Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TV, video games, art, artistry, craft and the answers to all your questions.

I have come down from the mountain with wisdom for you, my children. I am going to define "art," and then discuss how TV almost never is, video gaming isn't yet (possibly never may be), and why you don't need to worry about it. Unless, of course, your art requires you to worry about it. In that case, get your muse on. Ready for the definition? Here we go:

Art surprises through artistry.

There you go. You can thank me later. But first, in my timeworn manner, I will elaborate at great and (probably) unrequired length. Let's start with a definition of "artistry," which is much easier than "art." According to Merriam, artistry is, "the artistic quality of effect or workmanship" and/or "artistic ability." To rephrase, it is the results of a reasonably effective attempt at art, or the skills required to generate such. That is, you cannot create "art" without "artistry."

I would argue, though, that artistry does not guarantee art. We have all seen marvelously rendered oil paintings that clearly demonstrate "artistry" -- what I would also call, "craft skills" -- but which are less art than, well... craft. It takes a not inconsiderate amount of skill to create a lifelike representation of a bowl of fruit in oils, but the construction isn't necessarily art, is it?

On the other hand... there can be no art without some (I think) artistry. We can argue about the level required, of course. There is primitive art and modern art and non-representational art that many of my friends would call "bogus" or "crap art" (mostly code jockeys and other engineering types... sorry, but it's true). The idea that a stick of wood can be painted blue and hung at a 38-degree angle on a white wall and called "art" insults their sense of responsibility. The term "art" seems to imply gravity--cultural, intellectual, emotional, etc. A work of art with little or no (obvious) artistry is, to them, not art but, well... marketing.

There is certainly a range of artistry that can go from "not art" -- a "No Parking" sign requires some level of craft-- through "bad art" and up to "great art," and we can (and will, because it's fun) yap on and on about what makes one work bad, good, better or great. But the line between "not art" and "art" is, I think, defined by the word "surprise."

A great "No Parking" sign can impress through artistry. As can a wonderful recipe, the design of a piece of furniture or an elegant shoe. But impressive artistry is not art; it is craft.

When, however, an artist surprises us through the use of artistry... that is, I believe, art. It requires a grasp of craft not as a way to guide us towards a foregone conclusion, but to take us to a place that isn't necessarily logical or expected.

Let me be clear about my definition of "surprise" in this case, too. I don't mean "startle." A great horror film can use many elements of artistry to scare the bejesus out of us. The skills of the writer, cinematographer, director and actors can come together and make us jump and scream. But that is not surprising; it is startling and (maybe) frightening. The difference between startlement and surprise may be, in the case of horror books and films, the difference between artistry and art. It is not as hard to startle. You can startle someone by clapping behind them unexpectedly or putting a rat in their burrito. Fear, though, is harder. We'll get to that again in a minute.

When we read a great book or see a wonderful film or hear terrific music, part of what impresses us is, clearly, the craft. But if the work takes our minds to a new place -- with regard to the elements of that craft -- we have art. I love good poetry for just this reason. It uses the same old words we've had all along, and puts them together in a way that makes me think, "Yikes. That's a whole new way of seeing that concept."


I believe, for myself, that TV has finally had an artistic moment. That is, where the craft of television -- as distinct from film, music or theater -- has created something that truly surprises the viewer through the manipulation of purely (or at least mostly) television-specific craft. That show is "Mad Men."

There is a great deal to love about "Mad Men" in terms of craft. It is beautifully written and shot, and the acting is quite good at times. But the full impact of the show doesn't come from the appreciation of the craft of making TV: it comes from the viewer being surprised by and through the use of that craft. In words I used recently when talking about the show: "I didn't know TV could do that."

Have there been other great TV shows? Yes. Clearly. And many of them have been "art" in that they were "art broadcast on television." I'd argue that "All In the Family" was art... but it was, essentially, theater created for television. It was at its best, often, during simple, single-shot dialogue and character development moments. Which is an art that is carried over from film and theater.

Perhaps another way of describing what I mean is to say that successful art uses the language of its craft to say surprising things that couldn't be said in any other medium.

"Mad Men" could not be a movie. Yes, you could watch it on a big screen, and watch it in longer chunks. But then it would just be a TV show on a movie screen. Just like watching "Casablanca" on your TV isn't "the art of television," but "the art of film viewed on your TV."

I may do another post about why I think "Mad Men" is art, but, for now, I'll assume you agree with me.

This thought string was spurred, to some degree, by a recent "London Review of Books" article about video games titled, "Is it Art?" It's a good article. The author clearly isn't as steeped in the world of games as... well... many gamer-writers, because he says some stuff that belies a more simplistic view of what videogames are. Don't get me wrong: it's a great piece, especially for other non-gamers. But when he says "video games" he means A-List XBox, PS3 and Wii titles. Much of the work being done near the border of "games as art" is in tiny little games being created by individual programmers and small, indie publishing houses.

The author, John Lanchester, poses the question "is it art?" about video games, and points at some recent titles that might come close. Near the end, he posits that games might become art when they give their users creativity tools, or, "...through the beauty and detail of their imagined worlds, combined with the freedom they give the player to wander around in them." I disagree.

The first idea--giving users creativity tools--is clearly a craft or artistry consideration. It's cool to have a game/toy/thing that lets me create stuff. Maybe what I'll create may, someday, be art. But it won't be "game art." It will be "art that I created using game-y tools." Unless, of course, I create a game that is art.

Which would be... what? Well, by my definition, it would be a video game that surprises us through the use of purely game-specific craft. So, that second idea of Lanchester's--the beauty and detail of imagined worlds--will be (or is) "art within a game" rather than "game as art." Like seeing a beautiful painting on TV.

Can a video game, then, be art? "Ludus gratia ludi?" I'm not sure. I've been watching TV for about 40 years, but until two years ago, didn't believe any of it had risen to the level of art. It could take gaming that long to get to the point where the use of game craft surprises me in ways that would be impossible elsewhere. Not surprised by the level of the craft--the beautiful graphics, interesting mechanics, smooth UI--but by the result inside my wee haid. By what it makes me think.

I'm waiting.

Friday, December 26, 2008

My Christmas present

This is a kinda gooey post. So if you want satire and irony and schadenfreude, etc... come back in the New Year. There'll be plenty.

Today, though. My Christmas gift.

I got some good books from my Amazon list, but that's not the story. I got the "Breaking Bad News with Baby
" postcard set. But that's not the story. I got fed like a medieval village the first day of harvest. But that's not the story.

At one point, after the ripping n' tearing, though, my 9-year-old son paused to say, "This is the best Christmas ever."

Merry Christmas to Dad. That's all I ever really wanted.

Plus, I get to play with his Nerf gatlin gun. So there's that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

This. Is. Perfect.

Not necessarily safe for work. Especially if you work in advertising.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

New poem: Winter Triptych

Cold, Stiff

Walk with me again
like we walked home from school when
sticky, yellow buses couldn’t wait
for drama and debates.

Snow-congested, gravid Boston skies
harrowed moisture from the corners of our eyes.
Trees shamed bare of gaudy, orange leaves
stood naked, proud of winter’s clarity.

Breath comes quick. Too cold to talk.
Legs pumped, rubber boots cracked ice, we walked
and steam rolled from your mouth like smoke.
I watched you bend your neck, your shoulders bowed

as wind rode your arching back, your hair a tumbled, yellow cloud,
the only light in a fading day
of dirty white and depthless, concrete grey.
Movements slower, harder as we near home.

Stiffening as cold seeps into bone.
Nearly numb just before entry.
Eyes closed, fingers dead, you fumbled for my key.


