Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hi-Fi Harmonica

This album is pretty much sounds like the cover. Was it really so long ago when grown-ups ran the world? There are still people alive who remember what that was like. The world today must look pretty ridiculous to them.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Girlfriend's Dead

Ah, the sounds of 1980. I really liked this -- how did I only find it now? It is a genre I will refer to as "Emo Devo." The song "Interview with a Vampire" is worth its weight in gold.

Friday, August 10, 2012


This was one of those suggestions from Netflix -- you know: "I see you like emo space movies. I recommend SUNSHINE." This was a mixed bag -- kind of like three movies in one... cool problem-solving space adventure like Apollo 13, dumb slasher movie like Friday the 13th, and a deep philosophical movie like, uh, well, I can't think of anything with a 13 in it... so, uh, I'll just say 13 Erotic Ghosts. Any movie with a ship named "Icarus 2" is alright by me, though.

I watched the deleted scenes... some of them were better than what they left in!

The most thoughtful thing in this film is the notion that, as humans, we can never merge with darkness -- we always hold ourselves separate from it -- but we easily merge with light. I'll be thinking about that for a long time.

This is the perfect movie to double feature with Moon.

PS -- This is the 500th Thing I've Finished!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Elephant Rocks

I liked topics in this book of poems by Kay Ryan, and the length and number of the poems, and typeface, and even the paper and binding. And I didn't dislike the poems-- most of them just, I don't know, didn't resonate with me, somehow. My favorite poems are ones that cover the surface a topic, leading you to believe that their goal is to encircle that topic, but then, to your surprise, they plunge down deep, into the heart of things, in a way that shocks and surprises. For me, these poems did the covering, but their plunge just didn't penetrate, somehow. Here's one of my favorites from the book, for example:
In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn't have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Gepetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said
I can't be human after all. 
You see what I mean? It's more like the end is an illustration of the beginning, as opposed to a paradigm shift built on the platform of what came before. Contrast that with a favorite Emily Dickinson poem of mine:
Fame is a bee
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing. 
Which has all the things I like best in a poem. See how it tricks you? "Fame lures you in, but it's dangerous..." and then everything flips! "And it allows you to fly!" It's startling, and perception shifting, and it leaves you wondering about how Emily Dickinson, of all people, really feels about fame. Sheesh, I feel like a bully, beating up Kay Ryan with Emily Dickinson. This isn't meant to be a criticism of Kay Ryan, but just me realizing what it is I like best in poetry. I often wonder what a person's taste in poetry says about them. I wonder what it says about me that this poem is my favorite one in Elephant Rocks:
From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant "to filch"
under cover of wicker
anythingsome liquor,
a cutlet.
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note for instance, in our
rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib—
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.
You can see this does all the things I like! One interesting thing about the poems in this book -- some rhyme, some don't. It's very cool that she's not afraid to have really fun rhymes, sometimes (Time is rubbery. If you hide it in the shrubbery). I know one thing -- writing poems requires a special bravery.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Roberts' Rules of Disorder

I found this little book years ago... at Townsend Booksellers, I think? Or did I have it in California? Anyway, it has been my stalwart companion, ever since. It is about as small as a book can be, just a few inches high, and only 14 pages long. It is full of ironic mottoes and tiny woodcut illustrations. There is something about it that reminds me of the seventies. It is clearly the work of a group of friends, each chipping in their own funny sayings, and their names are listed up front, and it was published in 1977, in fact. I love the attitude of this book, I love how it overflows with friendship, and how it acknowledges that things get bad, yes, and there isn't much you can do but laugh about that. I scanned not just the front cover, but the back as well, because I think the back cover sums up the book quite delightfully (click the pic to see full size). Some of my favorite mottoes within:
We've got plenty of firewood to last until Spring. -RLU 
Greens chopped in an open fan tend to disperse. -AG 
You discover the optimum number of children for your family when you've had one too many. -AD
If it doesn't fit, file it to a conical point. -WG
A motion to adjourn to the bar takes precedence over all other motions except one to leave the bar. -ER 
Maybe kitty is just getting fat. -RLU
So, after years of having this book accompany me through all kinds of problems and troubles, it occurred to me, one day, that I had no idea who Jane W. Roberts was. I'll start by saying she isn't this Jane Roberts. I had to websearch pretty hard to find out her true identity. I even had to buy online access to an obscure local newspaper that had an article about her, which I reproduce here, in full.

