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misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Needing absorbing reading … and thoughts on it

I am thisclose to agreeing to teach again for the MIT student-run summer program for high school and middle school students, HSSP. If you’d like to do the same, or to do it with me, great!

And if you’d like to advise me on the course I am thinking of putting together, also great. I set up a Google Groups page for discussion on my curriculum. I’d love input!

The basic idea will be explorations into the process of reading and the experience of stories. I came to this idea through a recent penchant for philosophizing on reading. Speculative fiction often provides excellent metaphors for the reading experience–Narnia being an obvious example, and David Brin’s Kiln People one of my favorites. I’d like to take that as one day’s theme, and also expand/expound (or, better yet, lead discussions) on different literary forms, how we experience them and how we’re meant to experience them.

Help much appreciated! Respond here, by email, or through my Google Groups page (which I might like best because then my other friends who are willing to help can weigh in).

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To read, to live; to live, perhaps to dream

I stared at the computer for some time before beginning to write this.  Decompression time.  Sometimes coming out of a book really is like rising out of deep water, isn’t it—bends and all.

Today the book is Orson Scott Card‘s The Worthing Saga. Other days it may be Anne Perry‘s Tathea, or David Brin‘s Kiln People, or Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry.

And there’s no need even to get me started on Martha Cooley‘s The Archivist–I am quite sure I have already written more about it than anyone else wants to know.

Part of the agreement I made in beginning to post to this weblog was to write about what I’m reading. I suppose I’ll start by writing about how I read.

I read many works in parallel, because my tastes change with mercurial alacrity (okay, so I just wanted to use the word “alacrity”), and more importantly because I frequently want time to digest a chapter or scene in a story. (This makes me the perfect kind of reader to adore the Amazon Kindle, and indeed I do. Mine is named “The Guide, Mark II.”) My philosophy of reading holds that I owe nothing to a book merely because I begin to read it. I will quite happily discard a book after 3 pages, 100, or 300, rarely looking back. However, if I do intend to finish a book, I shoulder the (occasionally awesome) responsibility of learning the characters on their own terms, of allowing them their full measure of existence.

I loaned The Archivist to a friend who reads entirely differently from me (who once as an escape read half of War and Peace in two days, and feels compelled to finish every book he starts). The next morning he handed it back with a simple, “It was good. Let’s talk later.” His major critique of the book was that Ms. Cooley should have let the ideas percolate another 20 years or so before writing the book: it seemed a “green” undertaking to him. Although he may have a point, I still feel I too had a point when I responded, “Who are you to say that? You didn’t even give her two days.”

I have a friend who for several intense months at age 11 or so went around murmuring scenes from Lord of the Rings under her breath, imagining herself tromping along as a tenth member of the Fellowship. Another who has spoken of planning lighting schemes and camera angles as if to stage and film favorite scenes from stories. My imagination works differently. I rarely see the characters of whom I read, though I sometimes see through their eyes. I hear them speak, but it always sounds like my own voice. I feel my body move their gestures. I suppose I try personally to experience the story.

Which is more or less how, in the world of The Worthing Saga, telepathy works. If they “look into the minds” of others, the telepaths experience those others’ memories as their own. This can cause all sorts of philosophical/psychological quandaries if the “viewee” is a very different sort of person from the telepath, who has done very different things, had (to the telepath) inconceivable reactions to the stimuli of life. Twice so far in Worthing there have been conversations where one character says to another, “Your life is more real to me than mine. How did you take my life from me?” But it’s not that anyone’s life is erased—just that the overwhelming force of someone else’s strongest memories may seem more evocative than one’s own “normal” life.

The more I read, especially in good speculative fiction, the more metaphors I find for the reading experience. I think this one, from Card, will last me for a while. And of course Card is the author who wrote, in a 1991 introduction to Ender’s Game, “The ‘true’ story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. … The story is the one that you and I will construct together in your memory.” I hope all my favorite authors have such faith in me. I hope I may live up to that faith.

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Settlers to overtake Monopoly? Not yet…

Wired has a story on Settlers of Catan, “Monopoly Killer“. It’s a nice mix of discussion of the game’s mechanics, the story of its creation and its inventor, and the status of German games in general, among other things. But what really piqued my interest was this graph:

The article says that Catan has started to really sell better over the last few years in the US, and speculates on it (and German-type games generally) overtaking more traditional games like Monopoly. I remember when I was HRSFA’s External, talking with Rob Daviau at Hasbro–he said something I found very interesting at the time, though it seems obvious in retrospect. He said that because of its brand recognition, Monopoly was Hasbro’s big board game, and that most of its money came from various licensed versions of it; that the more special-interest board games were a much, much smaller sliver of the pie.

