Sunday, January 25, 2009

As a Man Thinketh

This is a simple book about a straightforward philosophy: If you choose to think good thoughts, you will become good. My favorite passage:
The Vision that you glorify in your mind, the Ideal that you enthrone in your heart—this you will build your life by, this you will become.
The book is available for free download several places online.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I was drawn to this by the song "I (don't know how to) party", which perfectly expresses how I feel in most social situations. My favorite lyrics on the album, though, come from the song "Pascagoula Pawn & Gun":
I had to pawn my gun to buy the bullets
had to sell the bullets to get the gun
one day I'll get them both together
and everybody better run.
Like Shel Silverstein, I think their best songs are the witty ones -- I found it hard to take the serious ones seriously. I am curious what other songs by Jim's Big Ego sound like...

They Might Be Giants

I've been a fan of the band They Might Be Giants for twenty years now -- the very first CD I bought was Lincoln (1988), in fact. I had always wondered, abstractly, where they got their band name. It seems pretty clear they must have gotten it from this movie, or perhaps from the play it was based upon. It is a bizarre story about a man who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes, and his psychiatrist (can you guess her name?) who falls in love with him. A real treat were all the well-known character actors sprinkled through the movie -- but what I really liked was that this was a film true to itself. It just doesn't care about convention, about whether anyone likes it or not. It just is. In that way, it feels a lot more like a play than a movie, and I think that's just fine.

Oh - the title refers to Don Quixote. The lead character says this about Quixote:
Of course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That's insane. But, thinking that they might be...
I can well imagine that Linnell and Flansburgh would have enjoyed this film a great deal. But I wonder -- when would they have seen it? It was released in 1971... they were 11 and 12 when it came out.

I have to admit that seeing the inside of a 1971 Pathmark grocery story was a nostalgic experience for me.

Getting Things Done

This is not a book, it is a religion, and I am a convert. I found it to be different from other time management books, because of its unusual philosophy. Instead of starting with the system, it starts with the goal: to make you feel relaxed and powerful. Everything in the book is about that, really. The book is about creating simple systems of time and task management that keep you from worrying, so that when you want to work, you can work with a "mind like water" and that when you want to rest, you can also do that peacefully. And the systems really work, if you are willing to make the sacrifices they entail. You need to spend about three full days to get started, change certain little daily habits (jot down every "Oh! I have to remember to..." thought, etc.) and then (the hard part) you need to commit two hours every week to reviewing and maintaining your task/project management system.

Every once in a while, I read a book that dramatically changes my life. The last one was Design Your Self, which set me on the road to an organized life. Getting Things Done finishes the job that book started. I've been following the systems for about a month, and the differences have been dramatic for me -- I used to spend a good part of every day overwhelmed -- scared to death that I had forgotten something important. But not anymore -- everything is handled, in neat little containers, and my hundreds of projects are just little tiny tasks that I can do whenever I feel like doing them, with a clear, worry-free mind.

Time will tell if I can keep it up!

Harvard Classics: Week Two

I made it this far! Here is what the second week had to offer:

Jan 8: The Book of Job, pp. 71-87. This marks the third time I've read this. The first was in Mr. Brady's class in 11th grade, the second was from an audiobook. It is a fascinating and thought provoking story -- I love the casual chats between God and Satan -- that happens nowhere else in the bible. But I always wonder if the arguments need to be so long and complicated? I guess if they weren't, it wouldn't have so many layers of meaning. I could read this a hundred more times, and get something new out each time.

Jan 9: Sir Francis Drake Revived, pp. 135-145. Whoa! Now this is a pirate story! Told by a sailor who actually sailed with Drake! I ached to make a videogame about this!

Jan 10: The Bacchae, pp. 368-372. This is my first time reading any Euripides at all. A king versus a god in contest of seduction! This reading is just enough to be intriguing... but I think I would benefit from a more modern translation.

