This day last year

20161129_084902For all of 2015, I kept a tiny Moleskine journal next to my bed. It’s one of those page-a-day journals, with the pre-printed date at the top of each page. At five and a half inches tall by three and a half inches wide – it had just enough space to record what I did that day.

Moleskine is way too overpriced – I don’t need something so fancy just to write down what I do everyday. So for 2016 I got just a regular blank book – a quarter of the price, larger – a more typical eight by six inches – and without the pre-printed date.  I kept it by the bed – with the same pen as before.

There are probably twenty or so blank pages in the 2015 journal – days I missed because I was away from home.

Most of the 2016 journal is blank.

Why? Is it the size?  It takes only a dozen words to fill the page of the tiny journal – far less intimidating and makes it easy to justify the occasional, “What a blah day – nothing happened” entry.  Is it the pre-printed date? The pressure of knowing that that page will remain forever blank if I don’t take the time now before I switch off the light to write down what made today unique?

Whatever the reason – I’ve learned that the Moleskine journal does exactly the job it is meant to do – it makes me write down what happened that day.

You might me wondering, why is writing down the events of the day important to me?

The entry from November 29th 2015:

Tonight’s Doctor Who was excellent.
Mostly just watched doc. about the Roosevelts today.
Back to my routine tomorrow for 4 days – then I have to work =(

That was a real day – but nothing momentous happened.  Without those three lines, it wouldn’t exist anymore. Now it will last for as long as I hold on to that journal. And that is good.

Certainly worth $19.95.

 

Drowning in the Details

blenderIt’s hard to remember when you’re running around inside a crazy realistic, yet ultimately unreal world, that everything you see is built with lines of code. And that all the code does is turn switches on and off.  Way down deep – it is still just ones and zeros.

Back in the beginning, when I was writing those lines of code in Basic on a Commodore Pet, I felt incredibly powerful knowing that I could tell the computer to turn a certain pixel on the screen ‘on’ with a single command. I understood exactly what that line of code did and how it worked.

Now, 35 years later, I’m building a 3d model of a kitchen cabinet. I’m still manipulating switches, but I don’t really know what all those switches do anymore.  There are too many layers between me and the ones and zeros, I can’t see how it all works as clearly as I used to.

While I love learning new things, there comes a point where I wonder why I bother.  If I’m not really understanding exactly how all this works, if I’m just blindly following the lessons of the tutorial, if I find myself sighing one more time when the tutorial says, “We don’t have time to go into the details now, but just click here to do this,” what’s the point?

It would be a lot easier and faster to just buy the 3d models I need for my project. This could be a whole ‘time vs money’ lesson – it would be much more efficient to spend my money on someone else’s work – they can make what I want in a tenth of the time – and I have lots code and animation stuff to do that I am already good at.  I don’t need to control every aspect of the project, it would be better to let go of some of the details.

But… at the moment, I have lots of time and no money.

And… I would love to say, in the end, I did it all myself.

Besides – who am I kidding – I’m a total control freak – which is why I’m working on this crazy project all by myself in the first place.

Alright – break over – time to get back to pushing pixels.

 

 

 

Gift giving and the golden rule

“Do unto others…”

81s7bals-l-_sl1500_If I gave to you what I would like to receive, you’d be getting an NES Classic Edition for christmas this year.

Obviously, that’s not going to work.  First of all – they’re sold out everywhere, and second, what if you don’t love it?  What if you don’t dream of playing Legend of Zelda the way I do? What if you’re not obsessed with the idea that maybe, now you are so much older, you can actually finish Super Mario Bros. for real, instead of lying about it for all these years… decades?

The rule should be, do unto others as they’d like to have done to them.  I guess it doesn’t sound as nice that way, but this is why we write wish lists.

Many years ago – I was asked, by someone who will remain nameless, what I wanted for christmas. I said I wanted an electric kettle – but I specifically wanted the one that has the base that the kettle sits on, not the one where the kettle itself has the cord that plugs into the wall. I should have known better than to ask her for something so specific. I knew what she was like – always looking for the ‘deal.’ She bought for me what she would have bought for herself – the cheap, “20% off” one – with the cord attached to the kettle!  I was gracious – I hid my disappointment. I simply smiled when she bragged about how much money she’d saved.

