Saturday, November 27, 2010

Player One

This is the first Douglas Coupland novel I've read. I picked it up on a trip to Boston, as it had the appeal of being "A Novel in Five Hours", which, it took me a moment to realize, is the reading time, not the writing time.

So -- I found it fascinating and engaging, but for me, it kind of jumped the shark when the shotgun came out. Why is there always a shotgun? Nonetheless, it was simple, straightforward, and enjoyable -- I particularly liked the business of seeing the same scenes multiple times from the points of view of different characters.

It has a pleasing surprise at the end, as well -- a thirty-page section called "Future Legend", which is a glossary of terms. Some terms were used in the book, but others are just concepts that the book touched on, and still others are not in the book at all. Almost all of them show Coupland's passion for previously unlabeled psychological phenomena.

Some examples:
Drinking Your Own Spit: That's what it feels like to see yourself on TV. 

Fictive Rest: The common inability of many people to be able to sleep until they have read even the tiniest amount of fiction. Although the element of routine is important at sleep time, reading fiction in bed allows another person's inner voice to hijack one's own, thus relaxing and lubricating the brain for sleep cycles. One booby trap, though: Don't finish  your book before you fall asleep. Doing so miraculously keeps your brain whizzing for hours.

Omniscience Fatigue: The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost any question online.
 Anyway, reading this has certainly made me curious to read some other Coupland novels. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tarbell vol. 2

More amazing writing about magic. The highlight for me is "Lesson 20: How to Please Your Audience." It's worth it's weight in gold. There's a great billiard ball routine in here too (Lesson 29), and some very affordable homemade stage illusions (Lesson 33).

It's a Wonderful Life

I think I like all Frank Capra movies, and how can anyone not like this one? Okay, sure, it was overplayed on TV in the eighties. People call it cornball and sentimental, and it is those things, but of course it also has an attempted suicide, a child beaten til he bleeds from the ear, a bar fight, drunk driving, an implied nude scene, and whatever is going on with Violet. Its relentless illustration of the Christian dilemma makes it hard to ignore, and it is just about the only Christmas movie I know that is about Christianity and little else. It's a tough movie for kids to take -- but I'm pretty sure it's good for them. I remember it being good for me.

Now, we all recognize that this is a classic film, and generally, that this is a family film. So, Paramount home video, what is up with you? You proudly call this the "60th Anniversary Edition" DVD, and have some nice extras on it. But... first you make my family sit through a preview of Last Holiday (2006), which gets a 54% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is rated PG-13, and while the trailer claims it is for "All Audiences", it features phrases like "what the hell" and someone grabbing Queen Latifah's ass. And it isn't like this was one of my many previews on here -- it is the ONLY preview on the disc. Really Paramount? This is your move? Does Mr. Potter own you, too?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Keep It Hid

I was kind of hoping I wouldn't like this Dan Auerbach album, so I could ask for my Dam Auerbach. Anyway, I kind of liked it -- it's sort of a white man's blues kind of thing, that varies from Jimi Hendrix style electric numbers to quiet folky stuff.


Yeah, Labyrinth. I don't know what more to say about this -- it was on my mind after I used the ending in my virtual character talk, so I watched it with the family. This movie is a special landmark because it was one of the last fantasy movies made before 3D CG. It really is very special, a special present from Jim Henson. I don't think we can ever see anything like this again. How pleasing that films tend to stay.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

All Things Considered

No, not the radio show -- rather, a book of essays by G. K. Chesterton. These were not anything particularly special -- he is simply reacting to events of his day, seemingly just to get an article written, in most cases. Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to hear him talk, and to hear him think. I rather enjoyed this passage, part of an essay about the purpose of universities: 
It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play; it is really possible to say the highest things in praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke--that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.
 In all, the text is surely not his finest work, and he admits it. But if you like Chesterton, this is a nice way to spend an afternoon with him. 