You can spank a bad boy with a finger-thick willow switch,
cut fresh, dripping green and running full of summer sap.
Or you can curl it back, head to tail upon itself, end on end.
Go even further, make it bend into the Christian fish;
an alpha. Then let it snap! The tension gone, it rises, spinning,
falling, finally. Lost in high grass by the swimming hole.

That branch’s brother cut in winter’s short, sharp noon won’t yield
up one degree of give. The juice that lives in sun and rain is gone,
sucked down to ground. It sleeps in rocks. The willow only knows
of it in dreams of caravanserai, eastern gifts and tales of kings.

“Softly,” is the wise-word of the willow on his darkening wind,
his long-night solstice wind that shakes the lights and brittle bulbs
hung on the changeless, undead pines.
The willow sleeps and waits for limber times.

Snow Angel

Fallen, fallen in the snow.
You can point, but she is gone.

We name the hole the thing. The wet recess
where she once lay. It’s long hatched
its angel, though.

Wind and flakes have now erased her footprints there
and back. Two wings. Two legs. A head.
A halo where
she shook her snowsuit hood.

The hole is not what’s real.

The angel is revealed, released and dances now
with cocoa and a powdered doughnut. How
the white fluff coats her fingers,
coats her cheeks.

Winter wind seeks cracks, lifts twists of sugar
and of snow, dusts eyelashes of angels
as we watch them fall
and watch them dance
and watch them go
to sleep.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Christmas Spirit 2.2: 60 UnGrinchy Ideas for 2008


In 2006, I wrote a post called The UnGrinch 25; a list of ideas on how to keep the fun, spirit and joy in your holiday season. Last year I upped the ante by doubling the happy happy with 50 ideas. I can't keep up with a geometric progression like that, or by 2018, I'd have to do 512,000 ideas. So this year, there's 60. Last year's 50, plus 10. So that's 12 ideas (one for each day, eh?) per category. Now, get out there and get your joy on.


12 Craft Ideas

1. Make a family calendar. Pick a theme or use pics of your family. Fill it with all the important family dates; birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Include a weird or interesting events from Chase's Annual Events. You can make monthly calendars using MS Publisher, or the ever-free and wonderful Open Office. Good to have, good to give.

2. Create your own ornaments. 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. Another ornament idea (bonus!) is to take beads (I like the shiny, little, star-flowery shaped ones) and string them along a piece of craft wire. When you're done, you end up with an ornament that's also a bendy toy.

3. Lego nativity scene. 'Nuff said.

4. Toys from tots. There are many 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. My bet is that if you or your organization provided the stuff and the supervision, your local, public library could help you find a place to do it.

5. Make a truly edible gingerbread house. Every gob-smacked gingerbread house I've ever seen has been "hands off" (and more importantly, "teeth off"). Feh! Where's the fun? I mean... 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. Do it, and then let the kids get all Godzilla on it. Or chomp it down yerself. You know you want to...

6. Decorate somebody else's space. Carefully. Tastefully. Always within the bounds of office rules/etiquette and the law/fire-code. 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.

7. Group shoebox calendar. Warning: takes planning. Everybody in your gang (family, office, church-group, etc.) brings in enough shoeboxes to make 25. Everybody puts something in them to help decorate the common space. Wrap them (and keep the innards secret), then randomly assign numbers 1-25 to them. Or more or less if you're doing a non-religious thing. Do 31 and make it a "New Year's Calendar." Whatever. Then, on each day, get together as a group, open the appropriate box (take turns, now) and use it to brighten the day and make the place niftier.

8. Bad Mojo Wreath Voodo. OK... this one will probably not go down well for many church youth groups... but it's meant with a sense of humor, so chill out. Have everyone in your gang (family, group) write something that bugs them on a  piece of colored paper that matches (or not) the cheapest, driest, most flamable wreath you can find. Decorate the wreath with the slips of nastiness. On the day of celebration, burn (or otherwise destroy in a more work-friendly manner) the Wreath of Spite. Celebrate the destruction and release of the things that bug you.

9. Holiday bird-feeder. I like bird-feeders. So do my squirrels. Oh, well... But mostly they either look like weird plastic contraptions or little A-frame tenements. Help a bird out. Decorate a special bird-house/feeder for the holidays.

10. Odd snow sculpture. We all make the snowmen. Yes, yes. Lovely snowmen. Do it up different this year. Make a snow carving of your company's logo. Never mind. Don't do that. How about a UF-SNOW? Unidentified Freezing Snowcraft? Or a guy climbing up your front tree? Or a giant hand? Don't be overly critical of your work... just get some friends together and get stupid with the snow.

11. Tissue paper wreath. This is an easy project, dredged up from my days as a summer camp arts & crafts director. It's simple, quiet and can keep little hands busy for hours. Take a coat-hanger and bend it out so that the triangle part is round. Keep the hook the way it is, please. Now, cut colored tissue paper (or white, if you're a freak) into strips about 2" wide and 10-12" long. Fold each strip around the now-round part of the hanger, and twist the ends together like a, well... a twist tie. That makes the paper cling to the hanger, eh? Do that about a thousand more times. It looks cruddy until you start really filling it out, then it looks fun and festive. Please do not use electric lights with wreaths made from paper.

12. Crayondles. Make some candles out of old crayons. Directions here.

12 Entertaining Ideas.

1. 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.

2. 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!

3. 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.

4. 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...

5. 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.

6. Make-a-wreath party. OK... this is a combo craft/entertainment idea. So sue me. We used to do this at the church I grew up going to. You show up with the basics of an advent wreath (styrofoam torus and a bunch of evergreen branches), and the host provides all kinds of add-ons; candles and holders, bells, ribbon, holly, berries, etc. Good times, and a wreath to take home, too.

7. Semi-formal holiday martini party. In the old days (the 1950's), people dressed up to go to holiday parties. And while this may still hold true for some work-sponsored events, more and more often, work holiday parties are tired, dull affairs. Most of the ones I've been to are, anyways. So, on your own, get some friends together and dress all high-class, and drink funky, fun martinis. No reason grown-ups can't have grown-up fun around the holidays, too.

8. Remembrance time. Around the table, have family members or friends recount their best (or most interesting) holiday memories. Yes, it's corny. But corny is good during this time of the year. Embrace the corn.

9. 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 The Firey Furnace. 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 grokthe holiday's true meaning? I think not.

10. Mix-up the classics. Get the book versions of classic holiday tales like Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol, etc. Get some index cards. Write character names, major attributes ("nose glows," "miser," "made of snow," "elf,") and plot points ("comes down the chimney," "ridiculed by reindeer," "just settled down for a long winter's nape") on them and keep the categories separate. Now go back and read one of the originals, but when someone (usually a child or me) yells "stop!," insert a random card from the appropriate face-down pile. So you end up with something like:

"Rudolph didn't like all the other reindeer calling him names, so he..."
"... gave Bob Cratchit money to help with Tiny Tim's legs."

You can keep going with the original story, substituting other zaniness, or switch over to the one from the card. Whichever seems like more fun to you. And, yes, this is kind of a holiday version of TaleWeaver.

11. Personalize "A Christmas Carol." Rewrite (or just re-think) the Dickens' classic and perform it. Text available here for free. The characters and story really lend themselves to satire and revision, and you can do a very short version and people will still get it, because we all know it so well. Film it and put it on YouTube, please, too.

12. Christmas kids parade. If you'll have a passel (any more than 2) of kids around at some point, give them all a cheap musical instrument, or a home-made one. Put on some classic holiday music, real loud, and have the kids march around the house banging, blowing, slapping, stomping, etc. Please note that adults and dogs should be encouraged to join the band. This is a good way to blow off steam and sugar after the whelps get their second wind on Christmas morning.

