Monday, December 28, 2009

Things Fall Apart

I first heard of this book maybe ten years ago when I was reading Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan, and I've been meaning to read it since then. It did not let me down in the least. This is a book that will stay with me a long time. It was so simple, so clear, so meaningful, and so powerful. I never felt like I understood African village life before, and now, well, I do feel like I understand it, on some level. I can understand how it would feel natural, how it would feel comfortable. He paints the picture so clearly, I could taste the yams. And then, at the same time, it is about modern man's separation from that natural life. How everything that we do, from our machines, to our religion, to our fears, to our food, separate us from natural life. I'm in the middle of Pine and Gilmore's Authenticity right now, and it is connecting so many things for me. I keep coming back to the idea that Alexander's fifteen principles are the key to living a life connected to nature... I have to explore this further.

Anyway, I've never been a big fan of required reading for high school students -- most of the choices are not helpful to students at all. But this -- this is something else -- it is something everyone can understand, everyone can relate to, and it addresses issues that are as unsolved today as when the book was written. This is truly one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

BVW Show 2009

Oh, man. This was an epic BVW show. Let's see... this makes the eighth one I've been at, and the fifth one I've hosted. And each one seems to have its own excitements, mysteries and charms. I love putting the show together and hosting it -- it lets me fulfill my dream of being Kermit the Frog from the Muppet Show ... and it really is like that: a bunch of crazy acts that don't really make sense, performed by amateurs, every technical problem imaginable happening, and somehow, somehow, every year, we make a show that touches the audience, each year. I can't take any credit for it -- it's like some machine that we all serve, and it never lets us down. This was our first year in the Chosky Theater, as opposed to McConomy lecture hall (where it has always been), and it was worlds (ha) better than it ever has been before, having the amenities of a proper theater. Thanks to all who made this show an amazing success!

Sunday, December 6, 2009


This was an audio recording of a Tom Stoppard play that was new to me. It has a wonderful structure -- taking place in two parallel timelines, one in the 1800's, and one in present day, and the timelines are interlocked in interesting ways. The theme is entropy, and curiously, how entropy is the sign that time can't run backwards, which makes the "travelling back in time" motif the play uses all the more ironic. Anyway, I love the fact that Tom Stoppard, unlike so many writers, seems to get greater mastery of his form over time.

One note, though, if you listen to this -- DO NOT listen to the interview they stick in the intermission! It is full of spoilers without warning! What kind of idiot puts spoilers about the end of a play in the middle of a play?! It's as bad as those people who put spoilers in the introduction to a book! Or maybe worse!

Huh... a specially produced audio version of a play... how do I classify that? I know... "books."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Never Check E-Mail in the Morning

I get approximately 300 emails a day, and I am always looking for ways to deal with them efficiently, so the title of this book caught my eye. I was disappointed to find that this is just a trendy new retitling of an old book with a clunky title: "Making Work Work".

Basically, this is a version of Getting Things Done that seems to be written for the ladies. It is not as pointed or draconian as GTD, but it does have a lot of generally useful tips for people who haven't spent any time engineering their work processes. The "Email" title is really just a single tip in the book, suggesting that before you get caught up in a torrent of emails, that you should take a little time to plan your day, so that it is as effective as possible. This is something that I'm learning to do myself. I'm trying a new thing where I try to kill off all my inboxes before I go to bed. Which is why I'm writing this at 12:40 AM. I didn't learn that from this book, I'm just mentioning it. We'll see how long I can keep it up. It continues to amaze me that there isn't more discussion in the world about how to deal with email efficiently and effectively... even in a book with a title like this.

One surprising chapter in this book is about working well with others. It has a very concrete idea in it, that whenever there is workplace frustration with a co-worker, it is about one of six things: Inaccessibility, Unreliability, Rigidity, Disrespectfulness, Vagueness, or Unfairness. This was a new list for me, and so far, I think it is spot on. So, conversely, avoid these six deadly sins, and people will like working with you. I think I'll use this in BVW next year...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wormy Apples

Played this with Emma today for the first time in ages. It's a simple randomized game, not unlike Cootie, or Hi Ho Cherry-O, or dozens of others. In this one you are trying to get all the worms out of your apple with a simple spinner. I was surprised that Emma, who is now nine, would still want to play it, but she did, and it is still kind of fun. And it comes in a cool mini-lunchbox, which makes everything better.

