Sunday, February 28, 2010

Love is a Dog from Hell

Another collection of Bukowski poems. I never get tired of these. Kudos to Ecco for their choice of cover, paper, print, and binding method. The books just feel perfect, how they weigh, how they smell, the way they aborb the sweat from you hands -- they match the feeling of the content perfectly.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Born Not To Run

And the sequel to the Car Tunes album. The songs on here made me laugh more, but somehow I don't remember them as well.

PS -- I'm so happy that Doctor Demento is still alive and kicking! Life was hard for nerds before the Internet. We had to earn our weirdness.

Car Talk: Car Tunes

I'm a long time fan of novelty records. You can tell it's been a long time, because who says "novelty records" any more? Hey, don't believe me? Search for my name in this issue of the Demento Society News from 1986. Anyway, I have been hearing snatches of car novelty songs on Car Talk for years, and thought I should pick up this collection. It was fun -- I can't say I laughed out loud very much, but it was still a fun album. My favorite line: "The sun will rise again... on the HORIZON!" Man, that was a rotten car.

Orality and Literacy

I was directed to this book by Laura Lantz, I think because I was going on about Amusing Ourselves to Death. I have to admit, I had a hard time getting through it -- I found it somewhat dry and academic, and incredibly textual, which is kind of ironic, because part of the point of the book is that something valuable in human communication is lost when we move from oral culture to written culture.

It is very interesting to think about this change -- the change from words being events to words being objects. We take it for granted, now, of course. More interesting to me is the experience of reading compared to the experience of listening. Personally, I enjoy listening far more. I am in the car about 45-60 minutes most days, and listen to audiobooks there every chance I get. I find that I am more connected with a text through an audiobook than I am by reading. It is more real. For me, text on a page is like a picture of something happening, but hearing it out loud is like the thing itself. With the kindle, I sometimes like to set it on text-to-speech mode, and read along with the voice. I know many people don't care for audiobooks. I read somewhere once that there are two kinds of readers -- visual, who turn text into pictures in their minds, and audio, who turn text into speech in their minds. Audio readers are supposed to be slower, and are distracted by other voices in the room. Video readers read faster, and voices do not distract them. I wish I could remember where I read about this.

When I wrote The Art of Game Design, I would read each chapter out loud as I completed it. I often found that sentences that looked okay on the page often sounded awkward out loud, and I would change them. I think this is part of the reason that people say the book is so "readable" and "flows so smoothly."

Hm. I wish I had more to say about this book. I like that it got me thinking about the relationship between speech and text -- but if it gave me insights, they are hidden, and I don't know what they are.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Home Game

I tried to like this book, but I couldn't. It falls into the category of "Check out my ineffective parenting -- isn't it hilarious?" And it wasn't so hilarious, it just made me sad. People in the amazon reviews seem to like it, so I guess it's just me.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I keep forgetting to blog about the Toonseum! It is one of the coolest places in Pittsburgh! Joe Wos has been the driving force behind it, and for a while it was just a small part of the Children's Museum ... but no more! We have secured space for it downtown, and while it is, at the moment, a modest gallery, the selection of artwork is very inspiring, and the gift shop is excellent! But the best part of the Toonseum are the events -- happening monthly, or even more often, they have cool themes, involve screenings, and chances to meet the artists. It's one more thing that makes Pittsburgh awesome.


Oh man! I loved Street Angel, and I have long followed the bits and pieces of Afrodisiac that Jim and Brian have concocted -- and this collection of Afrodisiac stories is amazing! If you haven't seen the character before, it is a hilarious blaxploitation spoof, that is always clever, and manages to be funny and suggestive without being graphic. Afrodisiac is basically a superhero pimp -- and what is really interesting about this book is the post-modern way the stories are presented. You just get fragments of comic books, so there is no real continuity, but just loose threads. It gives the feeling that you are in a friend's attic, leafing through his comic collection, and reading a story here and there. This allows a lot to be left to the imagination, and makes the whole thing so much more fun. These guys are going to be wickedly famous one day -- get a copy of the book now, so you can say you read it before everyone else did!

No Cartoon Left Behind!

This massive book is a huge collection of cartoons by Pittsburgh's most well-known political cartoonist, Rob Rogers. It's very interesting to see how his style evolved and changed over time. I've had the privilege of meeting Rob several times, because we are both on the board for the Toonseum, and he is just the coolest guy. I'm so glad he was able to get this great book out there!

Jennifer Government

I started reading this at the suggestion of Drew Davidson, when I told him what I planned to talk about at DICE. And I fell in love with this book! It's about a future where captialism grows, and government recedes, and things go horribly wrong. I want to tell you about it, but it would spoil it! All I'll say is that it would make an excellent movie, but it's hard for me to see how to get past lawsuits from Nike and the NRA. It will take a bold studio to get it done -- I sure hope they do it -- it would be amazing! If I ever get a turn at SNIB, I might pick this -- after I pick Rudy Rucker's Software!

