Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fear of Not Flying

Thomas say:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

 T.S. Eliot,
"The Wasteland: I. Burial of the Dead"

The tagline of  this blog is "Creative flux for our heap of broken images." It's called TinkerX: "X" for my lost, forgotten, grungy, slacker generation that is caught too late for Woodstock, too early for Raves... and "Tinker" for the guy who takes (supposedly) worthless junk and turns it into tools, toys and trinkets.

This passage from "The Wasteland" is, I think, the most important piece of poetry to come out of post WWI Europe. The whole poem is hugely important, yes. But this one stanza is the best short, dense, beautiful description of what it's like to live in a "mashup," "remix" culture. This is postmodernism.

This post was inspired by one at Raph's site on his having seen "Happy Feet" and remarking on its connection to "March of the Penguins."

Yes, our children know nothing but The Mash. My son, seven, has never heard a fairytale told "true." They all have Shrek-like layers of hyper-referencing built in. The genie is Robin Williams. Or vice-versa. At best, the "classics" are the Disney versions. Irony? You're soaking in it.

This is not a bad thing. But it has to be *taught to* if it is to be a truly good thing. As Raph says, seeing "March of the Penguins" really helps with a viewing of "Happy Feet." I didn't know as much about Emperor Penguins until having seen that first film, and so my enjoyment of the second was increased tremendously.

On the other hand... in a mashup/post-modern culture, you also have to live with people mashing things up in ways that are clearly, er... disagreeable to you. From MIchael Medved's remarkably... insane... review of the film:

As in so many other recent films, there’s a subtext that appears to plead for endorsement of gay identity. Mumbles (the voice of Elijah Wood) displeases his parents and the leaders of his community because he’s born different, and makes an impassioned plea that he can’t possibly change – and they should accept him as he is.

Uh... Right. Because the only possible way to be "different" in society is to be gay. Despite the fact that Mumbles spends the entire movie trying to win the love of a totally hot female penguin, and hanging out with a gang of "Amigos" penguins that are constantly on the macho prowl, almost offensively so, for chicas. In the end, we see Mumbles with Gloria, his heart's true love... and their new baby. Clearly part of the homosexual agenda.

Damn it, Medved! I was different throughout school, and it had very little to do with sexual identity! I was a game-playing, D&D-loving, musical-performing, Latin-studying, church-going techno-dweeb with few friends who got along well with his parents. That made me a total tool in the eyes of the popular crowd. I received, at the hands of many of my peers, treatment almost identical to that lavished upon Mumbles -- disapproval for not "fitting in," and having talents different to theirs. They could sing, I could dance. Not literally, as I could sing, and they could... well.. play sports. But you get the picture.

So. My son has seen "Happy Feet" three times. And I deconstruct it as a lovely, musical journey through the ideas of creativity, self-discovery and young love. Medved sees it as a gay propaganda, an anti-religious, anti-human horror, and "the darkest, most disturbing feature length animated film ever offered by a major studio."

There is, for freakin' sure, shadow under this red rock. And I will show you fear in a feature length animated film.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

More social networking terms: features, functions, transactions and...

The social story thusfar...

This is the third in a series of posts about social networking/software, intended to put the current... er... enthusiasm... about making everything "social" into some kind of perspective, and to begin to assign some kinds of business and/or marketing terms and thoughts to the various processes and parts of social platforms.

The first two posts dealt with how we might measure the relative social value of various systems. It took me two posts to do it, since I use this space to think out loud, but with your kind patience, I came up with the following definitions:

Share of Participation: the relative value of participation in a particular type or brand of social activity by an individual or a group as measured by resource or influence

Social Share: how much of the total participation in social activities of a desired audience is aggregated to a particular brand or segment.

So "Share of Participation" might be seen as the social equivalent of "Share of Wallet," but measured in time, number of "units" of participation (entries, comments, etc.). And "Social Share" might then be an equivalent of "Mind Share" or "Market Share." The first measures how much of an individual or group's "social capital" is spent on a particular social network. The second measures how much of an entire, desired audience that network has captured. These are two very different numbers, their difference is incredibly important, and we'll get to that later in this post.

I've been commenting recently on Raph Koster's site on variousness related to his upcoming Areae... game? VW? Cyberverse? Who knows...  When I mentioned I was working on a blog post about the next issue in my series -- social functions vs. features -- Allen Sligar suggested that "social transaction" was a good synonym for "social feature." I like the term... but I think it's now a third thing I have to think about, rather than a synonym for one of the two I already had in my head. So here's where I am now:

1. Social Function = doing something for the purpose of "being social." IE, a dating site; the "MM" in "MMORPG." Communications technology per se. IM, email, etc. These have "social functions" at their core. You cannot "do" these things without "being social."

2. Social Feature = a benefit provided to users of the system that is only made possible through exposure to group-level actions. For example, Wikipedia and The Wikipedia is made possible by the efforts of many thousands of writers and editors. It enables "social creation" of the material, but does not require "social use" of it. A reader of a Wikipedia entry benefits from the social nature of how the entries are created, but is not involved in social interactions himself, per se. Similarly, all the tagging data that is entered into is part of a social system, but using it is not a social function.

3. Social Transaction (thanks, Allen, for the brain-spark) = I think, the exchange of social value, through a social feature of some kind. When I award you a Digg or, on eBay, a positive review... that's a "social transaction." I think that social transactions can modify and enable, improve and validate social features... but I'm not sure they're required for them. When I use a Wikipedia entry or browse through a couple hundred Flickr photos, I'm reaping the benefit of social features, but not engaging in a social transaction.

For a time, when I was thinking about these two (now three) things, I had it in my head that there was/were some "many-to-many" and "many-to-one" differences going on here; i.e., that "social functions" were primarily one-to-one and that social features enabled many-to-many interactions. But I'm not sure about that anymore. The social functions of many sites/services seem, now, to be many-to-many. There are poetry groups at MySpace numbering in the tens-of-thousands. They facilitate a social function. And the tagging features of, while entered in a many-to-many scale, can be realized on a one-to-one basis, for sure. So I don't think it's a numbers game.

What I do think, though, is that the difference between feature and function will end up relating back to the difference between share of participation vs. social share. I think that systems that have, at their hearts, some level of social function are more likely to aggregate a long-term, low-churn share of participation. While those that rely solely on social features may have a large social share... but it may not be particularly loyal.

What am I talking about. It's the difference between "audience" and "tribe," and it can be very, very tricky to figure out.

Let's take, for example, MySpace vs. World of Warcraft . Both have huge social share. Millions of people are doing "social things" on both. There's no arguing about that. But let's look at the differences in features vs. functions.

  • MySpace: Social features = blogging (page building), email, groups, forums, classifieds.

  • WoW: Social features = chat, IM, grouping, guild features

On the surface, it would seem that MySpace is "more social" than WoW. And, in fact, you can play WoW as a solo game, so it need not be social at all. But if you do play WoW in group or guild mode, or for the PvP experience, it has, at its heart, a "WoW specific social function," whereas MySpace does not.

I don't mean that each of the individual features of MySpace cannot fulfill social functions for individuals and groups... but those functions are ones that are easily portable. On WoW, however, that's not the case. If you and I are enjoying a game of WoW, but become irritated by some feature of it (say, the graphics) and want to "take our game elsewhere," we are basically hosed. You can't play WoW anywhere else. All the social features of the game are at the service of the social function: to play in a shared, fictional RPG experience.

On MySpace, on the other hand, almost all the experiences are transferable, and pretty dang easily. If a group of any size were to become disenchanted with any of its features, the functions would transfer. How long, for example, would it take to set up a blog, group, forum or classified for your MySpace group on another platform?

This is all leading to the last term I'm going to coin in this piece: social brand.

Just like there is brand in any part of marketing or advertising, I'm increasingly convinced that various social networking systems will have a social brand that presents to users a proposition based on the intersection of social features and functions. But where a traditional brand is something that is controlled by marketing departments and ad agencies, the social brand of a platform will be, to a degree, at the mercy of the users...

Except inasmuch as the developers of the system can understand the relationships of the features and functions (and transactions) they present to users, and the balance of how they are valued. Social functions are centralized and presented as definitional -- either by the creators or, over time, by the will of the users. Social features are used horizontally and are the ways in which aggregate value is accrued to the system.  Things to keep in mind, therefore, when developing a social networking system and trying to develop long-term social brand:

  • Are there ways to reinforce social functions in each feature/transaction?

  • If the use of a feature is easily replicable elsewhere, can I brand it somehow?

  • Are my users loyal to the aggregate, unique social function of my service, or to a set of features?

  • If I'm seeking to increase share of participation, should I be increasing services or looking to deepen my root social function?

  • If I'm seeking to increase social share, do I need parity with competitors in social features? Or a unique social function proposition?

  • Why haven't I hired one or more people to do nothing but manage these issues?

These are all very weird questions. We are talking about sites/services that rely on the interactions and content and data and information provided by users to create the value for the customers. Yeah, I know "user created content" is all over the place in the media and being discussed as such. Thing is, I don't see a whole lot of talk about how to manage these "users" more as employees or as products/services themselves.