Maybe this will start to change that, and push smarter board games more into the popular culture in the US. I’d certainly be excited to see more of that. But from the graph (which you’ll note is cumulative sales), the growth is relatively stable. Although it does appear to have increased recently, the per-year increase doesn’t look tremendously large–about 100,000 sold up to 2004, then 100,000 in 2004 and 2005; 150,000 sold in 2006 and 2007. 600,000 copies sounds pretty good for a single board game–but remember that with approximately 100 million households in the US, that’s still under 1% penetration. Hasbro is reticent to let out detailed data on Monopoly sales or estimated number of copies in the US (as was Mayfair, the source of the data in the article), but a New York Times article reported that they sell “several million copies” in the US each year, and they claim to have sold over 250 million copies total worldwide. So while Catan has an undeniably growing public awareness and acceptance, it would have to multiply its sales fiftyfold before it reaches Monopoly.

Finally, a couple of other interesting links:

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Fantastic Contraption

Fantastic Contraption

This is a most amazingly addictive game. You build machines. Machines! Simple machines that do things. Amazing things. All in service of getting an object to a target area. Once you’ve struggled your own way through the various levels (fun and frustrating at times), you can see some of the incredible things that others have created with simple tools. Eventually, you will realize that it is 4 in the morning and you should have gone to bed a long, long time ago.

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Blogroll: Mind Hacks

Today I’d like to direct your attention to a blog that I’m adding to our blogroll: Mind Hacks is one of my favorite blogs. It provides short, accessible, and insightful commentary on new developments in psychology and neuroscience. Much like the HRSFANS blog, it often provides links to longer articles, in both popular science and original scientific research. For the truly dedicated, following all of these links could provide you with a lifetime of reading material. But I what I particularly appreciate are the pithy summaries that accompany each link, so that, even if you don’t read the original article, the Mind Hacks post itself will leave you with a better appreciation of some interesting topic.

A couple recent posts are great examples of the range of topics that the blog covers:
“Symbol of remembrance triggers mass false memory” covers two experiments that demonstrate how surprisingly poor our memories are, and how susceptible we are to the power of suggestion in creating false memories. These findings are both at the core of the neurobiological study of memory, and immediately interesting for their implications about our everyday lives.

For the historically inclined, “Rendered frantic, crazy by unbroken concentration” discusses an 18th-century book which claims that excessive reading is dangerous, as it requires too much concentration. The blog post contrasts that claim with current fears that computers are causing us to lose our ability to concentrate, pointing out that there is no more evidence for the latter claim than there was for the former.

If you find these topics interesting, or if you want to learn about more funny tricks that our minds play on us, I highly recommend that you check out Mind Hacks!

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My civic obligation–the Great Game of Mafia

Hello, I just got back from 11 days of being at the beck and call of the Suffolk Superior Court. Specifically, 1 day of jury impanelment, 4+ days of evidence, and 4 full days of deliberations. And a couple times we got to leave early.

Yes: jury duty! This was my first summons, and I was very excited. Even throughout the real trial (hearing the evidence) I kept jumping in my seat thinking, “This is really happening!” Deliberations, however, were both much more and much less than I had expected. More time, certainly, but less histrionics; more conversation, and less changing of minds; more philosophy, but less idealism. In essence, these deliberations comprised the greatest game of Mafia I have played since 1998.

It was a civil case, breach of contract. That’s all I’ve been telling people for the past more than two weeks, and somehow I don’t feel like giving more specifics even now that I am allowed to. Let’s just say that we made sure everybody got shafted. To some extent, that includes every member of this jury.

And yet I’m so happy about having had this experience.  And I even can’t wait until the next time I’m eligible to be called (probably after I move away from Boston, as it happens).  I want to do it all again–new facts, new evidence, new people, new chance!  New chance for each of us to keep some more of our ideals.

