Author Archives: shelby

A Comment On Snow Crash

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I re-read this last June and couldn’t shake my first reading from many years ago — to me Snow Crash is still a comic book pretending to be a novel.

As cyberpunk worlds go this one is very influential and in some places garishly brilliant but the overachieving, desperate cleverness at the heart of this book really got in the way of characters I wanted to like.

One comment on Gibson’s Neuromancer that I think haunted its success was some critics pointed out that the plot evaporates, that it doesn’t come to a pointed ending. I used to kind of agree but the intense gorgeousness of the world and the language were so strong I didn’t care.

After revisiting Stephenson’s forced plot (wait, Hiro’s father was..?) and over-explained motivations (library scene!) I’m kinda looking at Gibson’s approach as a feature not a defect. I have to wonder if Stephenson had the Neuromancer critique in his head all along.

No, I don’t believe the world has square corners with a bow on top. There are layers, and a novel should have humility to find its place in those layers and not feel like it needs to wrap everything up. Even a made up crazy world needs mystery at the edges. Especially a made up crazy world.

I think I need to find time to check in with my old friends Case and Molly..

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Chance Favors The Connected Mind

There are a few TED talks that are bible for me, and this is one of them.

I’m especially drawn here to the idea of creativity as a group activity, a team sport — something that I suppose every creative person has experienced but maybe not recognized because this process is really haphazard and slow.

I also like the relationship between connected-ness and the idea of play. The story at the end of this talk about the birth of GPS sounds like a lot of fun, and super-underscores for me that cool ideas are shaped like a conversation.

Of course it’s probably a good idea if you’re going to do a talk on connections if you have all of your main stories connect up with each other.. Nice.

The Month of Streaking — Wrap

So I tried reasonably hard in July to win the ESPN prediction game Streak For The Cash — in a famously “whacky” sports month, where typical action is dogdays MLB and Finnish premier league soccer and where the WNBA is a “mainstream” sport, I played every day consistently and did at least 30 seconds research on my picks rather that just picking the consensus winners.

SFTC_july2013_winners

No dice for me. The winner got a streak of 23 — my longest was 14. For most wins, the winner had 116 — I got 82. Flo had a terrible month, with 872 people ahead of her, but she had 86 wins so I wasn’t even one of those bums.

While the game is a lot of fun to play solo, the game does not help with the social action at all. I had no idea when people joined the group without logging in a checking. I had no idea that Jeremiah was sneaking up on my W14.

Basically the play-with-a-friend feature is a “room” where you can see your friends scores, but it amounts to nothing more than a “private leaderboard”, a lot like the PGA has been doing awesomely now on their killer shot-tracking leaderboard.

There’s no prize — not even a crappy badge — for a private group winner. In fact there’s no real winner. Is it the person with longest streak? the most wins? the best percentage? No indication — just a group of players. Arrgghh!

Getting into a group is a bit of a challenge, communicating with group members is weird — certainly neither is as good as even an average fantasy football game. Arrrggggh!

Worst of all there’s no history — every month the deck gets cleared with no way on “the morning after” of even seeing the standings! Super Arrrrggghh!

Where are the simple, fast, social prediction games? OK, heads down on bringing H2H to B3TZ — enough goofing around!

 

Books: The War Of Art

war-of-art-gif1-243x387The War Of Art is a short, blunt treatise on why the creative process is so hard and what to do about it. Steven Pressfield, the author, lays out his advice with the kind of certainty that lives somewhere between a combat General and a gypsy fortune teller. He builds his case in three parts:

1. Resistance — Pressfield defines the creative process very broadly (starting a diet, building a company, learning to dance, writing a novel, etc.) and then describes in detail the force of nature, the evil force — Resistance! — that works incessantly to derail creative work.

2. Combating Resistance — the focus on work is the only way to fight resistance and in this section he goes into depth on the difference between amateurs and professionals.

3. Beyond Resistance — this section is about what keeps a person humble and focused enough to be professional. There’s a bunch of psych theory, dreams, and lots of talk of Muses and higher powers, most of it some combination of fascinating and helpful.

Two parts stuck with me on this first read. I loved the quote that shows up a few times — and is the basis for his theory of professionalism — which I think he paraphrased from the Baghavad Gita:

You have a right to your labor, not the fruits of your labor.

The focus on action as reward is a superhelpful mental posture for me.

The second part that stayed with me was Pressfield’s Largo dream sequence — where he’s on a navy ship under attack and everyone including himself is looking for help from this badass sergeant named Largo. After a few encounters with other soldiers it slowly dawns on him that he *is* Largo. I thought that was a pretty cool way for a subconscious to deliver the message — you have more power to be awesome than you think.

The book has a decidedly military flavor which may be off-putting in some quarters, but personally I loved the approach. Pressfield puts creative effort into a moral framework and provides a compelling model of the world that gives me a map and a kick in the butt around things I wrestle with all the time — doing great work and being a professional.

Shout out to Bax for staying on me for the last 3 years to read this, glad I did.

Crush That Candy

Candy_CrushThis spring when King rolled past Zynga for the coveted “Largest Game On Facebook” title I thought I’d join up with the other 50 million people a month and check out Candy Crush Saga.

Of course the game is designed, like Farmville before it, as a carefully balanced short-term gratification delivery system. Say what you want about the moral value of throwing millions of people off an impulse-control cliff, you have to admire the sleekness of the throwing machine.

What makes it work?

1. Portable Skillz
The game is based on the three-in-a-row grid matching puzzle mechanics of dozens of games like Bubbles or Bejeweled or the frooty hipster Dots. There are a lotta people who already have those skills going to waste — here’s a new outlet! I’m still waiting to see a resume from a prospective employee that has video game high scores listed in the Skills section.

2. The Publishing Model
I worked at Microsoft during the most recent industry swing to “software as a service” — better to have a smaller annuity income with lower sales costs and lock those customers in! Can you even buy Office without a subscription now? Someone will wake up soon and realize that they don’t really want to be in the publishing business.. but I digress. Candy Crush saga took the super-popular Bejeweled and — again like Farmville — bolted a “services” model on it. The game currently has 400+ “episodes” and delivers a new set every few weeks, so effectively King is a game content service (um, publisher?) with 50 million monthly subscribers.

3. Friends Give Lives
The genius of Farmville was the tricky scarcity profile of its sharing economy — you might get a golden egg if you feed your neighbors chickens, which you can do only once a day, but when you find one you actually get two — one for you and one for your neighbor. Or the catalog of free things — they’re actually only free if you give them to people, you can’t gift yourself. These mechanics created a pretty powerful incentive to recruit sharing neighbors. Candy Crush Saga builds scarcity around “lives” and you fail a level you lose a life — and these only regenerate every 30 minutes. But, you can have Facebook friends send you a life.. You see where this is going.

Well, Candy Crush Saga was gone from my life after a couple weeks — the “nation-sized” competition pool was interesting, and apparently 1 in 7 people in Hong Kong play the game, so its popularity has social value in its own right (think: Disney, or Angry Birds). But the growth curve is too shallow and arbitrary to keep my interest so my sugar rush is over. What’s next?