Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ticket to Ride: Europe

Ticket to Ride is an incredibly elegant and clever game that fully deserves the many accolades it has received. In many ways, I feel like it is the game that Monopoly is trying to be. Both games are abstractions of land ownership, both have a variety of territories with different values, both have a significant number of random events, both are simple enough for a family to play together. But Ticket to Ride wins in terms of simplicity and elegance. The number of rules is relatively small, and the number of actions is four. Everyone gets to play until the very end, and surprising reversals can happen, even near the end. The fact that players compete for territory, but each have different (secret) goals, and can sign up for extra goals at any time, allows for interesting flexibility, but unlike my unfavorite Settlers of Catan there is precious little backstabbing, since it is hard to know what your competitors' goals actually are, which I think makes for a much more friendly game.

The "Europe" edition has interesting variants on the basic edition, though I'm not completely sure they are all for the better. Other than a denser map (it is Europe, after all), there are three new elements in place: Some routes (ferries) require locomotives, some routes (tunnels) are variable cost, and players have a choice of adding "train stations" to make use of other players routes. These extra flourishes add to the decisions one makes, but I'm not sure they actually improve the game. If you are new to TtR, I'd suggest starting with the basic edition -- but, if you are an experienced player looking for a slightly more complex spin on an old favorite, you might want to check this one out.

Pale Fire

I have always enjoyed Nabokov (see these for example), but it is safe to say that I enjoyed this more than any of his other works I've read thus far. It is not a novel in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a well-crafted 1000 line poem, followed by line-by-line notes from a critic. The notes about the poem are extensive, and form the bulk of the text. (Minor spoilers follow). Quickly the reader learns that the critic is somewhat eccentric, and writing under some duress. Further, he is strange, self-involved, and foreign. He misunderstands basic aspects of the poem that would be obvious to the average American. However, one gradually learns that he knew the poet well... a little too well, as the critic has been stalking and spying on the poet. I found myself simultaneously repulsed by critic Charles Kinbote, but also drawn in -- as his creepy stalking gives insight about the poem and the poet that would have been available no other way. Gradually, the critic reveals more and more, and it becomes clear that he is somehow involved in the recent death of the poet... but as much as we want to know what is truly going on, we are held hostage, as at last he has the stage to tell the stories that interest him most -- he has hijacked the fame of the great poet John Shade, and is using it to take center stage. By telling us the stories that we are least interested in, he gradually becomes interesting, as the reader undergoes a sort of literary Stockholm syndrome.

This is one of the rare books that, once I reached the end, I immediately started reading again -- so much insight is gained bit by bit through the book that going back to read it again, each line is seen in a new and different light. This book, written in 1962, was far ahead of its time, and is arguably Nabokov's masterpiece. It is so strange, so personal, so funny, and so post-modern, that it casts a spell that is hard to resist. I wish it had perhaps one more twist to it, but perhaps the haunting ending is enough. I should also mention that I did not read it per se, but rather listened to the audiobook narrated by Marc Vietor. His Zemban accent is perfect, and he manages to capture the bizarre emotions of Charles Kimbote perfectly. The text is somewhat non-linear, a strange match for an audiobook, but Vietor's portrayal of Kimbote makes it worthwhile. I think I will probably get a paper copy (or perhaps two, as Kimbote wisely recommends) for my second reading. There is also a second narrator for the poem, and the contrast between Shade and Kimbote makes the audiobook unique.

This book is a perfect example of the unique power of the novel to allow a single person to create a deep, rich, strange world, and present it in their own way. In a sense, it is on many levels about how the writer holds the reader hostage. Despite Kimbote's best attempts, he is held hostage by Shade, and so in return, he holds us hostage, preventing Shade from doing the same to us. But all along we've all been held by Nabokov... but why? I hope to create something somewhere near this great sometime in my life. It isn't perfect -- there are parts that seem unnecessary, and I still feel one more plot twist would have really made this perfect, but it is a bit like the time Paul McCartney was asked whether the White Album would have been better if some of the lesser songs had been removed from it, and he wisely replied, "Yes, perhaps, but then it wouldn't be the f&*^ing White Album, would it?" I'll miss you, Charles Kimbote!