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

How could I not like this movie? Just Terry Gilliam + Tom Waits alone was enough to bring me in. And of course, it is, in some sense, a story of Terry Gilliam, on top of that. I wish I understood the marks that Tony had, though -- I feel like I missed something. At first I thought it was some kind of Cain thing, but now I'm sure I don't get it. I surely loved the eerie beauty of this film, and it was nice to see all of Gilliam's favorite things (victorian era theater, little people, magic portals, cutout animation, the devil, rich old ladies, etc.) laid out in such cheerful display. But... what happened to Anton?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Games We Played

A totally different book than this one, I expected this would be the typical collection of photos of 20th century board games, with a few token pics of earlier games. But, to my surprise, it consists entirely of pictures and stories of 19th century games, and to that end it was very enlightening and educational. It is amazing to see how little the game industry has changed -- games still prey on parents' desires to better educate their children, and they still overhype the nature of the play on the cover of the box, and when one good, new, popular idea appears, dozens of ripoffs and sequels naturally follow. The book is enjoyable and enlightening, and it is surprising to realize what dazzling color artwork was possible for mass produced games two centuries ago.

The Sparrow

This was a SNIB (Schell games Non-Intellectual Book club) reading a few months back. It is definitely one of the most unusual science fiction books I've ever read. It has a distinctly feminine perspective, though most of the characters are male. It is quite interesting to put it side by side with another recent SNIB reading, The Left Hand of Darkness.

Some spoilers below. 

At first, I couldn't relate to this book, or any characters in it. But gradually, they began to grow on me. Soon, it was really a book about characters, and not so much about events. The events are incredibly bizarre, and I found myself grinding my teeth in frustration at the unrealistic actions and reactions the characters were having to events. Like, you spend a year traveling to a distant planet, and when you get there, you don't bother to attempt radio communication with the inhabitants, who you know have radio communication. You just put down and land. But, I understood -- if the characters acted with any common sense, the peculiar story would not have been able to happen, and the point of the story is to question our relationship with God and the universe, I guess.

So, in short, this is, without a doubt, the best book I've ever read about a priest getting sodomized by aliens.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society

I had been hearing recommendations about this book for ages, but finally got around to reading it. It really did a great job of sweeping me away -- I found myself deeply curious about what would happen. The book really captures what it feels like to be a smart kid, trapped in a situation where powerful people are doing stupid things. When I was a kid, the closest we had was A Wrinkle in Time, which, I'm just gonna say, starts strong, and gets cornier as it progresses. I believe that college kids in the year 2018 will connect over their shared nostalgia for how this book made them feel less alone when they were in the fifth grade.

I imagine there will be a movie, and I imagine that it will be disappointing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nanny McPhee Returns

We saw this in the theater, and I was surprised at how classy it was. It was a simple, sweet movie, perfect for kids. Another great example of a film made mostly by women.

Friday, November 5, 2010

9 to 5

When I was a kid, I loved this movie. I think maybe I just love Lily Tomlin. When I happened to see it on, I wondered if it would still hold up for me. I found myself absolutely amazed at how efficiently it was structured -- every moment contributes to multiple meanings and purposes, there is hardly a wasted word in the whole script. I could watch this again and again, just like I did when I was a kid! I had to wonder who wrote this? And who directed it? And the answer is Colin Higgins, with co-writing by Patricia Resnick. So, who is Colin Higgins? Well, he's the director of Foul Play, Silver Streak, as well, and he wrote Harold and Maude -- so, it turns out a lot of seventies movies came from him -- so where did he go? Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1988 when he was only 47. Bummer. But at least we still have his films!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Way Toys Work

This is a cool little book by a couple of guys who dissected various toys, like super soakers, the magic 8 ball, the etch a sketch, etc., and they layout the mechanical construction and principles of physics and chemistry that make these toys work, with a little history added into the mix as well, and some tips about how to make some of these toys yourself. Did you know newspapers have changed their ink formula in a way that means silly putty doesn't work with them anymore? No wonder they are going out of business!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Go Figure!

This is just a book of data -- weather data, how to keep score at bowling, how many drinks make you legally drunk, efficiency of different home heating methods, etc., etc., etc. It's kind of interesting... but also kind of boring. It's the kind of book that would have been handy to have around pre-Internet... but now, well, it's fun to thumb through.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Handbook of Artificial Intelligence

Man. I've been lugging these three big volumes around since I bought them at Johnson's Books in Springfield, MA in 1989. Finally I finished reading them! They basically form a survey of the most interesting Artificial Intelligence software before 1981, which makes them of meaningful historical import. It's kind of sad to see how little the field has managed to advance in the last 30 years, though. Like many foolish coders, I've long had a vision of how to code up an intelligent entity... I wonder if I'll ever get around to it?