12 Card Ideas

1. 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!

2. Photoshop your kid(s) into other (classic) pics. I first saw this done to 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. Combine with #9, below, for best effect.

3. 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....

4. "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!

5. "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.

6. Mystery cards. Send a really nice holiday card, maybe include a gift certificate, but with no indication of whom it's from; no names, no return address, etc. Why? To bug the crap out of somebody you love. And isn't that what the holiday season is all about?

7. Return-reply cards. Send people a card with a self-addressed, stamped envelope or postcard inside to send back to you. Put questions on it you'd like answered, like... what do you want for Christmas next year? How the heck are ya? Which holiday movies did you see and like or hate? People love to be interactive. Give the gift that gives something back to you.

8. Custom mouse pad card. They will throw away the picture of your kids. But if you put that picture on acustom mouse pad... it's a keepsake.

9. Nice, custom cards. While we're visiting ... You can go to the drug store and have any photo turned into a card. And they sure look like you did just that. But if you take a few more minutes, you can actually have custom cards printed out for you. Ones that look like cards. Which is nicer, you must admit. Combine this with #2, above.

10. Origami cards. Do your regular card, but include a piece (or more, if necessary) of origami paper and instructions for making an ornament, decoration, etc. Your local library has holiday origami books, I bet. Again... the point is to do something different... with a little extra un-Grincy flavor.

11. Library cards. Yes, it's a pun. Things, for many of us, will be tighter this year. Do a friend a favor and get the instructions on where their nearest, local library is. Put that in a card along with 10 or so recommendations of books to read or movies to watch that you know the library has (check for help). For book/video gifts, it's often the thought or idea that really does count. Use your library's resources to give the thought without the expense. This is also a very "green" gift, so... that's good, too!

12. MadLibs card. Create a card but leave spots for verbs, nouns, place names, etc. Put the spots for them to write those in on the front, with directions not to open the card until they do, and then to read the card with the answers put in. Hilarious hijinx will ensue.

12 Gift/Shopping Ideas

1. 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.

2. Thought gifts. They say, "It's the thought that counts." OK. So, this year, only give thoughts for the holidays. Make this the 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.

3 Archie McPhee. This 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.

4. Gifts for the future of the group. Have everybody get everybody something that will only really "work" when you get back together. Pick a group-y activity like a picnic or game night, and have everyone get/give gifts that will be brought together again each time you do that thing.

5. Recommendations or reviews. I get lots of gift certificates. And that's cool. But it still means I need to figure out what I want to get with the thing. If you give someone a gift certificate (especially to a book or music store/site), provide a list of 5 or 10 ideas that you think they'd like. Write little mini-reviews of books you've read, movies you've seen, etc. that made you think of the person. Make the list fun, funny or serious... but it will add personality and thought to what can seem like a somewhat generic offering.

6. Make part of the gift yourself. Homemade gifts are special, when they come from adults as well as kids. I recently received a CD from a friend, and it was wrapped in a handkerchief that he'd tie-dyed himself. How cool is that?! If you give someone a coffee machine, create a custom mug for them, too.

7. Food with gifts inside. I don't know why this is fun, but it is. Make sure you warn people, and make the gifts obvious (small gems can be a choking or tooth-breaking hazard). Seal stuff in zip-lock bags to preserve the food and the toys. Put something in the Jello (action figures?) that will make digging out the prize as much fun as playing with it.

8. Gifts with a story. Write a fictional story about how the gift you're giving came into your hands. Make it funny, sweet, odd, implausible... whatever. It will make the present more memorable.

9. Don't overthink. We spend so much time (well, I don't, but "we" do) trying to figure out the "perfect gift" for people. Unless you're sweetie is waiting for a ring, or your 8-year-old will DIE without a particular Lego set... there ain't no such thing. Part of the fun of gifts is getting something you wouldn't ever have bought for yourself. If it wasn't, we'd just give each other money. Bleh. So give something odd and unexpected. I mentioned Archie McPhee before. Another great site full of fun and different ideas is the Quincy Shop. Very unique stuff, in a wide range of prices and styles. Really fun. This year, somebody better get me a Buddha Board Zen Art thing, or I'm a-gonna cry. I got most of last year's stocking stuffers from their "Unique Gifts Under $10" section. Their selection and service gets the Andy Havens' Seal of Wow! That's Neat!

10. Share kids. Childhood is a big part of the holidays; both our own and our kids'. If you don't have kids and are friends with someone who does, offer to babysit so that they can go out and shop, and then do one of the craft things above. If you do have kids, and know folks that don't, invite them over for an event where the kids will play a part. Holidays go better with runts.

11. Gift from your past. Find something that was highly meaningful to you as a child, or in the past, and give it to someone along with the story. Could be a book or movie or a type of clothing. Could be the board game, "Risk," if you're a giant geek like me. 

12. Name a star for someone. Paid and free options are both available.


12 Meaningful Ideas

Hopefully, all the above ideas can be meaningful. This last set, though, is meant to supply you with specific, holiday depth and feelings of joy, brotherhood, jolly...tude? Jolliness? That sounds better.

The holidays can be meaningful? Go figger.

1. 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!

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Visit someone else's ceremony. When I was in confirmation class as a young Methodist swain, our pastor took us to a Passover Seder service at one of the nearby Jewish temples. It was a great way to learn about the similarities and differences between my faith and that of my Jewish friends, and to drink wine as a 15-year-old. That specific holiday won't work around December... but you get the point. Find out what and how others are celebrating around this time of the year. You'll end up experiencing your own traditions more deeply, I guarantee.

7. Take someone to a performance of Handel's "Messiah" who's never been. There's a church in your area putting it on, I guarantee. If not (some guarantee, eh?), rent a version from the library. It's truly one of the most beautiful, moving pieces of holiday music you can experience. Sharing it is a great gift.

8. Random (nice) blog comments. If you read lots of blogs, take the time to do something that only 1-in-100 readers generally does; leave a comment. We bloggers write for lots of reasons. But nothing makes our day like a comment from a reader we haven't heard from before. If you've enjoyed the work of a blogger in the past, visit their space and let them know. It takes just a few minutes, and really is a lovely treat for us. Please note, I am not fishing for comments on this blog. I'm projecting.  ;->

9. Give to a charity you don't normally connect with. Stretch a bit. If you mostly give at church, find a secular charity that does something you agree with. If you tend towards issues of hunger, try education. I'm not saying don't do the stuff you usually do... but find out about a new one. When our giving becomes rote, we lose something of the original reason we were moved to give. Get out of your comfort zone and find a new way to share.

10. Forgiveness. One of the worst barriers to experiencing spiritual, holiday joy is the sense that we are not worthy. Whether directly or indirectly, too much gift giving is often a substitute for the resolution of actual issues. And one of the issues that really can weigh us down this time of the year is a grudge. Whether you're holding one against someone else, or they're mad at you about something... take care of it. If it's so far in the past that the person is dead, moved on, out-of-touch,etc., then talk to a friend, therapist or confessor of some kind. Get rid of it. I don't care what your religion is or if you have none. The burden of unforgiveness is a strain on the holidays for us all. Lose that, and all the other holiday stuff will be much, much brighter.

11. Invite someone different to a holiday dinner. Single people or folks that can't leave a college campus, newly married couples just moved to a new city... there are lots of people who don't have a nice, large, rowdy chunk of kin to celebrate the holidays with. Bring 'em along for the ride. You'll be surprised at home much they enjoy many of the things about your holiday mess that tend to irritate or frustrate you. And that will give you new perspective on your own joy.

