Thursday, December 28, 2017

It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be

This is a quirky little book by egomaniac advertising man Paul Arden. I've bought it twice now, which I think is an interesting lesson in memory. The first time, I bought it at a little shop in Edinburgh. I read it on the flight back, and one little section spoke to me so well, and connected with what I was trying to create with Gamesprout at the time, that I wrote a long blog post about it, in my short-lived game design blog.
I bought my second copy at the gift shop of the Carnegie Art museum. Upon seeing it, I thought, "Oh look -- a second book by that advertising guy." I thumbed through it, and it looked completely different from the first Arden book I read, and so I bought it, looking forward to new insights. But when I sat down to read it, I got to the "Thou Shalt Not Covet" section, and realized that this was the exact same book I had bought before.
The book has lots of interesting lessons, but what lesson have I learned this time? Partly, I think, that when things are in lots of disconnected little sections, like this book is, they are hard to remember. Secondly, we remember most what connects to our lives. At the time, the Thou Shalt Not Covet section was directly relevant to something I cared about. It is remarkable how much we forget.

Nobody is Perfick

I read this book of little vignettes by Bernard Waber over and over again when I was in first grade. I can remember exactly where it was on the shelf in the Denville Library. I find myself thinking of it often, but I never remember it very well, so I found a copy online. And there it all was -- children having frustrating and ironic emotional adventures, all capped off with the twilight zone tale of Peter Perfect, who does everything right, and everyone envies, until, well, that would be a spoiler.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

How Much is that Doggie in the Showcase?

I found this fun little book, by Michael C. Getlan, in the Breakpoint Books display at IAAPA 2017. I've had a lifelong fascination with arcades and redemption games, and this book tries to give a rundown of best practices for someone running redemption at a family entertainment center. It makes an interesting argument that it is not the games, but rather the prizes in the redemption center are the core engine of desire that makes the entire place run, and as such, choosing the right prizes and displaying them properly is the key to success. It made me think back to my own experiences when I was younger with redemption centers. My experiences were mostly in arcades on the Jersey shore. I loved pinball, loved skee-ball, and loved the other weird ticket giving games. It is easy to chalk up redemption centers as a scam -- after all, buying the same prizes with cash money would cost a lot less than "earning" them by playing games. But the book points out that doing so is not nearly as fun, and suggests that the more fun a ticket-giving game is, the fewer tickets it should give out. Less fun, less time, more tickets. I still remember a glorious week I spent at the shore with a junior high friend where we visited a certain arcade once or twice a day for a long week. I had $40 to spend on the trip, and I believe I spent almost all of it there. During that time, I mastered Ladybug, which is an incredibly good arcade game, and my friend mastered Monaco GP. I also played a lot of skee-ball, very carefully and thoughtfully, and also a slot machine type game, the kind where you can stop the reels when you want to, making it a skill based game. I brought home a fancy painted beer stein and a bunch of toys and things, and I was very proud of my haul. I got disappointed looks from my parents, but I didn't really care. I had a great time, learned a ton about game design, and even got to know the proprietor a bit. I still look back on that week fondly to this day.
Anyway, this book isn't a masterpiece by any means, but it gives some good insight into the realities of running an FEC... or the realities of running one in 2007... some of the recent advancements in automated FECs haven't really been taken into account. I wonder if I'd want to run an FEC one day? I'm not sure. I sure do like the games, though!

The Human Mind

Saw this book by Karl Menninger at the library, and picked it up. It is a psychology book from the thirties, which was updated over a few decades. I had hoped for insights about the workings of the mind, but this is really a "negative psychology" book, very much about psychological ailments and their causes. It is somewhat frightening to see the state of psychology in the early 20th century. Homsexuality is described as a "perversion of affection" in the "distorted emotion" section, and symptoms that describe Asperger's Syndrome are lumped under "schizoid personality." It has some good quotes, though. My favorite is Horace: Quae laedunt oculos festinas demere; si quid est animum, differs curandi tempus in annum. (If anything affects your eye, you hasten to have it removed; if anything affects your mind, you postpone the cure for a year.)