Space Invaders Revolution

At last! I finished this little devil! You might wonder why I don't list more games in this blog. The simple reason is that though I start many games, I finish very few. Well, I finished this one! It was a really fun extension of the classic Space Invaders. It has lots of variations on the action and the enemies, but does a great job of staying to true to the feeling of the original. So, if you like old-fashioned Space Invaders, I definitely recommend this.

And yeah! I finished it!

Cave Canem

So, I took three years of Latin in high school, with grades that descended each year, because I didn't work very hard, and so things never really stuck. I've always been sad about that, because I had grand visions of sitting down to read, say, the Aeneid. It was with delight, then, that I discovered the Dowling Method of learning Latin, which is based on slow, steady, and thorough drill, with the goal of being able to read Latin smoothly and naturally. At this moment, I am 170 pages into my drill book of 200 pages of nouns, and when I finish that, I'll begin adjectives, and then verbs.

Now -- none of that has anything to do with Cave Canem, except that I bought this book as a way of breaking the intense monotony that is the Dowling Method. The book is alright, it has little windows into Roman history via common Latin phrases, but I wish that it paid a little more attention to grammar -- it frequently presents accusative or ablative forms of nouns, with no explanation that that is the case (no pun intended, and I'm sure, none taken). Some of the translation and explanations I found a little suspect, too. But, I found it a great way to pick up a little more knowledge and vocabulary. I am very likely going to put "Non scholae sed vitae discimus" over my door.

The Pajama Game

I saw part of this on TV when I was very young, and it has always haunted me, so I finally got around to watching the whole movie. Workplace comedy always fascinates me. I know the poster wants us to think it is some kind of sex comedy, but really it is a story about labor relations in a pajama factory. I was amazed at how many well-known songs it contains, from "I figured it out" to "This is my once-a-year day" to "Hernando's Hideaway". It was tremendous fun.

Playboy's Silverstein Around the World

No study of the complete works of Shel Silverstein would be complete with out this: A collection of the sketches, photos, and cartoons he did for Playboy magazine in the sixties, each feature sending him to a different city of the world. They are just so silly, so self-deprecating, and so fun -- so much of Shel comes out in these, and he was certainly the perfect man for the job!

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Part II

Why Part II? Well, the library didn't have part I on audiobook, so I just jumped in on Part II. I can see why so many people talk about this book -- it is full of fascinatingly lurid details of the murderers, scoundrels, and prostitutes that brought the Roman Empire to ruin. I don't think any other book can boast having the words "pusillanimous" and "rapine" appear so many times in a single text.

The other thing that is notable about this book is the love and care with which Gibbon treats his subject. He is not objective at all, but he is very personal and present throughout the book, happy to step in and offer his opinions about what is true and what is not, and about how those who erred in ruling Rome could have made wiser decisions. It is clear that Gibbon spent the better part of his life on this text, and his personal tone makes it feel alive, though it was written over two hundred years ago. I love how he ends it, so humbly. I used the same trick in my book:

The historian may applaud the importance and variety of his subject; but while he is conscious of his own imperfections, he must often accuse the deficiency of his materials. It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally delivere to the curiosity and candor of the public.

Slap Stix

I found this weird soft caramel pop in an airport in Phoenix. It surprised me because it was from the Necco company, and I thought I was familiar with all their candies. It surprised me further because it was really good! I was worried because, I mean, we're talking about seven ounces of caramel here -- almost a half pound. It was hard for me to imagine eating that much caramel -- but, there is some kind of white, pink, and yellow stuff swirled in with the caramel which gives it a more varied texture, and makes it very pleasing to eat. I am officially a Slap Stix fan.

This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years

This slim book of poems taught me an important lesson in perspective. When I read it, I kind of just jumped in and started reading, and was disappointed to find the poems left me cold. Here's a short example:


There are fields of white roses

with prophets asleep in them --

I see their long black feet.

Each poem just seemed to be an observation of something he saw on the farm he lived on. It felt so flat, so lazy, so uncreative. After I finished the book, though, I went back and read the introduction, which I expected to be haughty and self-important. I was quite surprised to read a very humble message, where the poet explains that this book is an experiment for him -- that his goal was to unify outer experiences he had on the farm with inner feelings he had at the same time, even though those things might not be connected in an obvious way. When I understood his goal, suddenly the poems made sense, and their simple beauty became clear.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!

The second (and final?) collection of Fletcher Hanks comics. I'm totally hooked on Fantomah, so I was very glad that Paul Karasik put this together. The last two Fantomah stories, in particular, were especially powerful -- there was something almost mythologically insane about the story of the Vahines.