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Oh, man, I love this movie, I don't care what Lee Sheldon says. I still remember watching it at the Denville theater with Steve Massuli when it first came out. I know of no other film that captures the magic of Greek mythology this completely. I watched it with my daughter, who was mostly fascinated, and who got SO VERY ANGRY at the cruel Calibos. This brought back a memory, and a strange realization. One of my good friends as a child had some eccentric habits, and had trouble connecting with other kids. He loved to memorize stories, plots, and dialog from fantasy adventure shows he saw on TV and at the movies. When we played Dungeons and Dragons together, his character was a thief, who he named Calibos. This always seemed a little strange to me, since Calibos was such a villainous character. But... thinking about it now, I wonder if there was more of a connection than I realized. Calibos is an outcast due to his deformity, living in the swamp, harboring rage at the world and the Gods because of how they made him. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but maybe my friend related more to Calibos than I could see when I was just a boy.

Best moment watching the movie with Emma -- at the end, when the Medusa head makes the mighty Kraken turn to stone, and then crack and crumble, she smirked and said, "Oh -- *that's* why they call him the "crackin'!"

Monday, September 6, 2010


I was fortunate to be able to take a tour of the Hasbro factory, and I picked this up in the store. It was a game I had long wanted, but somehow never picked it up. I was surprised by the strange game mechanics it contains. It is a variation on Pachisi, or Sorry!, but with a strange two-level shortcut system in the middle. This system is what gives the game its decisions and strategy -- and when all the players are good at this part of it, it makes a very exciting game indeed! This edition is kind of cheap and cardboardy (it was only $6, so that's okay), but I may seek out an older, sturdier edition.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Imagineering Workout

I read this in preparation for this year's Building Virtual Worlds class -- I've picked through it many times before, but never read it cover to cover. What is great about this book is the sheer number of different perspectives on creativity. I only could remember a few after reading it, but then I realized they were the ones I needed most right now. We may do an assignment where we ask the students to pick out which exercise they find most useful.

Of course, the best part about it is the stuff that Mk Haley (my partner in BVW) contributed! :)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tarbell vol. 1

To celebrate the new arrival of The Cuckoo's Nest right across the street from Schell Games, I did something I've wanted to do for 25 years... I bought the Tarbell Course in Magic. And it is even better than I would have imagined! His descriptions are so clear, his illustrations are the best I've ever seen, and his blend of theory and practice makes the books a joy to read. Volume One has some great stuff about the history of magic, and clear ways to get started with coin tricks, thumb tip tricks, and a bunch of other great basics. I've always been a terrible magician, but with these books, I'm starting to see the path forward.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Exploratorium

I'd heard it was the original and best, and wow, it sure is! It was so unlike most science museums, because it tries to teach so little! It just has dozens, if not hundreds, of interesting things you can play with. Only some of them, the newest ones, try to explain themselves. It is a museum of meaningful interaction, not of words or ideas. I can't believe more places haven't emulated it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Monterey Bay Aquarium

We'd seen this place on a Nature special recently, and since we were in SF, we figured we might as well go. It was amazing! Definitely the most beautiful aquarium I'd ever seen. The collection of seahorses alone made it worth the trip, and I could look at the goings on in the million gallon tank for hours.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

I've been to SF many times, but never got a chance to see this place from the inside. It was pretty great -- they had a nice collection. I was also impressed with their kiosk stuff for kids -- it really let kids explore the works of the museum in interesting, thoughtful, interactive ways.

I like any museum where you walk through and say, "That looks like something Magritte would paint... oh wait... Magritte did paint that."

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Courtship of Andy Hardy

When I was a kid I wanted to be Andy Hardy so much! He had a car, went on these fun dates, and he was so super confident! I've never heard anyone mention the idea that Happy Days seems to be modeled pretty closely on the Andy Hardy movies... but, really, the advice giving Dad, the Mom overwhelmed by teen culture, the sister who wants to go out with older boys, etc., etc. Mickey Rooney sure has had a heck of a life!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Finite and Infinite Games

This book was very meaningful to me, and very thought provoking. The primary focus of the book is that every activity in life can be approached one of two ways -- as a "finite game," that can be won or lost, achieved or failed, or as an "infinite game", which one plays because it is enjoyable to play it. I touch on this some in my book, and in fact, in the chapter where I discuss what we mean by "game", I quote Carse, even though I'd only read the first few chapters of the book, it was enough to help guide me. I would love to talk in detail about everything he presents, but honestly, I'm not sure I can -- what he presents is simmering away inside me, in some non-verbal way. I just listened to Carse's Long Now talk, which was interesting, but I don't feel like it gave me much more enlightenment. I have the feeling this is a book he brought over from the proto-world, and he probably does not understand it completely himself. I do feel certain that the relationship between our attitude about play and games relates powerfully to the nature of tranquility, which you might recall from here as being central to the meaning of life. I think the missing link is probably harmony, the secret to which I suspect is locked in Christopher Alexander's later books... I wish I could read them properly -- all my attempts have paralyzed my mind with thought. Perhaps I'm almost ready. I do hope I can comprehend this relationship during my lifetime.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ramona and Beezus

