Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Spine

Definitely one of my favorite TMBG albums -- I brought it out because I wanted to hear Museum of Idiots again. Wearing a Raincoat is probably my favorite song on the album.

Strategic Grill Locations

And here, finally, is Mitch's first CD. I wish he had more than just the three. He was so smart and clever, and had so much promise. Who else could come up with silly, simple jokes like "I haven't slept for ten days -- because that would be too long." Other jokes are eerie portents: “A girl came up to me and asked, ‘Why do you drink red wine, doesn’t it give you a headache?’ I said, Yeah eventually! But the first and the middle part are amazing. I’m not going to stop doing something for what happens in the end. ‘Mitch you want an apple?’ No, eventually it will be a core!”

Bah. Come back to us, Mitch.

Mitch All Together

This is Mitch's second CD, and it comes with a DVD as well, which is actually completely different material from what is on the CD. The CD and DVD seem such an interesting contrast -- on the CD, he seems so at ease, so comfortable. But on the DVD he is clearly very uncomfortable, to the point that it kind of spoils the performance.

So many great jokes on here. I think this is probably the strongest of his CD's.

Do You Believe In Gosh?

I finally got around to finding some Mitch Hedberg CD's -- I always found him a fascinating comedian. There is something about his combination of innocence and intensity that makes him more than just funny -- he seems like a guy it would be fun to hang out with. Zippy the Pinhead says that comedy is the unity of opposites, and Mitch Hedberg is a perfect example -- a cool, stoner character who stands up telling corny one-liners like Henny Youngman. Part of his charm is that he never seems comfortable onstage -- he always seems nervous, like he doesn't belong there. But on the other hand, you can tell that he thinks a lot about to how best present his material. "A comedian has to start strong and finish strong. You can't be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but by the end you're sick of them."

This album was released shortly after his tragic drug overdose. I keep wondering ... was his drug use just recreational, or was it related to his insecurity? Or was the insecurity all an act? Or was it all one inseparable package? All I know is, it sucks that you left us, Mitch. We miss you.

Classics of American Literature, Part I

This lecture series (seven parts, twelve lectures each) is surprisingly enjoyable. I like literature a lot, but often lectures about it are dull, or overly pedantic. Professor Weinstein makes his topics very interesting, even if you haven't read the works he is discussing. In the first set of 12 lectures, he covered Franklin, Irving, Poe, Emerson, and Thoreau. While I've read a lot of Franklin, Poe, and Thoreau, I never read much of Irving or Emerson -- and I must admit that I am intrigued to read Emerson now. In a lot of ways, he really seems like America's first real philosopher. Anyway, I'm already into Part II of this series, and I'm glad there are so many more to look forward to!

The Game of Sunken Places

I bought this at the Scholastic Store a couple years back -- but only got around to reading it recently. It was simple and fun. It is interesting to compare the works of M. T. Anderson and Daniel Pinkwater. They both write irreverent stories of magical worlds that contain deep topics, and personal exploration. But one difference I can't help noting -- Anderson's stories seem to center around friends, whereas Pinkwater's normally have protagonists that are loners.

Anyway, this was charming and fun. And I'm pleased to say that the twist at the end caught me totally off guard! It is interesting that it is a rewrite of something Anderson wrote as a teenager! I learned this from the "AfterWords" section at the end of the book, which is something like DVD extras for a book -- an interesting idea. I wonder if it will catch on?

It could be a movie... I bet it has already been optioned... but I wonder if it will become one? The right director could make it a masterpiece.

If I Had a Million

I saw this movie last when I was maybe nine or ten years old, and it made a huge impression on me. I think it's safe to say I've thought about it every few months for my whole life. It is the simply told tale of a dying millionaire who hates his family, and decides to leave his vast wealth to people randomly chosen from the phone book, a million dollars each. This was one of the last movies made before the Hays Act, and so it is more open and frank than movies made just a couple years later. For example, the storyline featuring W.C. Fields that is all about a couple living out their fantasy of crashing their car into bad drivers would probably have been forbidden once the Hays Act was in effect.

On a personal level, this movie was very nostalgic for me to see, because I remember how much my father enjoyed it -- he remembered seeing it when he was a boy. I wonder -- five hundred years from now, will we have love of films passed down for dozens of generations? Or will the world have changed too much for 20th century films to mean anything to anyone?