Because... if the value your service is providing derives from work done  by users, you need to think of that work as an operational center. And you need to think of the people doing that work the same way you would a contractor, employee or  (insulting!) piece of equipment. It's not just "kinda neat" that they do stuff on your site that provides value. It's core to the biz.

We need to talk about this stuff more.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Posted: The Side Ways 2.1

Happy Friday before Christmas! Here's the latest section of the novel I'm working on, "The Side Ways." Chapter 2.1: Up and Out. It begins:

I should be afraid, Kendra thought. That was all she could think. That she should be afraid. But what she was, instead, was mad.

Mad at the old museum guy for dumping her in this room. Mad at the green man and the gargoyle dog for bringing her here. Mad at the sky woman for getting the blue junk on her. Mad at Mr. Tandy for giving her the job in the first place.

Mad at her mom and Dr. Morgan for either making her take her medicine in the first place or letting her get away with skipping it.

I don’t even know how much of this shit is real. Like, where am I now? At home in bed? In the topiary garden, lying on the grass? In a hospital somewhere?

Kendra turned a full circle, looking around the office. Everything still appeared to be fully formed, fully “real,” as if she could reach out and pull a book off the bookcase or touch the crow or stick her head into the fireplace or…

The fireplace. When she’d traversed the room before, feeling the “flatness” of the illusionary furniture and walls, the fireplace had still been there. She hadn’t noticed it because… well, because it had been normal. It’s hard to notice normal things when everything else is… not.

It was a pretty big fireplace, and so she didn’t have to crawl to get under the mantle, just duck down a bit. She went to grab the mantle with one hand for balance, only to be reminded that it, though, wasn’t real… just “painted on.” She held the wall instead, and peered up into the chimney.

See "The Side Ways" main page for details on the entire project, or if you'd like the password to read sections beyond "Chapter 1.1: Stray Girl."

Monday, December 18, 2006

"The Side Ways." Yep. I'm writing a novel.

And you're invited!

Back in around, oh... 2002... Maybe 2003, I forget... I had a couple of ideas for a storyline that I thought would make a cool basis for a series of graphic novels. I worked out some plot points and a couple of the main characters with an artist here in Columbus, and we did some storyboarding that took us about 1/3 of the way through what would have been the first book.

Then he left for a really sweet gig in NYC. Which was cool. And I put the idea on the back-brain-burner and let it simmer for awhile. But the main character -- Kendra White -- and the basic background of the story spoke to me in ways that some of my other, more fully-formed writing ideas haven't. So I kept jotting down notes or additional character studies or bits of scenes... blah blah blah. The usual writer crud.

Then I wrote most of a couple chapters. And it didn't work. So I scrapped it and decided it was bad. Bad, bad, bad. Andy can't write a novel. Bad, Andy. Go write blog posts and poetry and marketing essays and some short stories and stuff. My usual response to not liking a first draft.

Well, I'm tired of that response. And I really like some parts of what I think this story may be trying to tell me. Maybe it's just some fun fantasy stuff. Not "swords and sorcery" fantasy. Modern-day, weird-o fantasy. Maybe it's some deeply metaphoric stuff that I need to work out in my head; "writing as self-psychoanalysis." Either way, I want to finish it.

So I'd like your help. It's called, "The Side Ways." I'm going to post the chapter bits here as they come off the keyboard. I've finished the first chapter and am doing OK on the second. The whole first chapter is posted on the blog right now. You can read "Chapter 1.1: Stray Girl," without any let or hindrance. After that, though... you'll need a password. Why? Because I don't want the whole thing spidered and spammed, and I really only want folks who'd like to be involved in the draft reading, editing and commenting process involved. If you want to read it, I'd be absolutely thrilled. Tickled pink. But I would respectfully ask that you give me at least one comment (even something as lame as, "That was nice") for each section. Free fiction in exchange for mild critique.  Or not so mild. Your call.

So... if you read the first section, and would like to plow on after that, shoot me an email [awhavens aat sanestorm dott com] and I'll send you the horribly complex password for the rest of the thang. It'll be the same password for the whole novel, and I promise it's easy to remember.

Thanks in advance. My sincere hope is that by putting my junk (and my process) out in the wind for all to see, I'll have to hold myself to finishing the dang thing.

It starts like this:

When the greenman and the gargoyle brought the girl to me, I thought she was dead at first.

Now... don't that make you a little bit curious...

An open letter to Raph Koster

Raph Koster (web page) just announced that he's launched his new company, Areae. It / he is gonna do virtual world stuff. There's a Gamasutra article and interview.

"Open Letter" is so quaint and 19th century, doncha think? You know what I mean, though, right? It's a blog post with a track-back to Raph's post about the announcement. Which is as close as you can politely get on the cyberplane to simply up'n hollering:

"Hey, Raph! I got sumfin to say about yer new comp'ny!"

Open letter indeed. Ahem.

Beyond the congratulations and well wishes, which are explicit in the comments to his post and which I'll make here again -- congrats, Raph, and best wishes -- are the hopes of thousands if not millions of gamers in the English speaking world and, probably, a not-insignificant number of Chinese and Indian and Korean players, too. The game world, basically. I don't know if the Russians and the Belgians give a fat rat's ass about Raph, but it would be a tough argument to say that his reach doesn't extend to China.

There are lots of folks in the gaming industry with influence, ideas, money, power, big hair, cred, friends, intellectual property licenses, etc. Very few of them (if any), though, have something that Raph has that I think is insanely important:

An MFA in poetry.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

You say, "Manual." I say, "Treasure Map."

There's a post over at Terra Nova talking about "playing with a manual" vs. game experiences that are more "natural;" i.e., require very little explanation. Part of the issue is the idea of experienced game geeks not needing as much explanation, vs. noobs who don't know what HP, manna, skill-points, experience, levels, etc. are. Nate Combs asks:
I wonder how games and virtual worlds would look if their culture evolved with a less "seat of the pants" view towards knowledge acquisition?  What if players were brought along expecting to read  a manual, a really long one, before they could play?  I suspect there would be more freedom in what developers could design.
I have a confession to make: I've always enjoyed reading manuals, especially game manuals. Extra-especially big, fat, honkin' thick manuals with all the lists of spells, abilities, units, buildings, factions, etc. If I'm going to spend 50+ hours playing a game, it has always made sense in my wee haid that I RTFM for 30-60 minutes.

I'll tell you one thing that has always bugged me about most manuals for many complex and interesting games I've played, too: they are almost always insultingly apologetic to the non-manual-readers, with an included assumption that that is just about everyone. There's usually a line somewhere near the beginning of the manual that reads something like this:

We know that most of you hate to read these boring and long-winded manuals. We do, too! For those of you who want to jump right into the game, please read the "Quick Start Guide," and then play through the "Tutorial" scenario...

Nothing like the writers and publishers of a game you've just dropped $50 on to tell you that part of what you've just paid for is boring and long-winded and should probably be ignored. It always made me feel, well... betrayed to read that.

There's a fundamental flaw in that kind of thinking on the part of the game developers, I believe. And while I am intrigued by the heart of Nate's question, I think the separation of "manual" and "game" that exists in many Game Gods' heads is something that bears reexamining.

We are living in a much more technologically savvy time than even 5 or 10 years ago. And while there is still a steep separation between the true geek and the technophobe, we've moved well beyond the day when some people still said, with a kind of wry aplomb, "Oh, no. I don't own a computer. I've really got no use for one." Remember those days? The last time I heard that was around 1998. Now, saying, "I don't know how to work a computer," in that kind of smug, neo-Luddite way would be about the equivalent of saying, "I'm basically illiterate. I can read street signs... but beyond that, no. Can't read much at all. Never found it very useful."

Kids all have cell phones. Everyone has a computer. More and more of us have high-speed Internet access, etc. etc. My point being that it's no longer "normal" to be outside the computer circle. It's normal to be inside it. And so the idea of "writing for the non-geek" has to begin to mean something else. Because the circle of non-geeks, by the old definition, is much smaller. We all use software at work that is scads more complex than most computer games.

That being said, though... how much do we want our leisure activities to resemble having to program an Excel macro? Not so much, eh?

Here we get into the differences between:

  • complicated vs. complex

  • frustration vs. exploration

  • mastery of interface vs. mastery of game

  • technical help vs. game narrative

All those first things are not so good.

Complex vs. Complicated

Complicated means having to choose between many options with limited or incomplete data. Some games are, by nature, complicated. There is a joy to mastering a complicated game for many people. Most flight simulators (mentioned in the TN post) are complicated. Why? Because flying a plane is complicated. Some racing simulators are complicated. They are often differentiated from their less-complicated cousins by the term "arcade." If it's an arcade-style simulator, it means that there are fewer choices. For example, in a flight sim, you don't have to worry about fuel, ammo loads, guns heating up, weather, etc. All kinds of options that make the game more realistic, but also harder to learn to play well. In the time it takes to play a 25-cent (or, today, $1) arcade game, you can't expect a player to learn about 38 variables. Only 3 or 4.