MONADNOCK PROFILE: It’s all there in the fine print

She keeps an art alive

Jane Roberts believes that life should be lived to the fullest. Now 86, she’s a former social worker, teacher and award-winning commercial printer who also creates hand-tooled canoe paddles. Beyond that, she knits, recently learned to spin fiber and is a longtime member of Fitzwilliam’s zoning board.
And, she offers a very simple remedy for those who want more fulfilling lives.
“Always make sure you have a lot of hobbies and things you’re interested in doing,” she said. “If you’re one of those people who are bored, it’s your own damn fault.”
Among Roberts’ varied interests is her successful business, Old Time Printing, which, for more than 30 years, has offered Victorian and obsolete typography, mainly to the antiques trade. Although she retired not too long ago, she still plies the craft for friends and local organizations, and introduces young children to the practice.
Her home-based print shop is equipped with 19th-century antique tabletop and pedal-operated foot presses and nearly 300 different typefaces and fonts. She’s won awards for her work and, for nearly 60 years, has been a member of the Amalgamated Printers’ Association, an organization of letterpress print enthusiasts.
It’s a passion she first discovered in her teens.
“My father gave my brother a small printing press for Christmas,” she said. “He didn’t like it all that much, but I did. I bought it from him when I was 16. It’s been a big part of what I’ve been interested in since then.”
In the late 1940s, she worked her way through college as a printer. Besides running presses, she became proficient in typography, including Linotype, most commonly used for newspaper copy, and Ludlow, used for headlines and displays. She even operated her own business, which she sold upon her college graduation — then took a long hiatus from printing for 15 years.
Instead, she launched a decade-long career as a social worker, working with disadvantaged children in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and at Chicago’s renowned Hull House, the first settlement house in the country. A few years later, when the Chicago neighborhood underwent urban renewal, her job was eliminated, and she chose a new path.
“I still wanted to work with kids, but I’d had it with big cities,” she said. I knew that, for me, the way to work with kids was to go back to school to get a license to teach.”
She enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where one night at a square dance she met her future husband, Ken, then a faculty member. The pair married a year or so later, and she taught school in Connecticut for several years, starting out at the junior high level, then moving on to high school English classes.
Her interest in printing was rekindled when her husband discovered and purchased an old press at an antiques shop.
“I’ve had a number of small presses over the years,” she said. “I like to see what I can do to repair, rehabilitate and get parts for them to get them working.”
After moving to Fitzwilliam in 1973, the couple installed a print shop in their home. Roberts started her business and, for a while, additionally sold puzzles and old folk toys she made at craft fairs. She also dove headfirst into her new community.
“I’d never lived in a small town before. I’d lived in suburbia or the city,” she said. “But the first couple of years we were here, the town was planning a bicentennial celebration, and I joined the quilt committee. It was a good way to get acquainted, finding people who are interested in the same things you’re interested in.”
Over the years, she moved on to handling publicity for the town’s historical society, and managing the local newsletter. Her husband, who worked with antique tools and books, died in 2000, but she continues to be actively involved in the community.
Nine years ago, she was appointed to the town’s zoning board of adjustment. She served as chairman for a term or so, and still remains a member. Today, she also belongs to a casual group of local women of all ages and skill levels who meet once a week to knit and to socialize.
Among them is Roberts’ longtime friend, Gretchen Wittenborg, who founded and hosts the group.
“I find the trajectory of Jane’s career extraordinary,” she said. “She put herself through four years of college working as a printer, then worked at the most famous settlement in the country. Then she put herself through grad school.
“Jane is a marvelous teacher. She never stops learning. She can do so many things,” she said. “If there’s something interesting to learn or to do or to read, she’s there. She’s never bored. She’s open to anything.”
Although Roberts and her husband had no children of their own, children have been a major focus in her life. Besides her careers as a teacher and social worker, she worked every year at the same summer camp in Ontario, Canada, for nearly two decades beginning in the late 1950s. Originally, she served as a crafts instructor, and later was in charge of planning extended overnight canoe trips for young campers.
It was at camp that she first learned to make canoe paddles with hand tools, an art she continues to practice.
“I figured that if I was going to teach the kids, I had better learn how to do it myself,” she said. “I loved working at the camp. I used to say I’m getting paid for playing. It ceased operation in 1970, but I still keep in touch with a lot of the people.”
As for the future? She plans to pursue whatever new interests arise, and continue to follow her passion for printing.
“I’d like to stay in printing for as long as I can,” she said. “For as long as I’m having fun.”