Jan 11: The Federalist, pp 199-207. These are some of the Federalist papers, penned by Alexander Hamilton and friends. They were written between the time the Constitution was proposed, and when it was voted on, and they were persuasive arguments as to why it was a good idea. It's weird to think that there was debate about this. Why don't we have newspaper columns like this anymore?

Jan 12: On Taste, pp. 11-26. Edmund Burke makes arguments about the nature of "good taste." It was pretty dry and straightforward, but what fascinates me is the longer reading that follows: On the Sublime and Beautiful, where he tries to describe all the things that humans find pleasing. Just his talk alone about how "all beautiful things are smooth" was enough to get my mind turning. I hope I can read it soon!

Jan 13: Inquiry on Inequality, pp. 215-228. This is the first time I've read Rousseau. It felt like a very long winded way to explain that men want to be free and equal.

Jan 14: The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, pp. 60-65. This is basically "the first written constitution as a permanent limitation on governmental power, known in history." I liked how simple and straightforward it was, and how weird the spelling.

Well, two weeks down, and I'm into my third!

Our Mr. Sun

I hadn't seen this since Mrs. Jacobus's class in the sixth grade. It's so elegant, layered, clever, and wonderful. I wish that someone would make a modern equivalent of this kind of educational film. Thank you, Frank Capra, thank you, Dr. Research. You made me feel that science was wonderful and worth doing.

Levenger Matchbook Notebooks

As part of reorganizing my life, I am writing down everything little thing that I want or need to do as soon as I think of it. That sounds easy, but what if there isn't a pad handy? I always keep paper in my wallet and a pen on my keychain when I'm out, but at home, in the middle of something (brushing teeth, washing dishes, watching tv, etc.) it is easy to say, "oh, I'll write it down later", which in my case means I'll probably forget. But not anymore. I've hidden these little notepads complete with pencils in every room of my house, so I always, always, always have one handy.

Yes, my family thinks I'm crazy.

Update: Argh! Levenger no longer sells them! If you know where I can find new ones, let me know!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Boom Blox

I really want to like Boom Blox. And, as a strict puzzly kind of game, I do like it. The interface is very clever, and the physics is fun, and the challenges are well constructed. The problem is that, somehow, it just doesn't draw me in. Maybe if it had a story of some kind, I might care a little more? Two other things that drive me away from it -- the sheer number of puzzles feels daunting -- I get the sense that I'll never, ever have the time, patience, or ability to finish. Secondly, the game makes such a big deal about whether you finished "perfectly" or not. Some levels are hard (or maybe impossible?) to finish perfectly, leaving me with one of two feelings: either tarnished by imperfection, or bored with the painful and frustrating task of trying to "perfect" a level. I wonder if it is just me?


Of course I've played Sorry! dozens of times. But this time when I played, I noticed elegant things about it's game structure that make it superior to games like it: It does a lot to balance the game in an interesting way -- the Sorry! card, for example, gives significant power to players who have fallen behind, and no power to players who are getting ready to win. It's the same kind of balance that Mario Kart uses to help ensure exciting reversals. There aren't many choices to make in Sorry!, but the ones you do make are somewhat devilish.

Harvard Classics: Week One

I found a complete set of the 1930 Harvard Classics at a library book sale maybe five years ago for $50. It has long been known as the "five foot shelf of books", and I figured, hey, I've got a five foot shelf that could use some books on it. Turns out the fifty volumes are really six feet long!

The origin of the Harvard Classics is kind of interesting. The president of Harvard University stated in a speech that the elements of a liberal education were available to anyone who would read for fifteen minutes a day from the right five-foot shelf of books. A book publisher approached him with a proposal -- if he could name the books, they'd publish them as a set. And they did a really nice job. The books are well-chosen, despite some strong biases, and are well edited, and pleasant to hold and read.

