Saturday, August 30, 2008

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder

I heard the gimmicky title for this book, and just had to check it out. I have long worried about our increasing separation from nature, and what it means. In a sense, this is Christopher Alexander's main theme, and as I've said before, he is probably the most important person alive today, though we probably won't appreciate him for another hundred years or so.

The book is full of fascinating statistics... for example, children today have a roaming radius that is 1/9 of what it was 30 years ago. I know I experienced this first hand... at age 10, and even younger, I was free to walk for miles in the woods, to explore natural caves, to go boating alone. I don't know any kids that have that kind of freedom today. It isn't at all obvious what has changed. Perhaps we crossed some kind of population threshold? Perhaps cable TV made people worry about things they didn't used to worry about? I can't quite figure it out. But reading this book really made me realize how easy it is to become cut off from nature. Really, it's a state of mind, more than anything else. The outdoors might just be a few feet away, but if you have the windows closed, and your mind engrossed in television, it's like they don't exist.

It's only recently that it was even possible to cut ourselves off from nature this much -- to do so requires electricity, refrigeration, automobiles, in-home entertainment, and climate control. And the climate control part is not to be underestimated... when I was a boy, we had no AC, and I slept with the windows open for half the year, hearing the sounds, and feeling the temperature. It made me feel really connected with the outdoors, lying there at night listening to all the bugs and frogs, and really appreciating a cool breeze, or a sudden summer rainshower. My daughter gets none of this... every night, her window is closed tight, partly to control the temperature, but mainly for fear of intruders.

This book could have been written in an alarmist tone, but it really comes across very thoughtful and balanced, and provides realistic suggestions about how to reconnect with nature in everyday life, and the effect this has on children. This idea has been very much on my mind as I raise my daughter... I was horrified to realize, for example, that the "brownie" girl scout troop she is a part of does no actual scouting. In fact, they don't even go outdoors -- not even to sell cookies (parents today are too afraid to send their kids door to door selling things). The book told similar stories of scout camps full of computers, but where climbing trees was forbidden due to fear of litigation.

Reconnecting girls with nature was part of my inspiration when working on the Pixie Hollow game for Disney. Could it be that a videogame, normally considered a main culprit at separating kids from nature, could be a way to reconnect them with it? I hope so -- we're trying. It feels to me like kids today have a great restlessness about them, and I think that this restlessness is a hunger for something real. There is nothing more real than being in nature. We're trying to make Pixie Hollow a gateway for girls, back to nature... but it isn't easy. We may well fail, and the whole thing may end up feeling artificial... but I hope not. My secret hope is that the play patterns we are embedding (learning about and collecting natural materials, making gifts by hand, helping others, being a steward for the environment) will somehow transfer to the real world. I hope it works... but even if it doesn't, at least we can say we tried.

One thing this book convinced me of: there is value in learning the names of the plants and animals around us. I'm sick of looking at a tree and not knowing what it is named. So, I'm learning them! Next time you see me, I'll give you a dollar if I can't tell you the name of any tree you point to!

My Summer Story

Also released as "It Runs in the Family", this is, like "A Christmas Story", a collection of Jean Shepherd stories neatly sewn together into a film. I had no idea this existed, and just happened to catch it as it was starting. I was delighted with it -- it had some of my favorite stories, like the gravy boat story, and some stories I'd never seen before.

I have to admit, Jean Shepherd has always been special to me. My father adored him, and, as president of the Denville, NJ Friends of the Library, one of his jobs was to line up guest speakers. In 1971, Jean Shepherd came to speak. My father picked him up at the airport, and I (one year old) rode along. This was before car seats, so I rode back from Newark to Denville in Jean Shepherd's lap. I've often wondered if it is possible for me to retain some memory of that? His voice is so distinct -- could it have imprinted?

