Monday, December 28, 2015

Probe

Probe is an old (1964) Parker Brothers Game that is a kind of four player Hangman with various ornaments hung on it. What separates it from Hangman:

  1. You can include "blanks" at the front and back of your word, to make things more difficult for your opponents.
  2. It is up to four players, and on your turn, you can guess a letter from any of them. 
  3. The slots you put your letters into have different point values, and you get points each time you guess a letter correctly. 
  4. On each turn, you first draw an "activity card" which activates various random events "deduct 10 from your score", "opponent to your right exposes a letter", "add 25 to your score", "take an additional turn", etc. 
  5. After your word has been guessed, you can continue to play and earn points. 
It would seem that Probe is trying to draft off the success of Scrabble "The 384 cards in this game provide more combinations of letters than any other word game." 

Our playing experience was kind of "meh." The drawn cards are kind of irritating, and much of the game is spent trying to remember what letters have already been guessed for each player... and you feel kind of dumb if you reguess one that you didn't remember. It also involves no new skill that Hangman didn't already have. Rounds are relatively short, and setup is kind of a hassle... so, in all, it wasn't something any of us wanted to play again. But if you *love* hangman, this is an interesting four player twist. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In the Surgical Theatre

I found my first Dana Levin poem in an issue of Poetry magazine, and I was really struck by the fluidity, the clarity, and the cleverness of her poetry. So, I picked this up, her first book of poems, since it seemed to be her highest rated book, as well. Unfortunately, I mostly found it too disturbing to read! Most of the poems are about surgery, both real and metaphorical, and as a result are full of gory imagery. They were beautiful, nonetheless, but I have a low tolerance for gore. They weren't all gory, however. One weirdly poignant poem was about the sexual frustration of a teenage boy, and the one that was by far my favorite was just called "Movie." Some excerpts here:
EXIT,
   blood-red beacon in the dark.
The screen gray like smoke, gray
   as a scrim of ash,
the red curtains furling round it like flames.
   Red curtains, red walls, red seats and carpet, even our faces
under red reflected shadows--
   Me and two kids and a man.
...
   I went in, I waited, for the flashes and burns
of another blockbuster, for the requisite explosions
   and hip bon mots,
for the red aesthetic
   slaughter--
   And the two kids: what did they want?
A little chaos, a little blood
   to make their day, their unpredictable fragmented day--
And the man,
   what did he want?
O long tunnel out of despair, distraction of someone else's
   story---
...
Arnold, Disney, Mafia two-step, make us, make us
   be--
something else for awhile.
...
To give up the burden awhile.
   To be an eye.
Perceiver.
   God of the Kingdom
It is much longer than that, but those are the parts that most resonated with me. The notion that a film lifts our burden of existence by letting us be something else, someone else is a powerful idea.... but it ends with an even more powerful idea -- that watching a movie is to become God. All-seeing, all-knowing, but powerless to interfere. I've never heard anyone make this comparison before -- it simultaneously elevates the role of the viewer, and questions the role of God. Would would it mean if God felt as powerless, as frustrated, and sometimes as moved watching us as we do when we watch a movie?

Anyway, I certainly plan to seek out more Dana Levin poems... for her poetry has a beauty and a power and a whole living quality feels somewhat unique. I just hope it all isn't so gruesome!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Roger Ebert once suggested that "little boxes" on the movie poster with pictures of the cast members was usually a sign of a bad movie, but this must be the exception that proves the rule. It's a simple, clever, and charming story about a stressed out teen who checks himself into a psych ward and gets a dose of the realities of mental illness. It has some great performances in it, with Zach Galafianakis mostly stealing the show. Lots of other familiar actors and comedians are in it as well -- Jim Gaffigan, Aasif Mandvi, and Jeremy Davies (Dr. Faraday from Lost), for example. In short, it is fun, touching, a pleasing 13+ family film that has me curious to read the book.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Croquet Player

I picked up this weird little book by H.G. Wells at Amazing Books in downtown Pittsburgh. It is a peculiar story -- a thing that starts out as a ghost story, but morphs into a philosophical diatribe on the nature of civilization. If that were all that were there, I could hardly recommend it. But what makes this worth reading, I think, is the way Wells handles his characters. There are only three, really, but they are each so interesting, and each written with such a vivid quality that they seem quite real, as strange as each one of them (a croquet player, a doctor, a psychiatrist) is. He wrote it quite late in his life, and the maturity of his writing is in full evidence. I haven't read Wells extensively, but I certainly don't remember his writing being this clear and interesting in the books I did read -- I was younger though, I think I'll go back and try some of them again.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Nelson

I picked this up from the gift shop of the London Cartoon Museum a couple years ago. It's a remarkable effort initiated by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. It's a collection of comics from 54 UK comic artists. Each comic (there are 43 of them, some artists teamed up) is set in a different year, running from 1968 to 2011. Most interestingly, all the comics are about one person, so we get to watch a life unfold through manifold lenses. I can't say it is a masterpiece -- it swerves and wobbles quite a bit, as you might imagine it would, with so many cooks in the kitchen. But it does, somehow, manage to hold together, partly because the comic artists are mostly excellent. I'll go so far as to say it is a landmark in the history of collaborative storytelling, because I've never seen anything executed quite like this. And did I mention? It's very very British. I mean, crikey, it's called Nelson. If you are considering any kind of serious collaborative storytelling effort, this is a must read. Kudos to everyone involved!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

7 Wonders

I'm not always a fan of points-building euro games... But I really like this one! Lots of fun choices, very little head-to-head competition, and relatively simple mechanics. Things I especially liked:
  • Everyone plays at the same time, so there is little waiting on other players
  • A fixed number of turns (18), so there are no game-suddenly-ended surprises, nor a worry that the game will go all night
  • A three-act structure that allows for richer and more interesting things to happen late in the game
  • Cumulative economy, so you can never find yourself bankrupt
  • A simple system for trading with your neighbors, so who you sit next to really matters
  • A very simple military system that never really feels cruel
In short, it is rich, and while it has some level of inherent complexity (military actions, scientific development, industry, building wonders) it all happens by playing simple cards, and so the complexity is wide, not deep, allowing for a lot of emergent gameplay because there are a lot of verbs, but the verbs are each simple and of the same form. I look forward to trying it again. No wonder this has so many awards -- it is very interesting and steamlined.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Queen of the Sciences: A History of Mathematics

I like mathematics. I always have. The history of mathematics has always been especially interesting to me, because you get to witness so many moments of discovery happening, and they are always so human... they give me the feeling that I could easily discover important things as well. I first got a taste of the history of mathematics when I was growing up -- my Grandpa Emil, a professional (Hungarian) mathematician would often tell me stories of mathematical discoveries. I remember him telling me with particular excitement, the story of how Hardy discovered Ramanujan, and how they worked together. Emil's phone line number was 7129, which was just a transposition away from 1729, the number of Hardy's cab in the famous story. In college at Rensselaer, I would often dreamily stare at the four semester "History of Mathematics" courses listed in the catalog, but they never seemed to fit my schedule. Instead, I read E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, which eventually inspired me to record this song with help from Katelyn Mueller.
So! I was quite excited to finally live out my academi-histori-mathematical fantasy by watching this 24 part lecture series given ably by David Bressoud. It's a bit dry at times, and could use more diagrams, but still, it's pretty great! He uses Fermat's Last Theorem as a sort of thread running through the entire history of mathematics, and tells many wonderful stories. Early stories about the importance of astronomy and astrology to mathematics, and later ones about how radio waves were discovered. I really found it thoroughly enjoyable, and I was sad when it was over. I learned a lot, and gained new appreciation for elliptical functions and the complex plane. I also really enjoyed his definitions, most especially mathematics as "the abstraction of pattern." Studying math makes me feel connected to my heritage, and makes me feel like Emil is right nearby, in the light blue armchair by the fireplace, puffing away at his Revelation pipe tobacco (same one Einstein smoked!) while I pore over his books about Escher and topology.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Helpless Doorknob

Everyone loves Edward Gorey... how could I resist a deck of interactive story cards he created? They are silly, and kind of fun, but certainly not groundbreaking. For whatever reason, each one begins with the letter "A", and shows an event ("Agatha finished knitting a scarf for Augustus", "Angus inherited the grandfather clock from Aunt Ada", etc.). You lay these out to create an ostensible story. Figuring out cause and effect is up to the reader. Usually it doesn't work out too well, but once in a while something amusing occurs. It all just reinforces the idea that story is tricky. There is a reference to Novaya Zemyla, though, which won me over. And, naturally, none of the story events has anything to do with a doorknob.