PS - It also contains some fun references to Pnin, which features my favorite Nabokov character. And, yes, plenty of butterflies, Russian humor, chess, and monomania. Possibly the most monomania of any of his novels, in fact. I hope one day I can create something that reaches this level of greatness.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Princess Kaguya

I really enjoyed this. For starters, it is beautiful, with something of a watercolor look. It takes its time, which is nice, as well. It is surreal in the Studio Ghibli tradition, with characters that are charming and interesting. The moral, simply put (spoilers) is this: When the Gods send you a child, listen to what she says. All parents might do well to contemplate this.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus

Well, I won't say I understand everything, but it was certainly different, and... oh, yes — well worth a dollar.

I have easily listened to this album 30 times, and every time I notice something new. It is, by far, my favorite in the massive Firesign Theatre oeuvre. I listened to it this time in celebration of completing the Daniel Tiger ride (Daniel is no Artie Choke, nor a hologram, but he and his mechanical friends do converse and sing songs at Idlewild Park). We listened to it in the car on the drive out there. It was new to the others on the Daniel Tiger team. I think it is hard for younger people to even imagine the nature of Firesign Theatre albums -- having to sit still and just listen to a complex surreal story is quite different from so much of what we do today. Certainly, we have podcasts, but are there any that put that level of attention to detail into what they create? This album was so wildly ahead of its time. Recorded in 1971, it predicts Epcot Center, Turtle Talk with Crush, hacking, Disney Magicbands, Robot Wars, and, oh, so much more -- a lot of stuff that hasn't happened yet. Having spent much of my life trying to create interactive theme parks, this album was a major influence on me. Back in 1995, when I started at the Disney VR Studio, I could not have been more thrilled that our two Onyx mainframes were named "Barney" and "Ahclem"... it made me feel like I had truly found my people, that I was truly home.

I had a weird run-in with the future when we listened to this on the way to Idlewild -- I hunted for my CD of the album all around my house in vain (I believe I likely lent it to a student who did not return it). But, this being the future (a fair for all and no fair to anybody) I easily found a copy of it on youtube, and streamed it through my phone via bluetooth to the car stereo while we drove there, and it sounded great. The surreal part was hearing the computerized messages of the album ("Mister alclem, please report to the nearest hospitality shelter") be interrupted by the car's navigational system, which might as well have been saying "Antelope Freeway, one mile." Versions in quadraphonic (both vinyl and 8-track) were released. Given my new fascination with 8-track, maybe I should try one of those out?

There is something so weird and true about this album, really, to be fair, about all four of the original Firesign albums, in their strange, connected tetraology. Why exactly did things go downhill for them?  None of the followup albums (I think have them all) is anywhere near the greatness of these four. I've never understood it. I've never understood the artists who do their best work when they are young. That always scares the hell out of me -- the idea that my best work might be behind me, or that one must sell one's soul to do something perfectly. Gah! Four members of FT, four perfect albums, in exchange for four souls! I won't dwell on it. In my head, I keep a list of perfect works of art -- this is definitely one of them. I hope one day to create something this visionary and inspirational. If it's new to you, heed my advice: don't multitask with this. Find a dark room and some headphones, and see if you can keep still for 39 minutes. Maybe you'll be the first one who actually understands the thing.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

8 Track Tape Fix-It Kit Repair Kit Manual

"For years the function of an 8 track tape has been looked upon as a mystery with its secrets to be forever guarded within the cartridge." This wonderful little guide, written by Jack Ritter in 1975 is thoughtful and well-crafted. I got it as part of the "Fix-it Kit" from Kate's Track Shack. Recently I bought this and so naturally I had to acquire some tapes... and, yow, do they not age well. The foam pads dry up and crumble, and the splicing tape adhesive dries up, which can lead to all kinds of trouble. Today, for example, I was listening to an 8 track of Tommy, and when it went silent, I was surprised to see that the tape had disappeared completely into the cartridge! There was nothing for it but to go inside. And it was daunting! I ultimately had to spool the entire tape out onto the floor of my office, get it wound right, wind it all back, and splice it. And with the help from this book (okay, and a couple youtube videos) it totally worked!