12. The 12 Days of Compliments. Start on any dang day you please, and compliment or thank one person in a way you wouldn't normally. Really try to think of something specific, honest and meaningful. On the next day, hand out two of these compliments. By day 12, it will have become almost second nature, and that's a gift for *you* to enjoy all year long.

Well, that's it for 2008. My gift to you, along with wishes for a happy and safe holiday season. Don't let all the bad news out there get you down. The universe is a wonderful place, and the holidays are a great time to remember and celebrate all the joys we can share. Now, get out there and ring a bell like you mean it! 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dickie the Stick! (My first lesson in media literacy)

Last week, "the stick" was entered into the National Toy Hall of Fame. [Note: I link to the Wikipedia article rather than the NTHF's page because it has more information, presented more readily, than the NTHF's site itself, the page for inductees at which appears to be busted]. That's awesome. The stick joins the cardboard box, the kite and marbles, as well as more branded toys such as Legos, Barbie, etc.

From the Associated Press:

Curators said the stick was a special addition in the spirit of a 2005 inductee, the cardboard box. They praised its all-purpose, no-cost, recreational qualities, noting its ability to serve either as raw material or an appendage transformed in myriad ways by a child's creativity. 

"It's very open-ended, all-natural, the perfect price -- there aren't any rules or instructions for its use," said Christopher Bensch, the museum's curator of collections. "It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight's sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band. ... No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows. 

I've known, since I was six, about the features and benefits of the stick. We camped a bunch when I was a kid, and, when you're out in the Berkshires, sticks there are a-plenty. 

At one point, while sitting around the campfire playing with sticks, my Dad took one up and began to recite -- in a wonderfully over-modulated, deep, Don Pardo-esque voice -- an impromptu commercial for...

"Dickie the Stick!"

It went something like this:

Dickie the Stick! The most amazing toy and tool you'll ever own! For just $10 (plus shipping and handling) you can own an object whose entertainment and functional properties have been lauded by pharaohs, kings, heroes, adventurers, pirates and peasants alike. Dickie the Stick! Raised above your head he becomes... a baton! Conduct the orchestras of your dreams. Suspended between two shelves, it's a towel rack! Placed just -so- against your spine... a back-scratcher! Buy two, and you can practice fencing with a friend. Jammed in the ground it transforms into a sundial! Practice your baton twirling with Dickie the Stick and then... voila! It's an extermination tool, guaranteed to kill or maim rodents, bugs, cats, parrots, small raccoons and other household vermin. Dickie the Stick! A child's friend, a handyman's partner."

You get the picture. I'm pretty sure Dad went on at greater length, as I found it hysterical at the time.

Later, in the sixth grade, we were assigned to create an ad for a product we enjoyed. I did a poster and radio ad for Dickie the Stick. Much hilarity ensued.

What is funny about the ad for a stick is, of course, not that it's absurd, but that it is a media parody of other absurdities. It's funny because it pokes fun at commercials that greatly overemphasize their benefits or appeal. Sham-wow comes to mind.

My son and I have been, for at least three years, deconstructing ads. I believe two things about media and the Hollywood / Madison Avenue Axis (a term also from my Dad). One -- they are inescapable parts of our environment and, as such, must be understood in order to live and thrive in modern society. Two -- the better you understand them, the more fun you can have.

I love toys. I love gadgets. I love TV (mostly). I love ads (sometimes). I love the *ideas* behind good toys, gadgets, TV and advertising. This love comes, in many cases, from a relationship born of the same respect with which I hold fire. Very handy stuff, fire... but it can burn and kill as well as make smores.

We watch Nick and Disney and the Cartoon Network together, my son and I. And we mock the ads. They alternate between shouting ads (for boys toys) and singing ads (girls toys). We discuss them. Not in a "I'm teaching you something important" manner, but to pick apart their shortcomings or, in some few cases, cool stuff.

Recently, Acura launched a series of ads where various things (karate fist, diver, etc.) transmogrify into an Acura. The bullet version is pretty cool looking.

When my son saw it, he said, "That looks cool. But it's a dumb ad for a car."

"Why?" I asked.

"It's just dumb. A bullet isn't a car. You wouldn't want your car to only go straight. Bullets are dangerous on purpose. Car's are supposed to be safe."

I nodded in agreement. Cool ad. Dumb ad. Not necessarily mutually exclusive. He's getting there.

EULA and anti-lock brakes

Great new panel over at XKCD:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="460" caption="XKCD comic: Faust 2.0"]XKCD comic: Faust 2.0[/caption]

We've all been annoyed (at least) and possibly troubled by the reams of legal text that accompany any software installation, along with a little box that says, "I agree." I've often wondered whether or not any enterprising and/or disgruntled legal hack may have inserted fantastically oddball text into the 172nd line of a 302 line agreement. Something along the lines of, "The purchaser of this software understands that he/she is a figment of the One Programmer's imagination and, as such, has no rights other than those of evasion and escape during the Time of Cleansing."

Be that as it may... there are, of course, legitimate copyright and use concerns about EULAs. On the other hand, there are legitimate concerns about protecting the rights and survivability of software companies. If it were legal to copy and sell other people's intellectual property without bearing the costs of development, it would be very hard to, well... bear the costs of development.

There are, of course, wonderful Open Source and freeware programs out there. But, as we move more of our life into the infomediasphere, I think that we'll be ever more confronted with these issues. We don't understand what goes into our tools, how they work at a base level, and so can be legitimately confused about their operation... but yet, we won't stop using them.

My current car is the first I've ever owned with anti-lock brakes. These are (I am told) a wonderful safety improvement. The guy who sold me the car reminded me, when I told him that I hadn't driven an ABS equipped car before, "Don't pump the brakes. Just brake. The ABS does the pumping."

But, of course, the first time I got into an icy, skiddy situation... I pumped the brakes. Even when I remembered what I was supposed to do -- I consciously though, "Don't pump the brakes, idiot!" -- I still pumped them. I've been driving since 1983, and 25 years of brake pumping on New England and New York roads is ingrained in my left shin.

I was not killed. I didn't spin out or anything bad. And, over the past three years, I've gotten better at remembering (and being able) to not pump the brakes.

But what if I had gotten into an accident because of it? Could I claim that I hadn't been adequately educated or trained by the dealer or manufacturer? That I should have had an option to turn off the ABS since I have a near-hypnogogic need to pump the brakes? What if the salesman hadn't told me anything? What if i thought "ABS" stood for "Accurate Balanced Steering?"

In short, what if I was dumber or unluckier than I am/was?

There is a fine line between the responsibility of manufacturers and that assumed by consumers. Obviously, if a product fails to do what it's meant to do, and the maker knows it, there is lots of room for real anger and legal recompense.

And, on the other side, we all scoff at the tales of people who sue the maker of a butane lighter because it caused something to catch fire. Right. Because normally you buy a lighter just to make that cool, "scrrttch" noise when you roll the wheel. The fire thing is a side effect...

But that middle area is pretty wide, isn't it? In one of the cases linked to from the Wikipedia article on EULA, a judge ruled that a software manufacturer wasn't liable for damages when a customer used the software to create a contracting bid that was, ultimately, way too low. The software (according to the buyer) malfunctioned, and the bid recommendation it provided ended up $1.95 million less than it should have been. The EULA stated (as usual) that the software maker was not liable for damages beyond the purchase price of the software; in effect, the software is not warranted to be accurate or without flaw. It is up to the user to, essentially, check his/her work.

