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.

R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders

I finally found the first album! It was not easy to find. It has some fun songs on it, but Number 2 is still my favorite. Hey... I never put number 3 on here! That's strange... and it was the first album I got, some twenty years ago.

It's nice having all three of these together... they sound so nice and warm on vinyl. And I love that Blue Goose Label.