Book Review: Reality is Broken

Unlike people who apparently pay attention to what’s going on in the gaming industry, I only recently became aware of Jane McGonigal, a Ph.D. in Performance Studies best known for designing alternate reality games and thinking really big thoughts. After reading her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World, McGonigal strikes me as part cheerleader, part social scientist, part entrepreneur, and part that crazy lady in the downtown L.A. parking lot that would always throw pigeons at me. It’s an interesting combination.

I wanted to review Reality is Broken here because McGonigal does what I do: she examines the intersection of psychology and video games. Only where I tend to look at the larger world and apply theories about human behavior to explain game design and player behaviors, she does the inverse by starting at maxims of game design and player desires to understand how we do things in the real world.

Or rather, how we should do things in the real world. The central thesis of the book is that reality –that is, everything that’s NOT a game– is inferior to games and we can learn a lot about how to make reality better by looking at what makes games so wonderful. This idea is codified in fourteen different “fixes” for real life, such as getting in a epic mindset (Fix #6), opening yourself up to having fun with strangers (Fix #9), and doing work that’s intrinsically satisfying (Fix #3). The book is at its best when it draws these straight lines from the things that make video games great to ways to improve our work, philanthropy, and relationships outside of games. Specific, actionable goals subject to clear feedback, for example, are things that every game designer aims for and every player seeks out, and to the extent that we can adopt those same standards in real life and frame our everyday activities in game-like terms, we can be happier and more productive. The game-cum-todo-list Chore Wars is a perfect example, and I find that kind of stuff fascinating.

That’s a pretty cool topic, and I have to admit that McGonigal has a knack for drawing these parallels in ways that are really clear and make you think “Yeah, I can see that!” This made the early chapters of the book (grouped under the heading “Why Games Make Us Happy”) my favorites, since they focused on building her argument and really nailing in a clear way many of the things about video games that can make us happy and mentally healthy. The second group of chapters (“Reinventing Reality”) start to deal with applying these rules to alternate reality games. My favorite one of these was “Cruel to Be Kind,” which was a re-purposing of the old “Assassins” game that many of us played on college campuses. The difference is that instead of sneaking up to people and squirting them with water pistols, C2BK players would perform random acts of kindness –such as a warm greeting, a helping hand, or a kind compliment– in order to take each other out of the game. Only you never knew who your fellow players were, so many perplexed but pleased bystanders are often caught in crossfires of friendly words and offers of aid. It’s the kind of thing that perfectly captures the kind of “let’s make the WHOLE WORLD totally awesome HELL YEAH!” attitude that McGongal is so well known for.

Things start to fall apart in the third section of the book, however, which includes description after description of McGonigal’s various other alternate reality and crowdsourcing projects. It’s here that I kind of started to lose the thread, because describing things like Wikipedia other collective intelligence projects as “games” starts to strain credibility and the premises put forth earlier in the book. How exactly did we get from “Players seek out experiences that create psychological flow” to “Let’s get gamers to blog about solutions to the energy crisis?” Is that really a game the same way that Halo or The Sims are? It sure doesn’t feel like it, and that’s kind of where I think Reality is Broken is itself a little broken.

Still, it’s a very interesting book, and it gave me some great ideas. I should also mention that McGonigal’s tone takes some getting used to and more than a couple of pinches of salt. She obviously believes these big thoughts and thinks that games can serve as models for making the world better, to the point where she (somewhat infamously) thinks there should one day be a Nobel prize for game design. But like I said her claims sometimes strains credibility and you often wonder what the point B between points A and C looks like, because you apparently missed it. But at the very least, the chapters on what makes games work are worth reading, and the rest of the book will at worst make you feel pretty good about being a gamer. Still, her joy and optimism are infectious, and having champions like McGonigal for our hobby is hardly a bad thing.

By the way, if you want to get a taste for McGonigal’s grandiosity and ideas, you can do so by watching her TED Talk here.

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars is Stephen King’s latest collection of stories, but unlike previous anthologies this one consists of novellas instead of short stories. “1922” is about the fate of a Nebraska farmer who kills his wife and tangles his star-crossed, teenage son up in the consequences. “Big Driver” is a lot like if Stephen King wrote a Lifetime Movie of the Week script: female author on a road trip is waylaid, sexually assaulted, left for dead, then has to wrestle with how to deal with her shame and rage. “Fair Extension” offers a disturbing answer to the age old question of why bad things happen to good people, while “A Good Marriage” examines what might happend when a wife discovers that her husband of 27 years is secretly a serial killer.

Relative to King’s last collection, Just After Sunset, I liked Full Dark a lot more. My favorite of the novellas is “Big Driver,” which I hated at first because it felt like King was basing his character’s inner dialog on pamphlets swiped from the local battered women’s shelter. It just felt stilted and cliche. But not long into the story, things take an interesting turn and it starts to read more like what you’d get if the lead character from one of those “bloodless murder mysteries” that so captivate little old ladies were to find herself trying to solve a brutal crime where she was not only the victim, but the artiber of justice. I also liked “1922” for its skillful use of an unreliable narrator and the way King toys with us by leaving clues about how reality might have diverged from this character’s confession.