They look nice on a coffee table, anyway.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

At the Edge of Uncertainty

This is the first book I've read by Michael Brooks, which is surprising since I like popular books about the edge of scientific research so much. I've seen many of his books before, but this one really called out to me. And I wasn't disappointed. His style is unlike any I've encountered in science writing -- a relentless downhill run. From image to fact to challenge to image to story to image to fact to surprise with no break between topics, no time to take a breath. It makes the book feel kind of silly and sensationalist, but it's fun, especially given the variety of topics in the book. His eleven topics include consciousness, hypercomputing, mutable DNA, quantum biology, Turing-style hypercomputing, and the question of time. It was fun to rush through, and the time questions really got me thinking again about the nature of time. I know it sounds crazy, but I somehow feel like it is my destiny to achieve a grand insight about the nature of time. It is certainly my most obsessive thought. This book has me thinking and reading more about block time, relativistic time, the relationship between quantum mechanics and time, the relationship between time and free will, time as a human experience, etc. More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that time definitely exists, but it's possible that "now" simply doesn't. But that's a long conversation for another time. Anyway, this book is a fun downhill run that covers so much territory that it is likely to spark something for you. It certainly did for me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Powell's Books

I have been to hundreds of bookstores, and never experienced anything like Powell’s! I have seen big bookstores before, and I have seen small curated bookstores, but I’ve never seen anything like this! First, it is immense, taking up most of a city block, and multiple floors. But amazingly, it is deeply curated, carefully and clearly organized, with each section feeling neat and alive. Used books and new books live side by side together in a pleasing harmony. Handwritten notes and suggestions from staff are everywhere, and all signage is clear, and the lighting is excellent. It must take an army to keep it organized, not to mention a set of principles that the entire staff fully understands and embraces. I could have spent days and days there. If I could only visit one bookstore the rest of my life, it might be this one. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival

I continue to be actively engaged in VR, and am excited about 2016, which will be VR’s biggest year ever. But most of my focus has been on games. Facebook has made clear they believe that VR movies will be the facet of VR that will be truly mass market, since the market for immersive games is limited. I had been somewhat skeptical about VR as a film medium, until I watched a short VR film my students created, which really used the medium well, and was very moving, though it had its rough spots. I happened to be in Portland for the premiere presentation of the Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival (if you want to see if it is coming to your town, check here), so I thought I’d check it out. They had about twenty VR “films” to show, about half of which were video, half were animation. Most of which were linear experiences, though a few had minor interactive elements. Portland is the first stop for the festival, but the plan is to visit ten cities. Regular tickets were about $25, but VIP tickets that let you skip the lines (and there were lines) were a bit north of $100. As a busy VR professional, who really wanted to see as much as possible, I decided to spring for the VIP pass.
My hope was that I would see a new medium springing forth, that would be as interesting and powerful as the VR gaming world is starting to be. Unfortunately, I didn’t really see that. Instead, most of what I saw were early, often bungling experiments with trying to make VR films. Few VR filmmakers seem to comprehend the power of presence, and fewer understand how not to break it. Annoyingly, even the organizers of the festival don’t get it! They pumped techno music into the festival space the entire time, which bled through the headphones into every experience, completely trashing any sense of place that a filmmaker might be trying to create. Hopefully enough people will complain about this that on the rest of the tour the festival organizers will take the hint that audio landscape is how the mind establishes where it is.
Most filmmakers are so used to creating content for a rectangular screen that dealing with an explorable immersive medium is alien to them. Nepal Quake, despite its noble mission, was full of jarring jump cuts and weird seams. The Archer tried to create a “silent movie” feel, but then absolutely failed to guide the eye of the viewer to the subtitles in any useful way. Red Balloon Movie was a watery take on Uplift, making a weak excuse to show some VR drone footage that felt fairly meaningless, and also had a lot of cuts. Some other films were really just immersion pieces, letting you sit quietly and look at something not particularly interesting. Some pieces such as Tana Pura, LoVR, and Bright Shadows were abstract music videos, which were relatively engaging by being pretty, but weak on storytelling. Colosse did a good job at being pretty, and at leading the eye, but the pacing was often a bit slow. Butts was amusing, and used an interesting 3D iris effect to guide the viewer’s eye at the end. The Night CafĂ© was an attempt to make an explorable Van Gogh painting, which aesthetically was very successful, though the navigation was slightly awkward, and it had no story or interest curve. There was definitely a problem with indirect control, as the usher had to tell everyone “There’s nothing in the basement. Everyone wants to go down there, but there’s nothing.” It was a wonderful beginning to what could be a very meaningful experience, but though the models are artfully constructed, there’s no meaning there yet. The standout of the show for me was DMZ: Memories of a No Man's Land, which takes about ten minutes and is an interactive exploration of the complexities of the Korean border. It was not only elegant and beautiful, but had a surprisingly thought provoking message, and a very clever method of allowing the guest to explore and gradually unlock content in a way that allows free exploration, but also lets a structured story be told. I definitely learned things from DMZ that I can use.

Sorry to be down on this stuff, but the medium is really important to me. I came to the festival hoping to get an update about the wonderful progress that VR filmmakers are surely making. Mostly, I’m not seeing that. This experience has strengthened my belief that gaming will be the killer app for virtual reality. While I’m sure there will be a few excellent VR films created, they will be exceptions, not the rule, and I believe there will be far more passion for game-like experiences in VR than there will be for film-like experiences. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Portrait of Socrates

I picked up this book, written by R.W. Livingstone in 1938, a few years ago from a small used bookstore in Newcastle. Socrates has always interested me, and the idea of learning more about him interested me. But how is there any more to learn about him than what we see in Plato’s writings? There isn’t, really – and so, this portrait consists of Plato’s “death of Socrates” trilogy, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, with annotations and commentary from the editor. His most helpful annotations were the ones regarding the challenges of translating Ancient Greek into English. The word that comes across as “beauty” has a deeper, richer meaning than our word, for example. There was an irritating aspect to many of these annotations, however. Instead of putting them after a section, they generally were listed before a given section, and usually contained a summary of the forthcoming passage, which both broke Plato’s natural flow, and somewhat spoiled what was to come next. Before long I stopped reading them, so I could enjoy the natural flow of Plato’s writing, which tries very hard to feel like natural conversation. Going back after I finished to read the annotations gave some extra depth. This book was published in 1938 and had at least one previous owner. Interestingly, there were pen marks in the margins, where someone seemed to be noting the places where Socrates was prefiguring Christian beliefs and attitudes. It is remarkable how much he does present a Christian message, especially given that he too was unjustly executed by the state. The Athenians invented democracy, and then used it to execute Socrates. Nobody’s perfect, I guess!