Finding things like this, it makes me wonder about what other hidden treasures the world holds. Did you know we don't actually have the writings of Aristotle? They were all destroyed. All we have are his lecture notes, which is why it all is so stilted. Stardust, can you save those?

Thanks, Paul, for pulling this together.


I heard about this book because Charles Bukowski talks about it in a couple of his books. Whenever people asks what writers he admires, he always brings up Knut Hamsun, of whom no one seems to have heard. And I can see what he admires so much. The story gives voice to thoughts and feelings that I didn't realize other people had... It's nice to know that people were crazy I like I am even a hundred years ago. People say that Hamsun surely influenced Kafka, and I can see that -- he's like a more honest Kafka. The images were so strong and clear. I wonder what Hamsun's other works are like?

Sum of All Thrills

Oh, goodness, this was fun to work on. The team was incredible, and everyone worked so well together. There were some real challenges with this project, but gosh, everyone at SG and at Disney really pulled together and got this thing done. And everyone seems to like it, so hurrah for that! I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't ridden the final article -- hopefully I'll get there soon!

Kindle 2

I've had this for some time, but had put it away for a while, preferring to read my kindle books on the Ipod Touch. I got to thinking about it again, and started making more use of my Kindle. For a while, the ugly flash upon page turning really bugged me -- I would close my eyes when it happened. Gradually, gradually, I got used to it. I'm trying out the New York Times subscription on it. To sit in a Starbucks and read the NYT on a Kindle makes me feel smart and sophisticated. It is a very nice way to read a newspaper -- superior to print, because it is easier to scan, and easier to know when you've seen it all, and much less wasteful.

I do wish that the display had more contrast -- it looks a lot like damp newspaper, and without bright light, is a bit of a challenge. But -- I like it a lot, and I wonder what meaningful improvements in ebooks will come next. I really do believe that they are the future of newspapers, and probably of books. The more I use the Kindle, the more clunky books and newspapers seem.

Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure

The sequel to Tinker Bell. It's a better movie, I think -- a more solid, character driven story. It is less trite, and has some nice surprises. I watched it once in a screening room before it released, and once at my daughter's slumber party with a room full of the target audience. The girls really liked it -- they laughed hard in the right spots, got scared in the right spots, and listened carefully in the right spots. It was very well crafted -- I do hope the third movie can live up to this.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Like Moby Dick and Treasure Island, this is one of those books where everyone thinks they know the story, but almost no one actually reads the book. I started it because it had relevance to a game I'm working on, and hey, who doesn't like Mark Twain. I was truly surprised at what this book was -- I always assumed it would be a clever adventure story, with touching and meaningful moments like say, Huck Finn. But, it's not like that at all. It spends most of its time ranting against classism and inequality. Occasionally it gets around to some fun and clever action, but that stuff is kind of spread out. The ending is surprisingly grim (spoilers are fair for any book over a hundred years old), with our hero constructing an electric fence that kills thousands of knights, creating a situation where he is trapped by walls of corpses, which is perhaps a metaphor? There were some very memorable moments in this -- the eclipse, blowing up Merlin's tower, using a lasso during a joust, "Hello Central", but in the end, I'm not sure how I feel about this book. It left me with kind of a dark feeling -- like Twain was working through something that he wasn't able to resolve. Definitely not a book for kids.

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!

Good Lord. This collection of comics by 1930's artist Fletcher Hanks has a perverse intensity that is hard to describe. They combine childlike impulses with adolescent worldview with adult problems into something that vibrates with energy and tension. Since Hanks did all his own writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering, I really felt like I was getting a view into the mind of this unusual person. And the bonus comic at the end about the quest to find Fletcher Hanks, well, that puts things into another perspective entirely. There is something so primal here -- the stories of Fantomah especially resonated with me, in some deep way I can't quite understand.

Pogo Battleship

A former student of mine, Ira Fay, worked on this, so I thought I'd check it out. It is mostly the old Battleship we all know (or "Fleet" as the real old timers call it -- I remember playing Fleet with my grandfather, who would draw out grids on carbon paper so we could each have one), but juiced up with powerups you can earn. It's real simple, and pretty fun. Good lord, we are drowning in quality games here in the future... It's like the Renaissance of games... I wonder if we'll look back on it like that?

God Shuffled His Feet

Not sure what me trot out this ancient album. I'm always of such mixed feelings about it. Some of the songs are so interesting -- but some are strange and weak -- and the whole album just doesn't hang together well, somehow. But some of the songs really stay with me. Ever since I fell and banged up my ribcage, I can't get "Afternoons & Coffeespoons" out of my head -- this may also have something to do with the fact that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock has been hovering around my chamber like Poe's Raven.