As I went through each of the 4 novellas, I kept thinking that the theme tying them all together was that of people being forced (or at least strongly nudged) into bad situations by the events around them. Most of these stories exhibit excellent plotting on King’s part –you can see the characters ponder their next act or their next decision, and you can see the forces at play. Tess wants to go to the police about her attacker, but she fears the shame and damage to her career. Darcy wants to turn her serial murdering husband in, but she doesn’t want to leave an indelible stain on the lives of their children. Wilfred wants to acquiese to his son’s demands to sell their land, but he doesn’t want it going to buyers who will turn it into a polluting slaughterhouse.

All this is done in a way that doesn’t make the author’s hand apparent in dictating the plot; the characters’ actions seem believable and understandable, if not conscionable, because their reasons ARE part of their characters. And indeed, I was happy to hear King mention in the author’s Afterword that this is exactly the effect he set out to create, even if he also identified the collection’s theme as “retribution” (which, in hindsight, makes total sense).

So, while this is not traditional King (there’s nary a supernatural element to any of these stories that can’t be explained away) it’s still pretty good writing in the thriller vein. King fans should check it out.

Sam the Science Kid Experiment 9: Circulating Heat

I had a few experiments in my back pocket for this week, but when I asked Sam what kind of thing she wanted to try, she raised her fist in the air and said “Something with FIRE!”

Okay. I can do that.

Here’s the setup:

  • oil
  • A glass bowl
  • a short candle
  • Something to prop the bowl up between (I used two rectangular dishes per the picture below)
  • food coloring

I poured a few inches of oil into the bowl, propped it up between the dishes, and put the lit candle underneath it. I then explained to Sam that when the oil at the bottom, nearest the flame, heated up, it would rise up to the top. Then, as it cooled, it would move back down. To help us see this, I used the dropper to put a few blobs of red food coloring in the oil.

At first I was kind of worried, because nothing seemed to be happening at all. I added a second candle, though, and before long the little red blobs began to “blorp” up to the surface in sputters, then scatter and slowly descend just as promised.

I explained to Sam that this kind of hot/cold circulation happens all over in nature, including in the air (which affects weather) and the ocean. Here’s her journal entry:

Experument 9: circulating het …It blrpt up all the letl dots. Its lic ther’s a invesable lin that the bobles go up. It blorpt. Hot oyl flots to the top.

As a bonus, Sam drew a little picture of the setup, which was nice.

Sam the Science Kid Experiment 8: Fail, Fail, Refraction

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my seven year old daughter.

Okay! Science experiment! Let’s see, Sam was asking about sunsets the other day, so let’s do this one about diffusion of light. Supplies:

  1. Jar of water
  2. A flashlight
  3. Milk

The idea is that the flashlight shines straight through regular water, but mix in a little milk, and the solution starts to diffuse the light, turning it from cloudly white to brownish red.

Only …it totally didn’t work. What we got was light shining through white, milky water. This is hardly exciting nor educational. I declare the experiment a failure, and Sam scribbles through the notes she had in her journal and writes “FAIL!!!” at the top. I chide her for her overuse of exclamation points. Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind, a great man once said. I think it was Jesus.

Anyway, while Sam drew frowny faces in the margins of her journal, I set up a backup experiment: Making a Rainbow! Supplies:

  1. Shallow pan of water
  2. A small mirror
  3. That flashlight again
  4. A thick piece of white paper

I angled the mirror in the dish of water and shined the flashlight at the submerged part while holding the white paper above the dish. Instantly, a brilliant, sharply defined rainbow sprang to life on the crisp white paper …is what the book said would happen. Instead, nothing happened, and in copious amounts.

Sam sighed loudly and started scribbling “FAIL AGAIN!” in her journal while I muttered halfheartedly about null results and the file drawer problem. I then flipped through the book some more until I found something that was both simple and had to be foolproof: the refraction of light.

Take glass. Fill halfway with water. Put friggin button in the friggin glass. Look, two friggin buttons. It’s friggin refraction!


Sam’s final journal entry, in full:

Experumint 8 FOR THE LAST TIME: Seeing dobl. It looks like thar are two butins. This is becas light bens wen it goes throo wotr. This is cald refraction.

I’m going to have to put a bit more thought into next week’s activity.

Sam the Science Kid Experiment 7: Density

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my seven year old daughter.

This week I continued rooting through the pantry for supplies, and decided to team Sam about density and why some things float. This was really simple as far as experiments go, but it turned out to be Sam’s favorite yet, plus I was able to get her sister Mandy involved as well. Here’s the supplies:

  1. A tall glass
  2. Water (I added red food coloring to mine)
  3. Dishwashing soap
  4. Cooking oil
  5. An assortment of small objects that you don’t mind getting oily, oily and wet, or oily, wet, and soapy.

Any three (or more) liquids of different densities that don’t dissolve in each other would work, but these three worked for me. And yes, it’s too bad I couldn’t get them to go green, yellow, red like a traffic light, but I am unable to control the density of these liquids. FOR NOW.

Sam was extremely curious as to why the liquids separated out and didn’t mix, especially after I poured a bit of water on top and she watched it flow down through the oil to join the red layer:

I explained that the three liquids all had different densities, which kind of meant that they were more or less packed together in the same space. Denser liquids weight more than less dense materials, and less dense materials float to the top of denser ones. Sam seemed to get it and inspected the glass carefully while I had panicky premonitions of trying to clean up oil, soap, and water from the kitchen table:

The next part of the experiment was to drop various items into the glass and see where they settled. I explained that this would tell us how dense the objects were, since like the liquids the solids would float on top of anything that they were less dense than. The objects I gathered included a penny, a piece of carrot, a plastic bead, a rock, a marshmallow, a piece of potato, a Lego block, a piece of rubber, and a piece of macaroni. For the first few, I had Sam make predictions about how far down they’d sink, then I had her record her observations.

