21 April 2012

Link of the day: An Invocation for Beginnings

An amazing inspirational video by Ze Frank about fear, creativity, and life among other things.
Don't call it a comb-back; I'll have hair for years.

I'm scared. I'm scared that my abilities are gone. I'm scared that I'm going to fuck this up. And I'm scared of you. I don't want to start, but I will.

This is an invocation for anyone who hasn't begun, who's stuck in a terrible place between zero and one.

Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indication of my future performance. They're just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass.

If my FILDI (fuck it let's do it) is strong, let me keep him in a velvet box until I really, really need him. If my FILDI is weak, let me feed him oranges and not let him gorge himself on ego and arrogance.

Let me not hit up my Facebook like it's a crack pipe. Keep the browser closed. If I catch myself wearing a too-too (too fat, too late, too old), let me shake it off like a donkey would shake off something it doesn't like.

When I get that feeling in my stomach -- you know the feeling when all of a sudden you get a ball of energy and it shoots down into your legs and up into your arms and tells you to get up and stand up and go to the refrigerator and get a cheese sandwich -- that's my cheese monster talking. And my cheese monster will never be satisfied by cheddar, only the cheese of accomplishment.

Let me think about the people who I care about the most, and how when they fail or disappoint me... I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best in them. Let me extend that generosity to myself.

Let me find and use metaphors to help me understand the world around me and give me the strength to get rid of them when it's apparent they no longer work.

Let me thank the parts of me that I don't understand or are outside of my rational control like my creativity and my courage. And let me remember that my courage is a wild dog. It won't just come when I call it, I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.

Let me not be so vain to think that I'm the sole author of my victories and a victim of my defeats. Let me remember that the unintended meaning that people project onto what I do is neither my fault or something I can take credit for.

Perfectionism may look good in his shiny shoes but he's a little bit of an asshole and no one invites him to their pool parties.

Let me remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic, but when the intent is evil, that's what the block button is for. And when I eat my critique, let me be able to separate out the good advice from the bitter herbs.

(There are few people won't be disarmed by a genuine smile. A big impact on a few can be worth more than a small impact.)

Let me not think of my work only as a stepping stone to something else, and if it is, let me become fascinated with the shape of the stone.

Let me take the idea that has gotten me this far and put it to bed. What I am about to do will not be that, but it will be something.

There is no need to sharpen my pencils anymore. My pencils are sharp enough. Even the dull ones will make a mark.

Warts and all. Let's start this shit up.

(And god let me enjoy this. Life isn't just a sequence of waiting for things to be done.)

18 April 2012

Thought of the day: What is the progression?

When you're learning or teaching, a good question to ask yourself is: "what is the progression?"

I'm not sure where the term "progression" came from, but I've heard it used in reference to strength training and conditioning. One day, at the gym, I saw a new piece of equipment, a back extension bench. I asked the supervisor how to use the bench and I tried it. It was pretty damn hard and I realized that the exercise was too difficult/advanced for me. So I went back to the supervisor and asked him if there was an easier exercise that would help me build up to the back extension bench. He gave me another exercise and said, "That's the progression."

Recently, I having discussions on how to coach beginning adult hockey players. It's very tricky to teach adults hockey because there is just so much to learn and because hockey is one of the most difficult sports to become proficient in (let's not talk about being a master, it's hard enough just be decent). Through the course of the discussion, I realized that you need to design practices where the different drills reinforce each other, skills are applied in different contexts, and teach how skills are used in game situations -- all without making people frustrated or bored. There needs to be a progression to take people from not knowing how to skate to being able to play in a game with decent skating, stickhandling, shooting, and tactical skills.

The progression for learning hockey would be something like:
  1. Learn how to use your edges
  2. Skating in a straight line, stopping
  3. Crossovers, tight turns, transitions
  4. Skating with the puck
  5. Simple dekes
  6. Shooting
  7. Tactics
The learner is often frustrated about making progress or overwhelmed by how much work there is to do. So it's important to give them just enough to chew on, but not get stuck or become intimidated. The teacher is often frustrated that the learner isn't improving quickly enough. The key to solving these problems is to identify what skills need to be mastered and to come up with a progression to tie everything together.

