Wednesday, January 29, 2014

I Just Want the Damn Screeners

Very rarely does moviegoing feel like a chore to me, but it does happen once in a while. (Like the time we decided to watch all three extended-edition Lord of the Rings movies in a single day... but that's another story.)

The 2014 Oscar nominations were announced on January 16th. The awards will be handed out on March 2nd. That's just forty-five days--barely a month and a half--for Academy voters (and interested civilians like moi) to make their decisions. And once again this year, there are nine Best Picture nominees. Nine! DeeAnn and I have seen three of them. The least depressing ones, apparently. More on that later.

I don't have a horse in this race, but suppose--just suppose--you're a conscientious Academy member who wants to actually watch all the nominated films before voting. Well, you've got your work cut out for you. Ballots are due back to PricewaterhouseCoopers for final tabulation no later than 5:00 PM Pacific Time on February 25th. And in the worst-case scenario--i.e., you haven't seen any of the nominees--you've got fifty-seven movies to watch in just forty days.

(ASIDE: it's not actually that bad, since fifteen of those nominees are short films--five each of documentary, animated, and live action--and you could cheat on original song by voting for a song without having seen the film in which it's featured, and you may not actually be eligible to vote in some categories because of your specific profession. But for the sake of the thought experiment, let's examine the absolute worst case here.)

If you wanted to watch every single one of the nominated films before voting, you'd have to watch an average of three movies every two days. That in itself is not a hardship--people pay to sit through much more than that at film festivals--but the catch is that many of these movies are only playing in theatres. If you're an Academy member in Los Angeles, your card will get you into any number of screenings for free, and you've probably also got a stack of DVDs at home sent to you by the studios. So it's just a matter of making the time.

But what about the aforementioned civilians, like myself, who are interested in the big pageant and want to have informed opinions at their viewing parties? That's a lot tougher. Of the Best Picture nominees, only one (Captain Phillips) has been released on DVD so far. A few years ago, Shorts International started packaging each year's nominated live action and animated shorts for limited theatrical runs (and sells some of them on iTunes, though availability there is spotty). Some of the foreign films might never see an American release. The only good news, I suppose, is that all the Documentary Feature nominees are available for home viewing, and four out of the five (The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, and The Square) are on Netflix streaming.

Which brings me to my point: why don't movie studios want to distribute their films more widely? It would seem to be to their advantage to let people buy--or even just rent--movies during awards season, when the media is all fired up about reporting on the races, and even smaller films can get a lot of exposure. Sure, I can pay to see all the Best Picture nominees--but I'd have to drive to at least three different theatres, and plan my day around whatever showtimes were available. If those movies were available to rent from Amazon Instant Video (not iTunes, because their rental interface sucks eggs), I would be all over that--and I'm sure a lot of other people would be, too.

The studios aren't making any more money by limiting my viewing options. They're actually losing money, because many of the films I would see now--while they're Academy Award nominees--I will forget about later, because most of them won't actually win an Oscar, and then I'll lose interest.

It's not the money that's the issue; it's convenience. I will totally spend as much as ten bucks on a movie rental, but I won't spend the time required to find a showtime and location that fit into my schedule. Because at the end of the day, it's just entertainment, and I have lots of other, more convenient options for fun things to do.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I Hate the Word "Tribe"

Just to be clear: this is not a rant against Seth Godin. I actually think he's got some pretty great ideas about leadership, as shown in his TED talk from 2009 (worth watching for the vintage Kindle 1 prop, if nothing else).

My problem is with the word "tribe" and all it implies: exclusion, small-mindedness, and bigotry.

I know. You're probably thinking that tribe is a positive concept, as Godin argues in his book; that it signals connection and camaraderie, often across great distances; that it can be a lifeline for those who feel isolated by their unusual interests. And that is all true and good, ideologically speaking. My specific problem is with terminology, and the unfortunate etymological baggage that comes with calling something a "tribe."

Try this. Do a Google Image Search for the word "tribe." I'm guessing your entire first page of results will be photos of primitive-looking, possibly aboriginal peoples:

And that, I believe, is the first thing that comes to mind when anyone says the word "tribe:" it's not some noble grassroots movement petitioning for political change, and not some far-flung collective which has self-organized over the Internet. No. It's a bunch of crudely dressed people of color standing around a jungle, forest, or other wilderness. In a word: savages.