You'd think that article would satisfy me, but no. I decided I had to contact her to thank her for the little book, which has meant so much to me. She seemed quite pleased to hear that, and we began a bit of a correspondence, and I learned that not only does she have a history in printing, but in making handmade wooden toys and puzzles, too! And she was kind enough to send me some -- they are absolutely charming -- and some of the puzzles are quite clever, I'd never seen them before. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the world is full of amazing people... just keep your eyes open for amazing footprints -- you never know where they might lead!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Much Ado About Me

I've been a lifetime student of comedy, and part of that, for me, has included listening to old radio shows from the 30's and 40's. That was how I first discovered Fred Allen. He had a kind of fun, homespun radio comedy show that consisted of monologues, comedy sketches, and music, really, a kind of middle America version of the Jack Benny show. The two shows often poked fun at each other, and I came to realize that the David Letterman / Jay Leno battle for ratings had happened in almost exactly the same way about fifty years earlier between Benny and Allen.

Fred Allen has long fascinated me because he was very popular (if I understand right, he had better ratings than Benny did) but today he is largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because he didn't make the transition to TV? Maybe the more mainstream comedians are the ones that get forgotten? I'm not sure. Anyway, I was in New Orleans a little while ago, and with an hour to spare, I visited Beckham's Books, and the first thing to catch my eye was "Much Ado About Me", Fred Allen's autobiography.

Reading it, I was shocked to learn I had a few things in common with Fred Allen:
- We both grew up in Massachusetts
- We both got our start in entertainment as professional jugglers
- We both got a pretty good entertainment education from some not-too-trustworthy mentors
- We both made use of advice from John Steinbeck when writing our books
- We both used a "franchised" pseudo-vaudeville system to eventually propel ourselves into the big time. (his pseudo-vaudeville: franchised local talent nights; mine: franchised amusement park entertainment. His big time: The Palace; mine: Disney Imagineering)

Anyway, this book is primarily about his Vaudeville career -- he doesn't touch on his radio career much, because he had already done that in another book (which I want to seek out), "Treadmill to Oblivion." Reading the details about how Vaudeville worked, and how he made his was through it were absolutely fascinating to me. He gets into all kinds of details about his act, and how he marketed himself ("World's Worst Juggler", for example), and what the day to day of real Vaudeville was like. The book was incredibly readable and approachable. Since I used to listen to Fred's show a lot, I know his voice, which is very distinctive, and it is clear there was no ghost writer -- I could hear his voice on every page of the book. The foreword of the book is especially notable, and so I include it here, in full.

Some years ago John Steinbeck offered to help me with a book. I didn’t know how to write a book. John listed some rudimentary suggestions for the beginner. I pass them on to you. John wrote:
       Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first but kind of think of it when you aren’t doing it. Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail—cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make telling follow a form.
Fortified with John Steinbeck’s advice I am starting my autobiography.
In short, if amusing tales from the days of Vaudeville interest you, I recommend this book highly.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Atlantis Bookshop

While I was in London, I had to stop at the Atlantis Bookshop, as well. I had seen ads for it in the London Review of Books many times, and was pleased to realize it was right around the corner from my hotel. And it did not disappoint. Though small, it had quite a fascinating collection of occult, religious, and philosophical works, as well as, let's say, exotica. I picked up a few books there (I decided I better limit myself to three), but it was hard to resist getting more -- there were so many unusual texts. I complimented the proprietesses (who had a somewhat supernatural air) on the selection, and they proudly mentioned that they were having their 100th anniversary. I jokingly insisted that they didn't look a day over ninety, and, I swear they cackled! Something about that chilled my blood. I paid and got out quickly.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Roycroft Inn

Okay, this is a long story, but I guess I have to tell it sometime. It's about Elbert Hubbard. Not L. Ron Hubbard, that's a whole other story, but Elbert Hubbard. (They are actually related, though not by blood. On top of that it has always seemed likely to me that "L. Ron" chose that peculiar name-phrase to connect to his famous uncle.)

