Thursday, January 25, 2007

Books about games

I'm now reading Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris and quite enjoying it. He writes about his wins (and losses) on Jeopardy and mixes in personal memoir and exercises for memory retention! It's an easy read and, although I'm not crazy about the hyperbole-humor, a lot of it is funny and strangely useful (the memory stuff). And a lot is quite affecting. He writes about how he did well in school to prove himself because he was a scholarship kid among privileged prep school jerks who took their position in life for granted and then a page later he's completely ashamed when he realizes his older sister never watches Jeopardy with him and his parents because she never had the education her brother had -- he's also a jerk taking his gifts for granted. Good stuff, the game descriptions are surprisingly tense and he does some interesting things skipping through time to pull out emotional material in the middle of the telling of a trivia game. Works to slow the reader down and think about what's going on, reminding us that, after all, it's only a game.

Trebekistan is much, much better than Crossworld by Mark Romano. Clearly going for a Word Freak vibe, Romano explores the world of competitive crosswords. The reason I finished the book is that the characters and subject matter is so compelling. The book has a lot of good details about tournaments and people, but the film Wordplay is a lot better. The introduction of John Delfin, a piano accompanist and crossword champion and constructor gives so much insight into his mind, his life and his personality in under three minutes. He seemed like a fascinating guy in Crossworld, but Romano never gets this deep. The other thing about this book is that Romano's voice really bugged me. He's constantly complaining about how smart he is (yes, that's what I wrote) with the point being that a) there are smarter people out there and b) book smarts isn't what always wins crossword puzzles. He also has a need to be one of the cool kids smoking in the back of the room. Not Stefan Fatsis.

Fatsis' Word Freak is about Scrabble, specifically competitive Scrabble. And Fatsis dives into being a geek. He's NOT as smart as these other people and they're weird but he wants to be like them (unlike Romano who is always trying to keep a cool distance, except when he's kissing Will Shortz' butt). I saw Fatsis at Wordsworth Bookstore (RIP) when the book came out and he was very engaging and a good reader. The book has lots of great characters and makes you want to play Scrabble. Also, now when I heard Fatsis on NPR I feel like I have some insight into his weirdest habits.

Oh, and another thing that bugged me about Romano's book is a totally nonsensical interpretation of the Disk of Phaistos.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Galactica Gag Reel

Baldwin sent me this link to a Season 3 Galactica Gag Reel. He says it's worth the 13 minutes. I say it's not long enough.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Test Tube Baby Babies

For anyone who saw the movie Test Tube Babies on AmEx (streaming online!) or just interested in IVF, turns out that Louise Brown (TTB1) just had a baby herself. This news clip says that Louise's sister was in fact the first TTB to give birth.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

More Galactica

Ronald Moore and David Eick are interviewed by the Chicago Tribune here. The fate of Kara Thrace hangs in the balance...

(Spoilery summary: something will happen to her, she will not appear in the final three episodes.)

Al Gore video

I hate to rehash this, but these two videos shot by Spike Jonze are a great reminder of what a decent person Al is.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Income and Happiness

Christoper Shea wrote a column in the Boston Globe a few months ago (Oct 15, 2006). This is the passage I found particularly relevant:
Several economic studies affirm that the correlation of income and happiness is nowhere near what people think. One finds that in developed societies there is slightly more happiness at the 75th percentile of income than at the 50th, but that above the 75th percentile more money doesn’t matter.
This of course begs the question of where on the scale of income you are. In this case, I'm actually going to cite Wikipedia, because this article has charts taken directly from the US Census site and the original Census pages are .pdfs (easily found by Googling "income percentile census" or such). In 2006, households at the 75th percentile were earning $77,500 a year.

Of course the argument about happiness has to do with basic comfort levels being met and then envy for material things versus time and peace of mind. This means that your happiness will also vary a lot based on the cost of living where you live and the people you hang out with (those charts break income down by race, for example).

In related links, financial columnist Scott Burns also has a chart on his site that cites the level of prosperity based on net worth, something most easily figured out if you're using Quicken or another household accounting program.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I should be writing about our Christmas, etc. but before I get to it, I wanted to put out some links to some television related sites of interest.

Probably the best show produced these days is Battlestar Galactica. Slate has an article about the show's writers with links to four hours of writer's room conversations -- not commentaries, pre-production discussions -- of the episode "Scar." And then the official Battlestar Galactica site had that episode available online for a while.

Also on the Universal/NBC ticket is Friday Night Lights. Don't know why I like it so much, but it's pretty absorbing. The characters are pretty interesting and while occasional flipping through made the show seem somewhat trashy, by watching complete episodes online, I'm realizing that the characters do lash out wildly, but never without motivation that suits them. All the episodes are currently viewable online (with six 30-second commercials interspersed throughout).

Of interest to writers is Jane Espenson's site. She was a staff writer on Buffy and has written for Battlestar and various sitcoms. Her blog focuses on giving advice to aspiring television writers but is fascinating in just suggesting ways to write jokes, or telegraph character that transcends the genre. Plus, now I'm always curious about what she's eating for lunch.

Not a recommendation yet, but one of the writers of 24 has a blog on Might be more interesting as the season comes on.

Finally, set your TiVos! February 5th, PBS is airing "The Living Weapon," a terribly titled one hour documentary on the American biological weapons program. It's fascinating. Plants were churning out botulism (one ounce of botulinum toxin could kill everyone on earth) and other diseases and Secret Ops were testing distribution systems. In the New York subways. And off the coast of San Francisco. And in the neighborhoods of Savannah. And the Pentagon. (The trains in the tunnels quickly pushed the test bacteria all through the system, everyone in S.F. was exposed, thousands of the species of mosquitoes that carry Yellow Fever were spread throughout Savannah, and the Pentagon HVAC distributed the bacteria throughout the building.) The program ended when Nixon banned the test and production of bioweapons.

Really worth seeing. Soon, the website will be up at this URL, with previously classified DOD films, a map that shows where tests were done, and lots more. Eventually, the film itself will stream on the site, but not until a while after the airdate.