Later, when I was maybe eight, my father let me listen to his Jean Shepherd record. I loved the stories (even the ones I didn't understand) and listened to it over and over. Looking at the cover now, I realize that my third grade obsession with drawing little stick figures climbing on people was in imitation of the album cover! Anyway, listening to him on the radio, and watching his TV specials was something that connected me with my father, and made me feel really grown up. I must admit that every time I go to Disneyworld, I visit the Carousel of Progress, really for no other reason than to spend some time with Shep, even if it is just his robotic form. So, watching this cute, well-made film was a wonderful, bittersweet experience.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Talking Heads: 77

This will probably remain one of my favorite albums even when I'm an old, old man. It has such a pure, clean sound, and makes me feel young every time I hear it. My LP was in a milk crate for the longest time, and the sun shone on it through a window when I was in college, and faded a grid pattern of the milk crate onto the pure orange of the cover. Somehow, this makes it more special for me -- the milk crate is gone, but its image remains. It's kind of like the album and I grew up together, and have some of the same memories.

NRBQ: Wild Weekend

This album makes beer taste better.

The Deck of Lenses

Whew! I think I was more relieved to see this project finished than I was when the book was done! Perhaps that is because the cards represent a "consomme" of the book -- without them, the book isn't really complete, since they are the memory tool, the tangible takeaway of the lessons of the text. Anyway, they look great -- all the artists did such a great job! In my dreams, they change the landscape of game design forever. Well, even if they don't, they're pretty! You can get them on amazon, or at our website:

The Darjeeling Limited

My wife has a thing where she has to see every Jason Schwartzman movie, kind of like how I am obligated to see every time travel movie. I wasn't sure what to expect from this. It certainly was a beautiful film, that must have been hard to make! What I liked best was that the film didn't feel it needed to explain itself, and days later, I find myself making sudden pleasing realizations about the symbolism in the film. I loved that it was so smart and simple, and I loved the way it combined two worlds that are alien worlds: rural India and the life of the pointlessly rich. Oh! And an old colleague from WDI, Barry Braverman, produced the fascinating "making of" featurette. Great job, Barry!

She & Him: Volume 1

Heard "This is not a test" on the radio, and it somehow touched some strong emotion in me. So, I picked up the album, and I have found it to be surprisingly at home in my life. It is unusual because Zooey has a very "country" kind of voice, but the songs she sings are several different styles. This album is growing on me, which I didn't expect. I find myself playing "Sentimental Heart" on the harmonica all the time. The CD case design is wonderfully elegant, too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I am always fascinated with stories that combine mathematics and insanity -- and there seem to be a lot of these. As my wife says, "math is dangerous to think about -- it's too close to the mind of God." What is really surprising about this story is that it is a very feminine story, with very female conflicts and a very female point of view. In a sense, it is a story about trying to reconcile the left and right brain, or put another way, math as a metaphor for love.

Gardner's Candies

When I'm on car trips with my family, we always try to find interesting places to stop for meals. Having a Garmin has been a great help with this, since there are often really interesting places just off the highway that we would never know about without the magic of Garmin's diner radar, or "dinar" as we have come to call it. Anyway, on our most recent trip, we stopped for lunch at Thelma's Cafe in Tyrone, PA, where I had "hamburg rivel" soup, which was something new to me -- it's kind of like Matzoh ball soup, I guess, with hamburger instead of chicken, and the matzoh ball kind of crumbled up. Thelma's was a nice friendly place, and right around the corner was Gardner's Candies, the retail establishment for Tyrone's candy factory. It's a real nice place, with lots of candy, as well as an ice cream parlor and a mini-museum. And while lots of small candy factories tend to make chocolate that has a "cheap" taste, Gardner's was surprisingly delicate and refined. Definitely a fun stop off of I-80!

Siggraph 2008

I haven't been to Siggraph in years (probably since 2001). I only went this time because it was the first time my book was being sold publicly. But it was a great chance to see how the conference has changed -- and really, it hasn't changed much! I mean, everything is much more smooth and professional than it used to be, and there is so much more content now. All the old favorites were there (techy papers, goofy art projects, crazy experiments) but so much more refined than in the past! It's the "new tech demos" which I am always most interested in -- and there were some cool ones, with clever projection tricks and thoughtful new ways to combine print and projection, but by far what captivated me the most were experiments that played with the flow of time, specifically through the time tunnel, and Wonderland. I must have sat and stared at Wonderland for half an hour -- for some reason the idea of a world that runs backwards has always fascinated me, and I have often thought about making a film where time runs backwards, except for when people talk, we would use CG to make their mouths and dialog run forwards -- it would be a fascinating universe.