It continues to amaze me that so much of psychological literature is about "cures for problems" and so little is about how the mind actually works.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Now: The Physics of Time

I am very interested in the nature of time. I often have the feeling that some things are predestined, or at the very least, that the future is speaking to us, urging us in certain directions. I often wonder if the many-worlds hypothesis is true, that somehow future worlds are urging us to choose one or another in some way, by sending some kind of signals from the future.

So I was certainly interested to read this book by physicist Richard Muller about the nature of time, and specifically about the nature of "now." It is a pleasing book, written for the layperson, with many amusing stories from the history of physics. It provides a guided tour of Einstein's insights about time, as well as some of the problematic aspects of quantum physics when it comes to time -- particularly the collapse of the wave function, which seems to happen faster than light through space. He talks quite a bit about Feynman's interpretation of antimatter as traveling backward in time, and makes much of Dirac's misinterpretation of what positrons are. He also spends a lot of time beating up on Eddington's theory that time is really just entropy increasing. It is a problematic theory, because it can't be verified or falsified, and it has some obvious things that don't feel right about it.

But in the end (finally) Muller gets to his big theory (spoilers ahead): Unlike some physicists who believe that now is an illusion, and that spacetime is a block, Muller believes that now is very special indeed. He argues that time moves forward because like space, time is expanding, as a result of the big bang and the accelerating growth of the universe. In this view, the past cannot be changed, and the future does not exist yet, because time is being generated as the universe expands along the time axis. This takes some thinking to get one's head around, but there is no obvious way to refute it that I can see. He argues that perhaps it could be shown experimentally by looking at the light from old galaxies -- since the universe's growth is accelerating, he argues that time must be accelerating too, and this might be observable as "extra" red shift on older objects in the universe. He also suggests something complicated about time being generated around black holes that might be observable.

This feels like a very personal argument he is making. He seems frustrated that many physicists seem to take for granted that there is no free will; he makes many arguments against "physicalism," the idea that physics can describe everything. He argues that if the decay of particles can't even be predicted by physics, how could anything more complex? All the talk of free will and falsification reminded me of a theory of my own: that any being that feels it has free will can never experience falsification of free will. For, you can only prove to me that I don't have free will by showing me my future actions, and if you do that, I can deviate from them. This sounds sort of silly, but the more I think about it, the more important it seems. If I knew more philosophers, I would bother them about it, because though I've read a lot about the nature of free will, I've never heard this idea mentioned.

Anyway, Muller's book was enjoyable, and certainly gave me a lot to think about. I certainly hope I live to see the day that quantum measurement is understood. Most fascinating is the fact that if Muller's theory can be proved, it would have a significant impact on the world of philosophy. I guess we'll see... in the future.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Friars Club Encyclopedia of Jokes

I got this book as a birthday present, which is fine, I like joke books. This is indeed, an encyclopedia of jokes, at 500 pages, organized alphabetically by topic. Some are contributed by famous members of the Friars Club, others are unattributed. But imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a joke I wrote in the book! So, this book was published in 1997, and back in 1992, when I was working at Bellcore, I submitted this questionable joke to rec.humor.funny. And what do you know, right there, on page 95, there it is. It's a crazy world when a book written 20 years ago has a joke in it that I wrote, and I never even knew about it. I'm not sure I'd call it an honor, exactly, the majority of jokes in this book are pretty weak ("If exercise is so good for you, why do athletes have to retire by age 35?"), and many of them are painfully racist and sexist. Some I liked, though:
"Do you suffer from arthritis?" "Of course, what else can you do with it?"
"How do you know when there's a singer at the door?" "They can't find the key and they don't know when to come in." 
"It's not an optical illusion... it just looks like one."
In any case, I got an interesting story out of it!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Elements of Eloquence

I loved this book. I tend to do a lot of public speaking as well as writing, and so finding the right turn of phrase that makes a point particularly compelling is something I think about a lot. And this book is about that, and nothing else. In it, Mark Forsyth makes the bold argument that tricky turns of phrase are largely what makes Shakespeare great, and then illustrates dozens of them, each in its own chapter. Some are well known by their names, such as Personification and Alliteration, but many more have cryptic names (Anadiplosis, Diacope, and Epizeuxis, for example) even though the effects themselves are very familiar. Were I still young, I would likely set about memorizing these cryptic terms and using them in conversation. Thank goodness I'm no longer young. But still, I will keep this fun, clever book around, as a reminder about the clever little tricks that make for excellent prose.