One more curious aspect about this book. The editor uses two different typeface sizes: a large one to denote passages that he feels most fully represent Socrates, and a smaller one to indicate ones that are less important for understanding Socrates the man. I had a hard time making the distinction, but I liked the idea of using different sized typefaces to indicate potentially skippable text. In the introduction, the author suggests that if this book received a warm enough reception, that he might create a whole serious of “Portrait of” books. My web search turns up no new ones, which is understandable. It’s always pleasing to visit with Socrates, even on his deathbed, but this book would have been much more enjoyable had the editor simply given us some background, and gotten out of the way. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher

When we got to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, and started walking around, we were excited to see the Modern Art Museum featuring an M.C. Escher exhibition. I was weaned on Escher at a young age, sitting in my grandfather Emil’s armchair by the fireplace and carefully paging through his big coffee table books of Escher’s works. It was exciting to visit this exhibit and see the prints up close – they look so much more detailed than the reproductions I have seen. Being able to see Drawing Hands, Snakes, and my personal favorite, Castrovalva, up close was very special. Even more special was being able to see the letters he exchanged with Coxeter and Penrose about mathematics and technique. Also, I never really understood his business model before, never understood how much he was very much trying to make prints that people would buy, and trying to maximize their value. His work always had an incomplete quality, to me. He wasn’t really building a world, just giving glimpses into something. When I was young, I always assumed the rest of the world was out there somewhere – that the books just only showed small fragments of it, for some reason. To be an adult now, and to realize that no, these few fragments are all that exist is very sad. To think that a relatively small number of these beautifully rendered, but somewhat sterile fragments are all that exists to represent a human life, and that there never was any more to that world, and there never will be, just an eccentric artist trying to make what people would buy is somewhat disheartening. I guess the other side of the coin is the insane perfection in his work. Doing that kind of work as ink, and as lithographs, and some even more esoteric methods, sometimes spending months on a single print, requires a level of perfection that is hard to even think about, And while his small collection of pictures might seem a little sad, how much sadder are the thousands of artists who slave their whole lives and are not remembered at all? His combination of unique perspective and intense perfection has ensured that his work will live on. I think that Escher is best remembered for his limited collaborations with mathematicians. The lesson I take away most of all is this – if you work alone, your work will be limited. If you would build something large, if you would build a whole world, you must work with a team, and accept and embrace everything that entails.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Back to the Future

In our attempt to properly educate our daughter about the foundations of nerd culture, Back to the Future seemed pretty necessary. And it worked to good effect – she stayed interested, and appreciated the jokes. One thing that had not sunk in with me about the movie – how much it keeps moving! It barely stops for a moment, and tries to tell a slightly complicated story, almost never stopping to recap, which makes it an impressive piece of storytelling. When I advise my students to create “impossible” situations for their characters (novice storytellers never want to create these situations because they can’t see a way out), I think I’ll show the five minutes leading up to the climax, where it seems like there is no conceivable way for Doc Brown to get everything hooked up properly.

One thing that really startled me – I watched the “deleted scenes” – had those been included, it would have been a very different movie! In them, Doc Brown is lecherous and foul-mouthed, the neighborhood cop takes a bribe, and Marty’s Mom cheats on a test for no obvious dramatic reason. They were wise to cut all that, it would have made the film seem grubby. Although, I always had wondered how Doc Brown got rid of the cop… now I wish I didn’t know!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I had heard of this show, and have always been fond of spelling, and this high school production seemed family friendly, so we thought we’d check it out. After all, a spelling bee is a good idea for a stage show – it’s already on a stage, already has tension and eccentricity, and everyone understands what it is. And the show was decent. I can’t say it was great, but it was pretty good. The kids did a nice job with their songs and bits, and I think most of my concerns were with the script. It was enough to make me wonder if we were seeing some strange abridged version of the show, since the main weakness was that character relationships did not feel fully developed, and as a result, the characters sometimes did things that didn’t make sense. But the show has a LOT of characters, so maybe that’s just how it is? The show was 90 minutes, which was plenty for a musical – I don’t know how they would have fit in more without cutting something. I found myself wishing for a 35% reduction in characters with a corresponding increase in depth. The school group was from the US (Alexandria, Virginia) and it must have been so exciting for them to come all the way to Edinburgh to perform. Overall, it was about as good as one could hope for a high school production to be, and I’m glad I got to see it. Still, for a musical about spelling bees, I'll take "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" every time.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

4x4 Ephemeral Architectures

I’ve watched a lot of juggling shows. Dozens, probably hundreds. And I’ve put on quite a few. The easiest kinds are the ones where you build anticipation for a difficult or dangerous trick, then do that trick and collect the applause. More difficult are the ones where you weave comedy into your tricks, using the tricks to frame jokes, and using the jokes to set up tricks. Most difficult are the shows where what is happening is simply beautiful. These are so hard because for juggling to be truly beautiful, it must be perfect in a way that evokes an emotional response. You see this most often when a single performer does a very challenging routine against music. But often these routines while technically beautiful, feel emotionally dead. The performer is performing them for you, to impress you, so you come away thinking, wow, that guys is really good. Seldom is the solo performer trying to get you to experience beauty, or an emotional experience. 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures (video trailer here) is like a show I’ve dreamed of, but never thought could really happen. In it, four expert jugglers and four expert ballet dancers perform elegantly choreographed routines by a master choreographer. The entire focus is on creating a beautiful, artful performance, and because there are multiple performers, emotional exchange is natural and inevitable. I have always wondered what it would be like for a really skilled choreographer to work with jugglers to create beauty – the addition of trained dancers makes it even better. The show itself explores the clash of these two cultures, as to fulfill the vision, it was necessary for the jugglers to perform some basic ballet, and for the dancers to perform some basic juggling. Clearly great pains were taken to build routines around what each performer was best at. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to develop this show, four to six months at minimum. I never cried during a juggling performance before. When I put on headphones and practice in my front yard, trying to create beautiful swooping patterns that match the music, this is the kind of juggling I fantasize about being able to do, and this show has given me hope that one day I may do it. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Biggest Marionette Circus in the World

We went into this show expecting little. Hopefully some big marionettes that would be interesting and amusing. Well, we got that. The marionette work was not world-class, more at the novice level, really, but the giant size of some of the animals made up for that a bit, and added some novelty. There was a little clowning, which honestly was somewhat tiresome because of a lack of listening between the clowns. They barely seemed to know each other were there, much less to meaningfully interact. An exception to this was a fun interaction between a Strong Man and a butterfly, which was fun, amusing, and had great interplay between actors. The glue that held the show together was the ringmaster. He had a weird, dreamlike quality that made him immediately interesting, and both friendly and alien at the same time. The show starts with two clowns (wearing hats that hide their face – immediately putting them at a performance disadvantage) messing about with a mechanical key, trying to start the show. They wind up the various marionettes, but still no show. The ringmaster, feigning unconsciousness, but winking to the audience, finally manipulates them into winding him up so the show can begin. He then “wakes up”, not at all clear about his identity, or where he is… then finally, in a strange but clear European accent, “Ah! I see! Ringmaster!” and looking out at the audience, “Ah… oh! Yes! I remember! Children! Yes, and parents! Yes, I remember!” This strange introduction immediately takes us to an Our Town kind of place – where could he have been that he forgotten about the existence of parents and children? He then assumes the role of ringmaster, introducing the various marionette animal acts. He is always right there with the audience, wanting to help, but often going into strange asides, where he acts like a trustworthy figure, but simultaneously is the kind of person you wouldn’t want your kids left alone with, as his advice and ideas are strange, and he does not have very good control over his strange show. This weirdness creates multiple levels that help keep adults interested – but I felt like where the show falls down a bit is connecting with the kids. At multiple times in the show, the ringmaster tries to involve the audience in call and response to encourage the performers, but he makes the rookie mistake of vagary, saying things like “Help the strong man out, make some noise!” instead of saying “Clap for the strong man!” or “On the count of three, shout, ‘You can do it!’” this vagary left the feedback loop between audience and actors in a watery state, and denied the audience the rush of power that comes from being part of a mass chant that has a real effect. The show is clever, and has its charms, but it also has its sloppy and amateur side. With some tightening, polish, and a little more meaning (Why are we here? What is the message for the audience, exactly?) this okay show could become very great indeed. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Puddles Pity Party