The Day of the Triffids

I saw this, oh, twenty years ago, and I really enjoyed it back then. So, when we saw it on Netflix, we couldn't resist. It is interesting, gritty, and thoughtful -- though the reason for the downfall is hand-waved in a kind of silly way, the ultimate message, "human beings are mostly jerks, because jerks survive" opens up a lot of philosophical questions. I really enjoyed it twice, now! This is totally ripe for a remake. I wonder what the book is like?

Alien Hotshots

We've had this game a long time, but haven't played it for a while. It's an interesting variant of War, with special cards to do things like "capture any even card", as well as cards you can set aside to modify future cards. I think it's a great game for 8-10 year olds.

The Snoopy Festival

Since I've been reading and collecting the Complete Peanuts, I usually don't bother with other Peanuts collections. But, seeing this for only $1 at the Schulz Museum, we couldn't resist! And it was really fun, to see so many Snoopy comics right in a row. There is something about Snoopy -- he's worldly, smart, independent, talented, philosophical, and wise, but still insecure and vulnerable. I really related to him as a boy, and we had a homemade doghouse with a peaked roof, and I would frequently emulate Snoopy, lying on the peak, and looking at the sky. It's funny how he makes something so strangely unnatural look so comfortable.

Family Fluxx

It's Fluxx, but, uh, for families! Our family played it, and it was fun -- definitely a nice adaptation of regular Fluxx. I would have simplified and clarified more rules, myself, but this was definitely playable. Hooray for Looney Labs!


I found this in the Pittsburgh airport, and couldn't resist it. It is, perhaps, the most Nabokovian of all the Nabokov I have read. It seems many authors find a need to explore the concept of twins, mirrors, and doubles -- for example, Poe's "William Wilson", or Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" (Hey! those are both Wilson! wtf?) -- and this is Nabokov's take on it. Of course, his is completely different, and uniquely Nabokov. What always distinguishes Nabokov for me are how his characters live so much in their inner worlds, so far above everyone, so proud, and so fragile. And this is no exception. I read it quite quickly -- I just kept going back to it. It probably does not speak well of me that I relate so well to Nabokov's tales of obsession, pride, folly, and fall; but what can you do? I'm really surprised more people don't discuss this book. I wonder which of his novels I'll read next?

Latin Noun Endings

A little while ago, I decided I wanted to rejuvenate my Latin studies. I took three years of it in high school, but I was never very good at it... my grades were A's the first year, B's the second, and C's the third... because I never really got my basics locked down, and so the farther I got, the more I was behind. At the time, I had real disdain for memorization. This was mostly snobbery on my part -- I felt like if it had to be memorized, it wasn't worth knowing. Fortunately for me, I've grown up, and I now have proper respect for the value of memorization. And so, I'm trying out the Dowling Method for learning Latin. It involves intense memorization, followed by immersion in all-Latin texts. This blog entry marks my completion of memorizing the noun endings -- I wrote them, from memory, 200 times. It took me months. I really do feel like I have all five declensions locked down now. The next task is to do the same with the adjectives, and then verbs. Wish me luck!

Scrambled States of America

This is a really nice, fun game to get kids familiar with basic US geography. I'm reading a book about how cognitive psychology applies to learning, and one of it's basic points is that "people remember what they think about." Well, this game does a nice job making kids think about a variety of things -- which states are adjacent, which states are close to each other, state names and capitals. It's simple, fun, nicely balanced, and teaches the right things, I think. You go, Gamewright!


This is an interesting variant on scrabble. It has no board, and players play independently, each trying to use all their letters to spell crossing words. It's lightweight and fun, a kind of race -- and the banana thing is a cute theme.

Snoopy, Come Home

Yeah, Snoopy, Come Home! Based on the movie of the same name, this is a board game from the early seventies. We saw it at the Schulz Museum, and Nyra mentioned how much she liked it when she was a girl, so I found a copy and gave it to her for Christmas. It's an interesting game. It has two phases -- first the players race to Snoopy, and when a player reaches him, then the game changes, and players try to steal Snoopy from each other on a race back to the start. It has a very unusual board structure -- it's overall very novel, with a lot of racing and chasing, and surprising reversals. It is more competitive than you would expect from the theme.