None of their other albums measured up anywhere close to this one -- the third one, in particular, was really disappointing. This is why I'm afraid to write another book.


How could I not like a movie that has a single character who is voiced by both John Hodgman and John Linnell? I wanted to like it more, though. It gets off to a strong start, but falls into a very mechanical structure (gather the three magic jellybeans, blah blah), and Coraline is a little bit hard to like - she's kind of mean and selfish. So, I liked it okay, but I wanted to like it more. I wish it meant a little more, and felt less mechanical. It made me reflect on a story that I'm working on, which may itself be too mechanical. So -- thanks for that, Coraline!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense

Another great collection of Bukowski poems. On their own, they aren't much, but bunched in these collections, I always feel like I'm visiting with Bukowski, getting to know him better. I wanted to pick out a couple to put here, but mostly, on their own, they don't tell you much, any more than looking at one human bone would tell you much about a person. So instead, I'll call out two of the more unusual ones. The first is unusual because of its historical context:

beasts bounding through time --

Van Gogh writing his brother for paints
Hemingway testing his shotgun
Celine going broke as a doctor of medicine
the impossibility of being human
Villon expelled from Paris for being a thief
Faulkner drunk in the gutters of his town
the impossibility of being human
Burroughs killing his wife with a gun
Mailer stabbing his
the impossibility of being human
Maupassant going mad in a rowboat
Dostoevsky lined up against a wall to be shot
Crane off the back of a boat into the propeller
the impossibility
Sylvia with her head in the over like a baked potato
Harry Crosby leaping into that Black Sun
Lorca murdered in the road by the Spanish troops
the impossibility
Artaud sitting on a madhouse bench
Chatterton drinking rat poinson
Shakespeare a plagiarist
Beethoven with a horn stuck into his head against deafness
the impossibility the impossibility
Nietzsche gone totally mad
the impossibility of being human
all too human this breathing
in and out
these punks
these cowards these champions
these mad dogs of glory
moving this little bit of light toward

And the second one, well, because it is so unexpectedly technical:

16-bit Intel 8088 chip

with an Apple Macintosh
you can't run Radio Shack programs
in its disc drive.
nor can a Commodore 64
drive read a file
you have created on an
IBM Personal Computer
both Kaypro and Osborne computers use
the CP/M operating system
but can't read each other's
for they format (write
on) discs in different
the Tandy 2000 runs MS-DOS but
can't use most programs produced for
the IBM Personal Computer
unless certain
bits and bytes are
but the wind still blows over
and in the Spring
the turkey buzzard struts and
flounces before his

We miss you, Chinaski!


This was a very pleasing show, though I don't know if it's quite as good as La Nouba. One thing was a little disappointing was that we were in "half arena" setting, placing our seats at a ninety degree angle to the stage. But unfortunately, a number of the routines, especially the clowning routines, could only be fully appreciated from the front. That aside, there were some wonderful performances, and the German wheel performance was the best I've ever seen.

Napoleon Dynamite

I'm not sure how I went so long without seeing this movie. Well, actually, I guess I do know. I was busy when it came out, and when I saw snatches of it on TV, the scenes and characters just seemed so creepy that I wasn't really drawn to it. I was quite surprised, then, seeing it beginning to end, to realize that actually it is a very sweet film, and that the characters aren't nearly as disturbing as I thought they were going to be. I think that is part of the appeal of the film -- it seems that at any moment, something really disgusting is going to happen, but then it never does.

And the message of the film is surprising too -- I guess it's something like, "no matter how screwed up things are, they can still turn out all right," which is a message we always want to hear.


I actually read this a little while ago, and somehow forgot to mention it. It was a pleasant survey of research on the nature of persuasion, with fifty short chapters, each describing the results of a different study. Since it's been a few months since I read it, I have the luxury of telling you what in it stuck with me:

1) "Social Proof" is very important to people -- that is, if other people are doing it that I feel some association with, it is likely to change my behavior. For example, telling someone that they are the biggest energy waster in their neighborhood is likely to get them to waste less energy. Surprisingly, though, the opposite is true -- telling someone that they are the biggest energy saver in their neighborhood will persuade them to save less energy!

2) Small favors lead to big favors. If someone asks you for a small favor (can you tell me the time?) and then later asks for a large favor (can I have a dollar?) you are more likely to grant the large favor than if the person skipped the small favor first. This appears to be because of a certain kind of rationalizing we do -- "I did a small favor for this person, therefore they must be of some importance to me."