I was most interested in the comment from the judge in the case who said: 

... if this case had arisen in 1985 rather than 1997, I might have a different ruling' but 'the facts in this case are such that even construing them against the moving party, the Court finds as a matter of law that the licensing agreements and limitations pertaining thereto were conspicuous and controlling and, accordingly, the remedies that are available to the plaintiff in this case are the remedies that were set forth in the licensing agreement . . . 

As stated repeatedly, I'm not a lawyer. But it's fascinating (to me) that part of what the judge was judging was the reasonableness of the plaintiff's case based on how long we've been using software with licenses. It amounts to saying, "Come on... if you don't know by now that the use of the software is your responsibility, you're just not paying attention."

I'm supposed to know (by now) not to pump the ABS brakes. We're supposed to know that software comes with limited liability. We're supposed to know that, unless otherwise specified, you're not allowed to copy and/or resell intellectual property that's not yours.

I like the XKCD comic that started this chain of thought for me. It is, as they usually are, funny and poignant. On the other hand, if you think the devil will actually be bound by a EULA, you're in for a nasty surprise.

Most of the stuff in many EULAs I've actually read is meant to remind the user of the applicable law. In some cases, they overreach and attempt to create contract requirements where existing legal (usually copyright) issues are vague or don't favor the publisher. Most users, however (including me), don't understand all the nuances. We just want to download, install and run our new software as quickly as possible. Yes, yes, yes... I agree. Blah, blah, blah. Fine. Click.

I do think we need clearer laws about copyright. And I do think that some of what goes into EULAs is a stretch and, probably, overreaching. On the other hand, as someone who believes in personal responsibility... I know that if I want to use a product, I should either know what I'm getting into... or accept the consequences of my ignorance.

The problem with the XKCD comic is that it's probably at least as dangerous to own the devil's soul as it is to negotiate with him for yours. We can remain vigilant. We can accept responsibility for what we do. Or we can become the devil.

I'd rather just have the brakes work well.




Fat cat, box, repeat. I love teh Intertubez.




Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Blue Ohio: you're welcome, Neil

My friend Neil, an old college buddy and a "pre-neo-con, old school Republican," called to thank me and congratulate Ohio, on my behalf, for "going blue" for Obama. You're welcome, Neil.

For the first time in a long time, I'm less cynical today than I was yesterday.

We're praying for you, and your family, Mr. Obama. And for all of us. Here, there and everywhere.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Halloween scare... SOCIALISM! BOO!

John McCain is turning Barack Obama's, "Spread the wealth around" statement to the omnipresent Joe the Plumber into a scary tale of socialism on the prowl.

Socialism! The ads for McCain cry. Obama's a socialist! He wants to take money away from you (good American people who work hard) and give it to them you know the... er... other Americans who... uhh... do other stuff. In this ad, the folks all repeat, "I'm Joe the Plumber."

News flash: we'are already socialist. We take money from people who don't have kids and use it to fund public schools. We take money from people who will never get sick or old and fund Medicare and Medicaid. We take money from all kinds of people and spend it on lots of different kinds of people. The money is called "taxes" and the benefits are socialist in nature.


The Tax Foundation has a "Taxes paid vs. spending received by state" analysis. If you match that data up against a red-state-blue-state map, you'll find that of the top 10 states for taxes paid vs. spent are Colorado, New York, California, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Nevada and New Jersey. Eight blues, one red and one fence sitter. The top 10 states on the spending side are: New Mexico, Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky and Virginia. One blue, six red, three middling.

To put that in narrative terms, Alaska (Palin) spends $1.84 of federal tax money for every dollar they take in. Arizona (McCain) spends $1.19. Illinois (Obama) gets only $.75 of federal spending for every dollar it provides. And Delaware (Biden) gets $.77. That's right: if you're from Illinois, 25-cents of every federal tax dollar you pay goes to help the fine people of Alaska and Arizona... Who apparently resent you for helping them out.

I'm not Joe the Plumber. I'm the guy subsidizing his socialist public works and proud to do so.

[PS: I know that Ohio, where I live now, is in the "spend more" column. I'm identifying in a political, philosophical sense with blue states, like Massachusetts, where I grew up, and New York, where my family is from and I went to school.]

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Four new poems

All written in the space of about a week. Who knows why this happens? Perhaps John Hodgman.

Click to read. Or just enjoy the titles.

I kinda like one of them. You get to guess which one.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

WordPress funk -- call for group mind assistance

For some reason -- I hadn't changed anything, seriously -- I couldn't get into my WP admin module. Which means I couldn't do anything to the blog. So I upgrade to a later version of WP, updated the database, and deleted (moved) a bunch of plugins. Now, I can get in (as evidenced by this post), but all my categories, permalinks and archives are gone. You can get to any given post by using the "next page" thingy at the bottom of the home page... but everything else is upgehfooked. Search works, too... but not if you then click on the post name.  Weird.

Any assistance from WordPress Gods much appreciated. If I can't fix it, I may try exporting the whole tham ding and then wiping this build and restarting with a new SQL database, etc.

Or I'll just start a new blog with a link back to Tinker for old stuff. TinkerX just turned three, and that seems pretty old for a blog with no real cohesive topic. Any thoughts on what kind of more specific blog I might write would certainly be appreciated.

[edit] Dagnabbit. Comments are broken, too. Please send thoughts, ideas, solutions or general commiserations to

[edit 2] Fixed permalinks, which seems to have fixed comments and archives. Breathing easier. Still working on categories.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

iHate iTunes and the iStore

Yes. The iPod and iPhone are sweet and techno whizbang. But... great googly moogly... how much does iTunes and the iStore have to suck before Steve fixes them?

I don't even want to go into it. But the process of trying to get some TV shows and games that I bought from the iStore onto my wife's iPod is a tale of incredibly bad UI, stupdily redundant processes, and time consuming repetitions.

It's 2am. I've been trying to synch the damned thing for 3 hours. I'm going to bed now.

Know any lawyers? Tell 'em about this

After a couple year hiatus from writing in the legal marketing field, I'm back contributing to a publication I feel really good about. It's called "Originate," and the editors have already snagged some of the best legal marketing writers in the biz. Yes, yes. And me. Daryl Cross, Mark Beese and Adam Stock join Larry Bodine, Barry Schneider and me for monthly advice, tips, tools and deep wisdom about how to generate business for sole practitioners and small firms.This is not puff stuff. This is all highly usable, measurable, practical information from folks who have been in legal marketing for years, and who have helped firms generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in new revenue.My first set of articles (I'm on my fourth month at this point) focuses on setting up a specific, reliable sales pipeline. The idea being that you don't get people to go from never having heard of you to being a dedicated client in one step. Same as you don't go from "stranger" to "spouse" without some various activities in-between.I outline a reasonable sales pipeline in 12 steps. Yeah, I know. Sounds like a recovery program. Well... It is! It's a way to recover from relying on luck and your golf game to get new business. Lawyers become addicted to *doing* the work, and forget to take the time necessary to *get* new work. This pipeline plan makes it easy to define a number of specific, discreet steps that will move potential clients ever closer to being die-hard customers and fans.Friends and readers of mine get a nice little $50 break when they sign up. So, if you know any attorneys who want to start working on their rainmaking game... send 'em over here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Group cud

Good new word from Word Spy: co-rumination. n. The extensive and repeated discussion, particularly among friends, of problems and negative feelings. Also: corumination.

This amuses me even more, considering the roots of the word "rumination."

"Entertainment Shopping:" Grand Theft Lotto

[Alternate sub-titles for this post were: "Social Betworking," "Stoopidity 2.0," "The Venality of Crowds," and "Nothing for Money and Your Clicks for Fee."]