This is a story that ran over a few issues of Optic Nerve, I think, but it is really nice to see it collected all in one place. Tomine is an expert at creating stories about people with personal problems, and I think this is one of the deepest ones he has done. He likes telling stories about broken people by giving you sharp little shards of glass that you gradually put together as you read. By the end, you don't so much have a complete picture of the person, but rather the pattern of their damage, and a certain feeling that the damage cannot be repaired. I hope that Tomine keeps writing stories in long form like this one -- as much as I've liked his shorter stories, the length of this one helped make the characters more real than anything else he has done. Like Steinbeck says, "There are no great short books."

Monday, August 18, 2008

I Have Chosen To Stay And Fight

This is Margaret Cho's "politics book." I isn't something I sought out -- but I needed a new audiobook, and it caught my eye when I was at the library. And I'm always interested in the minds of comedians, so I picked it up. I hoped it might be kind of witty, or fun. Unfortunately, it is neither. Most of it is long, bitter, repetitive rants about gay rights and racial prejudice. They sound like the kind of editorials you find in a high school newspaper. I was so bored I almost gave up on it, but I have this tendency to push on through boring things, with the hope that something redeeming might show up. And my patience got some small reward. Though she sounds like a tenth grader when she talks about politics, when she talked about entertainment, like the history of Anna May Wong, and how she was inspired by Richard Pryor, she was kind of interesting. And in one essay, she talks about her relationship with her mother, and it is really kind of touching. Sadly, though, it quickly returns to repetitive rants again. But even in those, I saw something. I could start to hear Margaret thinking, and could hear her getting adolescent logic out of her system, giving way to something more mature. I kind of felt like, hearing all the confusion, the anger, and the gradual enlightenment, I was listening to someone become an adult. And like any adolescence, while it made me feel like I got to know her better, I wouldn't want to experience it again.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Art of Game Design: a book of lenses

I guess I've finished this in two ways... I finished writing it, and I just finished reading it! I've never written a book before, and it is pretty exciting to see it in print (although, of course, now I find all the typos!)

In all, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. The cards will be ready in a week or two -- they are the really fun part... I can't wait!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

2008 Olympics Opening Ceremonies

I dearly love the Olympics. I love the idea that the whole world comes together to set aside their differences, and to celebrate the playing of games. These ceremonies were absolutely beautiful. 2,008 dancers wearing fiberoptic costumes, somehow dancing in synchrony, flying gymnasts, and of course, the parade of nations. 2012 will be in England. I want to go!

I Never Liked You

I am always fascinated at how many comic artists have tortured tales to tell about their painful, introverted lives. I found the point of view of this fascinating, and I really liked how it told a meaningful story through a series of disconnected vignettes. It really was some beautiful, tragic, honest storytelling.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together

Blah blah, it's great, blah blah blah.


Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness

O'Malley does an amazing job of keeping this going... introducing new characters, and keeping multiple stories going in parallel. Sigh! Why can't I write like this!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Now, Voyager

I love this movie. It's fun seeing Bette Davis stand up to her mother, and the love story is so unconventional -- it's like a story of what people who are really in love would really do. It's strange to find a movie from 1942 where everyone behaves so realistically. And Bette Davis is hot.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Jerky Versions of the Dream

My history with this album is funny. Being a high school nerd in 1986, I was big into Devo. So, whenever I would pick through the clearance bin at the record store, I was always tripping over this album by Howard Devoto, due to the tyranny of alphabetism. I often considered buying it, but it looked a bit too arty. But it has haunted me for 20 years or so. So, when I was flipping through some records the other day at half price books, and it popped up, I decided that it was finally time. I didn't expect much, but really, I kind of like it! It's surprisingly catchy, clever, and fun. I really liked "Out Of Shape With Me" and "Taking Over Heaven".

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

The blend of reality and fantasy in these books is something new under the sun. It makes me think a little of the mindbending The Adventures Pete and Pete on Nickelodeon, but taken to a new and specific level. Something very powerful is going to come out of this. It's a new genre of fiction, I think -- no really.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Book of Good Habits

One incredible power I have found that this blog gives me: after I write about a book or record, it makes it much easier for me to get rid of it! I guess in the past I sometimes kept things around to help me remember what they were like. Anyway, this book had been sitting on my nightstand, partly read, for over a year. So, I finished it today.

