Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Sprout is another fun point and click game by the creator of Anika's Odyssey. It has the same structure: a game tree where you can explore, but do no wrong -- a puzzle of how to get to the end through simple clicks. The concept is a magic seed that can choose what kind of plant to sprout into, and as the player, you get to make the choices. It is a fun and clever game, an excellent way to spend 20 or 30 minutes of lightweight puzzle solving.

The Gospel of Jesus

This excellent audiobook, read by Garrison Keillor, is a "harmonization" of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That is, the elements described in those gospels are combined here to create a single chronological telling of the story of Jesus. Never before has the story made so much sense to me -- told in this way, elements of the story became clear that had always been a bit mysterious. And Keillor's narration suits the stories well. Something about his slightly wry attitude suits the parables perfectly. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in better exploring and understanding Christianity.

Anika's Odyssey

Sigh. If people are going to make things this sweet and fun, and give them away for free, how will it continue to be possible to make a living making games? I will definitely use the opening of this game as a lesson in elegance and indirect control for Building Virtual Worlds this fall.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wild Things!

Mostly unremarkable.

The Best of Patience and Prudence

So, I found this album the way many people did, I think: Dan Clowes' Ghost World. The part of the story with "A Smile and a Ribbon" is so sweet and touching that it made me wonder if it was a real song. Some web searching cleared that up, and it made me wonder about Patience and Prudence, so I ordered the album. And it's funny -- the first two songs "Tonight You Belong to Me" and "Smile and a Ribbon" really stand out as special -- and all the others (about 18 of them) don't seem special at all. But the liner notes make clear why. Patience and Prudence (real names) were 10 and 13 when their mom suggested to their music industry father that they record those two songs to give as presents for relatives. They learned "Tonight" at camp, and had been singing it a lot, and their Dad had helped write "Smile and a Ribbon". Ross Bagdesarian (Dave of Chipmunks fame) happened to hear it, and his wife shared it with the head of a record label, and they decided to record it as a single. While the family went on vacation, it suddenly became a hit (#6 on the charts)! Soon, they recorded the other songs, but honestly, all of them feel lifeless -- none of them have the sweet fun of "Tonight you Belong to Me", and nothing comes close to the weird, sad feeling of A Smile and a Ribbon, which would be a kind of sweet song, except that it doesn't really feel like Prudence (age 10) believes what she is saying, which gives it a feeling of sad hopelessness when she sings:
The bigger my toothy grin is
The smaller my troubles grow
The louder I say I'm happy
The more I believe it's so
And it is this sense of denial that made it such a perfect fit for Ghost World... I would love to hear the story of how Dan Clowes picked it.

Oh! As to what happened to Patience and Prudence? Their parents were very careful not to exploit them, and when the other songs didn't take off, they just didn't make any more. They are both still alive at the time I write this, living happy non-show-biz lives.

And can you beat that cover?

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The family and I went to see this on a total whim. I didn't expect much, but really, it was a lot of fun! It was surprisingly respectful to the original text, not that it was the literal story, but instead it assumes that Verne's story was not fiction at all, but secretly true. The film had a dreamlike quality, which was enhanced by the 3D, which made suspension of disbelief much easier. There were a lot of funny and fun scenes -- it was certainly more fun than any previous film version of the story. The film did little to convince me that 3D will become standard for movies or for TV the "boundary breaking" problem remains -- it always feels like you are looking into a box. All the problems that Hitchcock encountered on "Dial M for Murder" are still with us. I will bet money that 3D TV will still not be standard in the year 2020.

I also liked that there was nothing in the film I would be embarrassed to have a seven year old see.

Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

My daughter and I just finished reading this, which I think is the second book in the series. We read the first a while ago, and it was a bit different. In the series, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle helps ineffective parents fix behavior problems in their children. In the first book, it isn't completely clear whether Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cures are magic, or just placebos. In the second book, they are clearly magical. The stories this time are a bit longer, sometimes to the point of being a little boring. Betty Edwards is a serious grown up writer, though, and she does a good job of keeping things entertaining for both kids and adults. I love her names in particular... I think that "Harbin Quadrangle" might be my favorite.

Rickles' Book

I listened to Bob Newhart's autobiography I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This a few months ago, and I became interested in reading Don's, because the two of them are such good friends, but so different. Also, I had the opportunity to operate the Mr. Potato Head robot at Disneyworld for a couple hours back in June. The robot is voiced by Rickles, but a lot of the comic timing is left up to the operator, which made me feel a little bit like I was living in the mind of Don Rickles, which was eerie, to say the least, and left me with a lot of questions about his creative process.