3) There are a lot of Dentists named Dennis. In some creepy data mining, it was determined that one's name exerts some amount of influence on the job that one chooses. Roofers are more likely to have names beginning with "R"., etc. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how egocentric we are. An experiment with persuasive sales letters showed that if the persuader had the same birthdate as the persuadee, the persuadee was more likely to respond positively to the letter.

Wow -- look at all the stuff I remembered! I guess that's a good sign.

In short, it is an excellent book for getting a survey of the psychology of persusasion. It feels too much of a need to end each chapter with a painfully corny joke, but if you can overlook that, it's pretty good.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I really wanted to like this. I mean, it's about quirky people working at an amusement park in the mid-eighties, and in fact it was filmed right here in Pittsburgh at Kennywood Park! Sadly, while it had its moments, I was kind of disappointed. They really didn't capture the mid-eighties very well -- no one looked right. I must admit that Bill Hader was exactly like "Larry M.", a guy I used to have to work for at Riverside Park, but he was just a caricature. What seemed weird was that everyone was too old for the problems they were having. And basically, it was a sappy love story -- I thought it would be more of a comedy. Oh well. It was what it was! At least they got the Musik Express right... man, that thing could make a person want to kill themselves.


Oh MAN. I enjoyed this WAY too much. It is a biography of Bertrand Russell in comic form. Awesomely, there is a meta-level to it, in that parts of it are comics of the comic artists wrestling with the right way to tell this story. The amazon reviews had me not expecting much, so I was a little shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I suppose that is because it is about the tortuously emotional side of math, logic, and philosophy, which has always fascinated and consumed me. I thought the whole thing was clever, interesting, and well told. Parts of it are exaggerated for the purpose of storytelling -- which I endorse because obscuring the truth with mere facts is like putting your light under a bushel. Reading this, I feel close to Bertrand Russell in a way I never thought possible.

Breakfast of Champions

When I was a teenager, I heard people gush about Vonnegut, and so I tried reading some of his books that I found at garage sales. I read Slaughterhouse Five, Player Piano, and a few others, and wasn't too impressed. I wish I instead had read Cat's Cradle (did I really read that before I started this blog?) and Breakfast of Champions. I've seen references to Kilgore Trout in his other novels, but here, we really get to know him, and to understand him. The best part of all is the way Vonnegut writes himself into the novel, playing with levels of reality, but somehow managing not to break them. I guess, in a way, it's funny that I read this and saw Synecdoche around the same time. Stanley Tucci made a very interesting reader for this. I loved his Kilgore Trout voice.

I hear the movie is terrible, and I can't imagine how it could not be.


I continue to be fascinated by Charles Bukowski. I have to admit I was a little disappointed by this book, which has a very different feel from Post Office or Factotum. I guess what was disappointing was that in this book we a different Chinaski -- one who is not free. The Chinaski I'm used to doesn't give a care about much. He drinks, he gambles, he debauches, and he moves on. Not this Chinaski. This one has had some success -- he's not drifting from job to job -- his writing and readings are paying the bills. This Chinaski is imprisoned by women. It's sad to see, but I guess that is the point. It is an interesting study in the differences between what men and women want from a relationship, and a very clear illustration that neither of them actually know. He ends it perfectly... in a way only he could.

Though it was sad to see Chinaski in a cage, it's always nice to visit him.

Born on a Blue Day

This is the autobiography of Daniel Tammet, who is a most unusual individual, in that he has savant syndrome, giving him powers similar to those of Kim Peek, upon whom the film Rain Man was based. The difference with Daniel, though, is that he is not handicapped nearly as much as most of those with savant syndrome, and can actually communicate his methods of performing remarkable feats of mathematics. The book was fascinating, but I was disappointed not to learn more of his methods. Towards the end, in particular, the book really drags, as Daniel gives a great deal of detail of his first time living alone, and the challenges he faced -- very little happens, and he goes into far too much detail for me. I was much more interested in learning about the ways he visualizes numbers (he claims to have a clear visual picture of every number from 1 to 10,000), and the games and imaginary friends that entertained him when he was young. It was also interesting to hear the challenges of language that his extreme Asperger's syndrome confronts him with -- for example, he finds phrases like "He's not tall, he's giant" baffling -- after all, how can a giant not be tall?

I've heard there is a BBC documentary that shows more detail of his mathematical methods -- I have tried to find it online, but haven't had any luck.