I already had pre-purchased tickets for three shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, which felt like plenty to me, but when we arrived, to our surprise we saw posters that Puddles would be performing! I first became aware of him like many people did, through his youtube video of Royals. I’ve always been interested in clowns and clowning, and Puddles seemed to have a special magic about him, and the idea of seeing him live at the Fringe was too good to pass up. And the show did not disappoint! As much as I was moved by 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, the most memorable experience of our trip was attending Puddles Pity Party. I’ve had to think a lot about what it is that makes his show so powerful. Let me try to break it down.
  1. I hear many people say, “I don’t like clowns, but I like Puddles,” or “Puddles is a singer who wears a clown costume,” or “Puddles is not a traditional clown.” All of these are wrong. Puddles is not just a clown, he is an excellent clown. People who don’t like clowns have never seen a good one, and this is understandable because good clowning is really hard. It isn’t about being silly or trying to get laughs, it is about being a character that is a genuine side of yourself that has all the unnecessary trappings of reality stripped away so that the audience is confronted with nothing but the raw experience of a primal part of the human psyche. Clowns are complex because they are both genuine, because without tapping into something genuine within themselves, their performance is meaningless, but also unreal, because obviously no one could exist like that. They are a pure facet of humanity, with all the aspects that might dilute that purity, their skin, their hair, their voice, boiled away. Doing this properly and well is incredibly difficult. It requires bravery, cleverness, commitment, and ultimately, purpose. Clowns exist to show us something, something about humanity, something about ourselves. All comedy is like this, clowning is just purer, requiring more bravery, more cleverness, more commitment, and more purpose if it is to succeed. It is no wonder that most clowns fail, to the point that clowning has a bad name.
  2. Some people say Puddles is not a real clown, because he talks. But he doesn’t talk – he only sings. Further, he only sings songs you already know. He never uses his voice to tell you anything you don't already know. This is certainly a twist on traditional clowning, but all successful clowns do something unique. In many ways, there is an obvious parallel between Puddles and Harpo Marx. They are both clearly clowns, but both breaking away from the workaday clown mold. They both confront people pointedly, aggressively, and directly, and they both have musical performance at the heart of their identity.
  3. Puddles as a character is surprisingly deep. He isn’t just a “sad clown.” He is clearly wounded, not just emotionally, but physically. He seems to be in physical discomfort for much of the show, constantly adjusting his costume as if it hurts him, as if it is binding him in some way. Even simple things, like removing a piece of gum from his mouth, seem to be a painful ordeal. When he moves his little stool around the stage, he does it in a way that obviously is the most effort. His character doesn’t seems to be doing this to amuse us, or because he is too foolish to do it an easier way, but almost as if to intentionally show us that this is what we all do. He knows he could do it differently, but he knows that he must show us, and he knows that this is the only way to show us.
  4. His singing is incredible. Allan Sherman used to describe his own act as “a fancy window display at Tiffany’s, with a spotlight, and a velvet pillow, and there on the pillow, is an onion.” Puddles is the opposite of this. His voice is an angel in a junkyard. It simply doesn’t make sense that so much powerful emotion could come from a big, grotesque, sloppy clown. But there it is. If he were an ordinary singer, he’d hold our attention, but as Puddles, both in appearance and in affect, we are powerless to look away.
  5. Like Mister Rogers, we aren’t there for him, he is there for us. He isn’t there to show off. He is there because we need help. Helping us isn’t easy – we don’t even believe we need help, and we certainly didn’t come here seeking it. But Puddles helps us, showing us that not only is it possible to love through pain, but as the New Testament points out, there is no other kind of love. Puddles stalks the stage like a wounded animal, practically limping, but never taking his eyes off of us, and occasionally entering the audience to select someone to bring to the stage. I was one of those he selected, and while I was slightly nervous at first, I’ve done enough audience participation work to feel somewhat comfortable in a situation like this. And, after all, I’d seen what happened to the last “volunteer” – puddles sang happy birthday to him, embarrassed him a little, gave him a balloon and a party hat, and sent him off the stage. I figured I could handle that. But I was not counting on what happened next – Puddles set up a microphone in front of me, and sat down on his stool on the other side of the stage. The opening bars of a Beatles song started up, and Puddles pointed at me, with that “go” look. I am not a comfortable singer. Sure, I do lots of stage stuff, I’m a very comfortable talker – but I’ve never felt good about my singing voice. I do lots of singing privately, I like music and songs. But to suddenly be on stage in front of 200 people and be expected to carry a whole song solo was paralyzing. I cannot remember having been that scared in a long time. But a show is a show, and I respect a show, so I jumped in, heart pounding, and gave it my best, thanking God it was a song in my key. I was really afraid that Puddles and the audience would make faces at my singing – but that didn’t happen! Instead, they both seemed quite impressed by my bravery! It was going so well that Puddles started reading a magazine, which made me break out laughing and miss a line. At Puddles’ prompting, the audience sang the choruses with me, and in the end, I finished it, he presented me with a crown, and we took a bow together. I know it sounds silly, but this was a really meaningful moment for me. I’ve always wanted to sing, but I can’t remember anyone ever complimenting my singing. Instead I remember what it felt like to be the only boy to try out for chorus in the 7th grade, as all the girls snickered, and the music teacher suggesting that “maybe it would be better if I did something else,” or being rejected as a candidate to do singing telegrams in high school drama club, or people making faces at my singing at a party, or in church. I never even tried karaoke, I was too self-conscious. But here was a situation where I sang, and it was okay. It wasn’t great, or anything, but it was okay. And Puddles knew what he was doing, the whole time. He knows what it is to sing in front of people, how vulnerable it makes you. And so he created this trust fall exercise. And it worked – something broke through in me, and I see a path forward now – I think I am actually going to take some singing lessons, and do more to build my confidence as a singer. I doubt everyone who has sung on Puddles’ stage has had the same experience, but I’m sure it must be a powerful experience for almost everyone. I would have been terrified just to watch it!
So, anyway, there is my oversharing about Puddles Pity Party. The show affected me another way. I’ve done some minor clowning over the years, recently developing a character I call Bottlecap, who primarily perform as when working my harmonium. I’ve done some stage work as Bottlecap as a silent character, and I really enjoyed that (here’s a video much hampered by lack of a stage microphone to capture the music). But when I work the street, I’ve never been brave enough to stay silent. People come up and ask me questions about the harmonium, and it feels rude not to answer. But after seeing Puddles’ show, I see the opposite is true – it is irresponsible of me to speak. A clown can’t do his good work if he speaks, any more than a mirror could. When people ask about the harmonium, I should do what I do on stage – show them how to play it, which gives me a chance to become their co-performer where I juggle and dance to the music they make. I’m looking forward to trying this.
So, anyway – perhaps I’m making too much of this, but I don’t think so. I think there must be many people for whom Puddles’ message of pain and love has come at just the right time. Thanks for doing this, Puddles – your good work is helping us all.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Minions

