Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Great Conch Train Robbery

In terms of songs I liked, this was a mixed bag for me -- although, even for the songs I didn't care for, I just like hearing Shel talk and sing, for each song is a way to get to know him a little better. My favorites were definitely "You Ain't Here", "Rough on the Living" (which hit kind of close to home) and the title song, which was both sad and fun.

Inside Folk Songs

I bought this to celebrate Shel's birthday (September 25). I had heard all of the songs here or there, but it was real nice to hear them altogether. We had this album at our house when I was a boy, but my parents would only play the songs selectively, since they aren't all appropriate for kids. My mother would play "You're always welcome at our house" with such glee! I guess I didn't really have a fighting chance of being a normal kid, did I?

"Bury me in my shades" is definitely my favorite. The thing I've always wondered, and that no biography yet has answered for me: Was Shel happy? It's so hard to tell.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Change-Your-Life Quote Book

I like quote books -- there is something about encapsulated wisdom that changes the way I think about things, sometimes, like a powerful pill small enough to swallow. I wouldn't say this book changed my life, but it was pleasant enough.

A few I noted:

Write in your heart that every day is the best day of the year.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
– Henry David Thoreau

Yesterday is ashes; tomorrow wood. Only today does the fire burn brightly.
– Eskimo Saying

Mistakes are portals of discovery.
– James Joyce

A new broom sweeps clean, but an old one knows the corners.
– English Saying

We live in an ironic society where even play is turned to work. But the highest existence is not work; the highest level of existence is play.
– Conrad Hyers

There are some things so serious you have to laugh at them.
– Niels Bohr

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside; awakes.
– Carl Jung

A ship in harbor is safe. But that is not what ships are for.
– John A. Shedd

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.
– Buddha

The person who upsets you the most is your best teacher, because they bring you face to face with who you are.
– Lynn Andrews

Saturday, September 27, 2008

ICEC 2008

The ICEC (International Conference on Entertainment Computing) finished up today. It was a really great event! A great mix of academia and industry in a very intimate, educational conference. And we had Ed Catmull there! His talk was wonderful -- he talked quite a bit about the clash between Disney culture and Pixar culture, and how it was being resolved. I was fortunate enough to sit at the same table with both Ed and Anthony Daniels for lunch on Friday, as they chatted about various Hollywood business. I tried hard not to be a drooling fanboy -- but it was hard -- Ed Catmull is my studio management hero! This was an exhausting week, but the conference really did a lot to get me thinking about a lot of things. I got to spend some time playing TRINO, which is a project from an ETC silicon valley team. It's such a clever mechanic, and they keep making it better! I predict it will win something at the IGF this year!

Next year's ICEC is in Paris... hmm...!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Marriage

This is, by far, the most successful attempt I have ever seen to create a piece of art through the medium of the videogame. I've heard people talk about it for a couple of years, but I finally got around to playing it. What fascinated me was how quickly I found myself telling the story of what was happening to the squares -- how I could quickly come with explanations for exactly what was happening... "her neediness is smothering him", "she has become so large, it is hard for him to find her boundaries", "he is ignoring her, and it is killing her". I would imagine each green disk as a project at work, or a hobby, or an affair, and each black disk as the death of a friend, or some other personal tragedy. Rod Humble has made a major achievement with this game. I wonder if it is possible for this to be genre, in any meaningful way, or can it be that he just found a magic combination of story and interaction that cannot easily translate to other meaningful stories?

Old Goriot

I will be honest: this was a hard ride. It is my first Balzac. While parts of it sparked, a lot of it was a difficult trudge for me. Part of this surely was due to translation -- I always get the feeling that reading French translated to English is kind of like drinking flat root beer. Part of is also due to the fact it was written 170 years ago, and much of it is about social customs of the time. I had a hard time, in many cases, forming clear pictures of some of the characters.

One thing that totally shocked me were discussions of "Paris humor", such as:
The boarders dropped in one after another, interchanging greetings and empty jokes that certain classes of Parisians regard as humorous and witty. Dullness is their prevailing ingredient, and the whole point consists of mispronouncing a word or in a gesture. This kind of argot is always changing. The essence of the jest consists in some catchword suggested by a political event, an incident in the police courts, a street song, or a bit of burlesque at some theatre, and forgotten in a month. Anything and everything serves to keep up a game of battledore and shuttlecock with words and ideas. The diorama, a recent invention, which carried an optical illusion a degree further than panoramas, had given rise to a mania among art students for ending every word with "rama." The Maison Vauquer had caught the infection from a young artist among the boarders.
' Well, Monsieur-r-r Poiret,' said the employee from the Museum, 'how is your health-orama?'
These "rama" jests continue through the entire book. I was partly surprised to hear how old the origins of "o-rama" were, but also surprised to see an acknowledgment of the "humorous catchphrase", which I had always thought of as a modern phenomenon, probably starting around the beginnings of radio. Lorne Michaels used to talk about the power of these annoying catchphrases (Steve Martin's "Excuuuse me", John Lovitz's "Yeah, that's the ticket", etc.) and explained that if you create a really annoying character with a stupid catchphrase, the annoying people in the real world will start repeating it everywhere. So, perhaps these annoying catchphrases are not so modern after all, but have been around as long as there have been annoying people.