This was a Christmas gift from my mother. I was surprised at how little I knew about this interesting game -- it has such a history! It was first published in 1887 by the Parker Brothers, under the name "Chivalry," then as "Camelot" in 1931 (when it enjoyed the most popularity -- apparently Stan Laurel was a big fan, appearing in ads for the game), and then again in 1985 as "Winning Moves."

So, despite a 120+ year history, the game is mostly unknown today. Of course, there is the World Camelot Federation, but that's pretty esoteric. Why isn't the game better known, I wonder? It's basically like playing checkers on crack. The pieces can move one square in any direction, and you can jump over your own pieces to take shortcuts. These strange rules, combined with support for multiple jumps make for situations where one bad move allows your opponent to capture a HUGE number of your pieces, which is exciting -- but can also be frustrating.

One really weird part of this game was the packaging. The copy I got is over 50 years old. The pieces are stored inside the box by sticking to a piece of exposed masking tape. Somehow, this tape was still perfectly sticky after 50 years! This, honestly, seemed kind of eerie to me.

Anyway, I'm totally fascinated by Camelot. It's as cool as Helios, but a much better game.

FAQ About Time Travel

Kyle Gabler recommended this movie to me -- I am pretty sure that he and I are destined to discover the secrets of time travel. If you read this blog with any regularity you are well aware that I am obligated to watch all time travel movies for some reason I do not understand, but it has to do with some kind of future destiny, etc. This was definitely one of the more entertaining TT films I've seen. It was not easy for me to acquire it -- I could only find it on, and then when I got it, I realized that I needed a region-free DVD player to watch it! So, since destiny insisted, I got one. While the movie was fun, its time travel notions, particularly regarding memory, were somewhat disappointing. But "nerds vs. imagineers" certainly makes up for that!

In other news, I think I have figured out time travel, partly inspired by this film... there's a lot to explain, but it is a combination of relative timestreams, antimatter, planck distance, and parallel universes. Simple!

Sky High

This was surprisingly clever and entertaining. It was fun watching it with my daughter, who was completely shocked by the plot twists. And it's got Talking Heads and Devo songs in the soundtrack, AND Bruce Campbell, so how can a nerd say no?

Then More Than Ever

Good old Blotto. This was a Christmas gift from Jeff McGinley. We had a funny relationship with Blotto back in college. We were both novelty music nerds, with a weekly radio show called "Laughter Hours" on WRPI in Troy, NY. Blotto was actually a local band, centered in Albany, NY, so we were excited when we were able to hear them play -- they were funny, and they were such one-hit-wonder underdogs. (one-hit-wonderdogs?) Anyway, here's my stupid Blotto story. One of the band members was named "Bowtie" and during one show revealed that he had an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Well, when I was taking my Chemistry I class, there was a TA who looked just like Bowtie, and who, in fact, wore a bow tie all the time. So, I asked him, "Are you Bowtie Blotto?" and he said, "Yes." Which I thought was pretty cool, and very credible, since it was clear that performing in Blotto was not a full-time job. Anyway, I told a lot of people about it, and I was pretty mad when later he said, "Yeah, you know, I was just kidding you about that. I didn't even know what you were talking about." Apparently he thought I was teasing him or something. Anyway, there's my boring Blotto story.

Oh, and this CD? It's okay. It's got the "Driver's Ed Movie" song on it, which is good -- the rest of it is kind of so-so, I think. But, hey, anything that takes me back twenty years in time is pretty great.

The Spark

Mk Haley introduced this book to me, and I am very glad for it! It's an unusual book -- the author tells the story of the unusual way he was introduced to Cirque, and then he gives a tour of how the Cirque du Soleil company is run. It's a remarkable book about a remarkable company, on a number of levels. And the audiobook version is excellent -- the reader really conveys the emotions of it, and hits the accents in a way that seems totally appropriate. I am considering making this the textbook for the Building Virtual Worlds class next year.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

I was excited to watch this with my daughter, because she is about old enough to appreciate it. I was very surprised when she told me, "Daddy, I don't know if I will be able to understand it -- it's in black and white, and I've never seen a black and white movie before." That came as a bit of a shock -- but I assured her she'd be able to understand it. It really is a pleasant, charming movie that manages to be witty and sharp, and not as sappy as one might expect. I saw part of a recent remake, and it did not retain those qualities. Most of all, I like the message of this movie -- things can be believed into existence.