Now, at first, I was all bold, planning to read them from beginning to end. I stalled out in volume one (Benjamin Franklin's autobiography). However, one cool aspect of the Harvard Classics -- it comes with a "devotional"... that is, a suggestion for fifteen minutes (or so) of reading for each day of the year. I tried to do this in 2007, but got distracted and stopped. But 2009 is my year! So, I figured I would report on my daily reading at the end of each week as a way to help keep me honest. If you are interested in reading them, they are actually in the public domain now, so you can download them from several sources. Without further ado, my first week of reading:

Jan 1: Franklin's Autobiography, pp. 79-85. Hearing Ben Franklin talk in the first person is always interesting. In this section he describes his method of monitoring his virtues my making a chart of them on a whiteboard (made of ivory! He uses red ink for permanent lines, and pencil for things that are erasable). Instead of trying to be virtuous in all ways at once, he focuses on one of each of 13 virtues each week, in an attempt to change his habits gradually. This lets him cycle through all 13 virtues four times each year. I'm reading the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People now, and it is interesting to see the connections from that to this.

Jan 2: Milton's Poems, pp. 7-18. These poems are interesting because he wrote them between the ages of 16 and 19. I was fascinated that I could so easily see such a difference between his poetic ability in this short span of age -- they were both amazing, but there was so much more depth and complexity in the college age poems.

Jan 3: On Friendship by Cicero, pp. 16-26. Nice to hear someone analyze friendship, I guess, but though the structure is like Plato, it felt much more long-winded.

Jan 4: Grimm's Fairy Tales, pp. 83-90. This is the well known story of The Fisherman and his Wife, where the wife makes greedier and greedier wishes, finally wishing to be like God. In the past, I had always assumed that the fish was punishing her for overreaching at the end, but reading it again, I wondered if this was a deeper statement about the nature of God:
"Well, what does she want, then?" said the Flounder. "Alas," said he, "she wants to be like unto God." "Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel." And there they are living still at this very time.
Jan 5: Byron and Goethe, pp. 377-396. This is an essay by Mazzini about similarities and differences between two great writers. It was gorgeous writing, and though some of it was lost on me, the end passage will stay with me:
Certain travellers of the eleventh century relate that they saw at Teneriffe a prodigiously lofty tree, which, from its immense extent of foliage, collected all the vapors of the atmosphere; to discharge them, when its branches were shaken, in a shower of pure and refreshing water. Genius is like this tree, and the mission of criticism whould be to shake the branches. At the present day it more resembles a savage striving to hew down the noble tree to the roots.
Jan 6: Virgil's Aeneid, pp. 109-127. This was the part with Hector's ghost. The translation was in rhyme, and pretty hard for me to follow. I wonder how I would do with a different translation?

Jan 7: The Thousand and One Nights, pp. 5-13. This is the beginning part, setting up the story of Scheherazade. Part of the fun of the thousand and one nights is all the sex and gore, and this lame bowdlerized version is like drinking a virgin daquiri.

I wonder if I can keep this up for 51 more weeks?

Cranium Cadoo

Boy, the Cranium folks sure are cranking out a long string of games! And most of them are pretty good, too! This one certainly is -- it has a fun mix of trivia and charades-like minigames, with some cool gimmicks, and a fascinating tic-tac-toe like scoring system. A great short game for kids. Sure beats the "Go to the Head of the Class" we had to play when I was a kid!


This movie was remarkable! I had no idea Jean Harlow could act so well! Tina Fey must have seen this -- it has so much in common with 30 Rock that it is startling. The movie industry was still relatively young in 1933, and it is amazing how self-aware this picture is. I would call it a backstage comedy, except that (spoiler) it isn't really a comedy! Despite gags throughout, the film is almost like some kind of Alfred Hitchcock story, with surprising revelations, and ending in tragedy. I actually felt kind of sick at the end -- it just didn't seem fair to end it like that -- I can't imagine a modern film ending this way. And weirdly, it seems to be a great deal like Harlow's own life.