8 track tapes are a kind of miraculous magic. The self-tensioning that happens due to the differential between the inner and outer radius of the tape loop is an absolute wonder. Think of it -- an infinite loop of tape that can easily be pulled loose, and automatically tightens itself without the use of springs. Rotation of objects in three dimensions makes for all kinds of magic, I think. I belive it's this reason that Einstein refused to deal with Galilean coordinates. (Note to self - it is likely that here lies the solution to resolving relativity and quantum mechanics. I should write about that, if I can ever find "time.")

Anyway, if you ever need to fix 8 track tapes (it's totally fun!) I definitely recommend this handy guide.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Scream on Someone You Love Today

This record is from 1967... but culturally, it feels more like, say, 1959. It's a collection of "snappy answers to stupid questions", mother-in-law jokes, dusty gags, and eye-rolling one-liners from Rodney Dangerfield prototype Jack E. Leonard. Interestingly, it has a cast, and comedy songs interspersed with comedy patter. I can't say I did any laughing, but I appreciated the effort. The only part I like is the cover. So... why do I keep listening to it?

PS -- Scream "on" someone? Who says that?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood at Idlewild Park

I'm so happy to announce that Schell Games has completed work on the Daniel Tiger ride at Idlewild! I got to ride the finished version today and it is super fun! The whole thing was a wonderful joint effort between Idlewild Park, the Fred Rogers Company, Schell Games, LifeFormations, and the Weber Group. Working from the basis of the Mister Rogers Neighborhood ride, which opened in 1989, we were able to keep many aspects that were so charming and wonderful about the original, and bring it up to date, and make it even more fun. The biggest change was from animatronic puppets to "paper doll" animatronics that could represent the animated characters. Kudos to Mike Sanchez who helped us work out how to best bring the characters to life! Other big changes include the sound system which now sounds crystal clear, a great new script (courtesy of the Fred Rogers Company), and the addition of "imaginary daniel", who rides along with you, and chats with the different neighbors you meet. But I think my favorite part is that now the ride is a sing-a-long! While the trolley travels from stop to stop, Imaginary Daniel leads the riders in the "won't you ride along with me" song from the show, making this the world's first sing-a-long ride! Anyway, it was a pleasure to work on, and we never could have done it without the help of Anisha Deshmane, who led the effort from the Schell Games side, coordinating the design and all the different craftspeople that made it all look so great. Everyone at Idlewild was so great to work with, I hope we can do another ride there someday. Here's to many more years of this charming attraction! You should totally go and check it out! See fun video coverage of the ride (via Dave Crawley) here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Spike Jones Plays the Charleston for Dancing

I bought this, I don't know, a couple decades ago? I forget where? But I never really sat down and listened to all the songs. Pictured here is the EP version, but what I have is a box set of 3 45's (okay, actually there is a 4th Spike Jones 45 in there, too, but I don't think it is supposed to be) that are all variations on the Charleston and Charleston related songs. So, first, they are great -- crisp, funny, interesting Spike Jones recordings, that are, indeed, good for dancing, and work great on my stack-o-matic. But second... what kind of weird time tunnel did this thing fall through? The RCA Victor 45's sound REALLY good -- crisper and better than a lot of my 45's from the 80's. They seem to have been recorded in 1954... which makes sense technologically, and also is in accordance with what I know about the history of Spike Jones... but... the Charleston was from the 1920s. Why in the world would Spike decide to record a collection of Charleston songs 30 years after the fad was over? Did it have some kind of early 50's comeback? Wikipedia seems to know nothing about that. I'm going to stick with my Time Tunnel hypothesis. I believe this was the last recording of Spike Jones, and he used it, along with some chewing gum, to travel back in time to the 1920's, so he could start his career over. I continue to believe that he and his band now(?) travel in a 30 year time loop, achieving a strange immortality. Go on, prove me wrong. Hey, what happens if I chew gum when I listen to this...?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Virginia Lee Burton: A Sense of Place