This movie is a valentine to Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, and I was very pleased that they didn't feel they needed to tell everything -- there were plenty of little things that were drawn from the stories, but didn't need to be front and center. What was most surprising to me was that the primary plotline was about the adults in the story. Interestingly, that didn't really seem inappropriate, or out of place. I haven't read the last two books of the series, perhaps those stories derive from there, I'm not sure. But I do know this -- this movie has something very unusual -- female writers, directors, and producers -- and it really shows. There is a feminine sensibility about the whole thing that fits the world of Ramona like a glove. In short, it was very pleasing to get one more chance to visit Klickitat Street.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Rational Optimist

This was a seriously paradigm-shifting book for me. I loved it, because it resonated with many of my own personal beliefs and observations. The premise is that, contrary to almost everything everyone ever says, the human situation keeps getting better with time. All of our human problems, pain, suffering, hunger, war, poverty, pollution, etc., have been getting better for centuries, and will continue to get better for centuries to come. This is a very unpopular viewpoint -- people seem somehow comforted by the idea that the world is going to hell, and are made uncomfortable by the idea that things are getting better.

The book is intensely thorough, and does more than just present data -- it attempts to uncover the forces that are at work making things better, starting with the question of why we have it so much better than the other animals. The answer, Ridley explains, is trade. We are the only animal that trades. Other animals give and take, and use tools, but none of them trade. He even shows interesting evidence that this is what allowed us to kill all the Neanderthals -- they couldn't trade and specialize, and we could. He goes farther, suggesting that our differences in gender roles are probably what got this started.

I found this an incredibly thought provoking book, and it gave me great tools for thinking about the future -- I recommend it highly.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


This weird game is really fun, because it has a strange ruleset. I expected the goal was "add blocks, but don't make it tip!" But that's not it at all. To start, you split up the blocks between the two players. On your turn, you keep adding blocks until it does tip -- and your opponent gets any blocks that fall off! The winner is the first one to get rid of all their blocks. So, your goal is to make it tip as dramatically as possible -- which calls for a lot of thinking, experimentation, and some some surprising strategies. Definitely a quick, fun, different kind of game!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget

I purchased this because I liked that it seemed short, and appeared to have an unusual point. Also, as an aging VR nerd myself, I was kind of wondering what Jaron Lanier was up to. And though it was blessedly short, I found it somewhat disappointing. The book is something of an anti-web2.0 rant. Jaron makes a few tangentially connected arguments:

Jaron's first argument: Web 2.0 is full of templates, and templates diminish creativity, therefore web 2.0 diminishes creativity. This argument seems ridiculous to me, for several reasons. First of all, it is not at all obvious to me that templates diminish creativity -- often, figuring out what you can do in a limited pallet forces one to be much more creative than when you have a plenitude of choices. It's kind of like arguing that musical instruments limit creativity, since they only make certain sounds. Secondly, web 2.0 templates are not very limited, and there seems to be a boundless supply of different ones, and you can always make new ones, if the old ones don't suit you. Third, people on the internet share so much more creative now than they did before, so I have to think that the new templates are helping.

Jaron's second argument: When people give away content for free, it sends a message that the content is not worth anything. He is not talking about stolen content here, he is talking about anything you create and share on the Internet at all. If you write a song, or a joke, or make a short film, and give it away for free, you are hurting the pocketbooks of all content creators, he argues. He gripes that it is intensely frustrating that there is no way to sell digital content for money on the Internet, an argument that struck me as strange considering I paid him $9.99 for the privilege of reading that argument on the Kindle. He suggests that existing piracy problems can be solved with a simple system whereby it is illegal to "own" any content, but that rather you pay to access it in a streaming way. He handwaves the technological challenges (what if you are off the net, etc.) saying they can be solved easily(??). Copyright and how to pay for content are complicated issues, I grant you -- but I have a hard time with the idea that when some people choose to share what they make, it hurts everyone.