She absolutely loved doing this, and since this was an activity that basically involved dunking things in other things, Mandy was both able and willing to participate. I think part of the appeal here is that kids love making predictions and repeating trials with slightly different conditions. In this way, they’re natural scientists, and it’s not far removed from how babies learn to do, well, everything. When you’re a kid, most of what you encounter is new, and the only way to figure it out is to do trial after trial and make observation after observation.

Once they had exhausted my supply of small objects, they asked if they could find other stuff to drop in. When I said they could, the first thing Sam nominated was my iPod, which was one sacrifice I was not prepared to make for science. At any rate, not only did Sam love this, she proclaimed that it was the most fun experiment we had done to date. Here’s her journal entry in full:

Experiment 7: Density.
Things that are less density float on things that are more dense. I prdect the marshmallow will float on the oil. I prbekt that the rock will go to the dotem. The peanut floated in the water. The butt rock fell to the botem.

And, as a footnote, Sam did indeed write “The butt rock fell to the botem (sic).” She and Mandy have named the rock in question thus because a streak of quartz in the lower half of the rock does indeed look like a generous backside. Since it was for science, I allowed it.

Sam the Science Kid Experiment 6: Making Gas

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my seven year old daughter.

Since we consumed a gas in last week’s experiment, I thought this week we could do the opposite and create a gas using those old standbys: vinegar and baking soda. Since we were at Grandpa’s house this week, it made for a nice easy experiment and I got to raid his kitchen cabinets for supplies:

  • Vinegar
  • Baking Soda (sodium bicorbonate)
  • A balloon
  • A bottle or vase with a narrow mouth

(Sorry for the quality of the photos. I forgot to bring a CF card for my camera, so I had to use Ger’s point-and-shoot and backlit lighting to boot.)

I explained to Sam the concept of a reaction –that some things change when they mix with or even just touch other things. That change create a lot of interesting things, including creating a gas. I told her that baking soda and vinegar would make a gas when they mix, and asked her what she thought would happen if I mixed them together and put a balloon over the mouth of the bottle. Sam wrote in her journal:

Experument 6: Makeing gas. I prdikt that the dlon will explode.

Yes! Explosions! With that in mind, I poured a few cups of vinegar into the bottle, filled the balloon with baking soda, and stretched the tip of the balloon over the mouth of the bottle without letting any spill in. I then told Sam to upend the balloon and dump the powder in:

The reaction –in all sense of the word– was pretty great. The mixture fizzed violently and the balloon started to expand like a big fat exclamation mark, which actually caused Sam to shriek and dive under the table, fearing that her prediction was seconds from coming woefully true:

Honestly, I got kind of alarmed myself for a second; the book hadn’t provided any guidance on the amount of mixture to create, and I had just begun worrying about the best way to get globs of baking soda and vinegar off of a ceiling when it finally eased off. Instead, I ribbed Sam about her squeamish reaction and made her practice her maniacal mad scientist laugh and give me ten good shouts of “I’LL SHOW THEM! I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!” to make up for it.

Then she finished writing in her journal:

The ballon bloow up. The vineger and the baking soda made a gas.

Next week: we waste more foodstuffs while learning about density.

Sam the Science Kid Experiment #5: Fire!

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my seven year old daughter.

Following last week’s failed attempt to create a stalactite, Sam and I decided to go for something that looked a little more reliable. As a bonus, it involved FIRE. Here’s the equipment:

  1. A shallow baking dish
  2. A candle
  3. Some colored water
  4. Something small to set the candle in or on (I used a baby food jar)
  5. A drinking glass or glass jar big enough to cover the above

I also had a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. Sam seemed hopeful that it would be needed.

Before we set fire to anything, though, I explained to Sam that fire needed two things to burn: fuel (like wood, gas, or a candle wick) and oxygen. The latter, I explained, was a gas comprising a good chunk of the air we breathe, along with nitrogen and a few other things. Nitrogen doesn’t do much in a fire, but oxygen, on the other hand, makes stuff burn REALLY good.

So I lit the candle, propped it up in in the little jar, then put the jar in the dish of colored water as you can see in the photo above. I then held up the drinking glass and asked Sam what she thought would happen if I put the glass over the candle, creating an airtight seal because of the water.

She paused a second. “The flame will go out!” she said.


“Because the fire will burn up all the air.”

So she HAD been listening. “Okay,” I said, “do you think it will go out right away? Good scientists are make their predictions as detailed as possible.”

She thought for a moment. “Ten seconds. No, 12 seconds. Then it will grow out.”

So, I asked Sam to write her prediction down in her journal.

Experiment 5: Brning oxagen. I prdekt that it will drn 12 sikints. Than it will go owt.

After she did this, I put the glass down, and after 16 seconds (according to my stopwatch) the fire dimmed and winked out.