I had the pleasure of seeing this documentary the other night. I had known her books growing up, and always thought they had an impressive style to them, but I never really thought about them very much. But seeing the documentary, which gave a lot of attention to the way Burton brought together words and pictures in a way that was new, and considering the popularity of her books with children, it makes me wonder about how much influence she ultimately may have had. Her blending of text and pictures became the "right" way to do things in comics, in advertising, and even in poetry. It is interesting to think about young Jack Kirby and E. E. Cummings reading "Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel" or "The Little House", and how those books might have affected them. We can never really know what we do. There was more in this documentary that was of interest to me, though -- they talk in some detail about the studio that she and her husband ran, which produced all kinds of artwork and household goods. It sounds like they put a real premium on making sure that everyone working there was having a good time, and was bringing their own creative spirit to the work. Perhaps, one day, I'll write a book about the workings of great studios throughout history. After seeing this, I very much want to get all of her books on my shelf for reference. It's hard to say, but I think she might have found the iPad to be a wonderful thing.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Rushmore Soundtrack

A soundtrack album I can get behind. Various instrumental pieces by Mark Mothersbaugh, and awesome classic tracks from the 70's. I like this movie too much, I think. I always wonder... if Charles Schulz's father hadn't been a barber, would Max Fischer's? Also, Jason Schwartzman's first film. I mean, it's a great film, and everything, but seriously, Jason, you can stop making it now. Complete track listing here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Dynamite 8

Found a "bomb blue" Dynamite 8 at the same "vintage fair" where I found this. I'm so excited! I gave it a little TLC, and it is totally working! My teenage aunt had one of these back in the 70s, and I always thought it was the coolest. This is my first 8 track player. My parents (and everyone else) had one when I was a kid, but the players and the tapes tend to be so fragile that I never had one myself. 8 tracks are kind of magical, locked in time as they are. They are so distinct -- their big weird shape, with the big color label, and the way the labels are so aged... they have so much character. And there is a sound 8 tracks have that is, I don't know -- unique. Not like vinyl, but not so hissy like cassettes. Anyway, I'm thrilled to have my own 8 track player at last! Especially one as cool as the Dynamite 8, with it's amazing plunger. It can't change tracks by itself... but that's kind of cool, because it means you get to use the plunger a lot! It's funny, I never really thought about the fact that each of the four tracks on an 8-track is like a 45, with it's pair of songs. I just got a box of old 8 tracks in the mail via ebay, too... so this is guaranteed to be a rockin' 70's dance party weekend!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Chupacabra: Survive the Night

Who wouldn't want to play a glow-in-the-dark dice game about Chupacabras? I liked this game at first because it is pretty simple. Players roll dice that either come up as farm animals or as chupacabras. Use your chupacabra dice to steal farm animals from other players. Whoever gets all the dice first wins. Pretty simple. Unfortunately, it feels out of balance. Often, you roll dice, and no one can steal anything, which is boring. Other times you can steal, but there are no interesting choices to make -- you just steal the most obviously valuable dice -- very few surprises. The coolest surprise (if you roll all chupacabras) is that you can steal a whole bunch of dice -- which can tip the whole game in your favor... and the fewer dice you have, the easier to roll all chupacabras! So... I like that part. My mind keeps working at how to fix this game. Partly, I think there should be two kinds of dice... the normal black ones, and also, say, red ones that have two chupacabras instead of one, but have no chickens, making them harder to steal. Then you'd have some interesting decisions to make! I'll probably try playtesting this sometime soon, with, uh, some stickers. Oh... and the glow-in-the-dark gimmick? Weak. Not only are the chupacabras invisible in the dark, but you can't even tell a chicken from a goat... so... playing in the dark doesn't make much sense. Idea of the day... a game where glow in the dark stuff really IS important... maybe featuring a UV charging light, to keep items bright! Maybe the glow serves as a literal cooldown! Put your dice in the charging box to charge 'em up, because when they get dim, you can't read what they say! Or... could you have warriors who are more powerful, they more they glow? Bright guy defeats dim guy! So you have to move dim guy to charging box, wait the right amount of time, get him out, and then get him to destination before he gets dim! Now this is a game I could get behind! I gotta try making a charging box... As usual Goethe is right: "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game." Yeah, baby. I bring Goethe to the table when I write about glow-in-the-dark dice games. If you don't like it, GET OUT OF MY BLOG!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Feelin' Groovy