15 April 2012

Link of the day: "Worse than the Cultural Revolution"

There is a lot of good stuff published over at the New York Review of Books (NYRB). No wonder one of my friends spoke so highly of them.

On the NYRB blog, there was a nice interview with Tian Qing, head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center. He spoke at length about the tension between modernization and preserving culture. He made a good point (that is not brought up enough) that Western society had 200 years to modernize, something that China has been trying to replicate in a mere thirty years. Moreover, China is a national one billion people. That brings all kinds of complications. Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea modernized pretty well, but they were so much smaller.

I suppose it's inevitable that modernization would happen, but it's sad to see China's heritage disappearing. They held out for a few thousand years; should I think that's pretty good?

13 April 2012

Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

Recently, I dropped into a comic book store that specialized in indie comics. I felt bad about spending so much time in there and not buying anything, so I picked up Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. It's about a young Jewish woman going on the Birthright tour to Israel. The tour is meant to expose expat Jews to their homeland and culture.

I enjoyed it for its thoughtfulness and the personal nature of the work. One of the best graphic novels I've read in a long time. There is a similar tour sponsored by the Taiwanese government, nicknamed "The Love Boat." Surprisingly, I found a lot to relate to in Glidden's novel despite not knowing much about Jewish culture. I identified strongly with the struggle to decide "what side you're on", whether or not to agree with the politics of your homeland. Maybe it's not surprising. One of my family friends said that there's a lot of similarity between Chinese and Jewish culture, which is why many Chinese-Americans and Jewish-Americans marry.

09 April 2012

Link of the day: Video games as psychological tools?

I've always loved video games, but nowadays I don't play them much due to both lack of time and lack of innovation in game design. Still, I try to keep up with the discussion of "video games as art" and "the future of video games."

Recently, there was a cleverly written and insightful New York Times essay about "stupid games."

I can sympathize with the author's desire to stay away from "addictive" games which make your unproductive and add nothing to your life. He makes the point that it's true games have been around forever (for example, dice), but video games (starting with Tetris) are addictive in a way that is different and new. Now that you can play games on smartphones, you can play anytime, filling the smallest sliver of time when you're bored. I remember when a friend of mine told me that Baldur's Gate (a PC RPG) was "crack." iPhone games are probably crack+++. The fact is that on a smartphone, you have a tiny screen and a limited control interface, so the games have to be very simple.
This has encouraged a very different kind of game: Tetris-like little puzzles, broken into discrete bits, designed to be played anywhere, in any context, without a manual, by any level of player. (Charles Pratt, a researcher in New York University’s Game Center, refers to such games as “knitting games.”) You could argue that these are pure games: perfectly designed minisystems engineered to take us directly to the core of gaming pleasure without the distraction of narrative.
Sam Anderson, the author, goes on to research the addictive nature of smartphone games by interviewing various game designers. One person he interviews is Zach Gage, an indie game designer. Gage laments the death of public arcades in America. Me, too, although I made a point of visiting arcades in Japan, where they are still very much alive. He's right that there just aren't many social games anymore, but that he means games where you play in the same room with other people. The only games I can think of are sports games, dance/music games, and a few Nintendo games like Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, and Super Mario Strikers. Gage also makes the interesting point that many smartphone games are just Gameboy games that have been ported. This is despite the fact that the Gameboy controller interface is completely different -- buttons as opposed to touch screen. There's no creativity. It's obvious that if touch screens had come first, there wouldn't be a game like Tetris on the iPhone.

Gage has multiple projects going on, including a satire of "stupid games."
In fact, one of Gage’s current projects is a satire of the current state of the gaming industry, especially companies’ tendency to try to cash in by copying the latest trend. The game’s working title is “Unify Birds.” It’s exactly the same as Unify except that it has been redesigned in the most superficial possible way: Gage has turned all of the blocks into colorful, wide-eyed birds. “I made a couple of other little changes,” Gage says, “but mainly I just made everything superadorable. It’s been really interesting, because I’ve showed it to people who liked Unify, and they’ll play it, and they’ll be like: ‘Oh, man, Zach. This is a really good game. This is better.’ They wondered what I’ve changed.”
I thought this really shows how manipulative games are. "Stupid games" are designed to tap into the basest of human compulsions and desires, in the above case: cuteness. Anderson tells us that there's even a name for this, it's "gamification." Companies use this all the time, for example, frequent flier miles.