I googled, “I am bad at buying gifts” and I found an article about a study published a few years ago that said: we should all stop trying to find the perfect gift – we should just buy exactly what people ask for – that way, the recipient is happy.  But of course – the giver gets nothing out of the exchange –  you’ve turned them into your personal shopper. There’s no thought, or love, or proof that I know you so well in just buying you what you asked for. Why can’t I buy you something sweet and sentimental and utterly useless?  It’s the thought that counts. Right?

But that phrase – ‘it’s the thought that counts.’ is just an excuse for bad gift-giving, really.  And we say it because we’re all just afraid to admit that what we really want is the money and the excuse to buy something frivolous for ourselves with it.

Sigh.  The truth is – what I really want is to see you smile. So, hand over your wish list.  I’ll save my sentimentality and my creative spirit for the wrapping paper.

 

Our Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

I hope you are enjoying Westworld as much as I am. If you haven’t watched it yet – you should, it is excellent entertainment. But it makes me wonder, what is with our fascination with artificial intelligence?

It’s been going on for a long time. No, way before Frankenstein’s Monster, I’m talking way back – one of the first stories ever told was about AI. You know it well, it’s a story about a ‘god’ creating a creature in his ‘own image,’ and imbuing it with the ‘breath of life.’ And, just like in the Frankenstein story, and every other AI story out there, the creator loses control of his creation and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a story that tells itself over and over. Every time a child plays with a doll, making it move, giving it words. Every time I run around inside a game controlling my avatar, it’s all the same thing. We teach sign language to gorillas, we treat our pets like little children. We’re constantly trying to pass on this thing – what is it, a mutation perhaps?  – that gives us that rare combination of awarenesses: me versus you; past, present and future.20161123_212705

Maybe it is a mutation, and maybe that is why we’re so eager to pass it along. The mutation wants to replicate, to spread, to live forever. It only gets a measly 90 or so years now, but if it could find it’s way into silicon and plastic…  Well, just imagine the possibilities…

Oh, right – we have. Over and over again.

Muscle Memory

One of the signs of a good video game is how quickly you can forget you are using a controller or keyboard to move around in the game’s world. There is nothing like the immersive feeling of living inside the magic of a well rendered environment. I’m mostly thinking about 3D games, but I’m sure that people really into a 2D game, (think space invaders or pac-man – where all the movement is with in two dimensions, up/down & left/right,) also soon realize that the the thought, “go there” doesn’t include a specific command to a finger, you just go there.

It helps that most games use the same keys or buttons to make similar things happen. Such as moving forward. Usually on a keyboard you use the ‘W’ key to move forward.  On a controller, you push the left hand toggle forward.  Doesn’t matter who makes the game – if they want people to feel comfortable moving around in the world they’ll stick to what players already know.

But for people new to gaming, it is hard to remember what to push when. And that is, I think, what keeps a lot of people away from video games. If you didn’t learn when you were five, when your mind, in its most absorptive state, memorized a hundred new things a day without even trying, controlling an avatar for the first time can almost induce motion sickness.

women-with-goggles-riding-a-bikeBut in the end, it is just muscle memory. Like riding a bike. When you learn to ride a bike, or when you are back on one for the first time in a decade, it seems all you can do to just stay upright. Feet pedal, hands stear, spine balances. But soon, you are just riding. Your body just does it.

You just…  go. there.

Like everything else in life, riding a bike, controlling an avatar…  it takes practice to get to the point where you stop looking at your fingers and just enjoy the sights and sounds.

I wish there was a way that people who have never played in a 3D environment could experience the immersiveness of a beautiful game, without the steep learning curve. I think Virtual Reality will get us there eventually, but in the meantime, there are a lot of people missing out on the magic.

 

 

What was your first video game?

1024px-telegames-atari-pong
Wikipedia – The Sears Tele-Games Atari Pong console, released in 1975.