DICE Summit 2010

Whew! I sure was nervous about going to DICE this year -- it was the first time that I have been asked to speak there, and I didn't want to mess it up! Fortunately, my talk was well received -- and in fact has caught some attention on the internets. You can see a video of it here.

I found the other talks fascinating -- from Rich LeMarchand to the, uh, bold Bobby Kotick. And this year there were some really unusual talks, about topics like fish, and optical illusions. I love the Red Rock Hotel, and I love being able to spend time chatting in such an intimate environment with so many cool game industry people. Long live DICE!

Classics of American Literature, Part II

More good stuff! This time we examined Hawthorne, Melville, and the beginning of Whitman. These lectures gave me new appreciation of Hawthorne by examining his lesser known works, and a deeper understanding of Melville. Part of the surprise was that Melville and Hawthorne both lived in Pittsfield, MA, and that Hawthorne's influence is what changed Melville from an adventure writer to a, well, symbolic writer. This also led to his loss of popularity. Anyway, I can't wait to get the 3rd set of lectures!

The Field Museum

I don't travel much, so I'd never been here. But, we are doing a project for them at the ETC, so I took a tour a few weeks back. It's epic and amazing! Bigger than the Carnegie Natural History Museum here in Pittsburgh, but not as overwhelming as the one in New York. The history of Earth walkable timeline was particularly well executed. I can't wait to go back!

Grave Writer

This was the January book for SNIB (the Schell Games Non-Intellectual Book CLUB). I don't normally read mystery thrillers, so this was something different for me. At first I couldn't figure out why Matt picked it -- then I learned he is friends with the author! Anyway, I was really torn about this book -- I really liked the characters, and I really liked some of the scenes. But I was very disappointed about how it all hung together -- a lot of stuff happened that was kind of pointless in regard to the plot. But, later, in our SNIB discussion, it was pointed out that this was the first book of a series, and so, some of those "pointless" things are likely parts of longer story and character arcs. Anyway, it was good fun, though parts of it stretched credibility. I'm kind of curious to read the sequels...

With Young People in Mind

Listening to this album again after so many years was a mind-altering experience for me. For some time I have had it on my to-do list to track it down -- but I didn't realize it would affect me so powerfully. It was, I believe, the first record I ever listened to, and for big parts of my childhood, I listened to it all the time. Most of the time when I would play, I liked to put on a record, and this was my first, and one of my favorites. It is possible I have listened to this record more times than any other, over the span of my life.

When I got the CD, and started to play it, the memories came flooding back so powerfully, just hearing the whistling at the start of "Come All Ye", that I had to stop it. It was overwhelming to suddenly be four years old again, sitting there in the living room of 146 Cedar Lake West, and be thinking about what the wide world might be like. I could only listen to it a song at a time, reflecting for long after each one. I hadn't listened to these songs for thirty years, and when I thought about the album, I could only name a song or two. I wondered if I'd remember the songs, or if they would seem alien to me. But they didn't -- each one, as I heard it, was as familiar as an old friend. I started to worry, though, if by listening to them now, that somehow, I would spoil them, somehow I would steal them from my childhood. But that's not what happened at all. Instead, it felt like I got a piece of my self back, a piece that was missing for years and years.

Is it just that I associate this album with childhood? No, I don't think so. There is something more here -- there is something in Richard Dyer-Bennet's voice, and his guitar playing, and in his song choices that resonates with me on a deep fundamental level. Whenever I hear these songs, I feel like I'm outside, in and among nature. It's not always a friendly place, but it's always very, very real. I remember, even very young, taking pleasure in the dark and sad parts of this album, as well as the happy parts. And it has a lot of dark parts. Consider the lyrics from "Three Jolly Rogues of Lynn":

In the good old colony days
When we lived under the king
Lived a miller, and weaver and a little tailor
Three jolly rogues of Lynn
Now, the miller, he stole corn
And the weaver, he stole yarn
And the little tailor, he stole broadcloth
For to keep these three rogues warm.
Now, the miller, he drowned in his dam,
And the weaver, he hanged in his yarn,
And the devil got his paw on the little tailor,
With his broadcloth under his arm.
Now, the miller still floats in his dam,
And the weaver still hangs in his yarn,
And the little tailor still skips through hell
with his broadcloth under his arm.
I don't think anyone would publish songs like this under the title "With Young People in Mind" nowadays. But I know that I found something so real, so genuine in these songs, even when I was quite young. They had a seriousness, and a sincerity, but at the same time, there was a kind of sense that, yes, terrible things will happen, but that's okay, terrible things happen, and we can survive them, and still be ourselves.

What's funny to me is, looking at the cover of the album, I kept thinking, this isn't right -- I don't remember these girls, and this horse, and where is the pond? And more Internet searching revealed the true cover (from the old LP), which is mostly the same, but a bit zoomed out to show the pond, and a lighter tint that deemphasizes the girls, and emphasizes the natural surrounding, instead -- it's funny what we do and don't remember.