Sam was interested in seeing the fire go out for no apparent reason, but seemed happy that her prediction was correct, if off by a few seconds. She claimed that the air was all gone inside the glass, but I explained that there was still some gas in there, but that the oxygen was pretty much gone, having been used up in the fire.

I asked her, though, to study the scene carefully and tell me if she noticed anything unusual about it:

Almost immediately she pointed and said, “The water inside the glass is higher!” I agreed that it was and told her to think back about what she had learned about air pressure in Experiment 1 and Experiment 3. Almost immediately she said that the air pressure inside the glass must be lower, and the air outside the glass must be trying to get in there and pushing the red water down and up into the glass.

Actually, I think it’s because the low air pressure inside the glass is sucking the liquid up but maybe it’s 6 of one half dozen of the other and I was pretty impressed by her quick answer. But she impressed me even more by asking a very astute question of her own: “How come, if candles need air to burn, they go out when we blow on them, like on a birthday cake? Why don’t they just burn more?”

At the risk of crooning about my kid, this struck me as a pretty damn insightful question, and I’m glad to see that she’s taking what she’s learning in these little experiments and trying to apply the facts to other phenomena in her world. Unfortunately the best answer I could come up with to her question was that when we blow out candles we’re blowing the air past the flame so fast that it doesn’t have a chance to react with the oxygen. However, some subsequent web searching suggests that this answer is, in fact, wrong or at least incomplete. The real reason candles go out when you blow on them is that the fast air is actually lowering the temperature around the flame enough to stop the reaction and put it out –a temperature high enough for ignition being the third requirement for flame that I forgotten to mention.

While I had to go back to Sam with this information and admit to not being as omniscient, it did give me a nice opportunity to explain the value of peer review to science. I think the laptop computer will be a standard piece of equipment to include with future experiments if for no other reason that we can take to the interwebs in the event of any more astute questions.

Book Review: The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games was one of those books (a trilogy of them, in fact) that people kept recommending to me, but which I kept ignoring because it was written for young adults and because for some vague reason I kept thinking it had some kind of severe right-wing slant to it. Turns out that while the former is true, the latter isn’t, and I enjoyed the book quite a bit.

The Hunger Games is set in a near-future dystopia where North America and its sundry governments have been replaced by the totalitarian state of Panem. Radiating out from Panem’s capital city of, uh, Capitol (I did mention this is a YA book; we’ll let that one slide) are 12 territories, or districts. Capitol is where the money and power are, with its inhabitants enjoying high technology and wealth sufficient to let them pursue silly vanities and distractions, while the districts occupy positions of varying –but generally insufficient– wealth and status. District 12 is the home of our heroine Katniss Everdeen and one of the poorest districts, located in the former Apalacian region. Sixteen year old Katniss is having trouble keeping her young sister and emotionally crippled mother fed and alive, but her troubles deepens when she’s ensnared as a “tribute” in The Hunger Games. These are a kind of gladiatorial games cum reality television that Capitol uses to keep members of the 12 districts under its thumb, with two children from each region fighting each other to the death in a carefully controlled wilderness while the whole ordeal is broadcast to all of Panum. Supposedly it’s a display of the capital’s power and reinforcement of the idea that the districts are subjugated to its whims.

What Collins does very well in The Hunger Games is describe the grueling action and suffering that all these kids (Hunger Games tributes range from 12 to 18 years old) go through. The book is very engaging in a constant cliffhanger kind of way and the situations that the Gamemakers contrive to torment the participants are pretty creative. So it’s a good page turner, to be sure.

But I also admire Collins’s subtle handling of the characters pretty well, especially for a YA book. Katniss tells the story from a first point of view, so the action sticks entirely to her, but it becomes pretty clear early on that she’s a bit of an unreliable narrator. Katniss thinks of herself as unlikable and hard, but utterly outclassed in the Hunger Games. And while she has surely been toughened by her lot in life, the astute reader will notice from the way that other characters react to Katniss that there’s more to her than that –townspeople seem to like her and her opponents in the games seem to fear her. She’s both much more capable and inspiring than she gives herself credit for.

This unawareness of how people perceive her is a nice bit of literary complexity that also feeds directly into Katniss’s relationship with her fellow tribute from District 12, a baker’s son named Peeta. The potential romantic relationship between the two characters is central to both their arcs, but it’s not as simple as you might expect. The pair play up the romantic angle for the Hunger Game so that they can get help from sponsors, but the way the book is written neither Katniss nor the reader is 100% sure about how genuine it is until the end. Since we know for sure that Katniss is going to survive the games (she’s the book’s narrator, after all) Peeta’s fate and their relationship make a nice stand-in for something for the author to imperil.

That all said, The Hunger Games isn’t perfect. The whole conceit of the games being a way for Capitol to control its districts is a bit flimsy in that it’s hard to imagine such a thing working in the absence of economic, cultural, or military forces also working to keep the people down. If those things are supposedly also at work, it’s not touched on much, and I was left unconvinced that the people of Panem would tolerate these ritualistic and wanton murders of 23 of its children every year. I’m also left somewhat disconcerted that while Katniss is a very capable and strong role model for young female readers, her whole fate nonetheless hinges on pretending to fall in love. I get the vague feeling that Collins may be engaging in some kind of commentary here by making at least part of the romance a sham forced upon our heroine, but at the same time I don’t think I’m totally getting it. Maybe that’s my problem.