In line at the cafeteria this last Wednesday, I heard a couple guys I don't know talking about the online auction site Swoopo. It seemed, from the little bit I overheard, like eBay with a slight gambling twist. Not for me, as I am an inveterate non-gambler, but to each their own. Then I saw a post about it on BoingBoing, and read more. All I can say, like many of the commentors at BoingBoing, is that PT Barnum was right. There's a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.

The site bills itself as "entertainment shopping." Note: this should be the first clue to anyone who wants to hang on to their money and/or get a decent bargain and/or actually buy something. "Entertainment" is a service. "Shopping" is (generally) for products. When you pay for a service, at the end, you have intangible assets: memories, new skills, an environmental change of some kind. From a pure-poetry standpoint, the phrase "entertainment shopping" is wonderful. The signal-to-noise ratio is incredibly high. I could spend an entire post just unpacking that phrase. Maybe later...

The Cake Scraps blog has a decent anyalysis of the site's mechanics. But the basic idea is that you pay $1 for the chance to raise the price of an auction by 15-cents and be the high bidder. The winner (in most cases; there are several types of auctions) then has to pay the final price, on top of $1 for each of however many bids they made.

So... let's say there's an item that's worth (retail value) $150.00 that finally goes for $75. If you placed the final bid, you would get yerself a nice deal; slightly less than 50% off ($75 price + $1 for the bid). But the total cost of bids to all players (the community?) would have been $500.

It's like eBay, but where the "house" also gets $1 for every 15-cents spent.

It's a variation on a scheme called a dollar auction. And Swoopo actually does auction off money, too. Bid on a $100 chunk of cash. As long as you (personally) bid fewer than 100 times (and win), you come out on top. And, of course, as long as there are enough bids to cover the dollar amount in bid charges, Swoopo wins.

It's brilliant psychology. There isn't even any trickery (unless, as several comments point out, a Swoopo shill or two is doing some bidding). It's perfectly transparent.

The value statement becomes, I believe, very simple: How much are you willing to bet that you're less of a sucker than everyone else who's playing?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Good Will... Gathering?

One of the best rants in movie history is, I believe, the one that Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) lets rip on a recruiter from the NSA. Partly I love it because it's delivered in the wonderful South Boston (Southie) accent that so many of my friends' parents and older brothers had from the old neighborhood. Partly it's because it's a wicked rant:
Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll take a shot. Say I'm working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', "Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area," 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called, 'cause they were pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie takin' shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work and he can't afford to drive, so he's got to walk to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks 'cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starvin', 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. I figure fuck it, while I'm at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

It's a beautiful rant, and delivered, apparently, in one breath.

I've written before on my thoughts about hunting vs. gathering mentalities. Here's the quick version, in bullet point format because you just had to wade through a huge chunk of text and bullets will liven things up:

  • The two main types of early human productivity focused on hunting and gathering. We're anthropologically bent towards them.

  • Hunting requires more "fluid" skills, gathering more "directed" skills. Neither is better or worse, per se, they are just different.

  • The development of agriculture took gathering to a new level. Farming is, essentially, controlled gathering. You gather the crops and animals you want into your space, and then work on them there. It is, to my thinking, meta-gathering.

  • The industrial revolution did to other jobs what farming did for food. It took jobs (blacksmith, for example) that required many different skills and broke them apart... "farmed" them out to many specific workers, shops and industries. You no longer had one guy making nails, hoes, rakes, plows, etc. You had one guy who made the one part that went into the one slot on the one product.

  • The computer is a general tool; it allows one person to, once again, do many things.

  • The Internet is a "hunt based" tool. It relies more on one's ability to search, connect, add, comment, develop, etc. than it does on one particular skill. Ask yourself this: what would it mean to say, "He's an expert at the Internet." It's a ridiculous phrase.

  • Web skills and the ability to integrate them with other computer-based tools are turning us from gatherers (do the one thing, in the one place, over and over) into hunters (be flexible and fluid, concentrate on goals rather than steps, etc.)

There's a PhD thesis in there somewhere, I'm sure. Just not for me to write.

All of this apropos a Seth Godin piece on change, by way of Stephen's Lighthouse. Seth's main point can be summed up by this quote:
Oh, there's one other thing: As we've turned human beings into competent components of the giant network known as American business, we've also erected huge barriers to change. In fact, competence is the enemy of change! Competent people resist change. Why? Because change threatens to make them less competent. And competent people like being competent. That's who they are, and sometimes that's all they've got. No wonder they're not in a hurry to rock the boat.

I would agree... except for one caveat. I believe that competent gathering is the enemy of change, whereas competent hunting is always ready for change and, in fact, lusts for it.

Set is right that "competent components" are reluctant to change. Why? If someone eliminates the square hole, and your job is to put the square peg in that sucka... game over. On the other hand, if your role involves leveraging skills that are more fluid -- find, connect, describe, convince, improve, direct -- you love change. Why? Because change is what you are trying to accomplish in a hunt. You seek to change the status quo (being hungry, let's say), not through a well developed system of activities that anyone can accomplish. You seek change through the skills and abilities of you and your hunting party. You don't know what you'll find when you go out... but you know you want to kill and eat it.

Again... I'm not knocking gathering/gardening/farming/factory skills. They are hugely efficient for feeding millions of people, manufacturing huge tons of similar items, etc.

I'm just saying that hunting is coming back. And Mr. Will Hunting is right... we don't want to be cogs in a giant, frightening machine that takes our individual work and accumulates it into something beyond our ken. We want to know, do, feel, connect, befriend, share, create, evaluate and reject. Why?

Hunting is simply more fun.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Text every 9 minutes

According to a new Nielsen poll (as found on cnet), Americans now send more text messages than make phone calls. And 13-17 year olds send 1,742 text messages a month. Assuming an eight-hour sleep cycle, that means they're sending a text message about every 17 minutes of their waking days.

And, of course, someone has to read all those messages. I assume it's mostly other teens. Which means that for every message sent, one is read. Which then means that they are either sending or reading a message about every 9 minutes.

Passing messages back-and-forth more than 6 times an hour. Even if the reply is just, "LOL," that's a lot of readin' and writin'.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dis connection, dat connection

"Connect" is a big word. At my place of work, it ends up in our tagline:

OCLC. The world's libraries. Connected.

From last Sunday around 4pm until Thursday around 3pm, we were disconnected by hurricane Ike. According to the weather folk, Ike pushed a really large, fast-moving warm air front up from the south. Said front met a cold air mass coming down from Canada (probably due to the good exchange rate, ha ha), and when they met... woosh. We had 75 mile an hour winds throughout much of Central Ohio, knocking out power for something like 1.4 million people in the state.

We were very lucky. We had some limbs down in the back yard, a bunch of twiggy, leafy crap in the front. We lost a fridge and a stand-alone freezer worth of food (which was covered by our homeowner's insurance -- something for y'all to remember), and had some very minor damage to our vinyl siding. No big whoop. And while having no power (or Web or phone or TV) for four days was a pain, it was also kinda fun, as it meant checkers by candlelight, more reading (I'm reading Neal Stephenson's new "Anathem" on my phone),  and early bedtimes. Again... I'm extremely thankful that all we lost was some electrons and frozen shrimp.

So... we were somewhat dis-connected. Or were we? I still had my cell phone, as did my wife. I had Internet access at work and on my phone. I did have to go to some lengths to retrieve some files off my desktop PC at home (thanks for the battery back-up, Chris!), but that was about the only real, "Crap! I can't do what I want without these connections!" that really needed to be "dealt with." The rest was just, well... suck it up and wait.

I might have felt differently if the weather hadn't been so pleasant, too. Nice, cool nights. Tack another 12 degrees onto the thermometer and Andy would have been a whiny camper.