I'm so glad to have found this again. It is sad the way that most of our childhood things are often destroyed -- houses sold, grandparents dead, families broken up, toys given away, friends grown apart. To have a pure, clean, gleaming part of my self suddenly return, reminding me who I am, and who I always will be, is a tremendous gift indeed.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?

This book is really a classic Harvard Business Review article published in the form of a tiny book. It's a funny article to read, because it just drips with sarcasm from beginning to end. Simply put, it's premise is that employees who are given meaningful responsibility, and are able to meet that responsiblity, and are held accountable will be naturally motivated. It seems kind of obvious, I guess, but it is true that many many managers are afraid to give that responsibility, and afraid to hold people accountable, especially in large companies.

2010 State of the Union Address

He might say some silly things sometimes, but, man, it's nice to have a president that sounds intelligent.


I had never seen Cats before. I'd heard the music here and there, and often run into rabid fans of the show, but I'd never seen it. We picked up tickets, because I thought my daughter would enjoy it -- and she did. I was kind of shocked at the structure of the show -- I cannot recall ever having seen something similar. It's basically just a musical revue, but with the very thinnest veneer of story over it. It's a show where 95% of the time is spent introducing the characters, and 5% is spent telling the story. I'm reminded of a story I heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber pitching the show to someone. Halfway through the pitch, which involved the playing of songs at the piano, the person he was pitching to interrupted, "I'm sorry, Andrew, I'm not quite getting this -- what exactly do these cats represent? What is this show about?" Webber replied, "No, no, you don't understand -- it's just about cats."

And I think that is the magic of this show. Cat lovers quietly impart all kinds of secret inner thoughts and lives to their cats, but that's an embarrassing thing to talk about. It's probably not even entirely conscious. And to suddenly be confronted with a broadway show where the secret lives of dozens of familar cat personalities are sung about, danced about, and celebrated majestically must be an overwhelmingly joyous and cathartic experience. Top that off with the fact that old ladies are the greatest lovers of cats, and the most likely to attend broadway shows, and the little plot there is concerns the fact that each year, one cat is chosen to be born again into a kitten, and on top of that, the most touching songs in the show are old cats singing songs of their youth, and well -- it's no wonder this is one of the most successful shows of all time.

I know people deride the show as trite and corny, but as a piece of entertainment crafted for a specific audience, it is a masterpiece. I knew "Memories" was a tearjerker, but I'd never heard the song that Gus the Theater Cat sings -- as a washed up performer myself, I found it to be very touching. I hope that one day, I can create something as simple, powerful, and enduring as this fluffy show.

Why Don't Students Like School?

I was definitely drawn in by the title of this book -- in my role as educational game designer, this question comes up a lot -- since ostensibly, I am supposed to be designing learning experiences more enjoyable than school is. So, what is it, then, that students don't like about school? This book does take on that question, however it also gets kind of far away from it. A better title would be: "Things a cognitive scientist has learned about education", though I'm sure that wouldn't sell as many copies. Anyway, spoilers ahead, here are the nine things that Daniel T. Willingham has learned about education:

1: People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
2: Factual knowledge precedes skill.
3: Memory is the residue of thought.
4: We understand things in the context of things we already know.
5: Proficiency requires practice.
6: Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
7: Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
8: Intelligence can be changed through hard work.
9: Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

So, really, only #1 on that list really addresses the title of the book. However -- it does it well. Willingham made me see something that wasn't obvious to me before. As a game designer, I know that enjoyable challenges walk a balance between anxiety and boredom -- but it never sank in with me before that this is the problem with school -- most kids are either frustrated, or bored! In other words, good education is a game design problem that has not been well addressed. I'll definitely work this into my upcoming DICE talk, and sound all smart and stuff.

The rest of the book makes some really good points, backed up well with examples and studies. He gets on hobby horses from time to time, and a few high horses as well, and at least one very high hobby horse (called Chapter 7), but the book is concise, rich with examples, and very readable. The simple statement that "Memory is the residue of thought" is a very useful one, that I am already using in some of my designs, specifically some stuff we are doing at Carnegie Mellon with the Sesame Workshop.

I think there are reasons that students don't like school that are not addressed here, and that's a little disappointing, but setting the title aside, I found this text to be quite interesting an useful.

Fight Club

I picked this up, curious what all the fuss was about. I was especially curious since some people say the book is better than the movie, and others say the movie is better than the book. I can't say I liked this very much, but it was certainly well-crafted. The protagonist was so whiny, it was hard for me to relate. But, at the same time, the whole book is a battle cry for authenticity, which seems to be a hallmark of the times -- I wonder if that was more of a driver for the popularity of this book than was the creepy graphic detail -- because there is a lot of that. The book really takes on the notion of how being cut off from reality makes a person crazy -- and is arguably making an argument that this is what is happening to society right now. I really enjoyed a lot of the devices Palahniuk uses in this. It really worked well as an audiobook, too -- I think it would have been much flatter just as text. I have to admit, it makes me wonder what the consequences will be as we get farther and farther from the natural world.