Complex, on the other hand, refers to a choice among many like things. A "complex" (the noun, not the adjective) is a "conceptual whole made up of related parts." A shopping mall, for example, is a "complex." But most malls are not very complicated, once the concept of "mall" (not a very difficult one) is made clear. A mall can have one hundred shops and you can get to them all very easily. On the other hand, getting to a similar selection of shops in a non-mall geography -- let's say, a downtown area -- might be more complicated; it would require more steps, more intermediations, more options, more decisions. Do I need to drive? To take a cab? The subway? Etc. Etc.

Lots of choices is good. Understanding how to get to them quickly and for the appropriate reasons is good. Not knowing even how to get to the right information is bad. Being confused about the necessary data is bad.

Manuals are often thought of as necessary for clarifying complicated processes. Maps, tables, glossaries, indexes and lists are provided to help with complex choices.

Frustration vs. Exploration

We all know the good feeling we get when playing a neat game that tests our skills. That's fun! Right? Whether we're doing a challenging crossword or jigsaw puzzle or on a quest in an MMO. That's a feeling of exploration. Often, what we're exploring is the edge of our own competency. And hopping back and forth between exploration and frustration isn't unusual at all. Because getting a bit pissed off at ourselves or the game or the puzzle or the search is part of the challenge. If it was easy, or could be done the first time through... that's not much of a challenge.

But the exploration-edge-of-frustration should always come from within the game itself; inside the magic circle / 4th wall. You should not, for example, find a marble in your jigsaw puzzle box and have to wonder, "What the heck is this for?" Which brings us to...

Interface vs. Game

In real life, the interface often is the game. When you "play baseball," there is no difference between "how you hit the ball" and "how to hit the ball" and "hitting the ball." The bat is the interface is the tool is the game element. There is no intermediary. As WB Yeats said in, "Among School Children:"

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We can't. We don't. Which is the point of much of real life. In some computer games, too, this is true. Tetris, Pong, PacMan, etc. and many other cursor or joystick-jerkers rely on reflexes and hand-eye coordination. What you do is what you do. On the other hand, most of the complex role-playing and strategy games rely on knowing "how to do a thing to make another thing happen." There may be an element of "move joystick left to move your character left." That much may be "the dance." But you may also need to know countless interface "rules" involving adding equipment to your inventory, equipping such for use, preparing spells, grouping units together, assigning actions to various keys, etc. etc. And those interface issues may require different actions for different games... to accomplish the same task.

Imagine if turning on a light switch had a different effect depending on what house you were in. That is... frustrating and complicated.

There are "interface traditions," of course. And Nate mentions that at TN: "Geekdom in a niche has at least one virtue: there is less to explain." For example, in most RTS (real time strategy) games, clicking and dragging around multiple units "group selects" them. In many role-playing games, health is measured on a red bar, and manna (magical energy) is measured on a blue one. There's probably a list of about 50 or so of these that die-hard gamers could go through for you.

None of them swing pine, though.

And, by that, I mean that none of them are, inherently, "game" related. There is no reason rooted in some universal game reality that RED = HEALTH, except it looks, I guess, like blood. But it might as well be green, because GREEN = GO for traffic lights, and GREEN = HEALTHY in nature, or white, because BLACK = DEAD.

Once in awhile, you get a game that tries to eschew the typical interface. Peter Molyneux's Black & White comes to mind, as do a few of Peter's earlier titles. In these, the interface was (more or less) embedded within the game. In B&W, you, as a god in the game, saw your own hand hovering in the game space, You cast spells and moved game elements (people, animals, trees, rocks) around by moving the hand. Deus ex cursor, writ large. It added a great deal to the sense of being "in the game," since the computer screen became more of a window on the experience than a dashboard. Which brings us, finally, to...

Technical Help vs. Game Narrative

In many computer/video games, there is a tutorial that leads you through the basics of navigating both the game world and the interface. The tutorial is almost always explicitly removed from the main "body" of the game. One of the neatest things about World of Warcraft is that the early, "tutorial" stages flow extremely smoothly into the next, "journeymen" phases of the game with nary a bump. But mostly, you get a stage (that you can skip) where a drill sergeant (or your butler, a helpful faerie or disembodied voice) prods you along a path full of obstacles where the buttons and menus are explained.

This is about as immersive a game experience as an ad for Miller Lite in a medieval setting. It has the benefit over a manual of letting you practice the interface in situ... but it is not, well... the dance. It's dance instruction.

None of this to say that it's a bad thing. It's just... not really "part of the game." It's technical help embedded within the interface itself, possibly with a bit of game narrative thrown on top to help the medicine go down.

The Challenge

Here's my challenge to the game industry: stop thinking about manuals and training and technical help as separate from the game experience. In fact, it's a challenge to anybody designing a user interface experience, which kinda makes it a challenge to me in my day gig, too.

Why shouldn't the "how" of getting to know a game be embedded in the game itself? Why should learning the interface elements of a game require a manual that is separate from the game? Why can't the map of the thing be the thing in many cases?

I'm not sure how to accomplish these things. I just know that I enjoy reading a good manual and finding out how to make a game do what it's supposed to do. That joy shouldn't have to be separated from the joy of playing the game itself. And if the discovery of how to play the game can be interwoven with the playing of the game itself... much cooler.

Why are we separating the gamer from the game? It seems to me to be much less beautiful when that happens.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The TinkerX UnGrinch 25

I was involved in retail marketing for ten years, but it seems like more. Retail gives you various blech around holiday time, and that increases the time-dilation-memory factor. And while I know lots of non-marketing/sales people who are bone-weary of the over-commercialization of this time of year, I promise that if you feel that way, you got nothing on folks who've lived the dream from the inside of the tinsel machine.

If you're one of the people, like me, that thinks, "Geez. Can't we at least wait until after Thanksgiving before thinking about Christmas?" Well, in marketing, you start thinking about Christmas around September 15. And if you hate watching all the stoopid ads, well... try planning them.

I say this as a way of introducing part of my self-imposed anti-humbug plan. In order to cure myself of an ever-increasing volume of Grinchy holiday sentiments, begun during my time in retail, I'd like to share with you a bunch of the least Grinchy things I've experienced or come up with about the holidays over the years. These all relate to creativity, craftiness and the general ethos of this blog. They are non-denominational for the most part. Though, as one of my favorite lines from "Northern Exposure" went, "Dave's an animist, and he has a Christmas tree."

I do not guarantee that any of these are original to me. I'm sure other, fine creative people have had these ideas, too. If you know any of them, show link love in the comments.

1. Make a family calendar. I used to do this every year. Our theme was the "Color-it-Yourself Halendar." Hal being a stuffed orangutan I bought for my wife back when we were very young. Each month featured an outline drawing of Hal doing something... odd... and then the days were filled in with all the important family dates; birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Some years, I'd also include a weird or interesting event for every day of the year from Chase's Annual Events, or some other funky calendar. You can make monthly calendars using MS Publisher, or, with a bit more work, do one in anything that can create a table, including the ever-free and wonderful Open Office. Good to have, good to give.

2. Create your own ornaments. Yeah, it's not the most out-of-the-box idea, but so few people I know still do it. My favorite, as a kid, was to take a styrofoam shape (bell, star, even a simple ball), and stick a bajillion sequins to it with pins. Pretty. Shiny. And it keeps kids busy for hours while you do other holiday nonsense. And if just making ornaments isn't creative enough for you, force yourself to make ornaments that are alliterative; you know, where everything on your tree starts with the letter "B." That'll get you thinking.

3. Rewrite "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Let's face it, hollering, "Fiiiiive gooolden riiings!" is way fun. Way, way fun. You can not resist, so don't hold back. But what's even more fun, is hollering your own family version that only you and the clan know. Because, really... doesn't singing about how your true love gave to you... "eight maids a milking" make you a bit... uncomfortable? I mean... dude gives people for Christmas? That ain't right. Bob and Doug McKenzie not withstanding, your own version will be more fun. My son, just this morning, was singing, "Fiiiiive gooolden delicious!" Hilarious.

4. Lego nativity scene. 'Nuff said.

5. Indoor snow-ball fights. We spent two years of my childhood in California, after having lived in Boston, and with parents who grew up in New York. Snow ball fights are a required element of winter joy. Indoor? Substitute  aluminum foil balls, rolled-up socks, styrofoam (messy), newspaper wads, etc. instead of snow. The point is to throw things. Banzai!

6. Mall caroling. It's hard to find places to carol. Outside can get very cold. And, with kids in tow... well, it's tough. Check with a couple local malls and arrange for a time to invite anyone who'd like to participate to meet, get song books, and walk around the mall singing. See if you can arrange for an accordion player. Seriously. It adds to the cheer. If you want to charge a couple bucks to participate and also collect donations from listeners and then give the money to a local toys-for-tots charity, that makes the whole deal more righteous, and more palatable to certain civic types.

7. Toys from tots. Speaking of toys-for-tots... There are many fine organizations that gather up toys for kids who don't have them. And that's fantastic. But kids also love to make and give stuff around the holiday season, and may not have the resources. Organize an effort to provide a crafty sort of event where all the necessary parts and instructions for making a neat holiday gift are available to a group of kids who otherwise wouldn't have access.