At any rate, I liked the book and plan on reading the two others in the series.

Sam The Science Kid Experiment 4: Stalactite Interrupted

Well, 4 weeks in and we’ve got our first failed experiment. The idea was to make some homegrown stalactites and stalagmites, and here’s what was involved:

  • Two jars
  • Some yarn
  • Two binder clips
  • Baking soda
  • Warm water

Sam filled both jars with warm water, then spooned baking soda into each one. She kept trying to lick her finger, coat it in baking soda, then lick it off, which I found gross but ultimately harmless. This made her want to eat more of it.

I had her keep stirring until no more baking soda would dissolve in the water.

Sam asked the pretty astute question of where the baking soda was going when it seemed to disappear, to which I replied “Uhhhhh…” as I frantically cast my memory back to my 10th grade science class and tried to remember. I gave her some kind of half-assed explanation about the baking soda molecules sticking to the ends of the water molecules and sort of fitting “in between” the water molecules. It turns out that this explanation was indeed more right than wrong, but it was all over her head in any case. So I focused on teaching her the concepts of a “solution” and “saturation.”

Anyway, after we had our warm water saturated with baking soda, I cut a piece of string, weighted the ends down with binder clips, and dropped one end in each jar:

I told Sam that I hoped the baking soda would form gather on the yarn and drop down the center to form a stalactite just like water and minerals do in caves over years and years. I asked her for her prediction:

I predekt it will grow 2 inches in 7 days.

Unfortunately things didn’t work out. After about 7 days we got this:

Something about this reminds me of Tetsuo in that Akira movie.

That’s got a pretty good head going on it, but the progress pretty much stopped there. I don’t know why –maybe we didn’t get enough baking soda in there, maybe the yarn wasn’t supposed to hang down into the jars that far, who knows?

Alas, this was Sam’s entry after 8 days:

It grow 0 inches in 7 days. Crest is grow on the yorn. It was wite.

Maybe we’ll have better luck next week.

Sam the Science Kid: Experiment #3: Crush With Air

Continuing my blogging project for 2011 where I do a science experiment per week with my six (soon to be seven) year old daughter.

This week’s experiment returned to the world of air pressure and was actually conducted right after experiment #2 from last week. Sam wanted to do another, and who was I to say no? Equipment for this week consisted of…

  1. A 2-liter soda bottle (empty) and cap
  2. Some hot water
  3. Some ice water
  4. A large pan full of ice

We started by having Sam fill the bottle with the hot water and putting the cap on after a few seconds. We used a funnel, but there was still mess. I think she makes the mess on purpose, but you know what? That’s okay. Nobody ever did science without making a mess and/or killing a bunch of graduate students.

She then lay the bottle down in the pan of ice and slowly poured the ice water over it. Again, more spillage. I think I should invest in some proper science-ey beakers so that we at least look the part.

We then sat back and watched, which for Sam was probably the most grueling part. Soon, though, the plastic bottle began to crinkle and pop as the cooling air inside began to contract and thus lower the air pressure. Sam thought this wanton deformation of grocery items was exciting, so I explained to her about how gasses expand when they get hot and contract when they cool. I tried telling her about the three-way relationship between volume, pressure, and temperature, but she was too busy poking the bottle and asking (perhaps hopefully) if it would explode.

This being a pretty simple experiment, I asked Sam to focus in her journal on describing what we did. I told her that this is an important part of doing science, since one of the qualities of a good experiment is that it can be copied and repeated by other people. Here’s what she wrote:

Experiment 3 Crush with air. We pot hot water in a bol. Pot the led on. The dottle felt hot. We pot it in ice it crushed. The air crushed it.

Next week: we grow stalactites and learn about the importance of careful measurement! Maybe. If that doesn’t work out, we’ll crush something else.


Limbo is one of those video games in 2010 that people wouldn’t stop talking about. Some people just couldn’t seem to rave enough about this atmospheric side scroller where you guide a silhouette of a boy through dangers and puzzles and how the game does so much with so little. I finally got around to playing it, and frankly I’m not quite sure what all the buzz was about.

Well, that’s not completely fair. Just about all the praise for Limbo’s looks is well deserved even though –or perhaps because– it’s completely devoid of color and almost without a musical score. It does a lot to create a sense of dread and gloom with just shapes and the saturation slider pinned at zero. And the minimalist mentality extends to the story, which is so scarce as to not actually exist –you’re just a lad who wakes up in a dark forest where the only way out is littered with deadly obstacles and various creatures bent on your grisly murder. It’s moody and mysterious and captivating, so it’s safe to say that Limbo is pretty great, artistically.

The early levels of the game are the best.

Unfortunately the game part didn’t reach quite the same heights. It’s frustrating not being able to figure out a puzzle. But it’s WAY more frustrating to be perfectly capable of figuring out a puzzle but then be unable to execute on the solution because doing so requires precise timing. And it’s most frustrating of all to think you’ve figured out a puzzle, fail repeatedly at executing the solution, decide that your solution was wrong, then look up the answer on the Internet only to find that you WERE right after all despite repeatedly hurling this little boy to his doom. The puzzles in Limbo weren’t all that difficult to figure out –I actually only had to look up the answer to one, and I turned out to have had the right idea all along as described above. But too often my enjoyment of them was clipped short by fighting with the game’s controls and timing. Maybe this is inherent to all platformers and I should just try sucking less, but there you go.

