iPhone Game: Trism

A recent article on CNN about the sales success of the iPhone game Trism spurred me to write about how addicted I am to that game. Shortly after the App Store launched, I looked for something fun to play. I originally thought I’d go with the classic Bejeweled, but reading the reviews, everyone loved Trism. What convinced me to buy it is that it was a puzzle game that incorporated the accelerometer, so it became kind of multidimensional. The mechanic is not only clever — it enhances game play. Playing Trism has pretty much taken over my commute — in the carpool or on BART, I’m tilting my iPhone wildly to rack up the longest chains. If you’re looking for an iPhone game and dig Tetris and Bejeweled, Trism is definitely worth a shot.

Movie Review: Synecdoche, New York

For the first time since the birth of our son, Jules, last night Stacy and I went out on a date to see a movie, handing the kid into the very capable hands of a babysitter friend. Given the rarity of this occasion, I scanned Metacritic to make the most of this choice. I dismissed our initial impulses towards safe, fun, and likely forgettable (Quantum of Solace) and we instead saw something that has polarized critics, Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman is not a slam dunk for me (I loved Eternal Sunshine, and deplored Adaptation), but I know that this movie would incite passionate response.

Well, this morning I woke up still thinking about the movie, which I take as a sign of remarkable success. Though I cannot say that I loved Synecdoche, it has captivated me, and I find myself turning characterizations and story points over in my mind.

Other reviews acknowledge how this film shares many similar themes with Kaufman’s other work (memory, neurosis, love, melancholy) though one crucial quality they neglect to point out is silliness. Whether it’s the New Jersey Turnpike in Being John Malkovich, the stoned techs in Eternal Sunshine, or in this movie, Tom Noonan’s initial appearances, or the house on fire, Kaufman revels in the silly. It’s probably worth remembering that Kaufman got his start in TV sitcoms, and he can still make an audience laugh. I don’t mean to suggest that silliness implies a lack of depth — in Kaufman’s world, it becomes a tool or irony or absurdity, the humor forcing us to reconsider just what it is that we’re seeing.

What most surprised me about this film, compared to Kaufman’s earlier work, is how he engages with the body. From the moment of Olive’s bright green poo, to the Caden’s head trauma, pustules, bloody urine, the therapist’s feet, tattoos, flab, thinning hair, and more, this Cronenberg-ian in it’s bodily obsessions.

The other filmmaker that came to my mind was David Lynch, in terms of the matter-of-fact surrealism that abounds. Perhaps Bunuel would be a more apt reference. This will be the single quality that most frustrates most viewers, because today’s audiences can’t handle the truly fantastic. Explanations are required. So, for example, *why* is Hazel’s house on fire? *Why* is there a divorced man living in its basement? The answer is, “Because.” I found that it felt right, and went with its flow.

The construction of the film made me think of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages. It’s remarkably taut, precise, and eclectic.

For the bulk of the film, I found the narrative to be so cerebral that while I was intrigued by what I was seeing, I wasn’t emotionally invested. That began to shift in the last quarter or so, where the heart-tugging actually worked. The performances in the film are solid throughout, but Dianne Wiest, who comes in around that last quarter, is amazing, and takes the movie to a whole new emotional depth.

(I must say I also love seeing Tom Noonan get a meaty role. His screen presence is so compelling, and pretty much always rewarding.)

Anyway, if you care about cinema, and are dismayed at how few filmmakers are trying to do anything interesting with the form or medium, I recommend viewing Synecdoche. You might not like it, but you won’t help but have a strong reaction.

Thinking about Theory (Warning: Interaction Design Nerdery Ahead)

In conversations and on mailing lists addressing the design of interactive media, I’ve found myself growing uneasy with just how little understanding most people practicing in the field have of how they are influenced by the various theories that undergird are standard practice. I think it can be problematic that so people are working in the context of these theories don’t understand how the theories’ assumptions are coloring their approaches.

What do I mean by theory? Theory is a robust conceptual framework that undergirds a practice. Standard thoughtful practice of design for interactive media is predicated on a cobbled-together set of theories, most of them coming out of the HCI community, which has been heavily influenced by cognitive psychology (think Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things). So you have things like distributed cognition, perception, attention, etc. Cog psych tends to focus on the individual.

Another major influencer is Activity Theory, which I believe gained traction as researchers studied the workplace, and wanted to understand how technology influences groups of people, not just individuals. Since the dawn of the Web, there’s also been significant inroads by the Library and Information Science community (Information retrieval, metadata, etc.).

As experience design leads to people trying to understand more complex situations, we’re seeing folks embrace anthropological and sociological methods… which also have their various theoretical underpinnings, far too numerous to go into here.

I believe that my exposure to and understanding of various theories (not to say I’m an expert in them) has heightened my experience and practice in design for interactive media. But I also know I’m a knowledge wonk who gets off on such things. Still, I think people will perform better when understanding the theoretical constructs in which they operate, so they can appreciate self-imposed arbitrary limits that may not have realized. Pragmatists might take issue, saying that all that matters is practice and results. That might be true if we were designing simpler systems. I think theory gives us tools for making smart heuristic judgments that help manage the complexity inherent in our work.

Here we go again… already?

Last night’s The Daily Show featured an interview with eternal optimist Thomas Friedman. In it, Friedman argues that the way forward is through investment and innovation in the energy industry. He even promotes an “energy bubble,” saying that the infrastructure such a bubble would lay would make the pain of the bubble worth it. While it’s clear that the energy industry is the likely Next Big Thing, whenever I hear folks talk it up, I think about this article from Harper’s last February, “The Next Bubble: Priming The Markets For Tomorrow’s Big Crash,” the thesis of which is that the American economy has become reliant on bubbles, the most recent being technology in the late 90s and housing in the middle of this decade, with energy being the next wave in the next decade.

George Soros, in his recent piece, “The Crisis & What to Do About It”, talks of a “super-bubble” our economy has been in since the move toward deregulation in the early 80s (thanks to both Reagan and Thatcher), which, juxtaposed with the Harper’s piece, suggests why we seem to be in this sequential-bubble-economy. The question seems to be, while energy innovation and investment is valuable, can we do it in such a way to mitigate the inevitable bust?

The first in my memory

Barack’s election is a big deal. Something I had meant to post before tonight, but hadn’t gotten around to, was a realization I had about the 4 candidates for the two highest offices. For the first time in memory, all four candidates were folks who came from no privilege, no family assumptions as to the status they’d achieve. Each are self-made, and I felt that that simple fact was pretty substantial.

Parenthood – the biggest difference so far

Some folks ask me what’s been the biggest difference in my life now that I have a child. For a while, it was hard to say what was because of the child, as I was on leave from work for 6 weeks, and bought a house. Now that I’ve been back to work a couple weeks, and we’re settling into the new house, what I’m seeing as the emerging distinction is a new domesticity. When I leave the office, I’m pretty much done with work — I’ve done far less “work from home” this past two weeks than before. Instead, I’m focused on whatever needs to happen at home, even if it’s just calming Jules.

We’ll see how this goes.