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 It's a few years out of date now -- TEDx is not mentioned, neither is youtube, but all the principles are sound, and I definitely picked up a few things I can use.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


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.