One thing that this book spurred me to do -- get a better handle on the calendar. I had a friend when I was a boy who had a touch of savant syndrome, and could easily tell the day of the week for any date. I would ask him how, and he would just say, "I don't know -- I just see a picture of it in my mind." Well, I figured this would be a useful skill, and I came up with a method I've been using. No, it doesn't go back in time very well, but if you want to know the day of the week for any date in the current year (or even next year) it is quite serviceable.

It works this way:
1) Memorize the "zero day" for this year. That is, the day before the first day of this year. So, January 1, 2009 was a Thursday, so the "zero day" for 2009 is a Wednesday.
2) Memorize the "offset table" of days for each month of the year. This is a simple list of numbers: (0, 3, 3, -1, 1, -3, -1, 2, -2, 0, 3, -2) that maps to the months of the year. Some are easy to remember -- "October" is 0, for instance. But really, memorizing that list of 12 numbers isn't very hard.
3) So, if you want to know what day a given date is on, simply divide 7 into the day, add the remainder to the offset, and add that to the "zero day", and you have your date.

For example: Christmas, 2009 is the 25th. 25 / 7 = 3r4. The remainder is 4. Add 4 to December's offset (-2), giving you 2. Add 2 to Wednesday (the zero day), and you get Friday. So, Christmas 2009 is on a Friday. With some practice, I find this pretty easy to do in my head, and I can answer questions about what day of the week a date is on in about 5 seconds. Unfortunately, when you tell people this, they immediately want to test you to see if you know what day of the week they were born on. Somehow, people have the idea that knowing distant days of the week is more useful than knowing upcoming ones. I mean, I can figure out the distant ones -- each year, the zero day creeps forward by one, except in leap years where it creeps forward by two (thus the "leap"), and this creates kind of regular cycles -- but it takes me almost a minute to work out a distant one. I'm sure there are better methods that my crude one for that. But I like my simple method for upcoming months!

Synecdoche, New York

I've been a fan of Charlie Kaufman since I first saw the surreal Being John Malkovich. And earlier this year I saw Adaptation, which I liked a great deal. Synecdoche is the first film he has directed, and wow -- unfiltered Charlie Kaufman is a pretty crazy, intense thing. The premise is that a stage director having a mid-life crisis gets a MacArthur Genius Grant, and uses it to create a play that is a reconstruction of his life in a huge warehouse. The catch is, though, that the play is part of his life, so it too must be reconstructed within the play. And, well, it gets more and more complex from there. It is not a friendly film -- it makes you work to keep up with what is going on. It's message, like the message of almost all mid-life crisis movies, appears to be the Christian message -- the only escape from despair is to help others. At times it was a little too arty for me, but aspects of it were very haunting, and will stay with me for some time. It certainly forced me to confront the relationship between art and artist, and I feel like it gave me some keys to that conundrum that I haven't figured out how to use yet.

More and more I wonder about art and creativity. I used to think that creating a thing for a specific audience was the best and wisest method -- but as I grow older I see more and more that creating a thing for an audience can spoil a thing, and riddle it with compromises, that ultimately make the audience turn away from it. More and more, it becomes clear that the best path is to let a thing you create be true to itself, and to focus on nothing but that. Now, sometimes, part of that involves visualization of the audience interacting with it, or observation of the audience interacting with it -- but that *only* helps in the weird context of helping the created thing be true to itself. This is very hard for me to talk about -- but more and more I think it is the only important part of any creativity. I hope I can find ways to talk about this more clearly.

PS -- Synecdoche (sin-ek-duck-ee) is a greek word meaning "shared understanding", more or less.

Fresh Air: Laughs

So, I was short on audiobooks, and this caught my eye on the library shelf, so I grabbed it. It is a collection of interviews that Terri Gross conducted with comedians. Comedy process is always interesting to me. But here's the weird part -- for me, this ended up being a journey into the nature of memory. When I read the list of comedians interviewed, I thought, "Hey, these sound interesting -- some familiar, some I've never heard of." But when I started listening to the first track, I think it was Al Franken, I realized I'd heard it before. "That's okay", I figured, I haven't heard the rest. But as each track came on, I realized I had heard them before. "Well, maybe," I rationalized, "I only heard the first disk before, and I returned it early for some reason." But, track by track, through the whole thing, each interview became familiar to me ONLY when I heard it. I would look at a name on the box, like Phyllis Diller, or Drew Carey, and tried to recall whether I'd heard it, and if I remembered anything -- and I couldn't. I remembered nothing. But when I started listening to each, I recalled that, oh, yes, I had heard it before. And as I listened, I could not only remember details about what was coming next in the track, but where I was when listening to the track last time, in fact. So, listening to this was a strange experience for me -- and a humbling one -- I am not at all sure I understand the difference between remembering and forgetting.