So to celebrate our return to the connected world, I finally signed up for Twitter.  I have not yet really grokked Twitter. But, as a good corporate marketing wonk, I subscribed to an RSS feed of tweets that refer to my company, OCLC. And that has been very... interesting. Nothing hugely surprising in any given message (or as a whole), but the feeling it has given me is much the same as when I overhear a snippet of conversation in the lobby or at a restaurant. It's a kind of... slightly guilty pleasure. Of course, all these people choose to twitter about whatever it is... but they don't know, specifically, that I'm "overhearing" them.

Basically, it just seems kinda fun. Another level of Internetual awareness.

So... the Twitter widget is in my sidebar over there, and you're invited to follow along, if you like. For the time being, my vow is that all my tweets will be in haiku.

Why? Well, why the heck not.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Things that scare me: Palin on the "Bush Doctrine." Part 309 in a 42,006 part series

I don't often blog about politics here. For two reasons:

  1. I don't know much about politics.

  2. I'm more interested in other things most days.

The first reason doesn't stop me on every other subject, and doesn't stop everyone else on politics. I have opinions and preferences, sure. I even have beliefs and have done some campaign work in the past for candidates I wanted to support. But I'm not a political junkie, I don't follow much of the point-by-point analysis of what's going on in Washington, and (most years) I'm not sure I could name both my Senators.

All of this to say that it scares the crap out of me that Sarah Palin, in her interview with Charlie Gibson, didn't know what the "Bush Doctrine" is... AND I DO.

I'm a marketing manager living in Columbus, Ohio. I teach history of advertising one night a week. I play video games and read lots of fiction as well as non-fiction books and watch cartoons with my kid. I am, as far as I can tell, a fairly "ordinary" dude.  I have to look up the capitol of Afghanistan. I don't know what the currency unit for South Africa is.  I can't ever remember if Waterloo was before or after the War of 1812. I do OK on Jeopardy stuff, but not great.

If Palin hadn't known the difference between a "virtual world" and an "MMO," I wouldn't care. If she got "Star Wars" mixed up with "Star Trek," I wouldn't care. I wouldn't even really care if she stumbled on a question about net neutrality or digital copyright law, even though I think those are important issues. I don't expect every political candidate to know as much about certain things as I do. That wouldn't be fair, and I'm a fair (as well as ordinary) guy.

Is it unfair, however, to expect a vice presidential candidate to know about one of the most controversial and influential policies enacted by her own party's leader, the current president?

I actually yelled at my radio this morning when they played the excerpt from the interview. I'm so not that guy... especially about politics. But when I heard her response to Charlie's question...
Gibson: "Do you agree with the 'Bush Doctrine.'"
Palin: "In what respect, Charlie?"
Gibson: "What do you interpret it to be?"
Palin: "His world view?"

... I realized... she doesn't know. She just doesn't know what it is.

Cue Andy yelling at the radio.

Look back at my blog entries. There's more stuff here about my dog than about politics. So if *I* know more about this issue than Palin...

I am afraid. Very afraid. More than I was yesterday.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Push polled

So I just got push polled on the Ohio Payday Loan Referendum. Kinda hysterical, until it got to be more than 3 minutes long. Which is my personal time limit for confusing the hey-nonny-nonny out of push pollsters.

I'm a sucker for polls. I like being asked my opinion, an, if the person on the other end of the phone has a nice voice, I usually find the experience very soothing. It's like free therapy. Well, micro-therapy, anyway.

But push polling is, well... you know. Obnoxious. They don't really want my opinion. They want me to change my mind. This one went from bad to funny to sad pretty quickly.

Last year,  the governor and Ohio lawmakers approved HB 545, a bill that caps the Ohio payday loan industry's interest rate at 28%. The previous cap was 391%, which works out to $15 per $100 on a two-week loan. Obviously, the payday loan industry didn't like that so much, and so have a veto referendum coming up in November. It's one of those complicated things to get clear with voters: Vote "yes" on the veto in order to say "no" to saying "yes" to saying "no" to usury. Hunh? Yeah, that's right. A "yes" vote means that you are for being against being for being against super-high interest loans. As Kung-Fu Panda says, "Ske-doosh."

Early on in the call, after establishing that I vote, the pollster asked me, "Do you think that you are capable of making your own financial decisions?" I answered, "Yes." OK. Who wouldn't? Then she asked, "Do you think that other people are capable of making their own financial decisions?"

I asked if there was another answer besides "Yes" or "No." An answer like, "Some people. But not the ones in charge of the mortgage industry, the federal deficit or funding for Ohio public education." Or, "Some people, but not people who buy lottery tickets." She was not amused, and we went with "Yes."

Then it became clear... "Do you think that a person should be able to get a short-term loan of $100 for a service fee of $15?"

Ah-ha. I'd heard enough about this issue to know where we were standing at this point. I also knew, from the way those questions had been tossed out, that it was a push poll. So... at that point, my goal is to get out quickly, but possibly confuse their system a bit. I don't like push polling, and endeavor to waste their time a little, up to the point where it's not any fun for me.

I won't go into details, but my answers were all over the place. I said, for example, that "saving 6,000 Ohio jobs" wasn't a reason why I'd vote for the veto. But I said that keeping the government from "creating lists of who gets what kind of loans" was a reason I'd veto it.

Don't know why. Just went for the random thing.

I hate push polling. Did I mention that? Mostly because they don't care what I think, just what they do.

Would it change your vote about the upcoming election if you knew that John McCain was a cross-dressing alien from the planet Clam?

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Too good to pass up.

By way of Burnlab.

I feel as if I should write

It's been a long time. But I just don't have anything to say. Which is about the least interesting way to start a blog post I can think of.

I mean... I have things I *could* say, certainly...

1) I'm currently more than annoyed with people who read/write text messages during movies. Noise is bad, yes... so we turn off our phone ringers and don't take calls during the show. Right? Right. We've had that down since about 1998. Now people are doing the IM or email or texting thing during movies, and the bluish-white glow of their iPhones and Pocket PCs is just as friggin' annoying as hearing a phone ring. If you have to haul out your dang device during the film, hold it in your lap so that the rest of the theater can't see it. And if you get a message that you must respond to... leave. It's only about an hour-and-a-half. Give us a breat and get out of your own ego-space long enough to enjoy the film.  I mean, geez. I saw a teenage girl read and reply six times during one show last month. And every time, she held the phone up at eye level, so that everyone behind her could be distracted. I finally asked her to stop, as it was totally pissing me off. She didn't, and so I beat her to death with my shoe.

2) I think that Time Warner, our cable company, must be training their field repair folks in commiseration skills. We've had our DVR break twice in the last month, both times requiring a guy to come out. And both times, when we complained about various elements of the service, the techs joined right in. "Yeah... the new software isn't as good as the old stuff. We hear that all the time. I use the service, and it makes me crazy, too." And... "No, these boxes aren't great. They're going to upgrade to new hardware sometime next year, and I can't wait. We get so many problems with these." Etc. One of the first things they teach you in customer care training is the power of the words, "I understand." Upset customers, before anything else, want you to admit that they are not crazy, and that there might be a reason why you feel the way you do. They do *not* want to be questioned, harangued or taught a lesson. So, "I understand [fill in the blank]" is a great way to move things forward. These guys have taken this technique to a new level, though. They've gone beyond understanding, to joining in. It's as if they've aligned themselves with us -- all us folks being put out -- against the Big Bad Company. The one that they work for. They aren't representatives of Time Warner any more, but some kind of moles. They are our spies in the Big House. I got to say... it works. They were nice guys, did what they could, and I felt like they were on "our side." Weird.