I discovered Elbert Hubbard on my birthday, about ten years ago. I was poking around in a used bookstore (Caliban Books) and I found a cardboard box full of these neatly bound little book/magazine things that seemed quite old. Each was a "Little Journey" to the home of some great man or woman. Newton, Socrates, Hypatia, Beethoven, etc. They were dated around 1900. The printing style of the books was incredibly eye-catching, and, I don't know, I felt a kind of energy around the box. There was no price, but there were around 80 of the "Little Journeys", and the clerk said they had just come in, he hadn't priced them, and gave me a deal for the whole set, and he threw in a copy of "The Roycroft Dictionary" to go with it.

Over the coming weeks, I was completely taken with these bizarre little books. Each was beautifully printed, and contained a flowery biography. Weirdly, these biographies didn't stick to the facts. Each was about 30-40% biography, combined with wandering philosophical outpourings that I found bold and fascinating. That summer I was working on Carnegie Mellon's campus, doing some rather dreary software work, and so I was glad to be able to take a break at lunch, sit under a shady tree, and go on these Little Journeys to the homes of the great, with Hubbard as my guide.

There was so much in his philosophy that resonated with me. So much about where greatness truly comes from, about the importance of creativity, about doing great things because you must, because there is no other choice. I was pleased to learn details of the lives of these legendary figures (people who've read my book and wonder "Who the hell is Hypatia? Where does Jesse pick up this stuff?" need wonder no more), but with each book I read I became more curious about Hubbard. Weirdly, each of these books contained advertisements for other books as well as furniture, and other things, and through these ads, I gradually came to understand that:
- Hubbard was part of some group called "The Roycrofters"
- The Roycrofters were printers, but also seemed to make household goods, and hold "TED-like" conferences
- The Roycrofters had been located in East Aurora, New York.

Over the years, I learned more about Hubbard's life, about how he was a soap salesman who gave it up to start the Roycrofters, and how he and his wife went down with the Lusitania in 1915. And about his "Philistine" magazine, which cast stones at the topics of the day, back at the turn of the century. Hubbard and the Roycrofters were often on my mind, because their values ("Head, Hands, and Heart", making quality goods by hand, self-improvement, Emersonian self-reliance, etc. etc.) so resonated with mine. I would use his quotes in my teaching, and I would sometimes joke to students that I was Hubbard in a former life. Even the style with which I wrote my book, a bold first person, speaking directly to the reader, was very much under Hubbard's influence. And I sometimes wondered... was there anything in East Aurora left to see? My initial Internet searches revealed little. It seemed possible that the Roycrofters were forgotten.

But, in early July 2012, my family and I were driving home from a trip to New Hampshire, unexpectedly early, due to a change of plans caused by a death in the family. We were all somewhat gloomy, and I thought, you know, maybe this is the time. Maybe this is the right time to visit East Aurora. My new Internet searches bore fruit this time -- there was apparently an Elbert Hubbard Museum, a tour of the campus, and even a restored Roycroft Inn. It was a long drive from New Hampshire to Pittsburgh, and we needed a place to stay, and hey, guess what? The Roycroft Inn had rooms available.

I'm not sure I've ever felt more at home. The Inn is absolutely gorgeous, and decorated throughout with works of the Roycrofters, both hand-work and mind-work. The photo above is of a framed picture in our room -- a Hubbard quote I'd somehow never heard before. The room we were given was the "George Eliot" room, and I was pleased to see her name was carved into the door, just as "Beethoven" and others from the Little Journeys were carved into the doors of the other rooms. "How clever," I thought, "that the designers who restored the hotel chose to name the rooms after the Little Journeys." Later, reading a biography of Hubbard, I learned that naming the rooms that way was part of the original design of the Roycroft Inn, which was used partly as staff dorms, but partly to house visiting guests. And there was even an amusing anecdote about this that the Roycrofters liked to tell. They had hired a local craftsman to carve the names into the doors, specifically, Socrates, Edison, George Eliot, Beethoven, William Morris, and Susan B. Anthony. (Causing one visitor to comment, "An odd team, that.") After carving the names, the craftsman expressed disbelief to the other villagers at the madness of the Roycrofters: "They had me carve 'George Eliot' on the door. What if the fellow doesn't show up?"

