Monday, March 29, 2010

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

This is a charming little book, that I recommend for anyone who is a designer. I often reflect on how the jobs of architect and game designer have so many striking similarities -- but I enjoyed learning about the differences from this book just as much as I liked noting the similarities.

Here's a few of my favorites:
#7: Suburban buildings are freestanding objects in space. Urban buildings are often shapers of space.
#18: Any design decision should be justified at least two ways.
#48: If you can't explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms that she understands, you don't know your subject well enough. (Amen!)
#77: No design system is or should be perfect.
#81: Properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process.
#97: Limitations encourage creativity.

Anyway, it's a fun little book, a pleasure to read, and elegantly bound, with a front cover made of raw cardboard, which is surprisingly pleasant to touch.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Movie

My daughter read and reveled in all three books of the Wimpy Kid series, and so she was quite interested to see the movie. I was interested, too, since what distinguishes the books is that the main character, Greg Heffley is an irredeemable jerk. It seemed difficult to me to find a way to translate this to the screen in a way that wouldn't alienate the viewer. And in fact, they clearly had to work hard to make it happen -- a new character, "Angie" is added, who serves as a kind of "wise man in the cave", or a sort of conscience for Greg. And some events were altered just enough for Greg to be redeemed. All in all, it was a good adaptation. And, wow, some of it recalled parts of middle school that I'd sooner forget. Hey, "Rowley", what do you think?

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I finally got around to seeing this. Musicals always fascinate me, and a modern musical, that was actually popular and acclaimed, made me very curious about how it was constructed. It is such an unusual story -- a comedy of villainy. The musical numbers were indeed glorious -- fast-paced, with powerful choreography and visual design. Also, seeing modern film stars, who don't normally need to sing and dance, actually sing and dance reasonably well had a pleasantly surprising quality. I've never seen the original musical -- but I have to wonder how it was staged... how reality and fantasy were blended. What is up with the city of Chicago, anyway? I wonder why corruption seems to blossom there so freely and persistently?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs

I saw this book mentioned in the London Review of Books (my new favorite periodical), and became curious about it. Eric Ravilious was not an artist I had heard of, and there was a magical quality to his work that made me want to learn more. I had to order it from, since US distributors didn't seem to have it. And I have to say, it is a gorgeous, elegant book. Each set of facing pages has one of Ravilious's paintings on the right side, while the left provides accompanying text. The author has gone through a great deal of trouble with this simple text. He combines stories from the artist's life with details from his correspondence with historical details with details of how the sites and subjects have changed in present day. It becomes clear that he has not only studied and integrated a great deal of information about Ravilious, but that he has personally visited many, if not all, of the sites in the pictures. Then he combines this into a few brief, pleasing paragraphs that seem the perfect accompaniment to the corresponding picture, in pacing, in tone, and in form. Reading the book was like taking a walk through the English countryside with a friend of the artist. I understand this is the first of a series of books about Ravilious's works, each focusing on a different part of England, and I look forward to the subsequent volumes.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I was directed to this book by Lisa Brown, who did an illustration for it. It's a fun collection of 101 word stories. The author, Brendan Atkins, has made it a hobby to produce one of these each day. It took me a while to get around to finishing this book -- because the stories are so very short, it requires rather a lot of attention and mental energy to keep switching stories. But, once you get enough momentum, it's hard to stop reading them. Some were serious, some were silly, most were surreal and dreamlike. I enjoyed the ones that took sudden turns the most, such as this one:
"Do you have any ketchup?" asks Daisy politely.
"Not yet," says Chester, "But we will -- after I open a portal to the Ketchup Dimension!"
Chester selects a bottle of Red Gold Extra Fancy from the millions suddenly floating around them. "Anything else?" he asks.
"Well," she says, "Maybe a pony?"
"No problem. Pony Dimension!" ZAP!
"I want one named Lightning," says Daisy.
"They're all named Lightning," Chester assures her.
"Could we maybe," says Daisy shyly, "I mean... is there a Fun Dimension?"
"Why don't we find out," smiles Chester, "together?"
But actually the Fun Dimension is full of Nazis!
Oh... and ommatidia is the plural of ommatidium. I'm sure that makes sense here, in some clever way.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A New Kind of Science