I know how people want to use the word, as a rallying point--perhaps even subverting that prejudicial, historical meaning--but it's difficult for me to get beyond it. Because the concept of "tribe" is explicitly discriminatory. People talk about "finding their tribe" in a good way, but I'm always painfully aware of the flip side: that by identifying yourself with one group, you are also willfully segregating yourself from others. If only a select group are "your people," then everyone else in the world is, by definition, not your brethren. And that puts you one step closer to thinking of them as your enemy.

Even if you don't go that far, one could argue that these tribal distinctions are necessary and unavoidable. We could talk about the Rule of 150 (a.k.a. Dunbar's number), but it's more fun to discuss...

...the Monkeysphere!

Because, you know, monkeys.

If you haven't yet, go and read "What is the Monkeysphere?" by David Wong. Yes, it's on, but don't let that fool you--the tone may be flippant, but the issues it addresses are serious, and his conclusions are sound.

(BTW, "David Wong" is the pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of; he's also written two comic horror novels, John Dies at the End and This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It. I did not make up any of this.)

Wong's basic argument is the same as Dunbar's, Gladwell's, and any number of other social scientists: that there is an upper limit to human beings' cognitive ability to maintain stable social relationships, and that limit is about a hundred and fifty people. But Wong distinguishes himself on page 2 of his article, where he offers this advice:
[R]eject [the] binary thinking of "good vs. bad" or "us vs. them." Know problems cannot be solved with clever slogans and over-simplified step-by-step programs... take the amount you think you know, reduce it by 99.999%, and then you'll have an idea of how much you actually know regarding things outside your Monkeysphere.
It's not about denying our biological deficiencies. It's about acknowledging and accepting those limits, and finding ways to overcome or bypass them. Can't run fast enough to chase down that prey animal? Try riding a horse, or domesticating dogs, or inventing projectile weapons. Not sure when it's going to get cold again or when's a good time to plant crops? Invent the calendar and keep track of annual weather cycles. The history of human civilization is all about us giving Mother Nature the middle finger and saying "screw this, we can do better."

In this case, however, it's not about science or technology or engineering; it's about changing the way we think of ourselves and others, and that is a tough, long-term, cultural conundrum. It's not something we can cure with a pill or a device or legislation or even a good story. It's something that has to happen to every person, individually, as he or she grows up. You've got to be carefully taught and all that.

I hate the word "tribe" because it implies we're still restricted by that cognitive limit, and we can't get beyond it. And that's just not true. Maybe I don't personally know every single one of the hundreds of people I'm connected to through Twitter or Facebook or other social media, but I know a little bit about each of them. And every small piece of information makes those names and tiny pictures more human to me.

It's not about who's in which tribe, or whether I share all (or any) of their likes or dislikes or political views. It's about people, and understanding that diversity is good. I want to be friends with smart people who disagree with me (as long as they're not jerks about it)!

The thing I'm really interested in is community. (I know some people don't like that word either, and I can understand where they're coming from: again, it's all about usage and intent. Prefixing anything with "the" can assign it an undeserved weight--for example, consider the difference between one show called "Following," versus another called "The Following".)

To me, "community" implies openness and a willingness to embrace new members. Fandom is a community. The Internet is chock-full of meeting places for all sorts of virtual communities, new cultures whose only entrance requirement is a shared interest in something. Create an account and you can immediately start posting and commenting and participating.

You might still have to kiss some frogs, but keep trying and you will find a place where you belong. And if that's taking too long? Start your own community. Plant the seed and see what happens. You have nothing to lose but your loneliness.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Enjoy Hunting for Puzzles

The statement above should come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I thought I'd use this space to clarify the spectrum of my liking for various puzzle and presentation types.

But first, just in case you've wandered into this blog totally at random:

Hi. I'm Curtis Chen, and I'm a puzzle gamer. I first played The Game at Stanford University in 1996, and I ran my first Game in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001. Since then, I've run or helped run more than fifty different puzzling events, including:

You could say I have a bit of a Gaming habit. Possibly even an obsession. (Sadly, not a career; I have been paid less than half a dozen times for doing puzzle-hunt-related things.) But I don't love all puzzles or puzzle events equally.

To the layperson, all puzzlers may appear very similar, but--as with any special interest group--there are many fine distinctions and gradations within our ranks. Certainly, there are those who love any kind of puzzle (broadly defined), whether it's a logical brain teaser or something math-related or pure wordplay. Some people just want to SOLVE ALL THE THINGS. But I suspect most are like myself, with definite preferences and dislikes.