I saw this on opening night, something I almost never do. I wasn't really sure what to expect. The main thing that surprised me was how solid the digital acting was -- good eye contact, great expressiveness. Learning more about the process they used, I get it now -- Cameron could see rough digital actors and sets live during, so he could direct with near perfect feedback. The story was a little corny, but that's okay -- it made me think of old pulp stories, like Edgar Rice Burroughs used to write. Interestingly, the film's message was really about authenticity -- how technology has separated us from the real world, but weirdly, how that same technology might be used to break through to the real world again. I wonder -- is the movie popular because of the novel effects, or because this message of the importance of authenticity? Or both?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How to Play the Harmonica

I'll be honest here: I've never liked Dave Barry. His columns always struck me as too smarmy, with lots of weak, gratuitous sarcasm serving no particular purpose. But, everyone's taste is different. Anyway, as a long-time hobbyist harmonica player, this book by Dave Barry's brother was hard for me to pass up. It purports to be a humorous guide to playing the harmonica and to living a happier life. And this is a hard message for me to argue with. Like the characters in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You the harmonica has long been a key for me for remembering to be playful, and to live in the moment. So, I had high hopes for this. Sadly, I didn't like it very much -- Sam Barry's sense of humor is exactly like his brother's, and just as scattered. Trudging through it felt kind of like work to me. That said, I've been playing harmonica for about 20 years, so the basic harmonica stuff didn't hold much for me. On the other hand, though, I mostly play straight harp -- this book made me finally understand how the blues scale is different than the normal scale. Honestly, I suspect that had I found this book 20 years ago, I would have really, really liked it. Today, I like the idea of it, but didn't personally enjoy it much. But I'm going to hang on to it until I really get the hang of the blues!

Alvin and the Chipmunks

I had TREMENDOUSLY low expectations for this film. I mean, look at the poster! Gangsta thug chipmunks! Weirdly, this movie is NOTHING like that poster! It is largely sweet, thoughtful, and nostalgic. I liked the jokes, and I liked the animation, and most of all I like the loving tribute to Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. It is amazing to me that a silly franchise like the Chipmunks has been kept alive for over fifty years. Now, I hear the sequel is far more lowbrow, and not nearly as sweet or funny. But who knows? I heard that about this film, too. I loved that Dave's house number was 1958 -- the year of the first Chipmunks song.

The Princess and the Frog

I was totally surprised at how delightful this movie is. I had low expectations, I have to admit, but I'm very excited to see this kind of renaissance for Disney animation. The movie is a fairly simple formula, but executed incredibly well, and working on a few different levels. One thing I really loved is that the movie is a love letter to the city of New Orleans -- this is so thorough and loving, for a city that has had such hardship, that it almost felt like patriotic public service. There are several touches on the script and characters that felt like the influence of John Lasseter showing through. Anyway, I was very pleased at what a creative, fun, respectful film this was. Anyone who worked on it must be terribly proud.

Speak, Memory

I'm not sure what I expected from this book, which is Nabokov's only autobiography. I guess I was hoping to get more insight into his creative process, and his world view. Instead, the book is mostly a kind of chilly reminiscence of his childhood experiences -- and maybe that is all the insight to Nabokov's worldview that one needs. Nowhere did the book have the feeling of someone telling a story with a point, but much more it had the feeling of someone trying to touch his foundational memories one last time, to bid them farewell. His passion for butterflies, and his solitary nature come through very strongly here -- nowhere does he speak fondly of childhood friends -- only loosely about his brother, and then intensely, later, about girls who caught his imagination. They say you should never try to meet an author whom you truly admire -- it will only end in disappointment -- and perhaps that is what I have found here. But, on the other hand, I couldn't pass up a chance to get to know better someone with such unique and fascinating talent. And when I think about it, perhaps the fact that his reality is surprisingly mundane should be an inspiration more than a disappointment.