I went into this film with really low expectations. Sure, I enjoyed Despicable Me, and I heard the sequel was okay, but the minions, though mildly amusing, were hardly my favorite part of the film. And when I heard that a film featuring the minions was planned, it just sounded like a kind of sell-out idea. How could they possibly carry a feature film? They only speak a kind of gibberish, and their individual identity is very limited. On top of that, they are helpers to a villain, so there is a challenge getting the audience to empathize with them. I can understand some amusing shorts featuring them, but a Hollywood film would require a kind of hero’s journey, and that just seemed kind of ludicrous.
Well, wow, was I wrong. This film is something of a magic trick, achieved through bravery and cleverness. The keys to success, as best I can pick them out:
  1. An incredibly strange premise: The minions have always lived on earth, parallel with dinosaurs and the evolution of man. They seem to be immortal, or at least living hundreds of millions of years. Where they came from is left a mystery.
  2. The minions seek out the biggest, most evil entity they can find, and endeavor to help it. It isn’t clear why they do this – it’s just what they do.
  3. It isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it is clear that the minions, in the traditional way of clowns and fools, bring bad luck to those around them, but are always lucky themselves in the long run. Weirdly, since they are attracted to villains, this makes them an unwitting force for good.
  4. In the story, the minions simply run out of villains, and become quite bored and dismal. Accordingly, three of them set out on a journey to find a new villain. This simple move allows for a hero’s journey to happen.
  5. We then are confronted with the strange world of the villains, and a story happens. The storytellers are completely unconcerned with reality – this is very important – as some very improbable things happen – Minion Bob becomes the King of England, for example, and somehow the story world doesn’t break – it just keeps stretching, like taffy, because everything just happens so fast, and is so funny, that it doesn’t much matter that what’s happening is impossible. It’s like a funny uncle telling an absurd story to six year olds at a birthday party. They keep laughing, so he keeps making the story more absurd, and they laugh all the more.
  6. Amazingly, there is never some weird misunderstanding separating the minions (see The Muppet Movie, The Three Stooges Movie, etc.), leading to some powerful moment of reconciliation. The minions also do not befriend some cute little girl who has to hide them in her bedroom closet. All the tropes I would have expected just aren’t here. And somehow, the whole thing works… I can’t exactly say why. I guess because the goal of the minions is always very clear, but very challenging, and when things go wrong, we’re pleased to see it. I keep thinking of a story structure I know that’s like this one. Some Marx Brothers movies, say, Horse Feathers, bear some resemblance – but the problem there is that the clowns are helping someone we care about. Typically, in those stories, the clowning makes things worse, and then a stroke of luck + more clowning saves the day. In the beginning it makes the clowns seem insensitive – we feel bad that their clowning is making things hard for the princess. And in the end it often feels like a cop out – they only helped the princess because they were lucky. But here it is all backwards – they don’t realize they aren’t helping the villain, and we don’t mind, because, well, villain. And in the end, yes, there is a stroke of luck + clowning, but it only serves to finally defeat the villain.
  7. Oh, hey, I should mention – since this is a prequel, and mostly happens in England, they went for a whole sixties rock and roll thing – which on one level has nothing to do with the minions, so on the surface, it seems like a tacky choice. But it is so well executed and fun, that it adds a nice dimension to the film.
  8. So, finally, the thing I should really call out is the cyclic nature of the minion’s backstory. They necessarily repeatedly go through the cycle of finding a villain, trying to help, and ultimately destroying the villain. This not only opens them up as a long term franchise, it does a lot to strengthen their story relationship with Gru, from Despicable Me. We now see the minions for what they are – a curse that seeks out and destroys whatever villians it comes into contact with, which makes us wonder how they will inevitably bring down Gru, who we have developed empathy for. So, ultimately, the film fosters interest in another sequel.
Whew. I know that seems like too much analysis for a goofy summer movie, but I take storytelling seriously, and Minions is a storytelling feat! It shouldn’t exist, but there it is! Story is like that – it is so malleable that amazing structures can be built if you create the right foundations. I wish the Tomorrowland team could have been as masterful at storytelling as the Minions team.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Wayward Bus

Hey, Steinbeck for my 600th blog post. Classy. This is a Steinbeck novel I'd never read. I found a first edition of it somewhere, and picked it up out of curiosity. I'd come to regard the lesser known Steinbeck novels with a kind of uncertainty, since finding In Dubious Battle somewhat disappointing. But maybe you had to be there. Anyway, this was a different kettle of fish, and I enjoyed it a great deal. It is a very simple, intimate novel, about a group of strangers on a bus that gets waylaid. I've never seen Steinbeck get quite this close with his characters in such an even handed manner. All of them were interesting, and each was appealing and repulsive in their own way. The series of events is clear and understandable, and not at all sensationalist, but there remains engaging tension throughout. I'm not sure how I feel about the ending. A more dramatic ending might have made this one of his better known novels -- but it wouldn't have been true to the characters or the story, I think. Victor Hugo's saying that "The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves," I think is apt for this story. I feel like I might read it again someday. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Judy Carter's Speaking Career in a Box

In an attempt to weather-proof my exercise routine, I've taken to doing 30 minutes on the exercise bike every morning, working under the theory that if you exercise first thing in the morning, nothing worse can happen to you for the rest of the day. This has given me a chance to watch a bunch of DVDs that I've been meaning to get around to forever. One of these is "Judy Carter's Speaking Career in a Box", which I found sometime after reading Judy's Comedy Bible. I was intrigued by it, because Judy is a really good teacher, and a speaking career is something I kind of fell into, just like she did, coming from a comedy path. I mean, I don't technically have a speaking career, per se, that is, it isn't my full time job. But, yeesh, I do a lot of it. Anyway, this set of DVDs is pretty solid. She walks you through the path from having no talk to getting a full-time speaking career going, with lots of real-world advice, like booking your gig before you write your talk -- it's the only way you'll get it done! It's a few years out of date now -- TEDx is not mentioned, neither is youtube, but all the principles are sound, and I definitely picked up a few things I can use. Most of all, it was really interesting to see how she broke down the formula for what makes a great talk -- and she's totally right -- we all do the same thing, and follow the same patterns, because they work.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Duck Soup

In a conversation with my daughter not too long ago, I made the terrifying realization that not only had she never seen a Marx Brothers movie, she actually HAD NO IDEA WHO THE MARX BROTHERS WERE! I mean, no idea. Never heard of Groucho. Glasses, moustache, cigar, it all meant nothing to her. "Do you mean like Karl Marx?" she asked, in all seriousness. "That tears it," I told her, "you've had too much schooling, and not enough fooling!" Comedy is something we take seriously in the Schell household, so we all agreed that something must be done. But which movie to start with? The Cocoanuts, though first, is a bit slow. Some others have seemingly unnecessary padding or serious songs that might bore a modern teenager. But, of course! Duck Soup! It has none of these things. It was the film that made me fall in love with the Marx Brothers (I think I was maybe four? I think I called Groucho "Firefly" until I was six. A man named Firefly was enough to win me over, but the antics of Rufus T. Firefly were irresistible). It is very short (70 minutes), and is certainly the most boiled down of all Marx Brothers films. Many of the others have a "serious story" with relatable characters that the brothers crash into. Duck Soup doesn't bother. It has tiny base story, where all the characters are already simple caricatures, and Marx Brothers dominate the film. It never stops moving, and just when you think it might start making sense, it takes a turn and obstinately refuses to hold to any logical structure. It is the last of the five Paramount Marx Brothers films, and the bravery and daring that can come with being very comfortable with what you are doing really comes through here. I'll go so far as to say that this film captures the essence of the Marx Brothers better than any other. What is that essence exactly? That's a long conversation. They simply aren't like any other comedic structure I know of. The balance of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo simply shouldn't work -- but somehow it does, and there it is. I would have to think very hard to understand exactly how it works. I know part of the key is that Groucho and Harpo almost never interact... but again, I would have to do a lot more thinking to begin to comprehend it. I know of no modern analogue (not any ancient analogue!) for their comedic balance.