Dear Data

A thought-provoking book in which two artists (Giorgia Lupi and Maria Popova) spend a year making colorful charts of everything in their lives. It is a great reminder that data makes us see things differently, sometimes leading to insight, but also sometimes interfering with human experience.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari

I was in the library the other day, and it occurred to me to search for "Atari" in the card catalog, and I found this book by Scott Cohen. It has a very interesting perspective, given that it was written in 1984, right as the videogame crash was happening. The author, who makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like videogames, and who suggests that everyone in silicon valley is an alcoholic and/or a drug addict, sees the crash as evidence of the end of a fad. I remember distinctly, in second grade, seeing a "Scholastic News" article (printed on that colored pulp paper back in the 70's) asking the question "Are videogames just a fad?" and I remember thinking that was absolutely impossible. And I guess I had it right, unlike videogame hater Scott Cohen. However -- he had some other things quite right indeed, that I'll get to in a moment.

Okay... what did I learn from this book?

1) A lot of details about how Nolan Bushnell ran his businesses. He was incredibly vision oriented, without a lot of focus on practicalities. Making a machine for $1100 and selling it for $1000, like he did with Gran Trak 10? We'll make it up in volume. Focus on one thing at a time? Nope... arcade games, home games, and even Chuck E. Cheese were all worked on simultaneously. I had always seen Pizza Time Theater as something that game later, but no, it was created in parallel with Atari.

2) Space Invaders was very, very important. As I mentioned here, I knew that it transformed arcades... but what I did not know was that it also transformed home video games! After all, The Atari, the Odyssey, and the Fairchild Channel F system were all out on the market in 1977, and mostly, people didn't care. But when Space Invaders hit in 1978, suddenly the world went videogame crazy, and not only did this change arcades, but suddenly people wanted home systems too, and Atari rode that to great success. And of course, the fact that they landed the first videogame license ever (Space Invaders) helped them enormously.

3) After Warner bought Atari ($28M) they managed it well at times, getting strong licenses (like Pac-Man) but other times managed it incredibly badly. It seems they were arrogant, and did not really understand the retail business, even though Atari had become 70% of their revenue! Their biggest mistake was 1982, when they didn't realize that retailers were cancelling orders all over the place, and they kept manufacturing anyway, which led to the famous ET debacle. They found themselves in a situation where they were creatively bankrupt (just LOOK at 2600 Pac-Man) and also had no grasp of the business they were in.

Again, this book was written 33 years ago, and so it is amusing to hear the thinking of the day on what the future will be like. Scott talks endlessly about the promise of holography (people really believed it was the future of displays), and how "nothing will surpass the laserdisk", which is all very quaint. But then he says something rather startling. He suggests that the next big thing might come out of Bell Labs. "Although a communications company like Bell is not an entertainment company like Warner, it can leap-frog the entertainment industry. People can be entertained by something outside the entertainment market; it's just a question of how you define entertainment... Look at what people spend their money on. If there were a neat little terminal and it put people in touch with everything they wanted to be in touch with, people would stop playing video games." That sounds an awful lot like a vision of the web browser to me, and back in 1984. I guess it should come as no surprise to me that his inaccurate projections come from looking at technology of the day, and his accurate ones come from looking at what people actually want... that is, after all, the only method that works!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America

I picked up this book by Michael Z. Newman at GDC this year because I am always interested in videogame history, and in particular, I'm an Atari fanatic. Lately, I've become obsessed with collecting every possible Atari 2600 cart, and stitching them all together into one giant game... but that's another story.