There’s also the issue that Limbo starts off strong and then sputters towards the end. The opening levels in the wilderness where you’re stalked by a giant spider are awesome and really draw you into this little kid’s situation. It’s mysterious and the puzzles feel organic –they’re either environmental hazards or traps left by foes you can see. The game eventually turns to more urban environments, though, and while they offer chances for more varied puzzles they start to feel pretty contrived. By the time you’re flipping switches to raise platforms and reverse gravity, Limbo feels less like a kid trapped in a mysterious wilderness and more like a kid trapped in a video game.

Better get the timing on this jump right...

But don’t think that Limbo is a BAD game for all that. It’s actually pretty good even if not the best game EVAR. If you think you might like it, try the demo (on Xbox Live Arcade). If you like that, you’ll probably like the rest of the game well enough to get your money’s worth. If you don’t like it, you’re not.

Sam the Science Kid, Experiment #2: Grow Mold

As I mentioned earlier, my pet blogging project for 2011 is going to be a weekly recap of 52 kid friendly science experiments in 52 weeks. I’m doing at least one little project each weekend with Samantha where I’ll teach her some miscellaneous science facts by doing the experiments in addition to familiarizing her with the scientific method in general by having her use a notebook to make predictions, record observations, and describe what she’s doing. (Practice with writing, spelling, and grammar is a nice bonus, too.)

This week we learned about mold and what makes it grow. To start, I collected some aluminum tins to hold the following:

  1. A piece of bread
  2. A toasted piece of bread
  3. About 8 ounces of yogurt
  4. A peeled orange

I then explained to Sam that mold was a fungus, which is a kind of plant. There are tiny mold spores in the air that will grow on food if you set it out. She surprised me a bit by sitting up and saying “Oh, like decay!” Yep, mold could definitely be part of the decay process. I then asked her to write down in her journal what she thought would happen. She wrote:

I thigk the tost will grow the most mould. I think the yogrt will grow the lest mould.

Sam, forming her hypotheses.

At this point I asked why she thought that, and she said, “Because I think mold will grow best in dry stuff.” Bam. That’s a model, folks. Not a complicated one or a very accurate one as it turns out, but that’s beside the point. She articulated a model of mold growth!

Final step: we labeled our specimens:

After that, I placed them on a shelf in the basement and we let them alone for a week. At this point I should point out that I kind of screwed up by not covering the tins with plastic wrap per the book’s directions, which probably affected our results a bit by drying the bread out. Fortunately Geralyn did this for me before all was lost.

A week later we retrieved the specimens and laid them out. The bread that was robbed of its moisture by the toaster was mold-free as far as we could tell. Unfortunately so was the untoasted bread, most likely because I had let it dry out. Normally I think it would have grown something:

The yogurt, on the other hand, was just starting up a good green head, but nothing spectacular:

The orange, fortunately, came through and provided the moldy jackpot:

Eugh. We took a good look and I asked Sam to write down what she was observing.

The yogurt grew a letl mold. The ornge grew the most mold. The tost and dreb ded not grow aney. The mold is green and wite on the ornge. It looks fussey. When you poke it dust comes off.

(As you can see, she still sometimes flip-flops her “b” and “d” letters. Working on that.)

At this point I asked Sam what other sense she could use –besides touch!– to make observations about the mold. She made the face below then wrote “it ded not smel good.” in her journal. This was true.

At this point I asked her to read back over the predictions she had written several days earlier and tell me if they had been correct, which resulted in her writing this in her journal:

My prediction was wrong. Mold gros in wet plases not dry.

She seemed disappointed in herself, but this was a great chance to point out that one of the reasons science works so well is that even wrong guesses can be very useful. Science is iterative, meaning that every result is the entry point for a new repetition of the process, leading to refinements and better predictions. Wrong answers are helpful if they help us point ourselves in the right direction, which her “Mold gros in wet plases not dry” comment illustrates.

It can almost go without saying, though, this is all beside the point if you’re not doing science with a fancy sparkly pen:

Christmas 2010

Christmas photos! Had a great time with my mom and sister in town for the holiday. The girls got tons of loot, including a bike for Sam which she cannot ride due to the foot of snow outside but which she loved nonetheless. Click the photos to embiggen.

Sam the Science Kid, Experiment #1: Card Trick

As 2010 draws to a close it comes time to pick my blogging project for 2011, and I’ve decided to return to writing about my kids. Wait! It’ll be a bit different than before.

One of the Christmas gifts I bought Samantha this year was a book containing a bunch of science experiments for kids. All the experiments are pretty simple and can usually be accomplished with stuff you can dig out of the trash and junk drawers. I also bought Sam a white lab coat with a name tag reading “Dr. Samantha” –because hey, you have to look the part. Over ninety percent of science is just looking dapper. To round things out, she also got a journal and a sparkly pen –again, science demands fashion sense– to take notes about the experiments and write up the results. The goal this year is to do one of these experiments with Sam each week and then to write about it.

One of the reasons I’m doing this is to help teach Sam about science in general and the scientific method in specific. You know, a good foundation for a mad scientist girl genius. When she finally gets her weather control machine working and starts making demands of the world’s governments, you’ll know who to thank.