It is just a collection of tips for everyday life. There are a few that are useful (if a python wraps around you, unwrap it by the tail, not the head) and some that are provocative (Madonna claims to have the habit of urinating on her feet in the shower to avoid athlete's foot), but mostly it's kind of dull. It is does try to wake you up by occasionally giving bad advice in a sarcastic way, which is a cute device. And it has some fun quotes interspersed, like Mark Twain's "I do not like work, even when someone else does it," and what Dorothy Parker said when someone asked to meet with her during her honeymoon: "I'm too fucking busy. And vice versa." But my favorite quote by far was a yiddish proverb:

With money in your pocket,
you are wise and you are handsome
and you sing well, too.

Tonoharu: Part One

This is a funky graphic novel about an American kid getting a job as a teaching assistant in Japan. It's very forlorn and lonely, and has one of the most amazing narrative switcheroos I've ever encountered. How many copies can something like this sell? How many people can there be like me who would buy this? I hope part two comes out soon.

the psychedelic furs: all of this and nothing

This is a compilation album of psychedelic furs songs that I found used somewhere. I was surprised to hear how silly some of these songs sound, it gave me new respect for the furs -- it's brave to try to sound serious when you are singing a song like "President Gas".

Whenever I hear new wave songs, my thoughts always go to the same place -- the first girl I fell in love with. It was 1985, I was in high school. I had seen her from afar, but didn't know her name. One day, we both "forgot" to bring our gym clothes to Phys Ed, and were banished to a dungeonlike room in the corner of the gym. She was reading something by Voltaire, and we got to talking about philosophy. I became slightly smitten, and a couple weeks later, she gave me a mix tape, which was mostly new wave. New wave was new to me, and we spent long hours on the telephone discussing the subtleties of lyrics, etc. Anyway, long story short, I fell in love, and she broke my heart, and now, whenever I hear new wave, I get a kind of bittersweet taste in the back of my mouth, which I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

Out of curiosity, I went to the deep archive and found her old mixtapes. No Furs on any of them. Huh.

Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat

This history of Felix the Cat, by renowned animation historian John Canemaker, was completely fascinating to me. It is a clear case of a slightly inspired entrepreneur (Pat Sullivan) who rode the coattails of a shy but very talented artist (Otto Messmer). Since I run a studio myself, I am always interested on how other people run their studios. Pat Sullivan provides many examples of how not to run a studio that anyone can benefit from. So, I am glad to present:

What I learned from Pat Sullivan about running a studio:
1) Avoid becoming an alcoholic.
2) Avoid getting jailed for statutory rape. It is hard to run your studio from jail.
3) Find talented people who are too comfortable to leave you. Messmer turned down repeated offers from Walt Disney because he did not want to move west.
4) Come up with something new more than once every 20 years.
5) Don't assume that talkies are a fad that will go away.
6) Have a lawyer review your contracts.
7) Actually have contracts.
8) This last one is not specifically studio related: avoid giving your wife syphilis, or she might commit suicide by jumping out a window.

Cugel's Saga

My history with this book is kind of strange. I bought it somewhere in about 1986, I'm not sure why. I read a chapter or so of it, and was really captivated -- I'm not sure I'd ever read a novel where the main character was not a hero, but rather a devilish trickster. For some reason, I never read any further, and over the years, the book disappeared. But it always stayed on my mind, somehow. A little while ago, for some reason, I decided I wanted to read it, so I found a used copy online. I kind of figured it would disappoint me -- but it did not! It was even more fun and enjoyable than I remembered. Jack Vance manages to make a world that is absolutely fascinating, and weave together an interesting series of trickster tales more engaging than I have ever read. It is completely clear to me that Vance truly, truly loved writing. Every word and phrase is given such loving attention, and his vocabulary is so interesting. I am intrigued to find more of his work.

This would make a really great special effects movie! What with all the giant demons, etc. I've spent a lot of time thinking about fantasy worlds, and the world described here is one of the most interesting, fun medieval fantasy worlds I've ever heard described.

The Cowsills

People always talk about them as the inspiration for the Partridge Family, but I'd never listened to their album. Their singing is pretty amazing. The songs didn't do much for me personally, with the exception of "Pennies", which had something in its choral hook that I really liked.