For a single day, the Heinz History Center turned into more of a "Hipster-y Center" as they had a Vintage Fair. I found a bunch of cool LPs, and also an amazing 8-Track player that I'll probably talk about another day, as soon as I can find some 8-Tracks that still work. I was very excited to have found an LP of Feelin' Groovy by Harper's Bizarre. This band fascinates me with their weird 30's / 60's sound. Randy Newman helped write the songs, and plays some piano on here too, and it really shows, especially in songs like Debutante's Ball. I also love the simple innocence of Raspberry Rug. But in my opinion, this album saves the best for last, with Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear, which more or less sums up my life... though I can never tell if I'm Simon or the bear. Jim Henson felt the same way, I think.

Schulz and Peanuts

The Peanuts comics meant a lot to me growing up, my whole life, really. We had several collections of reprints when I was young, and I eagerly read and re-read them, lying on the big fuzzy rug in the living room. I even went through a period at age 6 or 7 where I obsessively listened to the cast album of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown", acting out each scene. I even learned out to lie down on the top of our doghouse without falling off. I still have the very last Sunday Peanuts comic saved. So, naturally, I was interested in reading this thorough biography from David Michaelis. Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about it. It paints Schulz as a somewhat sad man, not well connected to his family, or to anyone, really. It suggests that the comic was his obsession, was his world. It really surprised me to learn how much the strip characters were based on people in his life. Lucy, for example, seems to derive very strongly from his first wife, Joyce. You can even seen Lucy becoming less venomous in the strip after Schulz eventually divorces Joyce. It would seem that, like many artists, Schulz took the pain in his life and channeled it into his art. I know that I say things when I write, and when I give talks that I would not necessarily be ready to say in real life. Which gets into the question of what real life is. It isn't a place we can speak the truth plainly. Peanuts was fascinating because it was about intelligent children who somehow manage to speak the truth -- the truth about they feel, about how the world works. There is a lot of depth in Peanuts, more than we know, I expect. Never before has there been a body of work like it. 17,897 comic strips, all about one small set of characters. We each find our purpose and run after it until we can't run any more. It's weird to think how many billions of people have been influenced by those characters. The White Album wouldn't have had "Happiness is a Warm Gun" if Lucy hadn't given us "Happiness is a Warm Puppy" first. I guess what is saddest about the book is the realization that for all his success, wealth, and fame, Schulz didn't seem very happy. His anxiety and fears were very present in his life. But without them, could the comic have still been great? It makes me wonder if I should be doing a better job of channeling my own problems in my own art. Life is long and strange -- but I'm very glad to have gotten to know Sparky better. Thanks David Michaelis!

PS -- While normally I am a fan of audiobooks, I cannot recommend that you experience this via audiobook. The print version has Peanuts comics integrated into text, showing clearly how Schulz was weaving events of his life into the comic. The audio book can only be oblique about this, whereas the print book is pointed and sometimes startling. So... this is one you probably want to read with your eyes.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


I've had the DVD of Duel sitting around forever, but I never got around to watching it until just recently. I was home sick, and it seemed like a good sick day movie -- and it was! I thought it would be good, but I had no idea it would be as good as it is. So weird, so elegant, so stylish. When I watched the DVD extras (definitely worth the price of the DVD), I understood why! It was written by Richard Matheson, writer for Twilight Zone, not to mention the screenplay for The Incredible Shrinking Man, and then it had a young Steven Spielberg trying to prove himself. Unbelievably, it was shot in 12 days (the budget was for 10), as they only had budget for an ABC Movie of the Week. It was originally something like 71 minutes, but footage was added for international theatrical release. You can see so much of Jaws in this movie. Even the music is interesting and clever. Spielberg notes that he chose Dennis Weaver as the star because he loved his role in Touch of Evil. This is just one of those times when the right artists get together and make something greater than all of them. My only nitpick would be that the internal monologues come off a little corny, but really, I'm not sure how you'd tell the story without them. I love the underlying masculinity theme that flirts around the edges of everything. Anyway, put great people under pressure, and sometimes great things happen. I would like, one day, to make something so elegant and powerful.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