So... how did it go over? She laughed so hard it gave her hiccups. Can you imagine creating something so funny that eighty years later, after everyone involved has died, people are still laughing at it uncontrollably? She always respects good comedy, and I was quite proud to see how thoroughly she appreciated the film. Her main reaction was astonishment that the characters were so amazing, and so insanely funny. I continue to be astonished myself.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Travelling Salesman

My kindle stick noticed I like nerd movies, so it recommended this one. It's a simple idea -- four mathematicians hired by the government solve P vs. NP thus potentially defeating all known computer security. The movie is mostly a circular argument about whether it is ethical for one government to keep this secret. In an attempt to create interest, much of it is filmed in shaky-cam (yecch), and it includes a gratuitous dream sequence. Anyway, I watched Pi (in the theater, even), so why wouldn't I watch this. It was corny and silly and unrealistic, but there was at least a little math in it. Would have been better with more math. Or more action. Or both. Still -- any movie that mentions Hardy is alright by me. They should have used this song in the credits, though. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

No Commercial Potential

I found this 1972 biography of Frank Zappa in a Half Price Books, and I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up, as I'll get to later. I've been a Zappa fan a long time, but somehow I had never heard of or seen this book, so I picked it up. Hm -- how long have I been a Zappa fan? I have to think about it... I guess the first Zappa song I heard was "Valley Girl", which I heard on the Doctor Demento show, sometime in the 80's. That album "A Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch" was also the first Zappa album I bought, largely because I was won over by the cover. Next to the precious Peanuts books in my parents' library was weird little book I was obsessed with when I was about five years old, Droodles by Roger Price. He would take abstract little drawings, and give them humorous titles, and made them into a kind of puzzle book, where you had to guess what each drawing was. And so, naturally, I recognized "Ship Arriving Too Late" instantly, and was immediately interested. Over time, I gradually listened to most of the Zappa oeuvre, which is so varied, and developed my likes and dislikes. But I'd never thought too much about how it all happened. I'd read The Real Frank Zappa Book sometime in high school, I think, but it didn't really tell me much about how Frank Zappa really became what he became. In other words -- I wanted show business stories.

And this book does an okay job of telling those stories. Since it ends in 1972, it only has about 12 years of Zappa's career to cover. And I did get those showbiz stories - about how many of Zappa's ventures were money losing, about how his early band members couldn't read music which limited his ability to give them complex material, and most importantly about how listening to the records was far away from a full experience of The Mothers. Each show was a kind of performance art, and to fully appreciate the band, one would have had to see many, many shows, as well as listen to the albums, and watch all the weird films they made that never got released, and probably follow them around and hang out with them, as well. I think the right way to think of it is that the existence of the band was a kind of performance art. I very much hope to some day be a part of a performance troupe that is like that -- although some would say that I am, possibly of more than one!

It's a kind of goofy book, not especially well-written, and kind of sloppy, but to my mind that gives it something of a quaint quality. Someone else has a different opinion, though, and that's where things get weird.

Throughout my copy of the book are detailed margin notes, written in a red, felt-tip pen. They are on most pages of the book, and they are frequently furious. Even the title page has rude names written next to those of the author, David Walley, and they give him a subtitle, "alias 'Cretinous, the biographer". As I read the book, and read these notes, the persona of the red-pen annotator started to come into focus. Clearly it was a super-fan, irritated with Walley's minor mistakes. Further, the annotator must be fairly educated, as she (feminine handwriting) has many detailed comments about Walley's journalistic, stylistic, and grammatical failings. On rare occasions, she would pause her vitriol to be impressed by a subtle point of Walley's, or just be completely silent when Walley would present never-before-released interview copy, but mostly she was completely furious that the book was unfitting tribute for FZ, her idol. I was getting ready to just shrug it all off as amusing but mysterious, but then I got to the end of the book.

In the back of the book, Walley presents a copy of "Data for Sensitive or Critical Sensitive Position", a somewhat dada-esque job application form, which I believe was what you filled out if you were joining "United Mutations", the Zappa fan club? It is already filled out by Zappa, which is amusing and interesting to see. But, much more interesting was to see that the annotator had the... gall? arrogance? enthusiasm? time on her hands? to fill out all the questions herself, and as a result, I learned a great deal about her. Let me share some of it.

Her name was Janet Elizabeth Azich, and she filled out this form in 1973. She was 5'8", weighing 125 lb. As to "sex", she puts "yes", the wit. She is not married, but was born on April 18, 1954, at 10:06AM at Rochester General Hospital. She visited Canada, "the Northeast", California (LA twice), and lived in England from '71 to '73. She was editor of her high school newspaper. She got a handwriting certificate in 6th grade. She skipped a year in elementary school. She was "by acclamation most notorious house groupie of Darwin Team '72" (whatever that might be) and "also potential member of Mensa". She had a nervous breakdown at some point. She never had an allergic reaction to penniculun (sic). Her favorite kind of ravioli is ricotta cheese, but she prefers veal cordon bleu to ravioli. This information goes on and on, painting a picture of a nineteen year old girl who was something of an aspiring intellectual, who had been going to college in England, who worshiped Zappa and the Mothers, and who was somewhat full of herself, feeling very worldly from her two trips to LA and her time in the UK. After reading all her many (there are many, many more in the book) personal details, I became fascinated with Janet Azich. Was she really as bold an interesting as she seems in her marginalia? Did she change when she got older? What became of her? She'd be in her early sixties now... I was very tempted to try to find her, and as I had tracked down Jane Roberts, I thought maybe I'd try tracking down Janet. It would be really cool to show her this old book of hers, which surely has been bouncing around old book stores for years, and get her reactions to her nineteen year-old self. That would be awesome, to get that commentary, to have sort of bookends on a life.

But it didn't work out like that. With all her many personal details at my disposal, a web search was easy, and it turned up what I should have expected in the first place:

Janet Elizabeth Azich, age 59, of New Sewickley Twp., died on October 24, 2013 in Good Samaritan Hospice, Beaver. She was born on April 18, 1954 in Rochester and was the daughter of the late Dan and Martha (Tepsic) Azich. 