Love Is... The Tender Trap

I heard Stacey Kent on the radio, and so I picked up an album. She has a wonderful voice, I think. There is something fresh and alive about it, that I am hard pressed to describe.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Why do I have to hunt through so much garbage to find greatness? One of the main themes of the novel, that all great things are quickly forgotten as the world moves on is well demonstrated by the fact that so few people seem to be aware of the existence of this book. I loved it for several reasons:
  • It is the best telling of the change from carriage to automobile that I have ever heard.
  • It explains why modern cities have run-down mansions in awkward places with a vividness and poignancy that makes me stop whenever I see one in Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh has a lot of them!)
  • It is one of those novels that makes clear that human nature doesn't change. People had all the same failings in 1880 that they do now.
  • The writing is so elegant, and so classy. My favorite phrase in the whole book: "Frustrated, he uttered a significant monosyllable." That's the classiest way to drop the f-bomb I've ever heard! And probably the only way to do it in 1922.
  • It is one of those rare novels where the protagonist is a total and complete jerk -- which makes the ending very difficult to guess, and I have to say I didn't see it coming, not at all.
  • It was a complicated statement about love that will keep me chewing for a long, long time.
Tarkington's writing is so vivid, that I am hesitant to see the Orson Welles movie, for I'm afraid it might interfere with the visions the novel created for me. The reader of the audiobook was excellent, too. I am certainly curious to read other Tarkington novels. The Pulitzer prize this earned is well deserved!

Livin' the Tamagotchi Life

This is a weird board game we've had in the house for a while. At first, I figured it would be a familiar game structure overlaid with some Tamagotchi theming, but it has several unique elements. It breaks the mold of the typical board game in several ways -- the way you can move around the board so freely, the complicated set of minigame goals, the way your character transforms over the course of the game, and most of all the electronic gizmo, which is basically a Pop-o-matic from the future. It made me wonder who designed it -- to my surprise, it was Ideo -- which explains why the game is so unusual, I think.

We had to soften the rules a bit -- there are a lot of ways to lose points, and effectively "die", which might be okay for older kids, but which can be painful for younger ones (it also can make the game really long).

Mr. Big

Reagan brought me this back from Korea. The wrapper says it all: "When you're this big, they call you mister." It was delicious -- like a marshmallow kit-kat with caramel, chocolate and nuts. Thanks Reagan!

Be Kind Rewind

I loved this movie! Okay, sure, it was a little slow, and parts of it didn't make sense or were completely impossible, but I didn't care about that. This was a movie about a community taking culture and history and mashing them up to make it their own. It is a wonderful thought, and a vision for the future of communities. The movie made me feel something I first felt when I saw Le Grand David and that I feel a little of each year during the BVW show... the magic of a group of amateurs getting together and creating something beyond their abilities just for the sake of doing it. Oh! And don't miss the "Passaic Mosaic" DVD extra.

The Droodle

Over Christmas break, I decided to get my life organized, and part of this is "making little notes." As you'll see in an upcoming post, I've adopted the religion of Getting Things Done, and part of that is getting nagging thoughts out of your head as soon as possible, by writing them down. All of them. I usually have four or five important thoughts in the shower, which is really annoying, since I tend to forget at least two of them. So it occurred to me, someone must make a waterproof notepad, right? And they do! And I have to say, it works really, really well. They aren't cheap, and they are hard to buy (you can buy them here, but you have to send an email), but I think they are totally worth it! The paper is totally waterproof, and you write on it with an ordinary pencil. Want to be an eccentric genius? This is a great way to start.

Apples to Apples

I've played this several times, but it pressed itself into service again during our neighborhood New Year's Party. What is remarkable about this game is how "light" it is -- it requires almost no thinking or embarrassment at all, but creates an incredible amount of social lubrication. I don't think I know any game that does this job nearly this well. Ok, maybe Ray Mazza's "The Perfect Present", but even that involves a little reading and thinking -- but it makes up for that with more laughing!

Anyway, I sure wish I had invented this! Although I probably would have said "no -- this is too simple... who would spend $34.99 for this?"

Missing Marble

I got this fun puzzle for Christmas. It is interesting because it has no visual component. A marble is embedded in a block with an internal maze. The challenge is to tilt the block around until the marble comes out. What I found unusual was the experience of gradually forming a mental map of the maze, by listening to, and feeling, the steel ball clicking around inside the obscured wooden maze. I still remember the moment I got a clear picture of how the maze was shaped, and as soon as that happened, I could get the marble out every time.