I picked up this book in 2002 when Stephen Wolfram brought his traveling show to CMU, and I finally got around to finishing it. The whole approach of the book is absolutely fascinating. I mean, the idea is simple enough -- there are many aspects of science that can better be studied and described via algorithms than via formulae. I don't mean to trivialize it -- it is an important conceptual shift. And so, to some extent, I can understand Stephen's bold approach. And further, I certainly understand how making bold provocative statements can draw attention to matters that are much in need of discussion and debate. And, finally, no one can say that Stephen did not do his homework on this -- the book is 1200 pages long, and goes into very, very thoughtful detail about the analysis of repeating algorithms, and their implications. But, man, his approach completely backfired, I think. This note in the back of the book sums things up:
Clarity and Modesty. There is a common style of understated scientific writing to which I was once a devoted subscriber. But at some point I discovered that more significant results are usually incomprehensible if presented in this style. For unless one has a realistic understanding of how important something is, it is very difficult to place or absorb it. And so in writing this book I have chosen to explain straightforwardly the importance I believe my various results to have. Perhaps I might avoid some criticism by a greater display of modesty, but the cost would be a drastic reduction in clarity.
Can you believe that? "My work is so incredibly important that to present it in an objective way would be confusing." Don't get me wrong, there is some really great stuff in here. It must have taken at least ten years to write this. The whole concept is meaningful and thought-provoking. But the presentation is such that it is hard not to roll one's eyes and say, "Oh, come on..." half the time. I mean, even the title! The book is the picture of a privileged, self-important monomaniac who looks down on, well, everyone. I hate to say something so unflattering about someone I don't really know, but that's how he comes across. And frankly, it ticks me off a bit, because I feel like if he had presented his work in a more collaborative, inclusive, humble manner, I think it would have served as 100x the inspiration, and moved the field forward significantly. But, as it stands, here it is, eight years later, and no "algorithmic revolution" has taken place, I think partly because it is a little embarrassing to be associated with this arrogant book.

Maybe I've got it all wrong, but I think the amazon reviews tell the story.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Little Man

I picked this up at the Toonseum because it was signed, and because I kind of liked this and this. It was interesting to see Chester Brown's earlier work, but at the same time I was kind of disappointed at how much of it was kind of vulgar and adolescent. What's up with comic artists? Why do they all have these same issues?

Monday, March 22, 2010

They Might Be Giants: Off the Wall

I've been going to TMBG live shows for, uh, let's see... 21 years now. (Yikes!) and this is the first time I've been to one of their kids shows. It was SO TOTALLY FUN! They had the amps set at a level that wasn't going to deafen anyone, and had earplugs in the lobby, just in case. They arranged a kind of kid mosh pit, which the kids loved, they picked great songs, they had funny puppets, they let the kids strum the guitar for one of the solos, and they made liberal and generous use of the CONFETTI CANNONS! Oh, man, overall, it was just a really good time -- nerd kids, and nerd parents alike had an awesome time at this sold out show. I have never seen so many nerd parents together in one place. Go Pittsburgh! I wonder how long John and John will keep it going? Forever, I hope!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

GDC 2010

Man, I'm getting old! I just realized this is my fifteenth GDC! Anyway, it was awesome, as usual. I wish I got to see more talks -- but I had to spend most of my time in meetings. That might sound boring but these were, with few exceptions, awesome meetings. There are things going on in the world of gaming that boggle my mind. I got to give two talks, one a talk about how to design for parents and kids playing together online, and also a microtalk, that was a followup to my DICE talk. I'm hoping that when the GDC Vault opens, I can post video and audio content. For now, you can get my slides at slideshare. It was weird being so well known this time. One of my talks was SRO, which just made me nervous! Hopefully I can fade back into obscurity soon!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Things We Think About Games

This book is super fun -- a collection of thoughts by a number of people about how to make games better. Sometimes from the point of view of the designer, sometimes from the player. Some of my favorite tips include:
#001: The player of any game has, at most, two hands.
#024: Keep your eye on the discard pile. Shuffle it just before it seems necessary to do so. 
#047: Design good cards. 
#055: When it doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns. 
#069: Roleplayers always wind up running the games they really want to play. 
#101: Know why you play games.
Anyway, it's totally fun, and a quick read.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Coney Island of the Mind

Man, Ferlinghetti is just amazing. Fun, and visual, and clever, and silly, and shocking, and deep. He loves poems that come across like a crazy surreal circus. Here's an excerpt:

      Sailing through the straits of Demos
                           we saw symbolic birds
                                               shrieking over us
          while eager eagles hovered
                               and elephants in bathtubs
      floated past us out to sea
                                                   strumming bent mandolins
 and bailing for old glory with their ears
                                                      while patriotic maidens
         wearing paper poppies
                                                and eating bonbons
                 ran along the shores
                                                wailing after us

Oh, it's just all super fun and I never feel like he's wasting my time. And, as I sit here, typing on my Lenovo Thinkpad, I am struck by a line in "Junkman's Obbligato" that is surprising considering it was written in 1955:
The thinkpad makes homeboys of us all. 
So... I wonder what he meant? Is it a reference to the little paper "think" pads that IBM gave to all their employees? Or something else? In any case, it has become a standard greeting for me, when, say, I see someone else with a Lenovo at a coffeeshop. I just stare at them until they reluctantly make eye contact, and I say, as intensely as possible, "The thinkpad makes homeboys of us all." They usually look a little scared and edge away, but it's okay. Ferlinghetti knows what I mean.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Dip

A simple little book by Seth Godin (author of the popular Purple Cow books). It's intentionally very short, and its primary message is that the only way to get really good at something is to stick with it during that time when it gets hard -- that's the pathway to being best in the world at something. One thing that I really liked here was his talk about how "best in the world" might involve a very small world, like "best gluten-free bakery in Tulsa, Oklahoma". Without a doubt, the "best in the world" approach, as discussed in the epic Good to Great is the key to this modern, long-tail economy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The TAMI Show

When I finally get this time machine working, the TAMI Show is my first stop. The Beach Boys, the Stones, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and a bunch of others, just one musical act after another -- and then, at the end, they all come out on stage together for a group finale! Oh, hell, yes! Can't this *stupid* anti-matter condenser work any faster?

