Sunday, September 13, 2015

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Roger Ebert once suggested that "little boxes" on the movie poster with pictures of the cast members was usually a sign of a bad movie, but this must be the exception that proves the rule. It's a simple, clever, and charming story about a stressed out teen who checks himself into a psych ward and gets a dose of the realities of mental illness. It has some great performances in it, with Zach Galafianakis mostly stealing the show. Lots of other familiar actors and comedians are in it as well -- Jim Gaffigan, Aasif Mandvi, and Jeremy Davies (Dr. Faraday from Lost), for example. In short, it is fun, touching, a pleasing 13+ family film that has me curious to read the book.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Croquet Player

I picked up this weird little book by H.G. Wells at Amazing Books in downtown Pittsburgh. It is a peculiar story -- a thing that starts out as a ghost story, but morphs into a philosophical diatribe on the nature of civilization. If that were all that were there, I could hardly recommend it. But what makes this worth reading, I think, is the way Wells handles his characters. There are only three, really, but they are each so interesting, and each written with such a vivid quality that they seem quite real, as strange as each one of them (a croquet player, a doctor, a psychiatrist) is. He wrote it quite late in his life, and the maturity of his writing is in full evidence. I haven't read Wells extensively, but I certainly don't remember his writing being this clear and interesting in the books I did read -- I was younger though, I think I'll go back and try some of them again.

Monday, September 7, 2015


I picked this up from the gift shop of the London Cartoon Museum a couple years ago. It's a remarkable effort initiated by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. It's a collection of comics from 54 UK comic artists. Each comic (there are 43 of them, some artists teamed up) is set in a different year, running from 1968 to 2011. Most interestingly, all the comics are about one person, so we get to watch a life unfold through manifold lenses. I can't say it is a masterpiece -- it swerves and wobbles quite a bit, as you might imagine it would, with so many cooks in the kitchen. But it does, somehow, manage to hold together, partly because the comic artists are mostly excellent. I'll go so far as to say it is a landmark in the history of collaborative storytelling, because I've never seen anything executed quite like this. And did I mention? It's very very British. I mean, crikey, it's called Nelson. If you are considering any kind of serious collaborative storytelling effort, this is a must read. Kudos to everyone involved!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

7 Wonders

I'm not always a fan of points-building euro games... But I really like this one! Lots of fun choices, very little head-to-head competition, and relatively simple mechanics. Things I especially liked:
  • Everyone plays at the same time, so there is little waiting on other players
  • A fixed number of turns (18), so there are no game-suddenly-ended surprises, nor a worry that the game will go all night
  • A three-act structure that allows for richer and more interesting things to happen late in the game
  • Cumulative economy, so you can never find yourself bankrupt
  • A simple system for trading with your neighbors, so who you sit next to really matters
  • A very simple military system that never really feels cruel
In short, it is rich, and while it has some level of inherent complexity (military actions, scientific development, industry, building wonders) it all happens by playing simple cards, and so the complexity is wide, not deep, allowing for a lot of emergent gameplay because there are a lot of verbs, but the verbs are each simple and of the same form. I look forward to trying it again. No wonder this has so many awards -- it is very interesting and steamlined.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Queen of the Sciences: A History of Mathematics

I like mathematics. I always have. The history of mathematics has always been especially interesting to me, because you get to witness so many moments of discovery happening, and they are always so human... they give me the feeling that I could easily discover important things as well. I first got a taste of the history of mathematics when I was growing up -- my Grandpa Emil, a professional (Hungarian) mathematician would often tell me stories of mathematical discoveries. I remember him telling me with particular excitement, the story of how Hardy discovered Ramanujan, and how they worked together. Emil's phone line number was 7129, which was just a transposition away from 1729, the number of Hardy's cab in the famous story. In college at Rensselaer, I would often dreamily stare at the four semester "History of Mathematics" courses listed in the catalog, but they never seemed to fit my schedule. Instead, I read E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, which eventually inspired me to record this song with help from Katelyn Mueller.
So! I was quite excited to finally live out my academi-histori-mathematical fantasy by watching this 24 part lecture series given ably by David Bressoud. It's a bit dry at times, and could use more diagrams, but still, it's pretty great! He uses Fermat's Last Theorem as a sort of thread running through the entire history of mathematics, and tells many wonderful stories. Early stories about the importance of astronomy and astrology to mathematics, and later ones about how radio waves were discovered. I really found it thoroughly enjoyable, and I was sad when it was over. I learned a lot, and gained new appreciation for elliptical functions and the complex plane. I also really enjoyed his definitions, most especially mathematics as "the abstraction of pattern." Studying math makes me feel connected to my heritage, and makes me feel like Emil is right nearby, in the light blue armchair by the fireplace, puffing away at his Revelation pipe tobacco (same one Einstein smoked!) while I pore over his books about Escher and topology.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Helpless Doorknob

Everyone loves Edward Gorey... how could I resist a deck of interactive story cards he created? They are silly, and kind of fun, but certainly not groundbreaking. For whatever reason, each one begins with the letter "A", and shows an event ("Agatha finished knitting a scarf for Augustus", "Angus inherited the grandfather clock from Aunt Ada", etc.). You lay these out to create an ostensible story. Figuring out cause and effect is up to the reader. Usually it doesn't work out too well, but once in a while something amusing occurs. It all just reinforces the idea that story is tricky. There is a reference to Novaya Zemyla, though, which won me over. And, naturally, none of the story events has anything to do with a doorknob.

They look nice on a coffee table, anyway.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

At the Edge of Uncertainty

This is the first book I've read by Michael Brooks, which is surprising since I like popular books about the edge of scientific research so much. I've seen many of his books before, but this one really called out to me. And I wasn't disappointed. His style is unlike any I've encountered in science writing -- a relentless downhill run. From image to fact to challenge to image to story to image to fact to surprise with no break between topics, no time to take a breath. It makes the book feel kind of silly and sensationalist, but it's fun, especially given the variety of topics in the book. His eleven topics include consciousness, hypercomputing, mutable DNA, quantum biology, Turing-style hypercomputing, and the question of time. It was fun to rush through, and the time questions really got me thinking again about the nature of time. I know it sounds crazy, but I somehow feel like it is my destiny to achieve a grand insight about the nature of time. It is certainly my most obsessive thought. This book has me thinking and reading more about block time, relativistic time, the relationship between quantum mechanics and time, the relationship between time and free will, time as a human experience, etc. More and more I'm coming to the conclusion that time definitely exists, but it's possible that "now" simply doesn't. But that's a long conversation for another time. Anyway, this book is a fun downhill run that covers so much territory that it is likely to spark something for you. It certainly did for me.