I've been credited with coining (or at least popularizing) the term "underwear puzzles." I'm not a big fan of puzzle events that are just a bunch of puzzles you could have solved by yourself, at home, in your underwear; i.e., which don't take advantage of real-world interactivity. I prefer Games that actually get me out of the house and put me into unusual situations to have new experiences. I'm not really into the great outdoors per se, but if you tell me there's a puzzle hidden somewhere in the forest, I may spend a ridiculous amount of time searching for it. Because that's something I would probably never do otherwise, and I might never visit that location ever again.

It's all about the reward. I've tried a couple of "conference room" puzzle hunts--of which genre the granddaddy is, of course, the MIT Mystery Hunt--and they're just not my bag, baby. I do enjoy the intellectual challenge of any given puzzle, but I get bored very quickly. And for me, getting more puzzles to solve is not really a compelling reward; I want something else, like a new location to visit or a new bit of story or even an amusing video clip. Just give me a break before dumping another bucket of puzzles on my head.

Related to that, I enjoy team-play events more than solving by myself, but I prefer "linear" hunts to the "batch" model. (BTW, I'm just making up words here; feel free to suggest better terminology in the comments.) In a conference room hunt, you may have a huge team--say twelve people--and a large number of puzzles "unlocked" at any given time, which means that very often you'll end up with sub-teams of two or three people working on different puzzles. It then becomes impossible for any single person to solve, or even see all the puzzles, since you're racing against all the other teams to finish first. (Or possibly second, to subvert the tradition of the winning team running the next event.)

I approach puzzling events from more of an audience perspective, as opposed to a competitor perspective. When I'm reading a book, or watching a show, I want to enjoy the experience as it's happening--and if I'm really in love with it, I may not want it to end. I rarely watch a show or read a book just to be done with it, and I certainly don't compete with others to read faster or more than anyone else. Similarly, when I'm playing a Game, I don't care too much about my team's ranking relative to other teams (as long as we're not last!)--I care about whether we're all having fun. And it's more fun to solve puzzles at our own pace, without the added pressure of an artificial competition.

"But wait!" you may say. "Isn't Puzzled Pint exactly the kind of sit-around-and-solve event that you hate?" Well, first of all, I never said I hated conference room hunts; they're just not my favorite. And Puzzled Pint does get people out of the house, albeit to just one location. I don't know if I would play Puzzled Pint if I weren't on GC, but I support any attempt to draw puzzlers out of their shells to meet and interact with each other, and PP has certainly done that in Portland, Oregon.

Let's face it: we puzzlers are mostly just the kids who were good at homework, all grown up and looking for more problem sets to do. We may not all be introverted xenophobes, but we're all socially awkward to some degree--and even if that describes most of the human race, we may be more painfully aware that our particular hobby is way, way outside of the mainstream. It usually takes me five to ten minutes to explain puzzle hunts to any given stranger, and the two most typical responses are either "I could never do that" or "what do you win?"

And that's why I support all puzzling events, even if they're ones I wouldn't personally play in. Do you want to run Puzzled Pint in your city? Talk to us, we'll help you get started. Are you opening a new puzzle-related business? I will pimp it as hard as I can.

Because we're all in this together, and encouraging more people to have fun by exercising their minds will make the world a better place.

We few, we happy few, we band of puzzlers;
For he to-day that solves this Clue with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This Game shall gentle his condition!

(with apologies to William Shakespeare)


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

I Always Keep My Promises

As I write this, it's after midnight on Tuesday, less than ten hours before this post is supposed to go up. I briefly considered not taking the time to finish this, and instead just posting a "sorry, try again next week" message—but only briefly. Because I don't do that anymore. I don't fail just to see what the consequences will be.

It took me a long time to realize that I was doing this. Any time I got into a new project or started a new job, I would always blow a deadline early on, or oversleep and show up late for work, or otherwise fail to meet expectations. I would never do it consciously, but looking back, I'm pretty sure there was subconscious intent. It wasn't just random happenstance that caused me to underperform in such a predictable manner.

I suppose part of me thought this was a valid, even scientific thing to do: how will you know the consequences for failure in a particular situation, whether professional or personal, unless you test the waters a little? And isn't it better to miss a small deadline than to completely screw up a bigger project later?

Perhaps it was also an immature defense mechanism, a way of telling people not to depend on me because I might let them down. But whatever caused me to behave that way, it was pretty stupid. And I don't do that any more.

I'm proud of the fact that while I was doing 512 Words or Fewer, I did not miss a single one of the 256 consecutive weeks of posting flash fiction every Friday. True, sometimes it wouldn't be until Friday afternoon, and sometimes I would schedule posts ahead of time—when I knew I would be traveling or otherwise engaged on Thursday—but even that required planning and dedication. I made a promise, and I kept it.