Zynga, a company which is the king of "stupid games", is a target of blame. Many people, including myself, think that Zynga is just peddling a form of digital crack.
Some people argue that Zynga’s signature games — FarmVille, FishVille — shouldn’t even be called games. As Nicholas Carlson of the Web site Business Insider wrote: “They are click-machines powered by the human need to achieve progress by a predictable path and a willingness to pay small amounts of money to make that progress go faster. They are not ‘games.’ ” But you could argue that games like FarmVille are in fact just the logical end of gamification: gamified games. They have the appearance of games, they inspire the compulsions of games, but for many people they are not fun like games.
I remember playing a Gamecube title called Animal Crossing. I liked the fact that the game didn't even try to disguise the fact that there was no point to it. You were forcibly given a house at the beginning of the game and told to pay it off. To do this, you pick fruit, catch fish, etc and sell your goods to the store. As you earn money, you can buy new outfits or decorations for your house. When you find new species of fish or insects, you can also donate these to a museum. After you pay down the house, you're forced to upgrade the house and pay that down, too. So in the end, the game is all about consumerism and hording. And of course, all the characters (except yourself) are cute animals.

Anderson interviews the game designer for Drop7, which is a game that even he found irrepressibly compulsive. The game designer, Frank Lantz, had an interesting view. He thought that instead of thinking of games as fun or crack, we should think of them as a way to test our brain chemistry.
Games, he told me, are like “homebrew neuroscience” — “a little digital drug you can use to run experiments on your own brain.” Part of the point of letting them seduce you, as Lantz sees it, is to come out the other side a more interesting and self-aware person; more conscious of your habits, weaknesses, desires and strengths. “It’s like heroin that is abstracted or compressed or stylized,” he said. “It gives you a window into your brain that doesn’t crush your brain.”
The fact that "stupid games" are so stripped down and designed to feed our compulsions makes us that a good hard look at the question "what is a game". Through the essay, there are a few hints about this.

Certainly there are games that we consider more like "art" and a worthy pursuit.
Chess, you might say, is the king of stupid games: the tide line where stupid games meet genius.
A bit of wisdom from Sid Meier, who developed the fantastic Civilization series (one of the "better" games):
The legendary game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as, simply, “a series of interesting choices.”
Finally, the ending passage from the essay:
Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. “Somehow teetering on the edge was part of the fun for me,” he said. “It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself — through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle — and at the same time it was pure self-destruction. There’s no word for that in English, for a thing that does both of those at the same time. But it’s wonderful.”

I asked him if he knew a word for that in another language.

He said no, but then he thought for a minute.

“I think it’s ‘game,’ ” he said. “I think the word for that is ‘game.’ ”
I'm not sure I agree with that last quote. Would we consider poker self-destructive if we took away the gambling aspect? Honestly, anything can be corrupting or self-destructive. What about chasing money or status? As Lantz says, maybe games are a safe way to learn about our compulsions. What about sports? People frequently call those "games." Are sports considered "worthier" because they are physical and social?

I think a better definition of "game" is something that simulates some aspect of life or human nature, in a self-contained, simplified environment. I prefer a definition that doesn't make value judgments about whether a game is "stupid" or not.

06 April 2012

Thought of the day: Lay down your cynicism

In this time and age, it seems popular to make dystopian films, write ironic too-clever novels, criticize others, worry about how you're not good enough, complain about the state of the world, etc. I think enough is enough. I'm not saying that we should all go back to Disneyland, but if negativity becomes your life, you have to push back.

Lay down your cynicism. Open up yourself. Suspend judgment on others and yourself as long as possible. Take a risk on someone and hope for the good.

04 April 2012

Song of the day: "Beautiful City" by Stephen Schwartz

The revival of Godspell is playing on Broadway right now. I happened upon a video of Hunter Parrish singing "Beautiful City" and really enjoyed it. Very touching, with a gorgeous melody. I'll put this one on my list of songs to learn.

These are the revised lyrics for the revival.
Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

We may not reach the ending
But we can start
Slowly but truly mending
Brick by brick, heart by heart
Now, maybe now
We start learning how

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

A city of man.