American Madness

How is it possible that I never saw this? It's so good! Frank Capra is like the Norman Rockwell of Hollywood. This was fun, and sweet, and the bank was so beautiful! And given today's economic situation, the story (a run on a small town bank) is still very relevant. I look forward to seeing this again.

Cartoon Cavalcade

This is another book I found at that weird little bookstore in Ocean City. It's wonderful because it features cartoons from the 1890's all the way to the 1940's. It has a really nice selection of cartoons from a variety of sources. There is a surprising number of cartoons in a relatively slim volume because the book was printed during World War II, when paper shortages were on, so the pages are very, very thin. Anyway, it really made the first part of the 20th century come to life for me. It made me wonder if there are any good anthologies of Gasoline Alley. I'll have to look!

Peanut Butter and Jelly

This is a cute card game for kids. It's simple, fun, and has a big rubber fly. And it comes in a lunchbox! I mean, what more do you need?

Brand Upon The Brain!

I hated this. I really wanted to like it, too. I mean, I really like the idea of a modern silent movie, filmed in a classic style. Unfortunately, the combination of constant camera cuts and disturbing content (torture, murder, nudity, sex, cannibalism, etc.) for no reason other than shock value made the whole thing feel cheap and pointless.

I understand that many of the scenes were from the director's life, and also that the film was meant not to stand on its own, but to be part of a theater experience with live music, singers, and narrator. But still, it just wasn't for me. I will admit that I was fascinated with the use of narration in a silent film. It seemed to be a tool to lead people not familiar with the medium into it, and to add another layer of meaning. But at other times, it was distracting, and made things too "on the nose."

I do hope others experiment with this style, though!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Wow -- this was amazingly good! I had no idea! It must have been amazing to see it when it first was on stage -- at the time, it must have seemed so revolutionary. But it's hilarious, and it still holds up today. I had to watch the scene with the guillotine three times to fully understand how it was shot. So clever!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Homestar Ruiner

This was episode 1 of "Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People", made by Telltale Games. We played it on the Wii. I found it kind of boring playing by myself, but tremendously fun with other people around -- I had forgotten that about adventure games -- especially funny ones! This did a nice job of staying true to the Homestar universe -- though it was tough keeping the comic timing that the Brothers Chaps are so good at... it almost felt like I was having a dream about Strong Bad. I can't decide if I want to play more episodes... maybe next time my brother is in town. We sure laughed hard about Snake Boxer 5! As Strong Bad says, "So much better than the unfortunate Snake Boxer 4: Lady Snake Parade."

So Crazy Japanese Toys

A fun book of photos of toys based on Japanese TV shows and movies. Some are really strange looking. Making toys must be fun -- it's too bad the toy industry is so crazy! I think it would be a really fun art project to hand-make a bunch of wild action figures.

Disney Fairies Magical Flower Garden Game

My daughter got this for Christmas. It has some really fun mechanics! Your fairy travels back and forth from her flower to a central pool. The pool disburses "dewdrops" of different colors, and the color determines how you get back. On top of that, part of the board rotates under player control! When you return to your flower, you deposit the dewdrop (which your fairy pawn actually carries) and it makes your flower bloom a little -- three dewdrops, and it blooms completely, and you win! I wish the icons in the game were clearer, but I think I am going to use this in my class as an example of how to keep game state in a way that strengthens story and aesthetics.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome

This little book is really cute, and pleasantly factual. A wonderful to way to discuss Asperger's with kids, or anyone, really. I've ordered her other books out of curiosity... Can you guess what all dogs have?


This is an interesting Spike Jones collection my brother gave me some time ago. It has a lot of unusual pieces I'd never heard before. It must have been fascinating to see them play live. They seem like they had so much fun!

Zen and the Art of Happiness

I bought this on a whim. I would sum it up like this: "If you can believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, and live in the moment, you will be happy." Which, I guess, is pretty much true.