This strange experience aside, the interviews are excellent, and give great insight to the variety of methods of comedic process.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Here Comes Science

I'm the biggest TMBG nerd in the world, and also I'm a massive nerd in general, so obviously I was psyched about "Here Comes Science." I remember buying the EP of "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas" in 1993, or so, and thinking, "Hey, they should put that song with Mammal, and maybe get some other science songs together, and that'd be pretty cool." Well, Mammal isn't here, but there are a lot of fun songs and videos. I am a Paleontologist and Meet the Elements are my favorites. Kudos to Disney for being brave enough to release an album whose first track is "Science is Real", and makes clear to kids that angels are no more real than unicorns. Or maybe the Disney police just weren't paying attention, or didn't care. Only nerd kids are gonna hear this, anyway. So, feast away, nerd kids!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

I can see why this was popular -- it certainly was a different sort of story, with a different kind of protagonist. It was told so beautifully, and so cleverly, but still in such a simple way. The bar for filmmaking is so very, very high now, it's intimidating!


I had forgotten just how well-made this movie is -- there is not a wasted element throughout the whole thing. It was the first time my daughter had seen it, and she was rapt from beginning to end. It is clear, clever, and never talks down. I hope I can be brave enough to make something like this one day.

Let's Knife

I <3 Shonen Knife! Imagine a Japanese girl band that loves the Ramones, and you pretty much get the idea. And they're right -- the best pot cleaner in the world is specially selected Tortoise Brand.

Freedom of Choice

Yeah, Devo. Devo was the very first band that I followed seriously, starting maybe when I was fourteen. There is an argument to be made that Freedom of Choice was their best album -- not just because of Whip It, but because of under-appreciated songs like Girl U Want, Ton of Luv, and even the title track. It's so weird that being a geek is cool now. I mean, we had geek posers back then, I guess -- the ones who only read the interstitial stories of Godel, Escher, Bach, instead of the whole text.

Yeah, anyway, plastic hats off to Devo -- geek pioneers.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

This book made a huge impression on me. Published in 1985, it is incredibly thoughtful for the time, and both prescient and useful for today. Stuart McMillen gives us an ironically pictorial version of the introduction here. Postman's general premise is that George Orwell's prediction about Big Brother destroying us was wrong, but that Aldous Huxley's prediction that too much entertainment and leisure would destroy us was right. Specifically, he argues that electronic communication plus television have destroyed our ability to think clearly, or to have rational discourse. His arguments are clear and cogent: the telegraph was the beginning of problems, flooding us with information that we mostly don't need, but feel the need to skim constantly. Then the appearance and dominance of television -- a medium dominated by images, but one where ideas are almost absent, or at least not discussed directly, because that's hard to do with images. Combine that with mass-market forces, and you have a recipe for decay of intelligent discourse.

To my surprise, he is not damning entertainment, really -- entertainment is generally honest about what it is, and entertainment has its place. His real wrath is towards "the news", which pretends to be something serious and important, but in reality is mostly a form of mindless entertainment. He argues that if we mindlessly accept this mindless entertainment as "serious discourse", we are in danger of becoming seriously stupid. This really rang true for me, being a news hater for most of my life.

He only has two suggestions, and has little faith in either: the first is that we educate children about the effect that medium has on message, and on discourse. The second is very surprising: parody! He suggests that if someone makes a genuine entertainment program that shows "the news" for what it is, people might have a chance of seeing the truth -- in other words, The Daily Show!

What the book was unable to address was the Internet, which has simultaneously inundated us with thousands of times more information, and also restored text-based discourse into our daily lives. It's quite a conversation to be had about what effect it has on discourse -- I think we're just starting to understand that now. I'm so very pleased that President Obama has been addressing the very issue of discourse lately -- I hope that people do start to take it more seriously.

Anyway, in short, this short book blew my mind, and has made me rearchitect my thoughts about all manner of things regarding media, thought, information, and "discourse" ... a word I seldom have used in the past, but now find myself using every day.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Straight Man

This novel maybe should have been funnier for me, but I think it hit too close to home -- it's about a professor in a small college in western Pennsylvania who is having a mid-life crisis. Throw in the fact that his only real success was the one book he wrote, and he seems unable to write another, and the whole thing is like someone's been spying on me! Anyway, the book is fun and funny, and a very fast read -- it's witty without being glib (ok, not too glib), and it proceeds apace. Despite its many laughs and witticisms, its message of slow decay was kind of dispiriting, I thought. Forget that stuff! I will not go gently into that good night. Well, ask me again in ten years!