And so, there it was. After spending hours gradually building up an image of a fiery, funny, iconclastic nineteen year old, and then imagining what an entire life might transform her into, I suddenly watched her die before me. My fantasies of her long-lost reunion with this book that she had such a love-hate relationship were shattered. For a moment I cursed my luck at receiving the book too late to be able to meet her, but then I quickly put the pieces together -- likely her books were disposed of by her family after her death, and so the only reason I got to meet her at all was because she had died. All this time I'd been reading the comments of a dead reader on a dead writer on a dead musician. I've been tempted to track down her surviving friends and family members (all listed in the obituary)... but is that too much of an intrusion? Is it too weird? It's a hard thing to explain. Why would I do it, anyway? I guess it's because I feel like I know Janet now -- she's like some long-lost college friend I never got to meet. If I'm going to do it, I better do it soon -- none of us is around forever. I'll let you know if I do.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Great Dictator

This is one of those movies that everyone knows about, but I suspect very few people have actually seen it. Have you? No, really, not just the globe sequence, but the whole movie? Well, anyway, I hadn't. I remember buying a clearance copy at Blockbuster Video in 1987, only to find that it only had 15 minutes of footage, and I never followed up until now. It happened to be on TCM one night, and our daughter studied WWII in school this year, so I recorded it for us to watch. I was quite surprised at how dark and frank it was -- I had no idea it would be so direct about abuses against the Jews in the ghettos. It was quite a bold accomplishment, to produce this film in 1940, make it so direct, and also make it so funny and so inspiring. It isn't perfect -- as Chaplin's first speaking role, there is some awkwardness -- he sometimes moves in a pantomime way that seems bizarre in a talking picture. I understand the state department wasn't very happy about the film - they believed it would only serve to move the world further away from peace. Chaplin later said that he if he had known the true extent of the Nazi atrocities, he would not have made the film, which all leads to deep questions about the power and the responsibility of the jester in society. I've often wondered if Jon Stewart has stayed away from certain topics, concerned that he might make certain situations worse.

It is a unique film in many respects, and while I enjoyed it much more than I expected, I very much hope that no one ever has need to make a film like this again.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

W.C. Fields is Alive and Drunk at Your Father's Mustache

This record is an atrocity. At first glance I believed that it might be a recording of Fields doing some kind of nightclub routine that I hadn't heard. It is nothing of the kind. I suspect the title is playing off of Jacques Brel, but it is some weird musical group that performs songs ranging from late 1800's (Stephen Foster) to late 60's (the Beatles) in a sort of ragtime kind of style with a large chorus on vocals. It was released in 1967, and seems to have trying to play off the strange resurgence in popularity that Fields had in the sixties. Why that happened always stumped me... I guess it was because of Fields' obvious flaunting of authority, and his blunt authenticity? I can distinctly remember seeing adults getting a weird kind of glassy-eyed nostalgia for him, even in the seventies. I believe that I had a version of "Big Shot Pool" from Ideal that had a picture of him on the box, since it was a game about fancy trick billiard shots (and an excellent game, by the way!) though that could be my imagination.

Anyway -- I can't say I understand the sixties fascination with Fields, but this album in no way does him honor; it is saccharine and dull, and I like to imagine that he would smash it with a hammer, or perhaps just chuck the entire Victrola out the window.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements

Some time ago, I had heard of the work of John Hunter, an elementary school teacher who has been engaging his students in a complex game of politics for decades. He gained notoriety with a TED Talk, and with a documentary of the game, and now of course, it is a whole movement. But here I'm talking about the book, which I recently had the pleasure to read while I was on a trip to visit Barb Chamberlin in New Mexico, as we are working on a new book about educational games together.

The book is immediately interesting and engaging, as Mr. Hunter has over 35 years experience using this game in his classroom, and 35 years of stories of how it has worked and not worked. What is the game designed to teach, exactly? It isn't completely clear, because players simultaneously learn so much. Most students seem to take away some understanding of...
1) geopolitics
2) the formal language of communication
3) the fact that large problems are generally all connected to each other
4) how budgets work
5) why nations need to borrow money
6) the purpose and function of the UN
7) why war happens
8) the elements of teamwork
9) solving difficult problems through tradeoffs
...and many, many more things. Mr. Hunter has no clear curriculum for this. As a practitioner of Zazen, he talks quite a bit about creating an empty space in which students can reach their own important conclusions and insights. What is startling to me is what a naturally skilled game designer John Hunter seems to be. He has carefully tuned his game, bit by bit, over the years, following his instincts about how to make it as meaningful to his students as possible. It is gripping to hear him tell stories of the insights his many students have had over the years, not to mention the testimonials from adults who found the game to be life-changing. People ask me constantly about the best use of games in the classroom, and the World Peace Game is a clear exemplar. I wonder, very much, what John Hunter would make of the deck of lenses?

I very much recommend this book for anyone who is considering making games to change the world. Not only is it filled with memorable stories, but it is framed in the shape of Mr. Hunter's seven-step theory of how games can best be used to create transformation in students. As I read John Hunter's stories of how students faced each new moral dilemma that he presented them, and his pride when they did so, I kept finding a disquieting thought entering my mind: If God wrote a book, it would look very much like this.

I hear tell that a digital version of the World Peace Game is being explored. That sounds very challenging to me -- it will be difficult to adapt without losing the essence. I am tempted, instead, to wonder what other types of games could benefit from a similar face-to-face classroom format? The original version of Happy Atoms worked this way -- but in that case the technology has clear benefits. However it happens, I continue to believe that the greatest teachers of the 21st century will be master game designers. Herman Hesse predicted this sixty years ago in Magister Ludi, and I think we will live to see it come to pass.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Now and Forever

I like Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple, and con artist movies, so... yeah, I was pretty much going to like this 1934 film. It always scares me what a good actor Shirley Temple was, even at age six. Guy Standing as Uncle Felix is also pretty great. It isn't a world changing movie, but it has its moments -- honor bright.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cimarron

This is the third book in my six volume set of Edna Ferber novels (the first two are here and here). It is set in the old west (technically Oklahoma) which didn't interest me much at first, but it presented such an uncommon view of the western frontier (bold southern lawyer starts a newspaper in Indian territory) that I couldn't help but be intrigued. I love Edna Ferber's characters, and Yancey Cravat is somewhat unforgettable. His wife, Sabra, is arguably the protagonist, though she plays a lesser role. And thus I'm starting to see a pattern in Ferber's work. So Big was about a fish-out-of-water city woman raising a son among subsistence farmers. Show Boat was about a fish-out-of-water city woman trying to raise her daughter on a Show Boat. And Cimarron is about a fish-out-of-water city woman trying to raise her son and daughter on the frontier. Still, despite the pattern, Ferber's writing and situations are cutting and fresh. I found the reversals the most surprising, particularly regarding Native Americans. They are put upon and oppressed, but dealing with it at the start of the story, but when Oklahoma discovers oil, everything changes. The descriptions of Osage Native Americans who are suddenly millionaires are disturbing, but it is easy to imagine how it might have been just like that. Part of what makes this book interesting is that it spans the period from 1889 to probably 1925, approximately the same span we see in The Magnificent Ambersons, and the amount of change we see in America during that time is just as striking.

Part of what I liked was seeing the old West from Ferber's point of view. I particularly liked this passage:
He licked and stamped the envelope, rose, and took from the table beside him his broad leather belt with its pair of holstered six-shooters, evidently temporarily laid aside for comfort while writing. This he now strapped quickly about his waist with the same unconcern that another man would use in slipping into his coat. He merely was donning conventional street attire for the well-dressed man of the locality. He picked up his sheaf of envelopes and stepped out. In three minutes he was back, and affably ready to talk terms with them. It was, perhaps, this simple and sinister act, more than anything she had hitherto witnessed, that impressed Sabra with the utter lawlessness of this new land to which her husband had brought her. 
I like how it calls out how easily monstrous habits can so easily become the norm for society. Is it really okay for ads for "Trojan Studded Bareskin" condoms to be on in the middle of the day during family programming? Is this normal now?