Walkaroo Stilts

These are way, way, cool. Adjustable, and easy for kids or adults to use. Super fun! I might just walk on them all the time.

Playthings, Etc.

This is the coolest toy store in the world. I finally got up there by taking a detour on my way home from a guest lecture at Grove City College. I bought some stilts, some sporks, an x-zylo and some Drooble. I hope to go back for my birthday, and maybe get a pogo stick! It looks like a spaceship because I'm pretty sure it is a spaceship.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I've probably seen this movie thirty times, and it continues to remain a prominent fixture in my life. This was the first time my daughter (who is nine) had seen it all the way through -- she was just the right age. There is so much about it that I find magical. This time, I noticed something in the credits I hadn't seen before: "Copyright 1971, David L. Wolper and Quaker Oats". Wikipedia explains the strange story. So many strange things surround this movie -- apparently Roald Dahl didn't care for it. Neither did the public -- it made only $4M on a $2.1M budget. I mean, that's a profit, sure, but it's hard to believe it didn't get more attention. Also, the reason they called it Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory instead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was twofold. First, it helped the Quaker Oats deal, and second, "Charlie" had unpleasant associations with the Vietnam War.

Anyway, this is probably on my list of five favorite movies of all time. It's Gene Wilder's loving/dangerous portrayal of Willy Wonka that makes it so perfect -- he's playing some kind of archetype I can't put my finger on, but that personality has been a guiding star for me my whole life. Johnny Depp totally missed it in the new movie. Gene Wilder chose (insisted, in fact) on introducing his character with his subtle cane/somersault move. Johnny Depp introduces his by callously, thoughtlessly, cruelly burning up It's a Small World. The meaningful message (Christian message, that is) of the first movie is completely absent in the second one.

There is something deep in Wilder's portayal -- something I still can't puzzle out. You know as I type this... I think I'm starting to get it... Christian message, indeed! It's so obvious! The factory tour begins with Eden, for goodness' sake! Commandments, warnings, punishment for sins, forgiveness, a chosen one without a father, and keys to the kingdom! He even led his chosen people out of the desert wastes! Why couldn't I see it before? Willy Wonka is God.

They Got Lost

I hadn't listened to this TMBG album in a long time -- Not sure what made me bring it out. It has lots of great songs -- weirdly, though, the "slow version" of the title song is what's on here, not the fast version, which I prefer. It's not so much an issue of the rhythm, but rather of a key lyric. In the original fast song, it goes:
John said to John
I think we make a left at the light
There should be a big crinkle
Assuming this map is right
John leaned over and said
Hey no, it's not
That's just a crumpled up wrapper
From the fast food that we got
In the slow version, somehow the "big crinkle" becomes a "big B", which doesn't seem nearly as clever to me, a la Korzybski, the map is not the territory, etc. I just love the multiple layers of error: Lost from a misread map... the misreading is a confusion of the fabric of the map and the content of the map... and further, it's not a map at all.

One of my other faves on here is Certain People I Could Name ... here's an excerpt:
The few surviving samurai survey the battlefield
Count the arms, the legs, the heads, and then divide by five
Drenched in blood, they move across the scene
Do I have to point or do you see the one I mean? 
The one in back, the way he acts
is he reminding you of anyone we know?
Isn't he so like certain people I could name?
Anyway, it's a fun album.


I had seen this book here and there, and it kept nagging at me. It seemed to me there was something very important in the idea of a book about authenticity -- and I'm glad I did buy it, too -- it proved to be a kind of linchpin for my Beyond Facebook talk. Anyway, I finally finished reading it. It has a lot of material in it, but for me the core idea is this -- at this point in time (circa 2010) Americans are craving authenticity like never before, because they are so cut off from reality, or as Gilmore and Pine put it so well, "cut off from self-sufficiency." The book contains a taxonomy of the authentic, as well as many examples of how to make your offerings seem more authentic (use earth tones, tap into nostalgia, etc.). Some of my favorite parts are about the confusing conflicts between the fake and real, which point out how reality and authenticity are a state of mind more than anything else.

Now - say I was going to go for a PhD -- if I were, I have a feeling that what I would try to do would be to show that the fifteen properties of living structures that Christopher Alexander puts forth are the keys to authenticity, for what seems more real than living structures?

Anyway, this was an eye-opening book for me, and really helped me understand some important things about my industry. I found much more benefit in the front than in the back, but others may see the book differently. If I ever do a second edition of The Art of Game Design, I will likely want to include a Lens of Authenticity.

PS - I'm pleased to say that Joe Pine sent me some info about his next book, and, well, it's insightful in whole new ways. I hope it comes out soon!