Anyway, our stay in the George Eliot room was very pleasant, as was the entire Inn, the restaurant especially, as was our entire trip to East Aurora. We didn't get to see all the sights -- the Hubbard Museum was closed while we were there, but we did visit the copper shop, which sells works of local artisans in the Roycroft style, and it was thrilling to me to see the actual printing presses they used to produce the Little Journeys. Later, we had a lunch of ice-cream sodas in a candy store that was formerly the home of president Millard Fillmore, and we visited an old-time five and dime store. The headquarters of Fisher Price is nearby, too. The town has really embraced its arts and crafts history, you can see it everywhere.

Thus ends my tale of my first Little Journey to East Aurora. (Eerily, I later realized that the first Little Journey Hubbard published was, yeah, George Eliot... so, the room could not have been more appropriate for us.) I feel certain that there will be others. And I am pleased, each day, to look upon the framed sign I found in the copper shop that now hangs in my office, one of Hubbard's lesser known epigrams:

"East Aurora is not a locality - East Aurora is a condition of mind."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Geek Wisdom

A thoughtful gift from a friend. This little book, by Stephen H. Segal (no, not the actor, duh) takes nerd quotes ("I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit", "It's dangerous to go alone, take this", "Kneel before Zod", etc.) and tries to put them in a squeezer with hopes of distilling wisdom. It doesn't really work... instead of meaningful wisdom, each entry is really just some ambling observations. But once in a while he trips over something interesting or clever. It's a great gift book, because it is pleasing to receive, and pleasing to look through, and see all the catchphrases in a row. Reading is overrated, anyway.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

London Review Bookshop

I'm a London Review of Books junkie. I first found it in a Girl Scout Magazine catalog, of all places. And now I'm hooked. I can't read it fast enough -- the articles are so deep, and it comes every two weeks! But... I really like reading something where every time I think "Oh my God these people are so much smarter than me!" For a while, I used to bring it with me to coffee shops, and tried to look smart reading it in public. How sad is that? Fortunately, I cut that out.

So, anyway, with my bookstore fascination, when I was in London, I had to stop into their bookshop. It was pleasing, and modest. A mix of show-offy intellectuals, confused tourists, and quiet bookish people irked that anyone else is in the shop. They have a cafe, which seemed nice, but the show-offs and the confused tourists were so busy ordering complicated things there that it didn't seem possible to actually order something. The basement is where the cool books were... esoteric philosophy and politics, etc.

As mentioned previously, I picked up a copy of Remains of Elmet.

I took the picture you see here, cuz I was too shy and bookish to ask a stranger to take a picture of me standing outside.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Alex Shakar, what's the deal? Did you just decide to take my life, and put it in a book? Okay, not *everything* in this book happened to me, but, yeesh, enough to make me wonder. Let's see...
- Performed magic shows in kids' living rooms? Check.
- Started a tech company to help emergency rescue workers prepare for terror attacks? Check.
- Said company had to race to make flaky demos to impress investors? Check.
- Said company had to do a major pivot? Check.
- Said company got bought out by a much much larger company? Also check.
- Stress caused me to vandalize a Florida mini-golf course? No comment.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. It was so creepily intimate with how MMO's are produced, and the challenges of tech startups... and also it had a great handle on magic, and then there was all the fun mysticism. I can't explain it, exactly, but beyond the surface similarities, there was something in the whole way the protagonist related to the world that resonated with me. Weirdly, this and Ready Player One were on the shelves at the same time.

But back to my original question... Alex Shakar, how do you know all this stuff?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remains of Elmet

I found this book at the London Review Bookshop, a place I had long dreamed about visiting. I wanted something small to take as a souvenir, so I picked this. Admittedly, Ted Hughes is always a mixed bag for me. Some of his stuff is complete genius, and other things strike me as trite and dull. This book, unfortunately, falls into the trite and dull category. Especially this edition! Ted Hughes explains in the introduction:

The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became 'the hardest-worked river in England'.
Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. they are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly. 
Fay Godwin set out to capture some impressions of this landscape at this moment, and her photographs moved me to write the accompanying poems. 

