games. The book came out a year ago, and already, by not talking about the clever structures of Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga, the book feels terribly out of date. And by no means, overall, can I say that it is a great book. However -- it has some great parts. The chapters that summarize monetization methods and business terms for social games are completely worth the price of admission. Without a doubt, these chapters present these more clearly and succinctly than any other source I have found, and I very much plan to make them required reading in my game design class. In short -- this book is worth a hearty skim, and also worth keeping around for reference if you are working on social or F2P games.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

One-Handed Basket Weaving

I had heard of Rumi, but not really read any of his works. I found this little volume in a second hand shop, and thought I would check it out. I was absolutely stunned. How could poems written in the middle east in the dark ages simultaneously cut to the heart of Christianity and Zen Buddhism while sounding as modern as if they were written yesterday? Consider this, for example:
Singular & Plural 
As human beings have an intellect
beyond the animals, so True Human Beings
 
have an intelligent soul
beyond ordinary awareness,
 
and it is all one thing,
their knowing and doing.
David didn't build the temple.
His son Solomon did,
but David built it too!
We speak of saints and prophets
and awakened ones in the plural,
but that's not the way it is.
 
Dogs and wolves are competitive and disparate,
but the lions of God have one soul. 
I mean, that doesn't sound like 13th century poetry to me. Weirder still, read The City of Saba, and try to imagine that it was not written today, but written a thousand years ago. So, how can it be? Is Rumi a time traveller? And the answer is: well, it isn't 13th century poetry, not exactly. This is a translation by contemporary poet Coleman Barks. Weirdly, Barks does not read Farsi. Rather, he'd been reading the English translations of the original poems, and felt they seemed stiff, and well, not what they really wanted to be. So he undertook to translate the literal English translations into poems that felt more true. Interestingly, he's done this with the help, approval, and encouragement of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi mystic from Sri Lanka who has read and studied the originals. Somehow Coleman first met Bawa in dream, and then later in real life. Anyway, I find the poems intensely thrilling. They feel alive and wonderful and clever and true and wise, everything that I seek from poetry. Rumi wrote A LOT, and Barks has gradually been working on his own versions for decades, so there is much of it to explore, and I'm looking forward to that. And while I get a lot out of the poems, I think I might get even more out of the success Barks has had with his intense boldness, and his Emersonian resolve. It is just more evidence to me that when something feels true, though the world may tell you it is wrong, you should follow it with all your heart and soul.