From this book, I hoped to get some insight into the story of how Atari happened, and how it defined videogames. And... I got half of that. This book is very light on business and software development history, instead focusing on the impact of games on popular culture. Specifically, it focuses on 1972-1983, a relatively narrow and interesting focus. I can't say I learned a lot of facts from this book, but I definitely took away some interesting perspectives. Basically, here are my big three takeaways from this book.

1) Space Invaders. I always understood that Space Invaders was very popular, I remember, I was there when it happened. But what had not sunk in with me is exactly what a tipping point this one game was. As Newman tells it, before Space Invaders, video machines were viewed as lesser novelties by arcade owners. I remember these machines well - various car race games, games like Sea Wolf, etc. Apparently, they broke a lot, and didn't pull in the big money that pinball tended to. Space Invaders changed everything. Suddenly, a video machine was pulling in WAY more money than pinball machines. The dozens of successful arcade games that rapidly followed were all drafting off of the success of Space Invaders. It is yet another case of a single hit giving legitimacy to an entire industry. In many ways I feel that at this moment, VR is in the "Sea Wolf" stage. We have some good games, but we haven't yet had a breakout hit. But it will come, and when it does, it will change everything.

2) Pac-Man. Until I'd read Atari Age, I did not fully comprehend that Pac-Man was expressly created to reach a female audience, and the fact that it succeeded at doing so was central to its success. I remember when Pac-Man appeared, and it was like a new level of arcade machine, like going from the PC to the Mac in 1984. I remember saving up three dollars worth of quarters, riding my bike all the way out to Pavolo's Pizza one day, and carefully playing each game, studying and trying to master it. I was stunned and amazed when I finally saw the first cut scene -- no videogame before had contained that level of whimsical storytelling. We all wondered what other secrets this complex game might contain. I remember my babysitter was so proud to introduce me to her girlfriend who was good enough to get up the key screen. So, Pac-Man was notable in that it may have been the first game that intentionally sought a female audience, and actually succeeded in doing so.

3) Selling the Future. Atari Age spends a LOT of time analyzing advertisements for early computers. At first this seemed kind of ludicrous to me... the ads are cute, but why are they relevant? But soon it started to dawn on me -- what is really being analyzed here is what the psychology of the home computer really was. What was being sold was, yes, a business machine, and yes, a game machine, but something else, too: a gateway to intellectual mastery of the future. The possibility of becoming a "computer whiz" was central to these advertisements, and all that entailed. I remember these ads because they had me enraptured. I wanted to be that computer whiz, to own the future that way, so very badly. Looking back, a lot of it was false promises. But then, really, a lot of it wasn't. Sure, one was unlikely to get a job programming the VIC-20 or the Atari 800, but these things were a doorway to programming. And I, for one, stepped through that doorway, and it changed my life. Honestly, I don't think any product is sold under this premise any more... it is a difference in generations. There is no product today that promises that you will become a genius and master the future if learn to use it. What would that product even look like today?

So, anyway, I got some good things out of Atari Age, just not what I expected. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some Yars' Revenge to play.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Writing

I was excited when I found this "On Writing" book of Charles Bukowski letters edited by Abel Debritto. It is a collection of his letters that relate to writing and creative process. I was assuming it would be letters full of good, solid, thought provoking advice. I've always connected with Bukowski's writing, especially the poems. There is a raw power, and a kind of brutal honesty that I always enjoy.

Unfortunately, I think this book might have ruined Bukowski for me! They say you shouldn't get too close to your heroes, and I think THEY ARE RIGHT. I had always lived with the illusion that he lived his life like he tells it in his many poems. One day at a time, focused on hedonistic pleasures until life catches up with him, and then trudging through the dull parts of life until he could break away and live in the moment again, and occasionally banging out a poem along the way. Instead, these letters paint a picture of a neurotic, obsessed with how people see him. He talks endlessly about comparisons to other poets, making clear that his uneducated affect is just an act. Instead of a happy-go-lucky drunk, instead we see an obsessed, neurotic drunk, whose self-esteem is defined by how his poems are received. The way he paints his life in the poems always seemed a bit too good to be true, and these letters make clear that it was. I can't decide if this make Bukowski a more complex figure, or a simpler one. It does make clear, though, what he was wrestling with... a desire for immortality.