Wow -- this was a really wonderful movie. I like fearless movies, and this one was quite fearless indeed. The "What It Is" model of building around your visions was clearly at work here, and it made all the difference in the world. I actually came away from this feeling guilty for not making more of my visions come true -- I spend a lot of time working on other people's visions.

See, there's this whole responsibility thing with visions. It feels like you have to bring them into the world. It has nothing to do with money, at all. Which is the problem because so many of the visions require money to make them a reality. Maybe it is wisest to channel one's visions to things that require little funding, like novels and stories, and graphic art, as opposed to films and simulations. But it is funny, no one ever measures an artists success by how many of their visions they have brought to light. And more visions always come -- the responsibility never seems to end -- there are always visions that never got their chance. This whole thing is really important, and no one ever talks about it: The feeling when the vision comes, and whether it is a responsibility, or not, or what. And the feeling of making it happen, and the feeling when it fails. I'd really like to explore this more deeply.

Anyway, Ponyo got me working on my bird story again -- so thank you, Ponyo!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Minority Report

I should have seen this ages ago, right? Anyway, I finally got around to it, and I liked it more than I expected. Nyra's reaction as we're watching it: "Hey! Is this why the interface on my Macbook is so messed up?" It's funny, I kind of think Phillip K. Dick would have liked this one. I wonder if the money would have changed him?


I'm overdue in posting about this! It was a wonderful project we did at the ETC, funded and organized by the MacArthur Foundation. The idea is this: libraries are in some danger of becoming obsolete. At the same time, there are areas, such as art and technology, where the public schools are failing. So, what if, the libraries could find a way to succeed where the schools are not? We created a space that is a fun, cool hangout, but that has all the tools for digital creativity, and the mentors to get the kids interested, and show them the ropes. We installed it in the Chicago Public Library this summer -- if it succeeds, the hope is that this will be a template for other libraries.

Absolutely everyone we worked with on this, from MacArthur, to the library, to the mentors, to Chicago Scenic Studios was top notch. It was an absolute joy to work on! Keep your fingers crossed for its long term success! You can see a video of it, and get lots of information here.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Talent Code

I really enjoyed this. It's an examination of how skills are learned, and it happens through a combination of talking to coaches at world-class talent hotbeds, and through an examination of our new understanding of how myelin works. The author provides a simple formula to create talent: "deep practice", which is focused, passionate practice at the limits of your ability, combined with "ignition", that is, a believable, crystal clear vision of what you can become if you try, combined with "master coaching." It is really hard to argue with, and is a great book to read alongside "Outliers." It was full of great stories, too. It's made me understand that my method of learning and practicing harmonica is a good one, and how to make it better. It's also got me returning to learning Latin, and justifies the Dowling method, which I'm using now. It even validates some of my teaching methods, and gave me ideas about how to improve them. All around, a good and useful book.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Life Is Still Sweet

This is definitely one of my top favorite albums of all time. I could listen the Watertank song a million, billion times. I wish I could find more music by these guys!

Funny People

Lots of people panned this movie -- but I think that was probably all about expectations. Nyra and I liked it a lot. If you are expecting a comedy, this isn't really your movie. The most amazing part was Adam Sandler playing himself -- I really got the feeling that he might not be too different from the character in this movie -- if that's true, he's incredibly brave to play a role like this. And if he's not like that, then he's a really good actor! Sure, it kind of dragged at the start of the third act, but that didn't bother me somehow -- it gave me more time to spend with the characters.

Apples to Apples Jr.

Like the original game, but easier to play with the whole family! It's amazing how well it works at crossing generation gaps.

Peter Arno's Man in the Shower

More Peter Arno! It's funny how he keeps revisiting the same themes, and finds new ways to make them funny each time. It must be hard to make a living as a cartoonist.

Peter Arno's Cartoon Revue

Peter's characters and situations are almost magical. The characters are so strong and interesting.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I Saw You...

This book is a based on an interesting idea. Julia Wertz put out a call to the comic drawing community to submit comics based on "missed connections" postings on Craig's List. These were new to me -- people posting messages to others that they had seen somewhere, but failed to make the connection they wanted to -- that is, failed to secure a name or phone number. So, they post on Craig's list, hoping that somehow they might be able to have a second chance. There's a kind of poignant sadness in this, which makes for some good storytelling. Mostly, these are funny interpretations of these often bizarre messages, but some are quite sweet.

Anyway, it's a different read, and a fun one.