Okay, so, get it? He grew up here, and Fay's photos inspired him to write poems to accompany the photos. But you know what this edition doesn't have? The photos! Naturally, when the book was first printed, it was printed, duh, with the photos. Now, I have not looked at the photos, or seen how the poems fit with them. But... I have a feeling that this poems would seem much better with them. As they stand, they seem to be to be ripped in half. It reminds me of how I felt when I read this.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Decision Book

The Decision Book, by Michael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler, is pretty simple, a good book for a short airplane ride. Using diagrams, it summarizes fifty popular models for thinking strategically. Classics like the Hype Cycle, and the Long Tail are here, and obscure ones I hadn't heard of before. Sadly, I don't think I remember a single new thing I found in this book. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Small Collection of Poetic Artistry

I don't remember where I was, exactly, (maybe DC?) but an older african-american fellow calling himself James F. Harper approached me on the street, and said he was selling copies of his poetry. The copies were simple Xerox copies of his handwritten poetry. It excited me, somehow -- I think all poets should sell their works on the street this way. He asked for five dollars, but I only had three. "Better than nothing," he reasoned. My favorite of the poems was "The President":

"The President"
If I was the President
I'd give everybody a ride on Air Force One,
I'd let you see all parts of the world
We'd have a whole lot of fun. 

If I was The President
All of the little children
Would have a home, and plenty of food to eat,
Plus, everybody would say hello - and how are you
To everyone they meet.

If I was The President
They would elect me on a Friday,
Assassinate me on a Saturday,
Bury me on a Sunday,
And everybody would take their asses
back to work on Monday.

If I was The President

So, yeah, if you see poems for sale on the street, buy them!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Blob

This is one of those movies everyone thinks they have seen -- but most people haven't sat and watched it, beginning to end. It has a weird subtext about the nature of authority, and the roles we fall into. The way the camera dwells on the moment when the school principal contemplates smashing the window is clearly meant to be the pivot point of the film. What's strangest about the whole thing, really, is that for a goopy teen sci-fi movie -- it's artfully done. It clearly really meant something to the man who created it. Who were you, Irvin Yeaworth? How does a Hollywood outsider like you make something like this happen, and make it succeed? And why are your other films so bad? There's something important here. I wonder if I'll ever know what it is.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pimsleur Conversational Swedish

I have gone through life convinced I am bad at language learning. I remember being in first grade, and excitedly finding language learning books at the library: "Learn French" and "Learn Italian". The books looked simple, cartoony, and fun. My parents dissuaded me from getting both: "It's hard enough just to learn one language." But I insisted. When I got home, my heart fell as I realized that reading and memorizing word after word was painfully difficult. I had fantasized that all I had to do was read the book, just as I'd read any book, and the knowledge would stay. Later, I took classes in French at school, and still later in Latin. The experience was mostly dismal. A difficult struggle all along, with lots of repetitive copying and tedious memorizing. And with very little payoff. In some ways it seemed strange to me -- I delight in learning arcane nooks and crannies of the English language, and I seem to have a natural gift for spelling words properly. In second grade, a fellow student was challenged with his spelling, and the teacher grew frustrated teaching him. "Richard," she growled, "for goodness sake, just sound it out! Jesse, that's what you do, right? Tell Richard how you do it." I became nervous, because her system of "sound it out" always seemed strange to me. And I tentatively explained, "Actually, I don't sound things out. I just... taste the words in my mouth, and I can see how to spell them." I believe it was the first time I saw an adult cry.

My frustrations at learning other languages, though, made me decide I must be one of those people for whom foreign language does not come naturally. When I learned of the research showing that toddler minds are specially wired for language learning, I nodded along with it. "Of course. No wonder it is hard for me to learn another language. My brain just isn't wired for it any longer." It seemed as impossible as learning to fly -- but that didn't make it any less fascinating to me, for I generally find the impossible challenges the most intriguing.

And when I stumbled across an ad for a "Revolutionary Method of Language Learning" (in skype of all places) it caught my interest. I watched a short video explaining the Pimsleur method, how it was based in speaking, not in reading and writing, and how it was a pure audio experience, I became intrigued. I know I am an "audio reader" (that is, I turn words into voices in my head, not pictures) and I prefer audio books to printed books in most cases, so I became curious about trying it out. I had an upcoming trip to Sweden for a conference, and my wife and I had taken a try at learning a little Swedish from "Complete Swedish" that we'd found at the bookstore, and it was going badly. "Complete Swedish" thought the best way to learn the language was to focus on learning the peculiar alphabet, and the subtle differences in vowel sounds. Then it hits you with a baffling array of tongue twisters in Swedish. We quickly decided that, wow, Swedish must be way too hard for us to learn. This video does a good job of capturing our bafflement. So, I figured, why not put the Pimsleur method to the test? And see if I can learn some Swedish from it?