Mine was Pong. Yes, I’m that old. My dad was always into the latest gadgets. He probably bought it at Sears. I remember the knobs to move the paddles on the screen and the clunky switch that would turn the TV into a game.  This was all when I was about five or six I think. So, really, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t such a thing as a game you could play on a screen.

And, for the purpose of this blog post, let’s be clear, a ‘Video Game’ is an interactive experience on a screen.  End of definition.  It is really just that simple. If you are so inclined, you can talk about your favorite genre of video game and tell me all about how it is the only real video game, but I will just laugh at you. Technically speaking, there is no difference between Candy Crush and Call of Duty.  They both are bits of code used to put graphics on a screen that you manipulate with your hands.

Whatever. Why do people argue about these things?  Why can’t we all just say how wonderful it is to live in a world where not only do video games exist, but we have the leisure time to play them?

I’m reasonably certain that everyone who reads this has, at one time or another, played a video game. Either in an arcade, or on a console or on the very screen where you are reading these words.  Yes, if you’ve played solitaire or minesweeper on a screen, then you have played a video game. They all count.

Now, for no other reason than I like to talk about it, I’m going to list my gamer history.  If you don’t know any of the stuff I’m talking about here, I feel bad for you.  You missed out on a lot of fun.

  • Pong was the gateway console game for me. The Atari 2600 was next, then the Nintendo Entertainment System, NES for short.
  • On the PC I started with text based adventures: Zork and Suspended (a terrifying game!) and Amnesia – never finished that one.  I played all the Sierra games, and Starflight – best game ever.
  • Then I had a long gap in time where I was surrounded by technophobes. Came back to PC games via Oblivion and WoW, and back to consoles when I bought a Wii – with the excuse that it could be used for exercise.
  • I went the microsoft route, xBox, xBox 360 and now xBox One. Loved the Fable series, and Skyrim. Loved riding the horses in Red Dead Redemption, though I never finished that one. Fallout 3 and 4…  Star Wars Battlefront… So many more.  And, I am not afraid to admit – Just Dance 3 and 4.
  • On PC – I have too many games in my Steam account to list, but I’ll mention Portal and Portal 2, Kerbal Space Program, and the latest favorite: No Man’s Sky.

Video games are such a core part of my personal history, I can’t imagine my life without them. And neither can you. Again – you have played games on your computer or your phone, I’m sure.  Maybe you had a Speak and Spell as a kid?  That counts too, even if it was only a glorified calculator – though, ET used it to phone home, didn’t he?

Anyway – my whole point is, even if you think you are not, you probably are a gamer.  It isn’t a separate part of the culture.  It’s like music.  Everyone listens to music. Some people get really, really passionate about it, others only turn on the radio while they’re driving – but no one would ever say, oh, music is something I never hear.

It just occured to me – using an ATM could fit into my definition as well.  And that’s a game you almost always win, isn’t it?

Video games are everywhere.

 

 

 

 

Castles in the Sky

20161115_105610How big do you dream? Is it the sky, the moon or the stars that you reach for?

Grandiose goals fill my head with helium.  My mind floats high above this couch I am lying on. I am solving all the problems in my life. I am answering all the questions of why I exist and who I am and where I am going next. I scribble it all down in my notebook, words upon words describe mind blowing dreams. A million ‘what if’s.’ My coffee grows cold, my hand cramps. I turn the page. Nothing changes.

In the moments when my imaginings are constrained to my environment, I don’t imagine myself fixing the small problems that plague this house, I imagine tearing it down to the basement and rebuilding it. Consequently, the fan in the bathroom hasn’t worked for 3 years.

I need smaller goals. Small goals are doable. Nothing about a small goal overwhelms to the point of stagnation. People who keep their goals small actually get things done.

But my mind is off again, imagining the words scribbled on this page to be PURE TRUTH and as such, when they make it to the masses, the world will stop in its tracks, in awe of my brilliance.

Of course, I know before I start that the dream I have imagined is impossible, so I don’t start at all.  Or worse, I’ll start, but soon realize the impossibility of the task then stop. Chalk up another failure.