3) Waiting for Spore. Been waiting for four years. They say it's gone gold, and will truly be in stores by 9/8/08. We'll see...

4) Not thrilled with the animated "Clone Wars" movie. It was OK for an animated sci-fi movie... but I expect more from Star Wars. Not sure why. Episode One made me doubt the existence of a benevolent God.

5) Have an idea for a YA fantasy series. Don't want to talk about it here. Oops. Just did. My bad. If you want to help me get it out of my head and on paper, let me know. I find that I need at least one person to talk about this stuff with or I just let it stew for... well... forever (see: three previous attempts at novel writing, all stuck between 70 and 130 pages).

6) Overheard three "nice old ladies" talking politics at Bob Evans last night while eating with the boy. At one point, one of them said that they wouldn't vote for Obama because he was going to "take away everyone's guns." A friend of hers had told her that part of Obama's presidential platform involved the revocation of fifth ammendment (I assume she meant second). The current president already having played loose and free with the fifth, I can see why she might be worried about the second. I can't find anything on line, even on the crazy-right sites, indicating that Obama has any dread plans for our right to bear arms. On conversations such as this, in states like Ohio, hangs the fate of nations.

7) Got a new chair for the home office. Nice.

That's it. Like I said...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

There's no gold in them thar hills

I recently blogged about the value of virtual stuff in virtual worlds and games, and (tangentially) on gold farming (also called RMT, the Real Money Trade). Again, for the uninitiated, gold farming involves playing a game to earn in-game wealth or stuff, and then selling it to other players for real world money.

After having written that post, I read an MMOG Nation post on "Gold and the Perfect Game." An interesting, quick review of the theory that gold farming is the result of bad game design. In short, if a game requires you to do non-fun stuff -- so non-fun that you'd rather pay someone else to do it for you -- then the game is inherently flawed.

I tend to agree, but maybe not for the same reasons, and maybe not with the same conclusions.

I've been reading fantasy lit since about the 3rd grade, when I first read the Narnia series. After that, it was all the classics, including Tokein, Ursula K. LeGuinn, Terry Goodkind, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony, etc. etc. Dozens of series and, if you get into individual works, hundreds of books with some kind of fantasy theme.  And, at the moment, I am hard pressed to think of one where growing the wealth of the main character played a major role.

There are also danged few examples of stories where the quality of weapons/armor played a major role. Yes, Arthur needs Excalibur and the hobbits enjoy the use of their mithril armor... but those aren't things that are bought in a store or traded for at a market. They are important narrative elements that come about after key plot points.

Now, in an MMO, not everyone can be Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, etc. Levels (earned in experience points) and gear (earned sometimes, bought sometimes) are the ways you know you've moved your character forward and are slightly more Aragornish than your buddy, Stan. Gold farming subverts that system, obviously, by letting you use real world money as a stand-in for in game activities.

But, again... when was the last time you saw ANY adventure story where the good guys needed to hang out and farm, mine, etc. until they had enough dough to upgrade their junk? Money itself is rarely mentioned, and when it is, it's usually bad guys trying to make tons of it at the expense of good people, who are more interested in honor, culture, getting it on with the heroine, etc.

So what would an MMO without any gold look like? For that matter, what would an MMO with no specialized gear look like?

It would look more like a good story, I think.  Which is, of course, harder.

Take away gold and gear and you're left with experience points and levels, and I'm fine with that. How would something like that play?

  • Levels account for 100% of the damage you do with un-spelled weapons

  • Spells that improve weapons would have to be on-the-spot spells, either self-cast, or by a party member. For example, your mage casts "burning" on your regular sword and then, ta-da, it's a burning sword. More spells or more instances are only available at higher levels, or at the cost of not being able to cast other stuff.

  • Same for armor. Assume that everyone can afford good, basic armor. Make it a choice between better protection that slows you down, or lighter protection that's more flexible. Spells to affect durability and effects as per above.

  • If you really want some "stuff" that signifies "I'm more bad ass," then link it to a quest required to get a certain level. That is, to become a level 10 healer, you have to do XYZ, and are then given the staff of XYZ... that does nothing, except be a staff that shows you're level 10. Can you give it away? Sure... but why would you?

  • Make healing basically free (so you don't need to buy potions), but have the places where you can do it somewhat off-the-path from where the quests are. I don't mean a half-hour trek back to down for some water of life... but don't put them within combat-duration distance of the combat. You want to heal in the thick of it? Bring a healer.

Now, you're thinking, "But folks could still pay somebody to level their character up." Sure, that's always going to be a possibility. But what if part of what happened at the lower levels was real, actual training that carried over into higher levels? Essentially, some arcade elements that ramp up, such that if you jumped in at Level 20, you'd have no experience doing [the thing] that's necessary to unlock higher order effects.

I don't know. Some people like the grind, farming, mining, crafting, etc. And a game that made those things more a centerpiece of the action might also discourage RMT. But, for me, a game where I didn't have to worry about gold and gear would be a bunch more fun.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Wonderful XKCD comic today:

On the other hand, "shouldn't have eaten that" gets 14,000 hits while "should have eaten that" gets only 2,200.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gamerspace is somewhere between the size of Granada and Croatia

By way of Terra Nova, I found the Development Informatics (DI) working paper, "Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on 'Gold Farming': Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games." Quick definition for y'all non-grognards: gold farming is the selling of virtual/game world goods and services for real money. The easiest example is that I play a game, and with my character, earn a whole bunch of in-game "gold," and then sell it to your character for real money. Other types of gold farming include leveling (improving another person's character for a fee) or actual in-game item sales (selling a very rare or powerful in-game object for real world money).

My first "holy crap" exposure to gold farming was in the excellent January, 2003 Wired story, "The Unreal Estate Boom." In it, Julian Dibbel quoted a study that estimated the size of Everquest's GNP (the biggest game at that time) at around $135 million which, per persona, made it the 79th richest nation on earth. Dibbel estimated that the "value" of all virtual stuff in all worlds in 2003 was around $300 million. Now... that's the total calculation of what *everything* inside these spaces would have been worth if it could have been sold for real dough; the study compared what the going rate for in-game gold was, and multiplied that by the total gold value of all items and character accounts.

So... check out the list of countries by GDP from Wikipedia. You'll find quite a number of small countries whose GDP is lower than $500 million. That means that people all over the world have now attributed the worth -- in actual, real dollars -- of a year's worth of virtual/gaming stuff as more valuable than everything Granada produces in one year.

I'm sure someone smarter (and with more time) could figure out what the "unrealized" GDP of these virtual spaces is; meaning, what all the virtual stuff would now be worth if it could be sold. If (and I'm totally making this up) that $500 million, for example, purchased 500 billion pieces of "gold" (a 1,000-to-1 ratio), and there were actually 50 trillion pieces of game gold being used... that would be a 100-to-1 real-to-virtual ratio, giving us a worldwide, virtual GNP of $50 billion. Which is more like the size of Croatia.

[Edit, 08/04/08. I just realized that the above bogus approximation is probably too complicated even for being so crappy. It might be easier to ask ourselves, "What percentage of virtual goods are realized in actual world money." I still don't know, but a 100-to-1 ratio doesn't seem too absurd; that is, for every one piece of gold purchased from a farmer, 100 are generated "naturally" and not sold/bought.]

As I said... that calculation is pretty bogus. But when you figure that a fairly small percent of all the virtual stuff that's generated ends up being gold farmed... a 100-to-1 relationship doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

$50 billion worth of magic swords, character attributes and elvish gold. You may want to have your kid start playing *more* games.