Anyway, this book is a little light on creative process, although it does make clear that most of his work is developed improvisationally, which says something about how brave he is -- when you spend most of your act insulting the audience, and you have no script, that's pretty brave! The book wasn't as introspective as Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, but who would expect Don Rickles to be as introspective as Steve Martin? Most of the book is little anecdotes about other stars (mostly Frank Sinatra). Reading it feels a lot like you are sitting down with Rickles and his friends, and hearing them tell stories about the old days.

Don makes clear that the key to his success was persistence, and that's a message I always find reassuring.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Toy Story Midway Mania (Disneyland)

After working on this attraction for two and a half years with Schell Games and WDI, it's so wonderful to see it open! I'd ridden it in Florida several times in development and after it opened, but last night was the first time I'd been able to ride the finished attraction here in California! To have helped make something of this magnitude, and have it be installed in both Disneyland and Disneyworld is almost beyond my comprehension.

Street Angel

I should have finished reading this awhile ago -- I'm so glad I finally did! Street Angel (volume one: The Princess of Poverty) is a collection of the amazing Street Angel comics that Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca put out through SLG. Street Angel is not like any comic I've seen before -- it manages to combine action, parody, grit, and poignancy in a way that is original and new. If you can imagine a seamless blend of the Power Puff Girls, the Tick, Sin City, and Kill Bill, you might start to get the idea.

It would make an amazing movie, and probably a better TV show, but what media outlet is ready to produce a show where a city's superhero is a murderous twelve year-old skater girl who is homeless and smokes cigarettes? Okay, I guess Adult Swim could do it. Hey, Adult Swim! Pick up Street Angel! And make it a big success, so I can get the videogame deal -- because the videogame would be AWESOME.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Janes in Love

When I read the The Plain Janes, I totally fell in love! The story was so interesting and different, and the characters were people I knew. I liked it so much, that I sought out Jim Rugg, the Plain Janes artist (he lives in Pittsburgh too!), about a Schell Games project. We've been working together quite a bit, and he was kind enough to give me an advance copy of the sequel, Janes in Love. And I think that it is even better than the first one! The character development goes further, and Castellucci's writing seems even more beautiful. One piece of narration really stayed with me:

For some, trying on dresses is like being a fairy princess. For others, it's plain torture. What are we hoping the dress will do? It's just a piece of fabric. We wear clothes all the time. But finding the right dress is like finding a secret part of ourselves that's shiny.

Here's hoping that Jim Rugg and Cecil Castellucci collaborate on many more Plain Jane books! Janes in Love is scheduled to be out in September. Art saves!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

More Mr. Bean! The Swimming Pool and Mr. Bean Makes a Sandwich are my favorite parts on this one.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

My daughter wanted to see this, and I was kind of interested too. It is not often that a "single quadrant" kids movie (kids only, one gender) makes it into the theaters. I think the film did a great job at upholding the American Girls theme: to teach girls history by making it relevant and real. The history here is the Great Depression, and the movie really took it on, and put it in terms kids could understand. They sugar coated some things, of course, but other things were kind of scary and raw. It was a compelling, honest movie that didn't dumb things down. Hollywood, you made me proud today!

The Strip Show

I love Pittsburgh. A lot. And The Strip Show, Rick Sebak's documentary about Pittsburgh's strip district (the wholesale foods area of Pittsburgh that has gradually turned retail over the last 150 years) does a lot to show why. Sure, Pittsburgh has lots of hidden treasures, but more than anything, it is full of people who absolutely love their work, whether it be making biscotti, roasting coffee, selling fruit, making robots, or studying the history of Pittsburgh. Rick does a great job of seeking these people out, and showing how much they love what they do. Probably, they are drawn to Rick, because just watching his documentaries, you can tell how much Rick loves what he does!

Counting Sheep

A few months ago, I started to wonder about the mystery of my sleep patterns. Some weeks, I would get by with five hours each night, and get lots of work done. Other weeks, I would sleep eight hours a night, and still be exhausted during the day. I had the idea that perhaps by collecting data on my sleep patterns and how awake I felt, I could figure out a mathematical model that would be able to correctly predict how tired I would feel each day. I reasoned that if I had such a model, I could use it to figure out how much sleep I needed to get in order to get things done, because I find it very frustrating to plan a late night of work, only to find myself too tired to do anything.

So, I collected data on myself for several weeks, and played around with some simple models, and sadly, none of them seemed to match the data at all. I was complaining about it to Drew Davidson, and he suggested I read Counting Sheep by Paul Martin. He wasn't sure it would help, but he said it was interesting anyway.

And he was right! It was interesting. It is basically a guided tour of the science of sleep, trying to touch every aspect. It doesn't get very deep, but it gives a little bit of info about everything. It's also full of interesting quotes and examples from history, literature and mythology, which keeps it from being a dry read.