I bought an 8 disk, 16 lesson package on Amazon, and I was blown away. NEVER have I found language learning so easy. The system is simple. You listen to the CDs, one lesson a day, half hour a day, and do what they say. They generally ask you to do three things:
1) Listen to a phrase, and repeat it. "The Swedish word for 'Hello' is 'Hej.' Say 'Hej.'"
2) Translate a phrase back into the foreign language. "Say 'Hello' in Swedish."
3) Take part in this Swedish conversation. "Hej .... Är du Amerikan? .... "
And really, that's pretty much it! The whole thing is paced in such a way that it challenges your memory, but doesn't overwhelm it. I was sure that when I went to the second lesson, I'd forget everything from the first, and quickly fall behind. But instead, the second lesson consisted of a lot of review and expansion of the first lesson, and quickly I felt my facility with the language growing. By the end of 16 lessons, I could confidently:
- Exchange simple greetings
- Ask for directions
- Count to 100
- Have simple conversations about money
- Order things from a restaurant
- Have simple hotel conversations
- Explain that I understood a little Swedish, but not much, and that I'm an American who speaks English

And the key word is *confidently*. I had NEVER had this feeling before, with any foreign language. Normally, when I would try to remember words in another language, my mind would seize up. I was in Paris, last year, for example, and when I would try to make use of the two years of French instruction to speak, words would fly from my mind, and natives would just roll their eyes at my stammerings. But after going through the Pimsleur system of Swedish, where you speak and speak and speak, the speaking came naturally to me. I felt confident that if I kept going with the system, and spent time immersed in the language, that I could learn more and more. This was a liberating feeling for me -- I felt like I could fly.

So -- was it useful when I got to Sweden? Only a little, honestly. I think everyone we met could speak confident English, and I quickly learned that the question "Förstår du Engelska?" (Do you understand English?) was kind of insulting, since most educated people in Sweden speak English fairly well. It was enough to say "Hello," which communicated that I would prefer to speak in English. In fact, the natives often seemed excited to show off their English (I found the attitude in France was often the opposite). But still, my limited Swedish helped me to understand lots of little things, and Swedes I met were impressed that, as an American, I knew any Swedish at all. But for me, it really wasn't so much about practical necessity, it was much more about connecting and understanding, and exploring a culture.

So, in short, I'm thrilled with the Pimsleur system. I can't imagine it works for everyone, but for me, it works wonderfully. I'm learning Mandarin Chinese now, in preparation for a trip to Tianjin this September, and already, only four lessons in, I feel like I have a handle on the basics, and I'm thrilled to have some insight into a language that had always been a total mystery to me. After I finish the basic Mandarin (or 普通话, or "Putonghua"), I bought a complete set of Spanish -- over 100 lessons, since my wife speaks Spanish fluently, and my daughter is learning it in school, I figure if I catch up, we can all learn together. The "complete sets" are very pricey, especially the CD versions (the MP3 versions are much cheaper), but I found a used one on Ebay for a pretty reasonable price.

To my surprise, it is possible to learn to fly -- and as it turns out, I love flying!

Hej då! Zài jiàn! Goodbye!

Sunday, April 15, 2012


I read this recently, because I'm working on my own vampire story, and I figured I should go right to the source. I was AMAZED at how different it was than I had expected. It is one of those stories that everyone thinks they know, because they've seen so many tellings of it. But the original is not what I expected at all. Here's why:

1) The format. It is not told like a normal novel, at all. It is actually somewhat post-modern. The book is a collection of journal entries, phonograph transcripts, and clippings from magazines and newspapers, that all interlock to present an unusual story.

2) The book has an unexpected focus on technology. I would have expected it to be a gothic story, set in the past, but it was published in 1897, and it was startlingly up-to-date, with Kodak cameras, typewriters, personal phonographic recording systems, telegrams, and overnight trains across Europe all playing key roles in the story. America is discussed frequently. In a real sense, it is a story about old vs. new. This contrast makes Dracula more horrifying, and throws his ancient evil into sharp relief against the other characters in the story.