But even more than the promise, the 512s were something that mattered to me. And I guess that's the real lesson here. I've always been willing to slack off when it came to things I didn't feel very passionate about, but when it's something that really matters to me—The Game, NaNoWriMo, family and friends—I don't make excuses for not getting things done. I figure out how to finish the job.

That's a whole lotta words, but maybe Ryan Gosling can say it more succinctly.

The other part of this is that I've learned how to budget my time better and how to say no. There's a lot of really cool stuff in the world I could do, but there are only so many hours in the day. If I don't think I can do something—and do it at least competently, if not perfectly—I won't commit to it. That's not to say I won't still overreach now and then, letting my enthusiasm overrule my analysis. But I do it a lot less than I used to.

It's easy to fail. It's easy to say you'll do something, and then do nothing. But in the long run, doing stuff is better, and reliability is a hugely underrated talent. Marshmallows!


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

SnoutCast #201: Ana Roeszler

Kicking off our year of interviews with women who make puzzle games is Ana Roeszler, one of the co-founders of Puzzled Pint and a core GC member for WarTron PDX!

Show length: 26:39
File size: 25.6MB
  [Download mp3]

What Else?

Tell us we're wrong on the Internet! E-mail or post a comment at

Music: instrumentals from "Code Monkey" and "Tom Cruise Crazy" by Jonathan Coulton

[ Subscribe to SnoutCast / iTunes link ]

Curtis DeeAnn Ana

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

I Miss My Friends

Last year, two of my friends took their own lives.

I was completely blindsided both times. Of course, no one should ever expect anybody they know to kill themselves, but I had not even an inkling that either of these people was so afflicted that they would even consider suicide. I know it's not my fault, and I know depression is complicated. It's been long enough that I've stopped wondering if I might have done something to help these two people specifically, and am now asking what I can do to help others with similar troubles.

I suppose that's progress.

Igal Koshevoy died on April 9, 2013. I hadn't seen him for a while, probably not since the last Portland tech community event. I missed BarCamp Portland 7 because of a trip to Seattle. At the end of that weekend, the Query Shark thing happened; two days later, I threw my "100 Rejections" party; and less than a week after that, as I was leaving for Paradise Lost III, I saw the terrible news on Twitter.

On one hand, it was a lot to deal with all at once; but it was also good, to have some distractions, and to be physically away from the immediate grief of his loss. We weren't especially close, but every time I saw Igal, he had a smile on his face and he was excited about something. Maybe that was a side effect of where I usually saw him--tech conferences, community events, party-type environments--but he always looked like he was happy to be there. I didn't know about his struggles with depression, and even if I had, I couldn't have helped. It's an illness, and sometimes we just can't cure an illness.

That's what I keep telling myself.

Matthew Schuler died on May 13, 2013. I knew him better than I knew Igal; he had joined Puzzled Pint Game Control in late 2012, and I saw him almost every week at our meetings. He brought a new energy and perspective to our monthly events, much of which came from his love of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). I got to know him better, a little bit at a time; DeeAnn and I played our first games of Starship Artemis at his house, and we celebrated his 40th birthday at Teardrop, where he explained about "serious cocktails."

I know more about Matthew's death than I know about Igal's. I sat in his house for most of that Monday, after receiving an e-mail with the awful news. People came and went all day, and none of us could believe it; at least once, someone joked that they were still hoping it might be a hoax, possibly the rabbit hole for the most tasteless ARG ever. But it wasn't. It was real, and the unyielding truth of it felt like an ever-increasing, oppressive gravity.

The day after Matthew died was our next Puzzled Pint event. We didn't cancel it; we presented the last puzzle he would ever make, all the men on Game Control wore neckties in his honor, and we observed a moment of silence. We sat with other people who had known him and talked about how it didn't make sense, how he had been making so many future plans with all of us.

What I really don't get is this:

That's Matthew, posting a comment about Igal right after his memorial service.


I was able to attend both Igal's and Matthew's memorial services, and both times was struck by the many similarities in our lives. Igal immigrated to the United States as a child, like me, and was two years younger than I am (born in the same year as my sister); Matthew was five months and eight days older than I am, and part Chinese (I'm a purebred).

On one day, I looked at a display of artifacts from Igal's childhood--many of which could have come out of my own closet. On another day, I listened to Matthew's family and friends talk about his love of games and music.

And on both days, I cried, because my friends are gone forever and I miss them.