Jaron's third argument: Music has hit a plateau of creativity -- it all has sounded the same for the last twenty years, because technology has stifled creativity. I find this a thoughtful observation, but I can't agree with the conclusion. I find that if you look at the history of music, the changes in musical style are largely driven by technology. The 20th century saw an unprecedented evolution of music as technologies changed, giving nearly each decade very distinct sounds. Unfortunately, we seem to be reaching a kind of technological limit of music -- now that we can make any sound, and modulate it any way we want, how can technology continue to drive style? T-Pain's autotuning may be our last tech-driven musical innovation (though I hope that is not true). I guess I feel like 20th century musicians had it easy... they could lean back on new technology for their innovation. 21st century musicians will actually have to innovate their music, not their technology. Jaron then does a rant about the problem is that everyone is stuck in the past -- they need to look to the future, instead. Weirdly, he seems to prove his point by then talking about the greatest VR experience he ever worked on, and yes, it's that dancing lobster from the 80's. So, he's arguing that people should stop pulling inspiration from the past, unless it's from the stuff he worked on, I think.

So, my gripes with the book are that it feels ego-driven, that it makes weakly supported, contradictory arguments, and that it seems to lack a central point. The point is supposed to be that we should be more creative than the machines will let us, but when we do occasionally bump into that point, it feels as if it were by accident.

On the other hand, I have to admit I found the book very provocative. I didn't agree with many of his points and arguments, but I had to stop and think about why I felt that way. Without a doubt, reading it channeled my thinking into interesting avenues I never would have gone down if I hadn't read it, and I continue find my thoughts returning to unanswered questions that the book provoked. And it's short.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Valley of Decision

How could I not love this? Greer Garson and Gregory Peck in 19th century Pittsburgh? It's like Upstairs, Downstairs with steel mills. And Lionel Barrymore, too!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Terror Train

Wait, are you kidding me? HOW did I not know this movie existed? Jamie Lee Curtis and David Copperfield together again for the first time! See, there's a frat party on a train, right? We've all been to those. And of course, they hired a magician. I mean, what's a frat party without a magician? And then of course, people start getting brutally murdered. But no one stops the train or anything... or even the magic show. Anyway, this is an 80's classique!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mary and Max

This DVD was a gift from the inimitable Lisa Brown. It is a magnificent telling, via elaborate stop-motion animation, the strange true story of a lonely little girl in Australia who starts an unusual long-term friendship by writing a pen-pal letter to a random address in New York City, which turns out to be the apartment of a grown man, who lives alone, and struggles with a severe case of Asperger's syndrome. The story manages to be both charming and disturbing, as it probes the true nature of friendship, and what it is that we need from each other. I find myself very much haunted by it, as I think about my own strange hobbies, and the local and long-distance relationships in my own life.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mental Notes

I'm an avid follower of creativity cards, having produced my own set. Mental Notes is an attempt to lay out principles of psychology that might be useful for web design. You can use them for other things, of course, but there is a bias here towards web design in the detailed descriptions. The Mental Notes deck gave me a lot to think about, because I had, at one point, a plan to create a sequel to my Art of Game Design book, entitled The Psychology of Game Design. Similar to Mental Notes, the idea was to connect various ideas from the world of psychology to game design. Unfortunately, the more I worked on it, the more it felt like an encyclopedia, or maybe I should say, it felt like a deck of cards -- many random principles, but little that built up into anything significant or meaningful, and ultimately I abandoned, or at least set aside, the project. This deck suffers a little from the same problems -- I kind of wish its principles were a little more organized into suits, or some such, and like many survey treatments of psychology, it feels like important things have been missed. That said, it does seem like a useful set of "lenses" to flip through on a project, and you are sure to pick up some meaningful ideas and turns of phrase along the way. And the box is super attractive, so it makes a very nice gift for any designer. You can buy them here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Despicable Me

I wasn't sure at all what to expect from this -- and I found it totally delightful! I wonder what it is with comical mad scientists nowadays? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, Megamind, and this, as well. Really, the movie is about the tension between achievement and being a parent, which is something I think everyone can relate to, because we've all experienced it, or been close to someone who has. I saw it in 2D, and felt like I didn't miss much. It can be difficult to make a villain we can sympathize with, and Gru is just that. Casting Julie Andrews as his mother was a brilliant touch of irony, as well. I really liked everything about this.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Raw Shark Texts