Today nerves and patience started fraying.  I came in hoping that we could step away from the content of our issues and focus more on the procedures.  That’s something I learned about myself (partially in contrast to some of my juror-colleagues) yesterday: I am process-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented.  My opinion fluxuated over the course of the deliberations.  I voted “yes,” “no,” and several rounds of “maybe.”  And that was how I felt it should be, because the important part to me was the collective ‘wisdom’ of the group, the trends.  I’m not saying I voted majority for the sake of majority, but rather that I trusted that, if we kept our heads as clear and calm as possible and honored the flow of information and interpretation, that we would come up with an answer that was greater (and possibly different) from the simple sum of our individual opinions.  On the final day of deliberations some of the others laid it straight on the table that they knew what they knew and that they were not going to change.  I was disappointed with that concept, though I didn’t put it in those terms to them.  Given what everyone else knew/believed/interpreted, how could I be cetain that what I “knew” was what was?

The verdict we eventually delivered was explicitly (and only half justifiably) a compromise.  We needed 11 of 13 jurors to agree before we could go back to the courtroom, and we got that exactly (i.e. the group minus the people who held firm).  We told each other that this was what the parties to the lawsuit would have expected–and gotten–anyway.  Maybe not that dollar figure, but something less than what the plaintiff asked for, and more than what the defendant wanted to settle for.

So it goes.  And now that I’ve had a night to sleep it over (after an evening of zombie-shuffling about post-courthouse) I can say again it was really cool.  So don’t assume you want to “get out of” jury duty next time you get summonsed!

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The Future of Companies

A lot of science fiction deals with how our future economic world will be structured–from libertarian autonomous corporations (Jennifer Government or Snow Crash) to a single global government entity (Star Trek). Given our current economic climate, I thought I’d share a couple of recent thoughts in those directions.

First is an idea that I find quite appealing: the open company. Now, many of you will protest that open source companies are old news; heck, Red Hat has been public for almost ten years now. But this is something new: the idea of running a company not about open source products, but running the company as if it were an open source project. Essentially, this means that anyone can contribute whatever they feel motivated to, and be paid using a peer-rating system. It sounds pretty idealistic: the idea that in the future, we can literally just create whatever value is of interest to us and get paid appropriately. And it may only work when most of the output is intangible. But I think it’s a fascinating notion, and Alexander Stigson, creator of the E Text Editor, says he’s actively moving his company to become an open company. I’m really excited to see how that turns out.

Second, a link to a recent post by Tim O’Reilly, on books that have shaped the way he thinks. I think it’s interesting not just because he cites Dune as one of his influences, but also because he cites Rissa Kerguelen, by F.M. Busby, as

[a] science-fiction book I read at about the time I was starting my company, and that influenced me deeply. One key idea is the role of entrepreneurship as a “subversive force.” In a world dominated by large companies, it is the smaller companies that keep freedom alive, with economics at least one of the battlegrounds. This book gave me the courage to submerge myself in the details of a fundamentally trivial business (technical writing) and to let go of my earlier hopes of writing deep books that would change the world.

I think it’s important to remember that new ideas can be subversive; that both startups and science fiction are often about pursuing new ideas; and that new ideas have the potential to change the world.

Finally, on that note, I thought I’d add a quick link to the NationStates site, a free sort-of-game from the author of Jennifer Government. Enjoy!

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Swing dancing in the Jungle Book

It’s nothing new, but this clip from the Jungle Book might brighten your day a bit:

If you’re interested in film or music history, you’ll also enjoy this brief clip describing the recording of this song.

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Don’t Keep Calm and Carry On

Apparently (so says The Guardian), there’s a popular new poster in the UK, which reads, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. This poster was originally made during World War II, in case of a German invasion. Recently rediscovered, people are supposedly thronging to it (on the order of thousands), in an age where people want some security and comfort.

As you might imagine, I’m not a huge fan of this idea. Instead, what really appeals to me is this response poster from Matt Jones: “Get Excited and Make Things”! I think that we all have some (reasonable) tendency to simply enjoy things in fandom, but I think that we do better when we take it further and expand upon what others have done, when the things we love inspire us to new things. Don’t just be a passive observer and rely on someone else to take care of everything: take an active, positive role in creating something new! Get Excited and Make Things!

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Calvin and Hobbes

I feel like I shouldn’t need to preface this, because everyone should know Calvin and Hobbes already. But for those who don’t, it’s one of the best comic strips of all time, drawn by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995 (and rerunning on the web at gocomics.com). If you’ve somehow never seen it before, you’re missing out. I don’t really have words for how much I love Calvin and Hobbes.

Anyway, I was recently debating with a friend how Calvin and Hobbes ended, and came across this interesting collection of post-series takes on Calvin and Hobbes. The last one is the fake Calvin and Hobbes ending that broke my friend’s heart (and temporarily mine, before I came home to confirm that it was false). If you need a boost after seeing it, you can find the real final strip here.

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