8. Grown-up PJ party. Notice I did not say "adult." This is not a chance to play spin-the-bottle. This is about getting back to childishness. Come in PJs, bathrobes, bunny-slippers, blankets, etc. Bring your favorite (hopefully holiday related) bed-time story to read aloud to the group. Drink cocoa w/ tiny marshmallows (yes, and some brandy or JD) and have candy canes and graham crackers for snacks. Sit on the floor around the fireplace. Watch all the old
Rankin-Bass claymation holiday specials on VHS. Sing a few carols. Play...

9. Insane White Elephant. Last year, John Moore from Brand Autopsy set up an excellent White Elephant Blog. It ain't up this year. Oh, well. The basic principles of a White Elephant gift exchange apply, but anyone who has their gift taken can keep stealing from anyone who hasn't yet had their gift stolen that turn. The more people playing, the more fun. No "deceased" gifts in this version, either. Until you've had a gift stolen on any given turn, it's in play.

10. Make a truly edible gingerbread house. Every blessed gingerbread house I've ever been exposed to has been hands (and more importantly, teeth) off. Either too nice or too nasty to eat. Feh. Where's the fun? C'mon! I don't care if you stick six graham crackers together with peanut butter and put one gum-drop on top for a chimney. Figure out some way to do it, and then let the kids get all Godzilla on it. I suggest filming the fun, too.


11. Make your own envelopes. A dear friend of mine (Hi, Susan!) once sent me letters every few months in hand-made envelopes. Hers were made from interesting magazine ads. How cool is that? If you want to get fancy, do a search on the Internet for "make envelopes" and such. But the easiest way is to get the envelopes that go with whatever cards you're mailing, carefully bust 'em apart, trace them on funky paper (magazine pictures, wallpaper, wrapping paper...) and then cut, fold and glue (or double-sticky clear tape) them together. People may expect hand-made cards. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Or hand-made envelopes. Festivisimus!

12. Photoshop your kid(s) into classic pics. I first saw this done to the Raphael's "The Sistine Madonna, Detail of the Angles" painting (as shown). Although a much better job than the one I've done here, which is of my niece and nephew (Hi, Nate! Hi, Sophie!) Click on it to see a much larger image. The point is to have fun and take a picture folks will recognize and include people they will recognize. It doesn't have to be a serious pic, either. I would think that your kid climbing the Empire State Building to put a star on top would be hysterical. Use this instead of a regular picture-of-your-kids card because... well... because it's goofy.

13. Gift cards for chores, favors, hugs, etc. These were a big item when I was growing up. Don't know if other people did them. The idea was to make gift-certificates or gift cards that "entitled the bearer to (1) one doing of the dishes upon presentation of this card." You can make these intimate for your honey (I won't get into those variations here, thank you), or appropriate for work. For example, I once gave my boss ten "Andy will now pipe down" certificates. Upon presentation, I was obligated to shut my pie hole. She only ever handed me two. I believe she traded the rest in for some magic beans. Or they may be floating around on eBay... Hmmm....

14. "Puzzle Party" cards. Take, buy or make a nice picture and turn it into a jigsaw, either yourself or at Kinkos. Mail one piece to each person you're inviting to the party. When they come, they add their piece. Depending on how corn-ball you are, you can hold forth on how we're all a part of the holiday panorama of joy, etc. etc. It also serves to increase the guilt factor that motivates people to come to your party, since if they don't... their piece will be missing. Ha!

15. "Family News" cards from the future. I love this one. Lots of families I know write a very nice update about what's been going on over the last year. It's nice to hear, but... mostly it ends up being, "Dad's still working and maybe going a bit more stir crazy. Same for mom. The kids are in school and are a year older." Yawn... I like the idea of fast-forwarding a bit and writing your "Holiday Family News from 2025." Keep it just as straight-faced and boring, but mention which dimension Mary got lost in on the way to work this time. Talk about how the Martian embassy lost your passport on your 2nd honeymoon cruise, etc. etc. Much more fun. Cloning humor goes over big in this one, too.

16. Surrogate shopping party. So many of us have someone or several someones on our lists that are impossible to shop for or that we just have a mental block on. Fine. Get together for dinner and share an equal number of those folks with each other, along with a few details and a dollar ceiling per gift. Then release yourselves into a mall with a time limit. Then get back together and share the swag. I guar-ohn-tee that your friends will find stuff for your hard-to-getters that you'd never have thought of. If it ain't right? Well, 'tis the season to return stuff.

17. Decorate others' stuff. Carefully. Tastefully. Always within the bounds of office rules/etiquette and the law. But how nice would it be to enter your office (cube...) and find a wee, unexpected holiday trinket? Totally anonymous. Or to come home and have a strange, lovely wreath hanging on your lamp-post? Put a small, stuffed penguin with a Santa hat on someone's dashboard today.

18. Start a bizarre, personal holiday tradition. I heard somewhere (can't find it online, sorry... it may be apocryphal) that Amy Grant's family explodes their Christmas tree after New Year's Day with fireworks. I'm neither hot nor cold on Ms. Grant, but... that's flippin' awesome!!! So many of our holiday traditions are either copped from cultures that really aren't our own anymore, or have been entirely kidnapped by the media/mercantile world. Why not invent a new ritual that's just for you and your family? Stuff a sock with toys by the fireplace? Why? I sure as heck don't know. How about, instead, everybody in your family writes one line of a nativity poem. Or fight some gingerbread man wars. Or make advent candles from last year's used crayons. At my house, we've now been playing street hockey the day after Christmas for several years with all the in-laws. Why? Bob wanted to one year. After three years... It's a tradition!

19. Overtip, ridiculously, at least once. Food service is tough work. And around the holidays, it's even worse. People are out-and-about, running like mad, full o' holiday spirit, and, often, not very nice to the wait staff. And because we're spending more than we should on various baubles, bangles and beads... we're often a bit penurious when it comes to the everyday stuff. Which hurts the folks whose livelihood depends on our largess. So. At least once, between Thanksgiving and New Year, when you get good service and a nice smile with your meal... leave a $20 tip on a $13 lunch meal. Or, what the heck... leave $50 to cover a $22 dinner. Or $100 for a cup o' joe. Seriously. Don't make a big deal out of it. Do it, as the scriptures say, "In the dark." But do it. You'll make somebody's whole season.

20. Tell your faith's holiday story with sock puppets. You never real own a story until you tell it. I know this, because I played King Nebuchannezzar in a 4th grade production of, "Cool in the Furnace." I now own that story. Be that as it may... You can hear the Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, etc. stories again and again. But until you write out a script, make your own sock puppets for the players, fashion a stage from a major appliance crate and put on a show for the grown-ups... do you really grok the holiday's true meaning? I think not.

21. Do something to commemorate the Jólasveinar Boys.  An Icelandic holiday tradition involving gremlins that steal and eat naughty children...  Wee snarkies with names like "Crevice Imp," "Pot Licker," "Sausage Snatcher," "Doorway Sniffer" and "Butter Greedy." Imps that, in later, more mellow years, would come to leave potatoes for bad children rather than eating them. The children, that is. I mean, the kids could eat the potatoes, I suppose. But the Jólasveinar used to eat the bad kids. You get the picture. Do a lil' sumfin sumfin for the Jólasveinar this year. Eat a child. Leave a potato.  Your call.

22. Start a yearly journal. Very few people keep a journal. I'm a professional writer, and I don't. I'm supposed to, but I write at work, and I blog, and I write poetry and fiction and, and, and... So I've never had a daily journal. But what I do have is a notebook that I take out about once a year. Often around the holidays. And, in my case, I write in it the names of people -- everyone I can remember -- that I've met during the last year or so. And, of course, I go back and read the earlier entries and reflect on how lucky I've been to have known so many wonderful people. The names are my "touchstones" to the past. The names are bookmarks in my memory, because people anchor the most important events in my life, I think. Anyway... that's what's in my "annual journal" for the most part. Yours, of course, can be anything you want.

23. Share a resolution. We don't keep our New Year's resolutions, for the most part, because we are not really accountable to ourselves. We cheat and look the other way. So share a resolution with a friend or family member; let them hold you accountable, and vice versa.

24. Share a resolution. No, this is not a repeat. In this case, I mean make a resolution that includes another person. For example, resolve to have a game-night once a week with your family, or to go for a walk 3 days a week with your spouse. Resolve to send an email back-and-forth at least twice a month with a friend you don't see much anymore. Resolve to cook healthy for me, and I'll cook healthy for you twice a week. Resolve to help your boss with his annoying habit of not taking minutes/notes at meetings, and he can help you with your attempts at better process management. So many things that we want to accomplish are impossible alone. Resolve to be better together.

25. Thought gifts. They say (well, they say, "They Say") "It's the thought that counts." OK. So, this year, only give thoughts for the holidays. Make this they year that you and yours agree to take whatever your budget for gifts was and either give it to a charity or stick it in a savings vehicle; your call, I'm not preaching here. But for yourselves... take the time to actually say the things you haven't said. Give "the thought" behind the gift. If you're a spiritual person, pray or meditate on the subject for a bit. Do it in a card if you like, or via email. Don't make the logistics as much of a pain as shopping/wrapping/etc. That's not the point. But all the major religions that are celebrating this time of year have gift-giving as a central notion not as a potlatch per se, but as a metaphor for love, friendship, community, etc.