Some of the fun facts I learned in Counting Sheep:
  • People who are early risers tend to have more stress chemicals in their blood (that explains why you early people act like that!)
  • People who have frequent nightmares are easier to hypnotize. I will be thinking about that for a long time.
  • We don't just dream during REM sleep -- there are also dreams during NREM sleep, but they are a bit different.
  • I knew when you were falling asleep, it is called the "hypnogogic state", but know I know that waking up is the "hypnopompic state."
  • I learned the horror of Ondine's Curse.
  • If your eyes don't keep moving, oxygen doesn't get to the iris. This may be part of the reason for REM sleep.
  • There are two kinds of sleep apnea: "obstructive" (the normal kind, where your throat collapses while you sleep), and "central", where some kind of brain damage makes you stop breathing in your sleep.
I found this book a nice complement to Stanley Coren's Sleep Thieves, which has a different set of facts, more oriented towards why sleep is important. Counting Sheep is more of a general overview of the history and science of sleep. And though it was fun, I still don't have a mathematical model that can predict when I'm too tired to work. If you have one, please let me know!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mississippi Code of 1972

I heard the phrase "incurable insanity" on TV, and started to do a web search. I found this.

The Amazing Adventures of Mr. Bean, Vol. 1

Nyra and I pulled this out of deep storage to watch tonight. I hadn't seen it in ages. It has the Examination sketch, the Church sketch, which are two of my favorites, but I think maybe my all time favorite might be Mr. Bean's Birthday... it's so funny, and so sad at the same time. The bonus Library sketch is almost painful to watch.

In the Heat of the Night

I'd never seen this before. Is Sidney Poitier in any bad movies? It would have been easy to make this movie be trite, but I guess Norman Jewison knows what he's doing. While Sidney is magnetic, as always, what I really liked was Rod Steiger's performance. His "southern police chief" character could easily have been a caricature, but Rod made him into a real person. I wish more movies were brave enough to be slow and simple, relying on deep performances to carry them through.

And how Norman pulled off the final shot of Sidney on the train, I cannot even imagine.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Remain in Light

This is not a new album for me. It was the first Talking Heads album I bought, probably in 1986. But, I listened to it today, so I thought I would mention it. It was the fourth of their eight albums, and is best known for the song Once in a Lifetime, which is probably most well known because of its video.

But in my mind, the gem of the album is spoken word piece, "Seen And Not Seen." There was an artsy girl that I was always trying to impress in high school. She hated the Talking Heads, and always made fun of me because I liked their albums. One day I wrote out the words to Seen and Not Seen and gave them to her, not telling her where they were from. She came to me later and said, with some intensity, "Whoever wrote that is a genius."


He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books..... He thought that some of these faces might be right for him..... And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind..... Or somewhere in the back of his mind..... That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal.... The change would be very subtle.... It might take ten years or so..... Gradually his face would change its shape..... A more hooked nose... Wider, thinner lips..... Beady eyes..... A larger forehead.

He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other
people..... They had also molded their faces according to some ideal..... Maybe they imagined that their new face would better suit their personality..... Or maybe they imagined that their personality would be forced to change to fit the new appearance..... This is why first impressions are often correct..... Although some people might have made mistakes..... They may have arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them..... They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish whim, or momentary impulse..... Some may have gotten half-way there, and then changed their minds.

He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life

I am totally and completely addicted to this!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Road Trip

I watched this mainly because it was on. My expectations were super-low. The story was a straightforward "comedy of errors adventure", but it also had some surprisingly heartwarming character moments. The thing that elevates it the most are the imaginative narrative elements it uses -- dreams masquerading as reality, and an eccentric Tom Green character serving as the narrator, creating an outer layer of comedy that simultaneously allows for suspension of disbelief at what happens in the story, and making it impossible for the story to take itself too seriously.


I've heard quotes from G.K. Chesterton all my life ("A room without books is like a body without a soul", "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly", etc.) but this is the first of his books that I've ever read. I got to thinking about him because I was reading a biography of Marshall McLuhan (not finished yet!), and hearing Chesterton speak apparently helped McLuhan find his faith. Similarly, Chesterton comes up several times in C.S. Lewis's famous work, Mere Christianity. I'm not sure why I chose Orthodoxy, with is a sequel to his earlier Heretics, but it is a fine book that stands on its own.

It is rare to find someone with faith who can write about it in such a thoughtful, logical, and engaging fashion. Chesterton's writing is absolutely fearless: he makes a controversial statement on almost every page. His use of humor, irony, and sarcasm is constant -- so constant that it can be hard to tell when he is serious. Ultimately, Chesterton's argument for Christian faith is mostly that it feels right, and it is good for you. And really, when talking about faith, what more argument can be made?

The book is full of memorable quotes, for instance, "Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde." But I have to admit that his final statement in the book, about one of the great mysteries of Christ, is the one that will stay with me:

His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.