In any case, the novel moves fast, and it is hard not to be charmed by Yancey Cravat's boldness, fast-talking, adventure seeking, and literary aplomb. I could see the ending coming from a mile away. And it was so corny, I was about to lose some respect for Edna Ferber. And then, with the magic that only she can do, she had me in tears with the last two lines. Bravo again, Edna! I now cannot wait to read her next one. I wonder who her inheritors are, if there are any, today?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lords of Waterdeep

Wow -- I really like this game! It's one of these "worker placement" games, kind of like Agricola, but not as cutthroat, because you get to choose what quests you are going to pursue. The D&D theming is cute, but not really tied to the mechanics, because mostly it is a game about harvesting scarce resources to spend on even scarcer resources, but themed as "gathering a party" and "sending them on quests." But that doesn't hurt anything, it makes it kind of cute. I like all the choices, I like the game balance (it must have taken forever to get right), and I like all the different options that keep popping up during the game.

Hey, this is a good place for a side rant I've wanted to make for 30 years. I was a massive D&D fan in the eighties. It defined my life for a time, and it likely forged the career I have today. There were a lot of things that were exciting and revolutionary about D&D. But there is one thing I could never understand... why does the D&D story world suck so badly? In the beginning, it was a loose mishmash of Tolkein, Greek Myths, Elric, Conan, and King Arthur. That wasn't so bad -- it was all roll your own. but as the eighties proceeded, they started to make a sort of world. And it was terrible! B2, Keep on the Borderlands? Revoltingly bad and confusing, especially for new players. Some modules were amazing (I still see S1 in my dreams), some were not (C1, I'm looking at you, nor am I a fan of G123). But we didn't have a coherent world. So we were all so excited when the "World of Greyhawk" map appeared! And, while it looked cool, it sucked. It was way too big, with too many countries, and it was completely unclear how to use this as a DM. There was no connection between it and the Monster Manual, for example. Later, they stared writing various D&D novels to try and get some kind of concrete world in place, and so they seem to have something slightly more coherent now... but by the nineties they had lost me, and when I look at what they have now, I'm still not seeing a solid, Tolkeinesque world. Maybe it wouldn't have been possible? It bums me out that it was a massive missed opportunity. Anyway, I only mention it because I'm still feeling that today... "Lords of Waterdeep?" The theming and the story and even the box art raise no emotion in me.. not like this did. This is a world I wanted to be in. Anyway, maybe their "no solid world" strategy makes sense? Maybe it makes space for people to make their own things? I'm not sure. I guess I wish I was still moved emotionally by D&D like I was in the beginning.

Anyway, to sum up Lords of Waterdeep: Relatively simple, fun, not too cutthroat, and the right level of thinking. I'm sure some people would prefer a more competitive game -- but this one is just right for me. Well done, WotC!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Zuhl Museum

Gah! This small museum at New Mexico State University houses the worlds largest collection of petrified wood, and many other wonders! I had no idea that...

  • Cathedral geodes could be six feet tall
  • Completely three dimensional crab fossils from 50M years ago even existed
  • Ammonites could UNCURL
  • Fossilized ammonites sometimes get a different mineral crystallizing in each chamber of their shell (??!!??)
  • Oviraptors arranged the eggs in their nests so neatly
Total side note: Some exhibits are outside, which gave me a chance to examine New Mexico ants. They are tiny, a sort of orange color, darker toward the front, and more yellow toward their creepy translucent abdoment. They also run insanely fast. If they were humans they would be running at 150 mph. I wonder what their stride pattern is, and how frequently their legs move? Not to mention this. It has nothing to do with the museum... or does it? Seeing so many wonders made me appreciate even the nearby ants. 

Anyway -- it's an incredibly cool place to visit if you ever find yourself in Las Cruces. 


Friday, June 26, 2015

The Trial

I had no idea this existed, and then I tripped over it on TCM one night. It's Orson Welles' interpretation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins. I had really enjoyed the haunting quality of the book, so I was quite intrigued to know how Welles would handle it as a film. First: it's gorgeous! The locations and cinematography do a beautiful job of capturing the dreamlike weirdness of the book. Second: Anthony Perkins can act! I only really remembered him from Psycho, and, well, playing a creepy guy always seems to me to be an easier challenge than playing a real person.

The film does have weaknesses. It is quite slavish to the book, probably to its peril. In trying to cram everything in, everyone talks very fast. In the book, we get to hear Joseph K.'s inner monologue to help give us context. In the film, we don't get that, so when we meet the woman dragging the trunk, we aren't given a chance to understand just how strange it is. The whole thing becomes a kind of fast-motion fun house, which is visually engaging, but not as emotionally engaging as it might be.

The part I found most surprising was the ending (spoilers ahead). As slavish as he was, Welles found it necessary to change Kafka's ending! For me, the message of the book was that just by being born into society, one is instantly judged, instantly on trial, instantly doomed. And this fact means that no human being can ever truly have dignity. Kafka's ending drives this point home. But Welles apparently concluded that Joseph K. was surely Jewish, and to create a film that featured a Jew pitilessly humiliated and murdered by the government was in bad taste, so he made a minor change that did not let Joseph K. survive, but let him at least go down fighting. It's a peculiar, almost cartoonish ending, that personally, I thought cheapened the whole thing. Even Welles admitted that he wasn't happy with this solution, but it was the best he could think of to solve his problem. And I suspect this gives us an interesting view into Welles' character. He was definitely a man to whom dignity was central. I suspect that the The Trial was interesting to him since it is a story about man's battle for dignity. But I don't think I buy his story about not wanting to offend the Jews -- WWII was over about 20 years before this film, and when did Welles care about offending anyone? I think that Welles himself could not accept the idea of a man's battle for dignity shown to be impossible and futile, and so he pulled a Kobayashi Maru, at Kafka's expense, and at the expense of the integrity of the film, of the integrity of Welles himself. I believe this captures the essence of the tragic path of Welles' life and career: protecting one's dignity at the expense of one's integrity. One could easily argue this is also the theme of Citizen Kane, and The Third Man -- possibly of all of Welles' work. He once said The Trial was his greatest film. If dignity over integrity is the great theme of his life, then what greater art could he create than actually compromising his own integrity for the sake of not just his own dignity, but the dignity of the everyman?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

This Jules Verne classic is one of those books that everyone knows about, but that I suspect very few have actually read. I've often seen interpretations of it, such as the famous Disney movie, but reading it was another matter entirely. Well, technically, it was read to me, and by Harlan Ellison, no less! He was a great reader, mainly because of his enthusiasm - you could tell he LOVED this book, that it had great personal meaning to him. He read it so naturally that Victorian turns of phrase seemed perfectly normal.

I can only imagine what it was like to read this book when it was new. The details of the Nautilus must have been astonishing, a revelation, in a time when electric light was just an experimental idea. So much is in here (spoilers) submarine science, the aqualung, giant squid, Atlantis, the Arabian Tunnel, icebergs, maelstroms, extinction of the whales, and much more. but what fascinated me most is the mysterious Captain Nemo. Where did he come from? What is his strange language? Why did his crew follow him? What happened, exactly, to make him hate humanity? Films portray him as a villain - he is not that way here. I also wonder how Ned Land could have possibly passed the time - that is not mentioned. Anyway, it's all made me eager to read more Verne... Perhaps I will!