26. BONUS IDEA. I can't end on a serious note. It's not in my nature. So the bonus idea is a straight-up pimp for the Jumbo Mystery Box from Archie McPhee. I get one of these every year (although this year I have been strongly advised that the ladies want something non-McPhee in their stockings... geez), and use the contents for stockings, Secret Santa, random giftings, prizes for students, etc. You never know, around holiday time, when a bunch of Hindu god finger puppets, glowing eyeballs or rampaging Hun toy soldiers will come in handy.

* * * * *

Have some happy holidays this year, eh? I hope this list has been fun to read, and maybe sparks an idea or two for how to be a bit less Grinchy and a bit more Jólasveinarish.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

PlayByWiki update: now available in Thai

A few months ago, as you may remember, I converted PlayByWiki over from the paid (but lovely) wiki-farm, EditMe, to my web host's server and the Tikiwiki engine. That way I could do the dang thing pretty much free, and not worry about it.

Since then, I have done almost nothing to promote it. I mentioned it here, put up a couple mentions on a couple RPG bulletin boards, that's about it. I'm glad to say that all that hard work has paid off


We now have six games going on the wiki. And here's the thing that really tickles; three of them ain't in English. "Island PBW" is being played in French; "Island of Quakes" is in Portugese (I guess islands are popular these days...); and the "Romance of Kouvoyore" is in Thai. Yep... Thai.

I didn't think, when I started PlayByWiki, about non-English text-based RPG games. Don't know why I didn't. But I didn't. It's a "World Wide" Web, after all. Serves me right for not paying attention...

The other update is that I've posted the entire "TaleWeaver as Lightweight RPG" chapter from TaleWeaver (2nd Edition) to PlayByWiki as another game system that folks could use for text-based adventuring. The idea for tweaking TaleWeaver into an RPG came from a comment/suggestion from this blog. So... hooray for transparency and open... er... stuff. And things. Etc.

My hope is that the TaleWeaver RPG is really lightweight enough to be fun in a text/wiki/web setting. Playing something as rules-heavy as GURPS or D&D in a non-live setting can get to be onerous.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Feedback and beauty

Over at Raph Koster's Website, he's got a post up about "The algorithm or art." Using feedback to determine the "worthiness," whether economic or artistic, of songs, movies and games.

Back when I was at Cornell and actively involved in the student poetry writing scene there, we had weekly open-mic and other similar events, gang editing fests, various clubs, readings, etc. Many were quite participative. At one of these, we did an exercise once called the "Crowd Pleaser." Before the evening's main readings, we asked the members of the audience to propose and vote on a topics for new poems that would be written that night, for their immediate enjoyment.

Several topics were shouted out, and then voted upon. After that, we asked everyone to write on scraps of paper all the words that they associated with that topic. Those words were written on a chalkboard with numbers after them indicating how many people had chosen them. There were about thirty words, some of which had received as many as 7 or 8 mentions.

During the course of the night, four of us wrote poems on the topic at hand. If I remember correctly -- I don't have the piece anymore -- the subject was "daydreaming". We tried to incorporate as many of the words suggested by the crowd as possible. The poems were read at the conclusion of the evening.

The four pieces were all quite different, but the audience responded very well to each. We invited comment and sat around and talked about the experience with some of them afterward, and they said that it had felt quite interesting (one girl I knew said "tingly") to listen to poem that had been created expressly "for them," and had incorporated words provided by them. Some of the words hadn't been really easy, obvious ones, either. So it made it even more... tingly, I suppose... to hear them reflected back from the poet.

Is art better when it reflects something of what the audience already knows? Or knows it wants? We weren't making any money, so there was no "conflict of interest" between dirty commerce (that's sarcasm, children... I'm in marketing, remember) and pure art.

It was fun for me, as a poet, to write something that incorporated bits of the audience's brain. It was different. And I was certainly also using my own mind, my creative jelly, my poetic spirit in the process. There was no copping out. No crutch. No pablum. And the other three writers came up with very different results, even though the topic was the same and some of the ingredients.

This is not one of those posts where I have a nice, compact idea at the end or a suggestion. This is one of those posts where I just say some stuff and make an observation or two that kind of connects some weird points and then leaves you hanging to make your own conclusions.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The box of purpose

My son, Dan, a first-grader, was given a writing assignment earlier this week. The directions said, at the top of the sheet, "The sky is full of dark clouds. It is very windy. A light flashes across the sky. Make a prediction of what is going to happen."

He wrote, "A aeleein (alien) will come down and sae, 'We can't sleep on Mars.' And it is nite. There is a lot of litening and rane."

He got a smiley-face and an S+ (which I guess is good). From me he got a, "That's amazing!" He explained further to me that what he meant was that all the probes and robots and landers and stuff we'd sent up to Mars were making the light (the one mentioned in the directions), and that was what was keeping the alien/Martian awake.

He put in the rain and lightning because he was pretty sure that that was what was happening, too. On the back of the sheet he drew a UFO-style space-ship with a little alien coming out of it... wearing a stocking-cap.

Totally cracked me up. Be creative, but cover yer ass.

This blog is sometimes about being more creative. I'm lucky in that I get to do that kinda stuff as part of my job. I'm even luckier that I get to do it as a Dad. In this case, because it reminded me of an important rule about creativity -- look both ways... up and down the ladder of purpose.

Usually, when we are being creative, we start with a goal; a purpose. We want to write a story or a poem or a headline or a novel. We want to design a process or invent a better mouse-trap. We want to paint a picture, improve the city's light-rail system or craft puppets. Whatever the creative task, we almost always begin with a purpose-driven ideal. A statement in our heads of, "This is what I want to achieve."

Which is fine. Except that it's not. Because, when you are finished with almost any major creative undertaking and look backwards -- down the ladder -- what you will find is that you have accomplished many different, diverging and (hopefully) wonderful things. And so, if you only have one of them in mind at the beginning, you automatically cut yourself off from creative possibilities related to those other end states. You may also avoid equally beneficial end states. Which is (duh) sad.

Take Dan's assignment. The "real" purpose is to practice writing (and, in this case, specifically, "end marks," which we used to call "periods"). But Dan's still too young to just fill-in-the-blank without having some fun with it. And that's what amused and delighted me. Of course the light in the sky is all the crap we've put on Mars, and of course it's annoying the aliens. So they come down to complain. Beautiful...

What is the secondary purpose of this assignment that Dan discovered? To be a springboard for a story. Now, the authors of the assignment probably felt that they were giving kids a fairly straightforward prompt. It's a storm, eh? Well... What if they'd been a bit less direct? I mean, Dan is *my* kid, after all. I train him to be a bit more berzleplazzgick than the norm, so while I'm thrilled he found the aliens in his homework, I'm not surprised. With a bit more planning (and a bit less rigidity), though, this assignment could have been a story-seed for a much greater percentage of Dan's classmates.

I run into this all the time at work with projects that have both a product goal (something that needs to get done) and a repeatable process requirement (the way that we do things). Can we improve the process? If you don't assume the answer is, "Yes," you leave money on the table. So the purpose of any given project is to both "do the thing" and to find out how to do it better, eh?

Examples. We need examples. I hate windy blog posts without examples and I write too many of them myself. Here we go:

  • When you write something at work, Purpose(1) is often to make a particular point to a particular audience. Can that audience be multiplied? Can you invite someone else to join you in the writing process? Can you radially change the writing to fit another medium?

  • If you are drawing or painting or otherwise being artistically creative, Purpose(1) is to create the object. The explicit Purpose(2) is often to improve that craft skill. Can you involve prayer or meditation in that activity or time? Can you invite a friend or child to join you, making it a shared, social event? Can you film yourself doing your thing so you can watch it later and learn from that experience? Can you create on a radically new medium that you were planning on throwing out (pizza box, old CD ROMs, rags, coffee filters) in order to experience the simple thrill of new textures?

  • If you are writing creatively (let's say a poem), can you force yourself to include details that require study and new learning?

  • If you are doing a hobby craft (scrap-booking, sewing for fun, jewelry design, etc.), can you think of ways to make multiples of the same thing more quickly in order to monetize your product? Can you invite someone else to learn from you or to learn from? Can you explore literature or movies that include your craft before or during the process? Or other cultures? Can you incorporate hidden ("DaVinci Code?") meanings into your work?

My point is just this... Before beginning any creative venture, write down what it is you are trying to accomplish. Your first purpose. That's important. Because you clearly want to get that done. But don't let that goal be a restrictive box. Let your creativity be bigger than that.

Ask yourself, "When I have walked the road to this goal, what else will I have seen?" And then, before you begin, widen the road.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Powerpoint is not evil. You are. Yes, you.

A wonderful coworker of mine (if she gives me permission, I'll edit this and name her) pointed me to a good blog post about Edward Tufte, the evils of Powerpoint, information design, the ability of well-designed misinformation to intentionally mislead, and of badly designed information to unintentionally mislead. That post in turn links to another one that talks about how Powerpoint is now being taught in schools.