This was a recent Schell Games book club reading, that I think I would never have found otherwise. People who saw me reading it kept asking what it is about, and it certainly is hard to describe! It's a strange amnesia-adventure novel that revolves around the idea that the world of words is unexpectedly tangible, and that life forms made of words, concepts, and ideas are around us, and interacting with us, all the time. To make clear the point, the text makes use of clever typography -- I can't imagine that an audiobook would make much sense. I'd be hesitant to even try this on the kindle. Anyway, I wished it had more dimension to it, but it was inventive, novel, and fun, and it made me think a bit about the relationship between life, text, and ideas.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mary Poppins

Everybody loves Mary Poppins -- I've easily seen it a dozen times. This was the first time seeing it with my daughter, who, of course, found it delightful. Every time I see it I notice something new. This time it really got me thinking about the fact that Mary's plan, all along, had been to engineer a situation where Mr. Banks would connect with the children -- somehow, this never sunk in with me before. Mary's standoffish attitude always makes me wonder what the best attitude for a teacher really is -- should one make genuine connections with students, or is an air of detached authority more useful? The movie is very good at raising questions... my daughter got to thinking during the film, and asked me, "Do all daddies have secret troubles?" and was surprised to learn that yes, yes, they do.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Good Poems for Hard Times

A collection of poems selected and arranged by Garrison Keillor. It is what you might expect from Keillor -- a collection of intimate, poignant poems, tending toward realism, carefully selected and thoughtfully arranged. Some are classics, others are from modern poets. I often find books of poems are a challenge to get through, but I found this one something of a delight, good for slow reading on a Sunday afternoon. And at the end, there are short biographies and simple quotes from each poet, giving the poets a kind of respect they do not typically get from a collection. Short poems are often my favorites -- here is a silly one about technology that I committed to memory:
Carnation Milk 
by Anonymous
Carnation Milk is the best in the land
Here I sit with a can in my hand--
No tits to pull, no hay to pitch,
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.
 I actually finished reading this book some time ago -- I had the idea that if I blogged about it, I could part with the book... but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps if I read it again...

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

This is a cute book of inspirational quotations that I found in the BALTIC gift shop. I noticed it right away, because the day before a T-Shirt with the same image as the cover caught my eye, and I wondered what it was about. Apparently, the British Government's Ministry of Information created posters with this slogan in 1939, and printed two and half million of them, to be deployed if German invasion became imminent. Fortunately, it did not, and the posters were never used. Decades later, a bookseller bought some at auction, and liked them so much he started selling copies at his shop, and it became a bit of a British fad.

Anyway, the quotes are nothing terribly special, but the book is short, pleasing to read, and looks nice on the coffee table. Some favorites:
The best way out is always through. -- Robert Frost
The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief. -- William Shakespeare
The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one. -- Elbert Hubbard
Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. -- Voltaire

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Game-based Marketing

This book, by Gabe Zichermann and Joselin Linder, is meant as a introduction to the idea of using game mechanics as marketing tools, and it does an admirable job of introducing the idea, and examining many examples. As a game designer, I wished there were more details about what really works (for example -- what are best practices for giving out airline miles? Why?) and a bit less speculation about what might work. Personally, I'm always interested in the lessons from real examples, because so many of the ideas we come up with have some fatal flaw that was not obvious until we tried to deploy the game. Oh -- and the authors insist on calling the use of game mechanics in marketing "funware", a phrase that I find inappropriate partly because not all games are designed to be "fun" (some are merely meant to be challenging, compelling, or engaging), and partly because the "ware" part of it implies some kind of tangible mechanism, a la "hardware" or "software", when often these games are simple sets of rules. But that's just me quibbling.

Anyway -- in short, the book is a good introduction to spark your imagination, but if you are looking for details about best practices for implementing games for marketing and advertising, you'll need to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

And just over the Millennium Bridge (cool!) from Newcastle is the Baltic Art Centre in Gateshead. It is a simple, fun, contemporary art museum. It had a whole floor in tribute to John Cage, with a mix of his visual and audio work, but its most striking exhibit was "Doubtful Sound" by Cornelia Parker, which took up almost a whole floor by itself! It is exhibited marvelously, so you can look at it from a balcony, but then you can also examine the crushed instruments up close - it was an exciting experience.

But what captured my daughter's interest the most was a curious contraption in the back of the children's area -- a simple triangular cylinder that is mirrored on the inside, and is large enough to crawl into. She found it endlessly entertaining -- I'm tempted to try to build one at home.

