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...