As usual, the angle is that the "cognitive style of Powerpoint" -- bullet points, illustrations, short headlines, outlined organizational style presentations -- is sapping our kids' attention spans and their ability to put together long, complex essays and thought pieces.

I like much of what Tufte has to say in the same way that I like much of what Freud has to say. It is interesting at the level of "I hadn't thought of things in that manner," but I think their exact prescriptions need to be taken with food and not before operating heavy machinery. Good stuff at a macro level, but not necessarily useful when building a garage.

Do I think that Powerpoint can lead to lazy thinking? Yes. But so can typewriters that don't let you erase easily.

The greatest single gift God ever gave my writing was the "Backspace" key. In the two years at college I had before I owned my own PC, when my writing tool was an electric typewriter that required weird-o correcting tape that sometimes (read: almost never) worked, my efforts at editing were limited to what I bloody-well-felt-like based on my time available, energy level and sobriety. I did a first draft by hand, on yellow legal pads, and then did as good a job as possible on the typewriter. If I had a brilliant idea on how to change the first paragraph, but was 2/3 of the way down the piece... 9 times out of 10 my response was, "Screw it."

So. Powerpoint. Children. Thinking. The medium is the message. Right...

When I was in college, I typed around 60 words-per-minute. That was after having taken one 10 week high-school typing course. Now, 20-odd years later, I type around 105 wpm. And the college kids I know beat me most days. My point? Easy backspace don't mean bad typing. It means more typing. Which means faster typing. Which means more writing, more editing, more thinking, more chances to say, "Hmmm... I think that paragraph would go better... there... and I think I'll move stuff around so that the conclusion is actually the intro, and we'll add two more examples..." etc. etc. You get the point.

Now... Does the backspace key guarantee that I'll do that? Of course not. But it makes it more bloody likely than it did when I had to use weird-o correcting tape.

With Powerpoint, you are given a number of templates. Nice. We love templates! Or, let me be clear. YOU love templates. I hate them. Because they are often so off-brand for what I have to do in my day job that my crew needs to spend many hours un-templatizing all kinds of crap in Powerpoint, Word, etc. so that it looks like what we (Marketing Gods) need it to look like rather than what Mr. Microsoft and you default it to look like. Not your fault. Not their fault. It has to look like something when it comes out of the barn, right?

What does Tufte and the crew want? For Powerpoint to default to a blank page? We call that a "word processor." Here's the thing... you can create presentation slides in MS Word. You can create them in Excel. You can create them in Photoshop or Quark or Illustrator. It's a pain, but you can do it. But, in the past, people used to create these funky overhead transparencies and, before that, things called "slides" that had some similar characteristics.

Bullets. A few bits of text per slide. A couple images. Short headlines. Outline organization.

It's not like Microsoft decided, "We're going to create a nation of drooling, 3-bullet point mesmerized dummies." The format has been around for 50+ years. Powerpoint is just a tool that makes it fast.

  • If you want to create something [fast] with reams of text, use Word.

  • If you want to create something [fast] with mainly images, use Photoshop

  • If you want to create something [fast] with mainly graphs and charts, use Excel

If you want to do a bunch of all those things, Alt-Tab between your favorite applications.

And if you want to learn how to think like a grown-up, learn how to use a couple hundred different tools, and how to solve a couple thousand different types of problems, and stop whining that a hammer doesn't screw in light bulbs very well.

When I was a junior in high-school, my English teacher, Ms. B_____, took us through the whole sha-bang-a-bang for researching and writing a major paper. The research, the outline, the 3x5 cards, the notes, the first draft, the revised draft, the final, the bibliography, etc. etc. We spent 8 weeks getting that process down pat. Then we did 5 more papers just like that... except we didn't actually write the papers. We did every single part, except the drafts; no first, revised or final. She knew we could write; we were an AP writing class. We wrote essays in class and for our exams. But for our major papers, she knew it was more important that we spend the time learning and practicing the process than the product. She taught us how to do it, not just to do it. Best and hardest writing class I ever had.

You want kids to use Powerpoint the "right" way? The way it was intended? To convey information in bite-size, read-able at a distance chunks in a Holiday Inn ballroom over rubber chicken? Then leave it as-is. If you want them to use Powerpoint as a creative tool, make 'em:

  • Design a new template from scratch

  • Prepare a presentation that has nothing to do with the usual "condensed info / book-report" format kinda thing; for example, present a short story or a poem or a music video using Powerpoint

  • Use Powerpoint as the vehicle for a game like hangman or a puzzle of some kind

  • Use it to create seating charts, flowcharts, planning charts or other non-verbal materials

  • Have a duel with two (or more) computers hooked up to projectors where the kids have to user Powerpoint to create reactions to what the last team did

  • Use Powerpoint and a projector and as many pages as you want/need like a wipe-board

  • Copy-and-paste text and images from appropriate Web pages to Powerpoint slides and add speaker's notes and text to help annotate Web adventures as you navigate research projects on the Web. Save the Powerpoint presentations along with URL links as records of your travels

You see, Powerpoint is good for pretty quickly putting basic, kinda crappy looking (i.e., not heavily formatted) text and images up on a screen in short order. It's "sketchy" as opposed to "painty" or "write-y."

Don't give kids a hammer, show 'em how to pound nails, and then complain when all they can do with it is pound nails. Hammers are good. Nails are good. You just need to use them in combination with saws and glue and yer friggin' imagination to build all kinds of projects.

Nothin' wrong with Powerpoint. We all just need to think about all our tools a bit more widely. Especially when we're putting them into the hands of kids.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Children's Book Week: Reading Is

I've known my wife since I was 16. We've dated (on and off) since 17. We've been married for 15+ years. We share a brain. This is a good thing. There are so many times that we don't have to finish a sentence, a thought, an idea, a joke. It makes things not just easier, but more fun. That's because, even after all this time, we really like each other.

Lots of short-hand gets developed during a relationship like ours. One of the most succinct ways, for example, that she once conveyed an entire world of disdain, dislike and general, "Who gives a dang?" about somewhat she'd met at work was carried in the simple phrase:

"He doesn't read."

I can't imagine a world without a stack of books waiting in the wings. I can't imagine not always having at least two (usually four or nine) books "going" at the same time. I can't imagine not talking about books with friends. I can't imagine not thinking of books as friends.

Now I have a son. We read to him. To be fair, Chris does 90% of the reading to him. I jump in and do it when she can't, or when I feel like it. It has more to do with circadian rhythms and work schedules than desire. But he's got about 10,000 books, and is learning to read (he's in first grade), and loves to be read to and to make up his own stories (he's working on a sequel story to Star Wars Episode VI).

So... it's Children's Book Week.  Aside from the love and respect of my parents, nothing other than reading has had a greater impact on my life. So I'm joining a bunch of bloggers (some here) where I work, and we're celebrating by blogging about the books that most influenced us as kids. Pass it on and blog about y'all's most cherished reading memories (all book links here go to Respect!). In no particular order, here's some of my faves.

Andrew Henry's Meadow, by Doris Burn

 I'm not sure what it was about this book that made me love it so much, but I did. And now Dan, my son, does, too. It's his most requested bedtime book when I'm reading to him. It's about a boy, Andrew Henry, who loves to build things. Wild, contraption-y things. Things that annoy his family. So he leaves, and builds special houses for himself and all his friends in his meadow. A little village of specialty houses that are customized for the pursuits of his bird-loving, music-playing, frog-jumping, etc. buddies. A wonderful story about creativity and inventiveness.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis

I know it's a big deal now, because of the movies. But when I was in the 4th grade... not so much. I mean, it's always been a classic, but I didn't hear about it until our pastor, Rev. Guinn, gave my folks the first two books in the Narnia series for me to read. At the time, for whatever reason, I was only reading biographies for kids. I hadn't read much fiction at all, besides whatever had been assigned. After reading Narnia, however... boom. I was hooked on fantasy, and then sci-fi, for life. Not that I stopped reading other stuff, but entire "alternative worlds" opened up to me because of the Narnia books.

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein

This book is on the list because it is the first book I remember actively disliking; I may even have hated this book. I'm not sure I hate it today, but I still certainly dislike it. Quite a bit. OK, I hate it. Don't get me wrong; I love Uncle Shelby. Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros, and (amazingly funny), Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book. But I read "The Giving Tree," and was deeply disappointed. Why? Because the tree kept giving everything to the boy, but it didn't make the boy happy. So, obviously, giving everything directly to the boy wasn't what the boy really needed. The tree was (although I didn't have the words for this concept at 9 or 10 when I first read it) an "enabler." And everyone who read the book seemed to think of it as a simple, wonderful story about a tree that gave, selflessly, out of love for the child. It made me mad and it made me tell people what *I* thought was the point of the book, which was that simply doing what you think is the right thing for someone, even if it seems selfless, may not be the right thing for them. I mean, come on! The kid was a miserable brat. This is the first book I ever deconstructed. Very important for me.

Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling

These were the stories that proved poetry to me. Yes, there are poems at the end of the tales... but within the stories themselves, there is musical language and rhythm and an attention to the flow of language that convinced me that, yes... we must be most careful with our syllables as well as our words. With the round lobes of our tones and the slick, slither of our consonants. For what is more beautiful in a children's book than:

Still ran Kangaroo--Old Man Kangaroo. He ran through the ti-trees; he ran through the mulga; he ran through the long grass; he ran through the short grass; he ran through the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer; he ran till his hind legs ached. He had to!

Still ran Dingo--Yellow-Dog Dingo--hungrier and hungrier, grinning like a horse-collar, never getting nearer, never getting farther; and they came to the Wollgong River. Now, there wasn't any bridge, and there wasn't any ferry-boat, and Kangaroo didn't know how to get over; so he stood on his legs and hopped. He had to!

He hopped through the Flinders; he hopped through the Cinders; he hopped through the deserts in the middle of Australia. He hopped like a Kangaroo.

Story plus the liquidity of language. Lovely.

The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, by himself

I'm not sure what age group "Children's Book Week" ends at, but they include some Harry Potter junk, so I'll imagine that it goes up through fifth or sixth grade at least. I was 11 or 12 when I first read "The Cask of Amontillado," "Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Pit and the Pendulum," and, like the Narnia books... they changed how and what I read and, therefore, probably, my life. I would later read and enjoy other great horror authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker... but Poe was the one that made me understand the joy of the scare. The first time through "The Masque of the Red Death..." Oooh! That was a good, creepy night under the covers with a flashlight.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

Really, this entry should be titled, "Everything by Ray Bradbury." Bradbury was the first author I devoured. Those of you who read understand this term. When we find a writer whose work hits us like a hypo of heroin, we do not taste, we do not nibble... we devour. I read everything by Bradbury in the Pollard Junior High library in a row. Then on to the Needham Public Library. Then to the book store. After Bradbury, many other authors would fall into this category of, "Read one, then all." But Ray was my first author addiction.

Ed Emberly's Drawing Book: Make a World

I was in first or second grade when this came out and someone in my life got it for me. My best friend, Kenny, and I sat in the driveway one day, spiral notebooks, markers and this book spread out, and, indeed, made a world. Before the concept of cut-and-paste meant Ctrl+V and Ctrl+P, we took the simple, geometric instructions from Ed Emberly's patterns and copied them over and over in order to create a world beyond anything we thought we had inside us. I am not, nor will I ever be, a true "artist" in the sense of the word most people have. But I am not a horrible designer. The ability to take pieces/parts and lay them out alongside each other in a way that is meaningful and (sometimes) attractive doesn't always elude me. Ed introduced me to that.

Robin Hood, ???

I don't remember which edition, version or author my grandpa read to us from, summer nights in Alexander, NY. I just remember that we had to be read Robin Hood stories, because Grandpa was a fletcher, bowyer and archer (among about a million other talents). The fact that Robin and Grandpa shared these (to me) arcane abilities, made the stories so much more... visceral. The Robin Hood stories were exciting and funny and got us (me and my bro, John) all worked up at bedtime. In order to get us to go to sleep, then, Grandpa would read to us from the encyclopedia. The same reference every time. An entry about monarch butterflies. You want to put two young kids to sleep quickly? Read the same encyclopedia entry to them a couple dozen times. Nicely done, Grandpa. Good, rousing tales for fun and adventure... then off to sleep in about 9.8 seconds.

That's it for now. If I can jog my memory, I'll add more.

And this is a blog-wave, too, btw... if you love books and support reading, please pass this on! Include a link to the Children's Book Week, and links to the books you love (we'd prefer you use, of course, but can't complain if you have another, preferred site).

No other single habit will more greatly impact a kid's life than that of sustained, wide reading. You just can't enlarge they little brain better in any other way.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Google buys JotSpot, its 2nd wiki: service as marketing, experience as brand

I'm a fan of wikis. For those not familiar, a wiki is simply a Web site where users can edit the content on the Web pages themselves. Another important key feature of most wikis is that they are easily, internally hyper-linked. You can create a new page using a simple key or code; depending on the wiki engine's syntax, that may involve the use of "camel case" -- putting a word together with multiple, mashed caps, like NewPage -- or some kind of bracketing, like [New Page]. Either way, it makes it easy for some population greater than that of the Web Masters to easily add content and links to a site. Mui bueno.

I did a bunch of research on various wiki farms and engines for a consulting client awhile back. As part of that, I investigated JotSpot when it was in beta (an actual beta, not the kind of perenial beta that we see these days) as one example of a sophistcated wiki farm/service. I had some back-and-forth emails with Joe Kraus, CEO and founder of Jot, and the original president of Excite, as well. Their original, proposed pricing model was one based on a per-user (per-seat) charge. I commented to Joe that I thought that was not a great idea, as the value of wikis is established by the number of users. Charging for bandwidth, features or drive space... sure. Those are commodities. But users? Don't put any bars on that. To a degree, they listened and the Jot model ended up with tiered pricing; the cheapest "infinite users" subscription was $70/month. Which was still a heckuvalot less expensive than many of their competitors in the "corporate" or (as Jot calls it) "application" wiki space.

Well... now it's a lot less expensive. Google has bought Jot, and all their current customers will pay... zero. Niente. Nada. Diddly. The usual Google charge for consumer-level services, eh? You can't get a new Jot account until they've "migrated into Google's systems," but... one suspects a free option will be available there, too.

Them's the facts. As always, you now get a heapin' helpin' of my speculation.

Let's start with how last March, Google bought their first wiki... Writely. Now known as "Google Docs and Spreadsheets."

Oops. I'm sorry. Did I say that when they bought Writely, that was a purchase of their first wiki? Oh, dear. I'm sorry. I have to go back now and read the approx. 1,800,000 results on Google for the phrase "google buys writely" and check... Nope. They all say that Writely is a "browser based word processor," or "online word process," or "Web-enabled word processor." There are a couple blog posts and articles that discuss Writely's "collaborative word processor capabilities," and a very few smaller outlets that notice that Writely is, in fact...

A good, Flash-enabled, WYSIWYG-front-end wiki.

If you have a Gmail account, you can use Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Go try it. You can create a doc or spreadsheet and save it to your account. It has a unique URL with a long, weird, Gmail/email lookin' name. But you can assign it a document-looking name inside your account. And you can link from file to file with a nice, easy drop-down. And to outside URLs. And you can share those documents with others for editing.

And those "documents" live on the Web. On Google's servers. You say "document," I say "Web page." Potato, potato.

Folders vs. Pages vs. Users

In the MS-DOS and Windows world, we have folders and sub-folders. In a Web world, we have pages and sub-pages. In a wiki world, we have users, groups and permissions. This is an extremely important difference. It is a difference of focus and use. It may be (I say "may" with a huge grain of salt and much humility) the main difference between Microsoft and Google.

In a Windows/Web/Folder-centric universe, tasks and relationships play 2nd-fiddle to files. You have to put "the thing" somewhere, and then know where it is, be able to get to it, be able to move it, or copy it, or delete it in order to be effective with it. In a wiki-centric universe, yes... stuff still needs an original place to live. But the emphasis is on the connections made to it, the relationships of the people making the connections, and the meta-data related to those people.

Here's a detail to make this (hopefully) a bit clearer. One of the neat things about JotSpot was that every page on their wikis was assigned a "key word," which, when appended to the URL of the page, turned it into an email address. So you could send an email *to* that page of the wiki. The message was then stored like a comment on that page. Even if your user-level didn't give you permission to edit a page of the wiki, the admin could turn on the "email to page" function and allow folks to append comments that way.

So... let's say you've got a project going and you create a wiki page to be the "central repository" for all information related to that project. Project Manager John Jacob creates the page and has full editorial control over it. He gives write/edit access for that page to the members of his team, and allows everyone in the department to view the page and add comments, but anyone outside his department cannot view anything except the page description, with a note to call him if they need "in on it." It's a "porous intranet," so some pages are open to the public; this one isn't at all. Without a login/password, you see nothing. All of the pages created as sub-pages directly from the main project page "inherit" the permission structure John set up (last I checked, Jot doesn't do this, but EditMe does, it's very handy, and, I hope, Jot catches on). But the authors of the sub pages can, if they need to, alter the specific permissions of those pages in order to invite other individuals who aren't included in the original, or keep out those who are. For example, Creative Director Mandy Marr creates a page for all documents that will need to be reviewed by the Legal Department and gives permission for Chief Counsel Cliff Cramer to view/edit that page. He cannot, however, "step upwards" and see/edit stuff in the main page, just because she's added him to the sub-page permissions.

Also... some of the sub-pages that are protected from other departments will have links that go to pages that aren't. No big deal. Or they'll have links to pages with other overlapping permissions. Again... NBD. Each page's permission is defined by what makes sense for that page. A page that has to do with Legal and HR but not marketing will have those permissions, etc. etc.

Now... let's add in a concept like document approval. Tack on an application that adds an "approve attached document" level of permission as well as view/edit, and you've got a work-flow tool. Jot includes a bunch of similar tools at this point. And they've just been bought by Google, which has a built in calendar, email, etc. And Google is also providing "Google Aps" that plug into your web site.