Oh -- and the baked potatoes in the cafe were amazing!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Newcastle Keep

While we were in Newcastle for GameHorizon, we did some sightseeing. And part of that was creeping around in the castle that gives Newcastle its name. It's not the fanciest castle, but it's very interesting to creep around in. It really gives one a feeling that living in the dark ages must have been pretty crummy, even for a king. It has a great view, though, which is the point, I guess - you need to see those Scots creeping up on you. Interesting notes about it: They say not to close your eyes when you walk through the attached "Black Gate", because you might suddenly wake up in medieval England through some Twainian mechanism. Secondly, the crenelations on top of the castle were added around 1800, by someone who thought the castle didn't look "castly" enough. Authenticity, indeed.

Monday, July 26, 2010

GameHorizon 2010

When was invited to speak at GameHorizon, I jumped at the chance. It was a very interesting conference, very intimate, and very high quality. There were some great talks, but for me the highlight was to hear Michael Acton Smith tell the surprising story of Moshi Monsters, which has so many twists and turns, and ended up so happily, it gave me a lot of confidence about my current projects. I also got to chat with Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop, pictured), which led me to the realization that there are two Steve Jacksons in the gaming world -- one British, one American -- all this time I thought it was one hyper-productive guy!

Anyway, it was a pleasure to attend Game Horizon, and the organizers were incredibly, uh, organized! They made visiting a real pleasure.

And I think my talk came off okay. There's a summary here, and you can download the slides here. I hope they release a video soon.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Left Hand of Darkness

This was a recent SNIB (Schell Games Non-Intellectual Book Club) reading, and I really enjoyed it. I found it hard to get into at first, partly because of all the weird vocabulary. But once I was in, I found it very compelling. Previously, I had only read Le Guin's lesser books (she's written A LOT of books, some of them are going to be lesser), and I always wondered why she was held in such high esteem. Now I know! This is a story set on a world in perpetual winter, about a people who are mostly androgynous. I say mostly, because at mating time (about once a month) they suddenly take on male or female characteristics at random. It is possible for one of these individuals to be both mother and father of different children, at different times in their life, in other words. The book ends up being a subtle exploration of the relationship between gender and identity. And the parallel to the ice world is hard to ignore -- almost as if the sexuality of these people are buried under ice, only emerging for brief periods of thaw.

Taking that metaphor even further, the book itself feels kind of like it is made of ice. On the surface, it is a hard, slow story, but something hidden burns within. I have to imagine even the author doesn't know all the mysteries that reside here. It very much has the feel of a book written by the subconscious. And though it is mysterious, it is very consistent -- Le Guin creates an incredibly solid world. When it was over, it was hard for me to imagine that "kemmer", "shifgrethor", and other concepts were just part of this story -- the world became real, and I didn't want to let it go.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Toy Story 3

Because of my work on Toy Story Mania, I got to see this about six months back, when it was only partly done. It was exciting to see it finished! When it was partly done, there were a lot of scenes I wondered about -- how would they render that tortilla Mr. Potato Head? How about the garbage, or the furnace? And of course, they pulled it all off brilliantly. This is definitely the darkest of the three films. After we saw it, at home, my daughter said to me, "Daddy, remember how I got to hug Lotso when we were at Disneyworld this year?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I'm kind of sorry I did that."

Friday, July 23, 2010

ARE 2010

I was incredibly honored to be asked to keynote the ARE2010 conference alongside Will Wright and Bruce Sterling. Highlights for me were getting a chance to talk to those guys, and also getting to meet Rudy Rucker! I had a weird moment where I asked Rudy if he'd heard the announcement Japan has made that they are going to create an outpost of autonomous robots on the moon in 2020, and he just smiled and said, "No, I hadn't heard that." (See, that's the premise of Software, maybe his best known book.)

Anyway, the conference was really cool. I learned a lot about what is going on in the AR world. It really had a feeling like we were at the beginning of something great, like we'd look back one day at that modest gathering, and shake our heads at how naive we were. A bunch of us went out for dinner at the end, and placed bets about how many years this conference will last -- will there be an ARE2020? Most people said 3-5 years... but I don't know... I think that maybe it could go much, much longer.