I'm not always the biggest fan of competitive German board games... but I really, really like Splendor from Marc Andre (maybe because it's French?). You can see a picture of it here, in all it's... well, you know. It is a very simple game, centering on what I call the "Katamari" mechanic. That is, you start by collecting small things, which you use to collect medium things, which you use to collect big things and win the game. It has a simple "gemstone" theme, and no tortured story. Simply put, you get chips each turn (of your own choosing) which you use to buy cards, which are worth points, and some of which boost your buying power. That's it, really. The genius of the game is in the chip choosing mechanic. It is a multiple currency game (wait, what? Does this violate my patent? Good thing it's not a virtual world...), and each turn, you can either choose three different chips, two of the same chips, or one special wildcard chip. Or, you can forgo chip choosing, and buy a card on your turn. Anyway, it's a very simple game that takes a little thinking, but not too much. I like that you can play by gut, and there isn't too much backstabbing. Also, wow, the chips are nice to look at and pleasing to hold. They are weirdly heavy. Anyway, it's a wonderful game all around, and feels like it was specially designed for me.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

As a boy, I was fascinated with this show. We had the cast recording, and the movie was frequently on HBO. But I had never seen it live. When Pittsburgh's PICT group announced they would be mounting a performance of it, I made sure to get tickets right away - and I wasn't disappointed! The performers were wonderful, and the staging was fun and clever. Even the venue was arranged like a cabaret, with cocktail tables ringing the seating area. There is something magical about the songs of Jacques Brel. I think it is that they are so deeply unafraid to speak directly, and emotionally, to the most powerful and important aspects of life. To my surprise, some of my Brel favorites were missing here -- Marathon (the director admitted that he hates it... it was always a favorite of mine, because it is so catchy... but I can see his point), and Last Supper, which apparently was not originally part of the play, but was a Brel song added to the movie. The lyrics that always stayed with me as a boy were these:

This is my last supper
Please come and dine with me
I want all of my old friends
To eat here by the sea

And then I'll climb a mountain
and throw rocks at the sky
and shout "God is Dead!"
one last time before I die.

To me, this is the essence of Jacques Brel. He worked alone, and each of his songs is a rock thrown at the sky. Each one an admission of our failings, of how truly pitiable it is to be mortal... but at the same time how wonderful, how powerful it is to be human. I remember, even very young, these songs making me want to live life fully, every day. Now that I am older, I feel it even more dearly. It is too easy, as we grow older, to forget what it means to be alive.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Show Boat

I was very excited to finally read this. My first encounter with the phrase "Show Boat" was when I was maybe six years old, at an amusement part on the Jersey Shore. It featured a walk through fun house right on the water, themed as a riverboat, and sporting a large sign reading "Show Boat." I was intrigued by the notion of a show boat right off, and it was my first walk through fun house, and it made a big impression on me.

Later in life, I would run into the Show Boat musical in various places, mostly on TV. Everyone knows Old Man River, of course, but my fascination was with Captain Andy, who somehow tolerated his harpy of a wife, was always merry, and no matter what, would make sure that the show must go on. So -- reading this, I was ready to get to know Captain Andy better.

But I was quite surprised to learn that Captain Andy plays a somewhat minor role in the story. The parts about him that I loved so much were made up for the shows! But that in no way diminishes the novel. It's a wonderful tale of life on a Show Boat, with so many little details, that it really makes you feel like you are right there. How Edna Ferber came to know so much about the details of a Show Boat would be fascinating to know. Again, this is a story about raising a child in unusual circumstances, and the characters that she creates make it really engaging and interesting. The idea of having a travelling show troupe on their own boat, that slides up and down the river, and is greeted with excitement by every port it stops at is a wonderful fantasy -- like a circus with less work, and always a pleasing river view! Anyway, I'm glad I took the time to read it. And I love the curious inscription: "To Winthrop Ames Who First Said Show Boat to Me." It is, indeed, a magical phrase.