I started off Experiment #1 with an explanation that scientists look at things in the world and do the following:

  1. Make up explanations for those things based on what they know
  2. Guess at what’s supposed to happen according to those explanations
  3. Collect information to see if those guesses were right
  4. Share those results with others
  5. Repeat

Some of the finer points may be missing, but it’s good enough for a six year old. In addition to learning the fundamentals of science, having her write in the journal should have the added benefits of getting her to practice her penmanship and translating her thoughts into words.

Future mad scientist in training.

For example, consider Experiment #1, which had to do with air pressure. I explained that I was going to take a shot glass, fill it to the tip-top with water, place a playing card on top, then flip the glass and card upside down before letting go of the card and holding the glass in the air a foot above the table.

Today's science experiment brought to you by Kappa Delta sororoty.

I asked Sam what she thought would happen, and she immediately said, “The water will fall out and make a huge mess!” This seemed to be a delightful prospect to her, especially since I’d be the guilty party for once. At any rate, I instructed her to write down her prediction:

I think it will spill out.

(FYI, I’ll be posting Sam’s journal contents verbatim. I’m working with her on her spelling and grammar, but I don’t think it will be worth interrupting the flow of the activity to get things perfect.)

So I filled the glass, put the card on top, and flipped them. Here’s what happened:

Sam was confused but fascinated, so I explained about air pressure –how air was pushing up on the bottom of the card harder than the water was pushing on the top. I also told her about how air always tries to go from where there’s more air (high pressure) to where there’s less air (low pressure), and that if we gently pressed down on the card enough to let a few bubbles in, the pressure dropped to the point where the card fell and the water dumped out. I then instructed her to record this observation in her journal:

What hopind: The card stayed up.

So, like I said, I’m starting off simple but I hope that Sam keeps her interest level up so that I can task her with writing more detailed predictions and explanations for why she predicts what she does. Next week: we grow mold! Who doesn’t like mold?

She makes this papa geek proud…

Earlier today Sammy and I S-ranked (100%’ed, FC’d, whatever) Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 on the Xbox 360. All the red bricks. All the gold bricks. All the students in peril. All the crest pieces. All the character tokens. “True Wizard” on every level. All the achievements. All the secret levels. EVERYTHING. BEHOLD THIS UNDOCTORED PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE:

100 Percent Perfect Potter. Click to embiggen.

This is a feat that took us several months of effort. She and I would play this game together for 30-45 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a week, usually between dinner and bathtime. It’s the kind of thing that flies in the face of outdated attitudes towards video games as mindless time wasters played by people incapable of anything requiring social interaction. Full completing the game with another person playing cooperatively required imagination, communication, logical thinking, persistence, long-range goal setting, and a lot of fun. Sam learned all the mechanics involved, ranging from simple platforming to cataloging which characters had which special abilities that were required for what situations. She and I would sometimes talk about the game when we weren’t playing it, and she often wanted to engage in imaginative play with her sister, pretending to be characters from the game. And it has continued to feed her interest in reading the books.

Sure, I would never want gaming to comprise 100% of her leisure time, but I can say without a doubt that this game (and others) have given she and I an experience that both of us will remember fondly for the rest of our lives.

And I got her Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Wii for her birthday. I can’t wait!

Happy 4th Birthday, Amanda Rene Madigan!

Mandy recently had her fourth birthday, which she announced by marching up to me and declaring “Today, I AM FOUR” with all the requisite solemnity. Which is to say, none at all. We had a small party for her with her grandpa and Aunt Joy, during which there were many toys unwrapped. She got a lot of great stuff, but the big hit was probably the little electric buggy, which goes forward, backward, and BEEP BEEP BEEP! I think Sam was as amazed as anyone by this magical device, and it took her approximately four seconds to try and commandeer it like she was auditioning for the next Grand Theft Auto game.

Mandy was given her choice of cakes to order, and she elected for My Little Pony for some reason. There’s just something undeniably appealing about pink horses. I guess. At any rate, she seemed delighted to see it.

December, 2010 Snowfall

Boy, you know what’s fun? Getting woken up at 6:30 am on a Sunday morning with shouts of “WOAH! SO MUCH SNOW!” and then having a shrieking six year old yank open the blinds to your bedroom so that the blinding white brilliance can illuminate the back of your skull even though your eyes are closed. I suspect, though, that the only reason Sam and Mandy are so delighted by this particular form of precipitation only because it means we get a lot more free with the hot chocolate.

On the other hand, snow always makes for fun photo opportunities!

Book Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

David Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, thanks in large part to the simultaneously self-deprecating but smug humor in his collections of personal essays like When You are Engulfed in Flames, and Holidays on Ice. This new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a decidedly different turn, though.

The book is essentially a collection of fables with animals standing in for people in a way that allows Sedaris to write short, pithy illustrations of human foibles, shortcomings, and absurdities. Sedaris said once in an interview that using animals in his stories allowed him to cut right to the heart of what he had to say without bothering to establish characters’ back stories or personalities. They’re animals; we know the relevant traits off the bat (pardon the pun) and Sedaris can fill in the rest to get us where he wants us to go. This works really well, and not coincidentally for the same reason that many of Aesop’s Fables work well.