Anyway, even though I had a hard time with aspects of the book, and I was starting to regret having embarked on it, the ending was worth all the trouble. It was so poignant, so poetic, so powerful, so memorable, and so modern, I feel sure I will not forget it anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Austin GDC 2008

I'd never been to Austin -- it was fun! This conference was kind of intimate... it was kind of like only the cool kids were at this one. I think people liked my talk.

Nerf Jarts

Not as satisfying as the original Jarts, but better than a poke in the eye.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Muppet Movie

My goal in life is to make things as perfect and wonderful as this.

GI Joe Commando Attack Game

Just look at the picture! How could this be more amazing? Emma and I played it, and it is even more awesome than it looks. The well-balanced ruleset gets a huge thumbs up from me!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

This is the pseudonym for an anthology of two EP's (25 O'Clock and Psionic Psunspot) by The Dukes of Stratosphear, which is a pseudonym for XTC.

How is it possible that I made it through four years of college radio between 1988 and 1992, and I never even heard of these songs? I suspect time travel is responsible. They sound like the Alan Parsons Project and the Mothers of Invention had a baby. I found them when I heard "Brainiac's Daughter" on WYEP, and wondered how I could have missed something that sounded like such a natural fit for my pysche. I mean, no one even ever mentioned these songs to me! What other secrets is the world keeping?

The Transposed Heads / The Black Swan

I found this book at Eljay's, when I was looking for a copy of The Magic Mountain. I have it as a goal to read at least one book by each of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Anyway, I found this book instead, which is a peculiar combination of two of Thomas Mann's lesser known stories. And how could I say no to "The Transposed Heads"?

The Transposed Heads is a story we've all heard before. A jock and a nerd are good friends, and the nerd falls in love with a beautiful girl. The jock helps him win her, and the nerd and the beauty are married. But she secretly lusts after the jock friend. Anyway, blah blah blah, the nerd and the jock each commit suicide by cutting off their own heads with a sword. Not each other's heads, their own heads. I'm not even sure how you do that. Long story short, the girl brings them back to life with the help of Kali, but "accidentally" switches the heads on the bodies. This leaves the three with a curious question -- who is she married to? The nerd head with the jock body, or the jock head, with the nerd body (the nerd body is the father of the child she carries, of course). Anyway, I'm sure you can imagine how it ends up. Where he gets off writing this ridiculous story I do not know. I mean, honestly... A jock and nerd being friends??

The Black Swan is both beautiful and disturbing, and honestly, I can't decide how I feel about it. I think it will haunt me for some time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Don Byas - Jazz Legacy

This album is like soothing medicine for me. I must have listened to it 30 times... I never get tired of it. There is something eerily contemporary about his music... it sounds so ahead of its time. I mean, even that picture of him -- does it look like it was taken over 50 years ago? I need to find more of his albums.


The second part of my Sandra Dee double feature. Everyone makes fun of Gidget, but I can see why this movie was so successful. It's about that most unusual of things -- a teenage girl not interested in growing up. It has such a fascinating blend of innocence and lust that I'm sure every teenage girl in 1959 was aching to see this movie. Oh, Sandra Dee... I wish we could go back in time and heal your troubled soul.

Imitation of Life

The first part of my Sandra Dee double feature. As much as it seems like a corny fifties movie, it goes into serious racial issues in an unconventional way. It's a remake... but you know, I think it might be due for another remake.

Camp Lisa

This is a great album of camp songs for kids, or for anyone who likes to fantasize about going to summer camp with Lisa Loeb. Steve Martin plays banjo on one track = awesome.

I Heart Huckabees

I'd seen this before, but somehow I liked it even more the second time. Sometimes it feels like Lily Tomlin has been with me my whole life. There is something about her that makes me feel that even though everyone is an idiot, things are going to be okay.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

This lovely little book would appear to give some significant insight into David Lynch's creative process. I'm always interested in creative process, particularly from people with unusual perspectives. He feels no need to waste words in this, or trying to construct a narrative. The book is made of dozens of tiny chapters, each with a single thought, or a single anecdote. I found it very pleasant to read, and often quite inspiring. I'm working on a number of projects that I've been on for over five years, and it is hard to tell when, or if they will ever get completed -- and this can sometimes be depressing. To hear the story of Eraserhead, about how David ran out of money, and had to stop production, and started delivering papers to raise more money, and eventually got it done, really meant a lot to me. Listen to this:
Jack Nance, the actor who played Henry, waited three years for me, holding this thought of Henry, keeping it alive. There's a scene in which Jack's character is on one side of a door, and it wasn't until a year and half later that we filmed him coming through the other side of the door.
And I love this little story about the making of Inland Empire:
One day we were getting ready to shoot a scene called "The Little House," which involved Laura Dern and my friend Krzysztof Majchrzak, an actor from Poland. Krzysztof arrived in Los Angeles fresh from Poland and the CamerImage gang brought him over to my house. When he got out of the car, he was wearing these goofy glasses, and he smiled and pointed to the glasses.