You can see (crude) recordings of the keynote speeches here: I was really proud at how my talk came off... with one regret -- I had a poem I was going to read to set up the ending, but I was nervous that it would come off corny, or make me go over time. Looking back, I wish I had done it. I hope one day I get a chance to give this talk again.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"X" The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

This is one of my all-time favorite movies, a Roger Corman classic. As I was prepping my talk for the ARE2010 conference, it kept coming to mind, so I sat down and watched the whole thing (on the plane on the way to the conference), and it proved to be the anchor for the whole talk! For such a goofy movie, it has surprisingly deep implications. I wonder what else its screenwriter has written?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Toy Story 2

This was the first time my daughter had seen it, in our ramp up to Toy Story 3. She really enjoyed it. Man, that Sarah McLachlan song makes me cry every time. The idea of toys as a metaphor for parents is subtle and clever. I honestly do think it is a better movie than the orginal. I hear tell that they originally had planned to do a 2D direct to DVD release of this movie, but the script ended up so strong, they changed their minds.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I love time travel stories, and this unusual one was suggested to me by Kyle Gabler. It's got a very unusual premise -- kind of a Groundhog Day that takes the entirety of your life. I had mixed feelings on the book, though -- it had some great thinking in it, and it occasionally rises to some meaningful philosophical questions, but at the same time, I felt like it had a lot of filler -- long story arcs that didn't really mean much, or go anywhere. And if there is one that that drives me COMPLETELY CRAZY, it is when people in paranormal stories don't think through their situations. There are times when the characters had 10 or 20 years to prepare for a certain event, and when it happened, they were like, "Doh! It didn't occur to me that *this* would happen!" Which was irksome to me because I only had 30 minutes to think about it, and I saw it coming, because it was pretty obvious.

In short, this was one of the rare times I was sorry it was an audiobook, because I would have been doing a lot of skimming. And yet -- I have to admit it made me think.

Weirdly, the audiobook has the same narrator as Anathem. He must really like long books about parallel universes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Great Games for Big Activity Balls

The mighty powers of Todd Strong and Bernie DeKoven unite! And they made this really fun book for phys ed teachers about games and activities you can play with giant balls. It's a great book with practical advice about obtaining and maintaining giant balls as well as deciding which ones to get and why. It's full of great games, and each is described taking into account the psychology of kids -- what games are best to start with, when the kids are all excited just to experiment with the balls -- which games are most likely to lead to hurt feelings, and how to handle that. And they are very mindful of safety considerations, as well.  If you want to play games with giant balls (and who doesn't -- they're super fun!) this is the authoritative book on the topic.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Scrabble Slam

I learned about this super cute card game after I got a chance to visit Hasbro. Apparently it's been a big seller for them. It's cute, fun, and really fast. Average game takes maybe five minutes to play. One player lays out a word, and the other players then, in a free-for-all, overlay that word with other letters that also make words -- turning "fern" into "tern" into "term", etc. The cards are weirdly two sided, so that you have more letters, and it makes for more frantic fun. Simple, cute, and a smart way to extend the scrabble brand.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Wow. This was a LONG book. And I did it on audiobook. It was, what, 27 CDs, I think. And, at the end of all that, I'm still uncertain how I feel about it. Without a doubt, I loved parts of it. The whole idea of mathematical monks living in a monastery, the concept of layers of monks, some of whom can only see the outside world once a year, some every ten years, some every hundred years, and some every thousand, that was all cool and fun. Really, what I enjoyed most was hearing the traditions of the monks, and why they were that way. One that really gave me pause was a tradition where every junior monk was assigned to a senior monk, and was to attend to their needs at meals. The idea being that this gave the juniors a chance to overhear and discuss (in the kitchen) what the elders were talking about. I often think about how I wish my students were able to overhear faculty conversations in this way.

So... for all the cool stuff I liked, there was maybe an equal part that made me roll my eyes. Action scenes in the arctic, in space, basically, all the action scenes I could have done without. And Neal Stephenson has this other habit that drives me crazy -- he goes into great detail about some small thing that isn't very interesting in itself, but also plays no role in the overall story whatever... and I look back thinking, "why in the world did you spend time talking about that?!" Historical battle recreation with weeds, I'm looking at you!

Anyway... this was thoughtful, imaginative, and fun, with lots of interesting surprises. It's all told first person, too, which makes for an interesting novel - more interesting, in some ways. When it was over, I was kind of sad - because I liked the world he crafted, and I realized there'd be no going back. In the end, I was really surprised to realize what a solid, compelling world he had created.