The Migrating Warblers, for example, shows us how we can inadvertently dabble in racism and cultural superiority for the sake of entertaining a crowd, while The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck shows how looking down on that kind of thing belies a double standard for what constitutes admirable versus admonishable behavior. Sedaris also gets a bit topical, like with The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, in which he skewers the claptrap of The Secret and new age self-determinism by examining what happens when a lab rat gets injected with carcinogens despite its pathologically upbeat outlook on life. This is all pretty funny and incisive stuff, and Sedaris isn’t above spinning tales like The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig for the sole sake of closing it with a punchline in the form of a groan-worthy pun.

But I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk have a much darker edge to them as well. Cautionary stories like The Motherless Bear and The Mouse and the Snake go into some very grim places for the sake of illustrating the perils of self-pity and unconditional love. And the eponymous squirrel and chipmunk turns out to be a bittersweet story about how time magnifies lost opportunities born of closed mindedness. These stories are not possessed of the trademark Sedaris funny, so be ready for that.

In fact, on balance the book is not nearly as laugh out loud funny as the author’s other works, but it is decisively clever writing and conveys some great insights about human behavior, even though it’s all about chipmunks and squirrels.

Book Review: At Home

The full title here is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and in it historian/humorist/homeowner Bill Bryson aims to explore the history of domiciles through a tour of his own aged home in pastoral England. Bryson structures the book by dedicating a chapter to each room or area in the house and delving into historical topics associated with that location. For example, Chapter 6, “The Fuse Box” lets him discuss Thomas Edison’s contributions to in-home electricity and lighting while Chapter 8, “The Dining Room”, gives him a chance to talk about eating habits and how the concept of meal times evolved over the ages. Other chapters and topics include The Kitchen (the spice trade, cooking), The Garden (landscaping, public parks), and the Drawing Room (furniture making and decorating).

And this seems to me to be a pretty good row of hooks on which to hang a series of historical musings, but once you get into it you realize that Bryson doesn’t so much hang his topics neatly on the appropriately labeled hooks as he tosses things all over the place. The chapter on The Nursery, for example, is largely about the plight of the poor in Victorian England. Because, I guess, the poor had a lot of kids? Maybe? Or take the chapter on The Cellar where the author recounts the construction of a canal to link a young New York City with the Great Lakes region. Because both cellars and canals involve concrete, maybe? Or consider the discussion of the great locust plagues of the Central Planes that happens during the chapter on The Study because …well, honestly I’ve got no idea. And just about any chapter is apparently fair game for an extended discussion of architecture.

But you know what? That’s all okay, because this is Bill Bryson, and the man could make interesting reading out of a cholera outbreak. Which he does. In the chapter on The Bathroom. Because of the poop. At Home possesses every bit of Bryson’s trademark charm and wry humor, mixed with interesting stories of people you’ve never heard of and new angles on people you have. I’ve said before that Bryson’s greatest gift is that he can so effortlessly entertain and educate at the same time, and this book is another clear example. He also has a great way of communicating the absurdities of the age, particularly Victorian England and Colonial America, which are the two time periods that account for the bulk of the book’s historical scope. Discussions about things like poisonous wallpaper, wigs made from one’s own hair, and welfare institutions that offer worse fates than those they rescue children from are abundant and fantastic.

If I had one complaint, it’s that even Bryson’s cursory approach to structuring the book around different rooms and associated topics leads to a lot of zig-zagging around history. There’s no sense of progression or perspective as you move from one era to another. Instead, you just get lots of tangentially interconnected vignettes and by the time you get to the back third of the book Bryson is regularly saying things like “it was he, you may recall” to link recurring characters back to events he described a hundred pages earlier.

But that’s easy to shrug off, especially if you take each chapter as more or less self contained. If our school’s History textbooks were written more like At Home and its science texts more like A Short History of Nearly Everything then I think a lot of kids would find studying for tests much more appealing.

November 2010 Photo Dump

A quick dump of photos for November. This includes, of course, Thanksgiving for which we got to experience both hosting and traveling out of town to visit relatives. We had dinner on the day of for Geralyn’s dad and godmother, the latter of whom brought the children the gift of a three-quarters sized stuffed white tiger. We can only assume that on Christmas she will return to complete the set with two flamboyantly glittery magicians. Prior to that, Mandy’s preschool had its vaguely racist “First Thanksgiving” recital where she and her classmates wore traditional garb of painted grocery bags and construction paper feathers. Or as the Indians called it, “maize.”

The day after Thanksgiving we piled into the minivan and drove to Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit my mom and sister. The act of simply pulling into my mom’s driveway exhausted half of the cold-weather attractions that Tulsa has to offer, but we did manage to break away one day to visit a local “children’s museum.” Which is as much a museum as anything built in space annexed from the neighboring self-storage lot can be. As far as I can tell the proprietors slapped some brightly colored paint on the cinderblock walls and then raided the toys section of every Goodwill store in town before charging people $6 a head to visit. Oh, and they had a blacklight room, but I’m pretty sure one of the employees was smoking weed in there just prior to opening up for the day.

Well, to be fair, they did have one nice attraction: one large room had a stage complete with microphone, curtains, and a backstage wardrobe department. Mandy is turning out to be a bit of a ham and willing to oblige requests for song and dance in more mundane settings, so she took to the stage right away. Sam, to her credit, was willing to act as Mandy’s backup dancer, though on the one occasion where she tried to stand in the limelight Mandy burst in on the scene and set her straight. Drama!