So I got the idea that he planned to wear these things in the scene and I said, "No, no, no, Krzyszto." And he said, "I need a prop. I need a thing." So I went into my office and I opened up the cupboard and saw a little piece of broken tile, I saw a rock, and I saw a red lightbulb, but very transparent like a Christmas light. I took these things out and offered him a choice. "Take one of these, Krzysztof" -- and he picked up the bulb. I put the other things away. I wasn't going to let him have those anymore. I just gave him the bulb. So we went out to the small house and Krzysztof came out from behind a tree with the red bulb in his mouth, and that's how we shot the scene.
The whole idea of whether I am an artist or not, and if I am, what that implies, is something I have been wrestling with quite a bit over the past year. This book has helped me answer the question. I wish more creative people would write concise little books like this that tell stories of their creative process.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Somehow I made it through childhood never reading this book. I remember seeing the whole collection of Oz books on the shelf in the Denville Public Library. They were right there next to the table I liked to sit at. I always felt they were kind of taunting me... like they were some kind of club that I wasn't allowed into because I was too young, and by the time I was old enough, I wasn't interested. Of course, I'd seen the movie many times, and always marveled at its wonderful dreamlike qualities.

What got me thinking about it was that somehow I got roped into reading Wicked, which was simply awful. At first, I liked the idea that it was fleshing out the Oz universe, but it did so in such an inconsistent way, with so many plotlines that went nowhere, that it is almost hard to understand why the book is so popular. But I think I know why -- no one has read it. I think lots of people bought it, and everyone likes the idea of "the witch's side of the story", and the idea that the Wicked Witch of the West was college roommates with Glinda is amusing. It's too bad the book is so very, very painful to read. I mean, it has some engaging scenes, but they aren't connected to each other. For me, the whole thing just fell apart.

And I had even less respect for Wicked after reading the original. What really struck me is how, well, real parts of it seem. Like when the Scarecrow gets stuck on the pole in the river -- it feels like something that would really happen to four friends trying to travel through the wilderness. So much of it is about the friendship of those four, and how they help each other. I was quite surprised to learn that the movie ends halfway through the book, eerily similar to the Neverending Story! But while the Neverending story gets deep and meaningful in the second half, TWWOO gets kind of pointless... we visit a land of tiny china dolls, for example, who seem to serve no plot purpose whatever, and don't seem at all at home in the universe that has been established. After reading this, I have even more respect for the movie: it added powerful things that weren't in the book at all: Dorothy throwing the water in an act of kindness; the diploma, the heart, and the medal; an implication that Oz is in the sky; and the idea that Oz was just a dream. It's a truly rare case: the book and the movie are both wonderful, but in completely different ways. There is something special about Oz, I just don't know what it is yet. Someone must be pitching the idea of making new movies which are more true to the books.... but they are probably wisest to leave that alone. I certainly am curious to read the subsequent books.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting

This book is a fascinating complement to Last Child in the Woods. Its premise is that everyone under 20 years old in 2008 has been messed up by over-parenting, rendering them unable to cope with the real world because they don't know how to deal with anxiety, problem-solving, and other real life skills. The book blames celphones (too easy to access Mom and Dad), and parents who see that the world is changing fast, and they better hyper-prepare their kids. This book has one of the best scientific descriptions of why kids need free time play that I have ever encountered. Apparently, all mammals, if denied free playtime at an early age, engage in play behavior when older. So, paradoxically, by keeping children from playing, you keep them as children longer. I'm fascinated by this idea, and want to learn more about it.

One thing I was surprised the book missed: the CNN effect. I have come to believe that the big shift in irrational fear (predators around every corner) was a direct result of 24 hour news networks. Before that, we generally heard only about local bad things... not every bad thing that ever happened everywhere. It is human nature to get scared when you hear about bad things, and I think this is why parents have gotten so overprotective of children, even though the world is safer now (fewer criminals, etc) than it was 20 years ago. I wonder if we'll adapt to this, and get a more realistic understanding of safety, or is fear of unlikely distant events here to stay?

The book is full of fascinating ideas and science to back (most of) them up. I wonder what it means for the future?

Stranger than Fiction

I was surprised at how delightful this movie was. It would have been easy to make it all about its gimmicky premise, but instead the premise is just what a fantasy premise like this is for -- to shift our perspective, and make us see the world a different way. I loved everything about it -- the simplicity, the casting, the clever animations, the writing, and the acting. Looking back, I see all kinds of holes, but during the movie, everything seemed as solid as a rock -- I always feel like that is a mark of genius. I think people will be watching this film 100 years from now.