3) I had always figured the story was something like: "For some reason, travellers crossing Europe are waylaid, and have to stay at Dracula's castle, where a bunch of creepy things happen to them." In other words, the trope established by The Old Dark House. But that is not the story at all. The story is much more nuanced and complex. You see, Count Dracula has a problem. He's been eating people for hundreds of years, and all the locals know about it, but are unable to stop him. So, they all take a lot of care to stay away, and to ward him off. As a result, he has to work harder and harder to survive. Eventually, he hatches a plan. Abandon the castle, and move to London, where it is so crowded, and there are so many poor, that he can surely pick off someone every few weeks, and no one will know. So, he works to learn English, buys a bunch of travelogues about London, and sends for a London real estate agent to help him buy a house there. The whole thing is very logical, very real, very solid. And this is the real magic of the book, I think.

4) The characters are much more solid and real than I would have expected. I thought they would be caricatures, but they aren't, not really. They are all thinkers, all very logical. The book isn't afraid to get edgy. When Johnathan Harker tells the tale of the vampire girls trying to seduce him, his lust is palpable and undisguised, and would surely have been consummated if not for Dracula's interruption. Van Helsing is similarly interesting -- a true man of science, whose eyes and mind are wide open. He's not a superhero, but nor is he afraid to plunge into the unknown, and systematically deal with it.

In short -- this isn't the book I expected. Over 100 years after publication, it is has a vitality and a freshness that surprised me. And so... my plan. One day soon, I hope to start a Kickstarter: "The Dracula Box." This would be a new publishing of the original text, separated into diaries, newspaper cutouts, and phonographic recordings, to give a new kind of reality to the original text. I'll need to find independent bookbinders, people who have 1897-style handwriting, etc. I will do it, sometime... let me know if you are able to help.

The Descendants

This movie was simple and interesting. It is mostly a showcase for character performances, but its use of symbolism is fascinating, too. On one level, Hawaii is clearly a metaphor for isolation, but at the same time, it's not just a backdrop. The realities of Hawaii's problems play an integral part in the story. I wonder, though -- what is it about George Clooney that makes him such a strong fit for mid-life crisis movies about isolation? (Hmm... I never wrote about Up In the Air -- I guess I better do that.) He, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Tom Cruise have something in common this way -- they are each typecast into specific emotional roles that are a little hard to define.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Motion Picture Projection

This book, from 1928, was fascinating to read, and it convinced me of one thing: James Cameron is OLD! No wonder he pulled off Avatar -- he's been working on motion picture engineering for almost a hundred years! The book has a wealth (1200 pages) of details and images that really show how complex projection was, even then. What fascinated me the most, though, were descriptions of how to get interesting "Brenkert effects" from a Brenograph machine. This was a machine that shone light through rotating disks made of mica, to get hypnotic visual effects, meant to accompany music, or to enhance slide shows. There is even talk of how to use these effects to enhance prologues! If you don't know what those are, go watch my favorite movie: Footlight Parade! You can see some cool Brenograph effects here.

Anyway, if you plan to time travel to 1928 and work in a projection booth, this book is surely invaluable. I wonder if I can get James Cameron to sign it?


I really should have blogged about this ages ago. After I gave my DICE 2010 talk, the author, Sam Landstrom, send me a copy. And I totally loved it! In fact, in a real way, it inspired me to give this other talk.

In MetaGame, Landstrom describes a totally gamified world of the future. In order to make this come about, he had to make certain assumptions. First, some screwed up thing happened with marriage law, basically allowing freeform creation of arbitrary families, essentially creating a guild-oriented world. Constant sensing of everything has then also allowed for a system that can award points for all kinds of activities. What is startling about the book is how thoroughly and thoughtfully Landstrom has thought everything through. I particularly liked his detailed descriptions concerning the future of MMORPGs. The government has decided that sedentary gaming is bad for physical health, so all entertainment gaming must involve real motion. So, accordingly, MMORPG players roam the world in augmented reality glasses. I particularly liked the detail that non-players they run into appear as ghosts in the game, so that they can be avoided, but it is obvious you shouldn't talk to them. The book is full of fun details like that. I enjoyed the book immensely -- someday I'll make my list of the ten most provocative virtual reality books, and this will definitely make the list!