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.