The first step to fixing the bathroom fan is measuring the hole in the ceiling. Next, go to a place that sells them and buy a fan that will fit in the hole. And so on. The steps are clear. Even the problems I might encounter, an odd sized hole, old wiring, are surmountable.

What’s the first step in writing PURE TRUTH?  Uh, laughing at the very idea, right? Realizing truth for one is fiction for another?  Understanding that sometimes I can be just a wee bit pretentious?

They say aim for the stars so you’ll at least reach the sky.  But how is failing to build a rocketship going to help you build an airplane?

The Nightmare Game

THE NIGHTMARE
An interactive fiction. Copyright (c) 1984 by J.A.Schmehl
You are in a hallway. There are three doors here.

>Examine doors
The left door is all black except for a glowing eye which is watching you. The right door is green and has a frowning emoticon sloppily carved into it’s surface. The carving drips blood. The center door is blue and is decorated with a painting of white fluffy clouds and a yellow sun.

>Open center door
It is locked.

>Unlock center door
You need a key to do that.

>Find key
I don’t see that here.

>Open left door
It is locked.

>Open right door
You open the door. You are sucked into the center of a whirling cyclone. You can’t see or hear anything beyond dust and wind.
There is a monster here.

>Kill Monster
What would you like to kill the monster with?
There is a monster here.

>Sword
I don’t see that here.
There is a monster here.

>Use magic spell to put monster to sleep
You have no magic spells.
The monster is swinging a club at you.

>Wake up
I do not understand that command. The monster has hit you with the club. (LIFE -50)

>Wake up!!!!
I do not understand that command. The monster has hit you with the club (LIFE -75)

>WAKE UP!
I do not understand that command.
You are dead.
Thank you for playing.

Try Harder

When I was 13, I wrote a short story. I showed it to my mother and she suggested I try to get it published in my school newspaper. I gave the story to the teacher in charge of the newspaper, he read it and handed it back saying, “It’s good – but try rewriting it, and see if you can make it better.”

So I rewrote it – I copied it word for word, in my best handwriting.

He rejected it again. I rewrote it, again, without a single mistake.

He finally said, “It’s still not there. Maybe you should work on something else for a while and come back to it later.”

It was a long time before I understood that when he said, try again, what he meant was, start over from scratch, write the same story, but write it using different words, different sentences. Use fewer exclamation points.

*

I told my ten-year-old nephew he wasn’t trying hard enough. He exploded, “So you think I’m lying too! Everyone always thinks I’m not trying hard enough, no one believes me!”

The problem is, he is normally very quick to learn new things, so when he fails and instantly gives up, we accuse him of not trying. The truth is, he isn’t trying, because he doesn’t know what to try next. He’s never learned… he’s never been taught – that try again doesn’t mean: do the same thing again, it means do it differently.  It means – figure out what went wrong, learn from the mistake, and use that knowledge to try something new.

*

There is an assumption we make in phrases like: try again, or, you’re not trying hard enough. The assumption is that the person can see the same mistakes we see. But maybe they can’t see the mistakes at all.

What my nephew was saying… what I am saying: I’m not lazy, I’m not giving up, I just don’t know what to do.

*

Two years ago I decided to learn how to draw. I started with a horse. I drew it twenty times. Every time I drew the horse, I learned something new. Because I had decided, before I began, to draw the thing twenty times, I gave myself permission to fail nineteen of those times.

*

Lesson learned:

Give myself explicit permission to fail.

Find the mistake, learn something new.

Don’t try again, try something else.

And never, ever tell someone they’re not trying hard enough.

Learn by Doing

bird

The bird said to me, “I just couldn’t handle the nagging anymore. She just kept pushing and pushing me, right up to the edge. Finally, I just exploded at her, ‘Fine! You don’t believe me! Fine, you’ll be sorry, you’ll see!’ and I jumped.”

The bird fluffed his feathers, then blinked into the distance a few times before turning an eye back towards me. “Well, how was I to know? So, flying isn’t something one has to approach gently, with caution and baby steps. Turns out it’s one of those ‘learn by doing’ things.” He twisted his head around, and around, until he was looking backwards, then picked at his tail feathers.

I waited, sure there was more to the story. But he just ignored me.