Imagine trying to do this in a network, drive-letter, folder/sub-folder model. It can only happen when the relationships are at the center of the idea, when the creation of new content and links is core, and when the model is based on the similarity of function, not feature creep.

It's free. It's not monetized. And I don't care.

Google is a great search engine, and it makes its money off of billions of tiny ads. All well and good. I suppose. So far. And I like Writely (Google Docs). I've used it, and it works very well. And I like Jot a lot (aside from, when last I checked a few months ago, its upside-down permission structure. If you want to know what I mean, either email me or leave a comment; it's complicated and a side issue; at the moment, EditMe has the best, most granular and intuitive user/group/permission structure I've encountered for wikis).

I think there's a definite benefit that's going to come out of mashing the Writely WYSIWYG front-end (which is considerably slicker) onto Jot's wiki engine (which is considerably deeper). There are applications for combining this with Gmail that might enable a wiki-based email system, for example, that would make spam much harder. You could publish your wiki address instead of an email address and require anyone who wants to email you to register through your homepage, and the system could do some decent anti-spam checking. For systems where you will be receiving automated email, or where you don't want someone to have to register, you simply create and designate a sub-page of the wiki to receive that kind of email. You could have a different page for every email relationship if you want. If a spammer gets ahold of the sub-page, you simply delete it, rather than an entire email account. How do you keep track of your email if its all living on 37 different wiki pages? By RSS feed, of course. Your email reader is another page in the wiki with an RSS feed-reader set up to monitor any page you've designated, some of which would be email tagets. Get a new email from mom on the "family email" page, it lights up on the RSS reader page.

All this is good, right? Free word processing wiki engine email web site creating permission based Google-tastic future-topia. Sure. Again... I suppose. Right now, Google is doing lots of this free stuff as marketing and brand. They provide free services (chiefly search) and fund it via advertising. This other stuff -- the email and videos and word processing and wikis -- is, currently, not monetized. And even if it never is... I don't care. Because it is adding to the brand experience for Google's users. The search box is free. The email is free. The word processing is free. The videos on YouTube (which they just bought) are free. The wiki is free. The blog (they own Blogger, remember?) is free. It's all free. Except for the ads. The ads pay for everything, and that's OK. The ads are very transparent.

What is going to be the difference in brand perception between a user of a Microsoft product (that probably, at this point, still requires payment), and a Google product? Microsoft = pay for it. Google = free. In America, free is one of the most powerful words in the marketing lexicon. On the Web, stuff is supposed to be free. Does this make sense? Is it rational? Can it go on forever? I don't know. But the idea that somebody else's advertising budget is paying for my word processor, blog and wiki... that's pretty powerful. And the idea that I can then use those tools to make content that others might find interesting, and that might drive traffic to that advertiser's product... hmm...  it's an economy of content. Go figure.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


The Age of Content Redux

Democreatization? Yes, I'm coming up with dumb new words again. At some point, I will figure out that this makes me sound like a nut-job, and then I'll stop. But we're living in a mash-up world, and I like doing it, and this is my blog, so quit yer whinging.

Two-and-a-half years ago, in March 2004, the first newsletter I published for my then consulting firm was titled, "Welcome to the Age of Content." In it, I argue that we have moved out of the "Information Age," where the ability to move data around is the quantifier of success, into the "Age of Content," where the ability to make creative use of that information is the key ingredient of success. To quote myself (which always makes me a wee bit itchy):

I believe we are in the first decade of the Age of Content. And by "content" I mean the creative use of information to establish meaning... In learning theory, "knowledge" is one step above "information," which is one step above "data." But in the case of content, we're not necessarily talking about leveraging information to increase knowledge. Some services do provide
learning (an increase in knowledge) as a byproduct of content. But the raw, basic definition of "content" is information that is manipulated, arranged, categorized, crafted, and tweaked in order to provoke in participants a sense of value received from original, created meaning.

The gist of the newsletter was about the role of content creation in marketing and, specifically, brand creation. The idea of storytelling... how bringing "thought ownership" to your brand gives you the ability to associate valuable, unique, identifiable, legally protectable content with a product or service. Since I was selling marketing consulting services at the time, I had to tie the ideas back to marketing, after all. But the overall point was about how, in a world that we're now (thanks to Friedman) calling "flat," creativity and content are becoming more and more the ways in which we understand, transfer and distinguish value.

What Engine for the Age?

Go read this MacArthur white paper now. I'm dead serious. I don't point y'all at 60+ page tree-killers very often, so please print out the PDF, kick back, fix some chai, and have at it with a highlighter and an hour or so. It's called "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century." This is the best friggin' thing I've read on the Age of Content ever. Period. Makes me wonder who this MacArthur guy is and why we don't hear more about him on the talk shows.

In the executive summary, the paper notes:

  • Forms of participatory culture: affiliations (memberships, eg Facebook, MySpace, guilds, clans, board), expressions (new creative forms, modding, sampling, mash-ups, fanfic, zines), collaborative problem solving (Wikipedia, ARGs, spoiling, guilding), circulations (blogs, podcasting)

  • Policy and pedagogical needs: the participaion gap (unequal access to oppos, experiences, skills), the transparency problem (learning to see the ways media shapes perceptions), the ethics challenge (breakdowns in traditional forms of training and socialization that prepare for public roles as media makers and participants)

  • Skills needed for participation: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation

And the summary then goes on to say that, "Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to media education in the United States. Everyone involved in preparing young people to go out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need to become full participants in our society."

OK. Let's merge that with some neat data from just a few pages later in the paper.
According to a 2005 Pew Internet and American Life project study, more than one-half of all American teens, and 57% of teens who use the Internet could be considered media creators -- someone who created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations. Most have done two or more of these activities. One-third of teens share what they create online with others, 22% have their own websites, 19 percent blog, and 19% remix content.
So... we have a situation where half of teens are now creating content and a third are sharing it. And where we, as adults, educators, parents, voters, policy-makers, etc. are supposed to "contribute" to that world. You know... all of us old farts who spent 5 years watching our VCRs blink "12:00:00" rather than reading the manual. I ain't saying there aren't grown-ups who can't play on the Web, and new data suggests that there are lots of adults on MySpace, etc., and gosh-durn-it, old foggies built the Web and all... but I'm guessing that the numbers of 30-40 year olds who create content on the Web ain't 50%.

Participation is one way of terming the engine of content. And participation is also at the heart of what we've been terming "social" networking, computing, online platforms, etc.

No, not all participation will result in content that is very interesting to very many others. As a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, "It's mostly crap." That may be true. But I'd point out that lots of stuff that's hit the mediasphere prior to our current age -- stuff that was part of a much more official, but much smaller participatory circle -- could certainly fall under the rubric of "crap" as well.

Implications of participation-based culture

The McArthur paper has lots of good stuff to say about education and participation 'cause, well... that's the subject of the report; the skills kids will need to thrive in this environment, how to teach and enable participation for all children, who should do it, etc.

What I'm thinking about today, though, are the memetic implications of a new cultural system -- widely, easily available, easily shareable participation in content creation -- that is, at its heart, rooted in so many self-reinforcing routines that tend to spread "thought contagions" extremely easily. Because one of the root tenets of memetics is the rule that those ideas which promote the promotion of ideas are more quickly and easily spread.

It only makes sense, but it's a basic function that is often ignored. The most widely used example is the "Big family vs. small family memes." If one group of people believe that having big families is a good idea, the various concepts and defenses of that belief will spread more quickly. Why? Because they will simply have more children to teach them to, and parents have the strongest platform for teaching family-related beliefs. Family "A," with ten kids, has ten chances to pass along any "Big Family is Best" memes. Family "B," with two kids, has two chances to pass along their "Small Family is Best" memes.

That's a very simple, physical example. It gets more complex when you talk about concepts that are less... biological. For example, education. Does "Education is Good" contain a set of self-enhancing memes? Some argue that it is, because education tends to lead to higher income, and to situations where the meme can then be shown to have had positive effects. Others say that it doesn't, because you can't truly understand the benefits of education until you have one; i.e., the price of admission into the meme is too high.

Examples aside, examining the list of new "participatory skills" given in the MacArthur paper in terms of their self-enhancing memetic capabilities is a good way to see how social context and participation will be (and already are, to some degree) going to be incredibly important in our culture.

These skills -- play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation -- are almost all highly "contagious" from a memetic standpoint, and also require mastery not just of tool or craft skills, but of high-order social, group, cognitive, game and ego-balance skills. They can be easily manipulated by folks with bad intentions, and can go all pear-shaped and akimbo even when intentions are good.

In short, these are dangerous toys.

I may come back to them on an individual basis in future posts, as it seems a good list to work off of when breaking down what makes up "social" behavior.

Thanks to Nate Combs at Terra Nova for the link to the MacArthur paper.

* * * * *

Also... reciprocal link-love back to Walt Crawford, who mentioned my "Enough 2.0" post in the November issue of his "Cites and Insights" publication. Note: Walt really liked the "Enough 2.0" logo in that post, and, if you click on it, you'll get taken to the site where it was created, Alex P's "Web2.0 Logo Creator." I linked the logo to that site previously, but didn't note that source explicitly in the text of the original post. I've done so now.