Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Are Videogames Changing the NFL?

In one of the most memorable scenes of Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, a toxic cloud--what DeLillo famously called an airborne toxic event--hovers over the small town in which the narrative's main protagonist, Jack Gladney, lives. Here is Gladney making small talk with a member of the emergency personnel called into action during the emergency:

"That's quite an armband you've got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important."
"Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they're still battling over funds for."
"But this evacuation isn't simulated. It's real."
"We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model."
"A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?"
"We took it right into the streets."
"How is it going?" I said.
"The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like. There's a probability excess. Plus which we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation. In other words we're forced to take our victims as we find them. We didn't get a jump on computer traffic. Suddenly it just spilled out, three-dimensionally, all over the landscape. You have to make allowances for the fact that everything we see tonight is real. There's a lot of polishing we still have to do. But that's what this exercise is all about."

I immediately thought of this passage when I began reading a recent Wired story, "Game Changers: How Videogames Trained a Generation of Athletes." It's a supremely good article, but here are some highlights:

For more than 30 years, sports videogames have been focused on simulating real-life athletics more and more perfectly. But over the past decade, games have moved beyond just imitating the action on the field. Now they’re changing it.


“These games nowadays are just so technically sound that they’re a learning tool,” says Tim Grunhard, an All-Pro center for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s who now coaches high school football in the Kansas City area, where he encourages his players to use Madden to improve their knowledge of football strategy and tactics. “Back when I was playing football, we didn’t realize what a near or a far formation was, we didn’t really understand what trips meant, we didn’t understand what cover 2, cover 3, and cover zero meant,” Grunhard says, charging through jargon that’s comprehensible only to Madden players and football obsessives.

And, in addition to teaching football strategy and terminology, Madden might make you a better athlete:

But this activity isn’t just an exercise in self-obsession. Whether they know it or not, these athletes may actually be strengthening their brains. Cognitive scientists have published a series of studies demonstrating that playing fast-paced action videogames — mostly first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo — can alter “some of the fundamental aspects of visual attention,” as a paper published in the July 2009 issue of Neuropsychologia put it. By training on these games, researchers found, nongamers can achieve faster reaction time, improved hand-eye coordination, and greatly increased ability to process multiple stimuli. Studies have demonstrated that military pilots and laparoscopic surgeons can improve their professional skills by playing videogames. It’s not much of a leap to think that athletes could, too.

DeLillo often seems prophetic, but this is becoming ridiculous.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Anne M. Wagner's essay "Maya Lin's Wall" (The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington) in A New Literary History of America:

In the end what was most provocative about Maya Lin's memorial--and most disturbing to its opponents--is its willingness to dispense entirely with any evocation of the bodies of the fallen. Which is to say her conception underscores--even replicates--a central, irrefutable fact. Death is loss. When translated into sculpture, bodily absence may register as poignant or threatening, necessary or unbearable; viewers, Hart [, Frederick, a memorial designer who submitted a rival design] among them, have always responded and continue to respond in all these ways. But one thing is certain: with the body and its surrogates so thoroughgoingly banished by the work's abstraction, various animated rituals have been revived or devised to take its place. When viewers visit the Wall, they often supplement its blank surfaces by leaving some relic or talisman--a letter, flowers, photographs, a piece of clothing their loved one once wore--against its slick black planes. And they may well depart with a pencil rubbing of his name. (All the names on the wall, save those of eight female nurses, are male.) This pattern of giving and taking stretches back centuries and has been found at the holiest of sites. When it happens at the Wall, however, there can be no doubt that it responds to--is catalyzed by--Lin's radical simplicity of form.

As I've mentioned before, I think war memorials are endlessly fascinating. You can experience the wall, virtually, at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's website.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Initial 2666 Thoughts

As I mentioned last week, there's a very cool group read of Roberto Bolano's novel 2666 starting on Monday. I wasn't necessarily planning on doing much writing on the subject because there are people much smarter than I who'll be discussing 2666 as part of this group read. But if the great Matt Bucher is going to go out of his way to mention The Daily Snowman in his roundup of bloggers and others participating in the group read, I might as well volunteer my thoughts.

So here are two things I loved about the first 51 pages of 2666.

Thing the first: The most conspicuous formal feature of the novel's first section is the run-on sentence stretching from pages 18 to 22. The nice part about Bolano's use of this extremely long sentence is that it works perfectly in the context of the plot. Briefly, four scholars of the reclusive writer Benno von Archimboli have just met a man, referred to as the Swabian, who had shared a dinner table with Archimboli. These four academics--who've devoted countless years of study to the mysterious writer--must have been held in rapt attention, hearing from someone who had encountered the object of their study. They would have waited breathlessly for any scrap of information regarding Archimboli. In short, the reader experiences the Swabian's story in very much the same way that the four critics experienced it. This is formal experimentation for the benefit of the plot, not just for the sake of experimentation. That's cool.

Thing the second: At one point (pg. 40) Bolano recounts a conversation held between two of the critics, Pelletier and Espinoza. Here's the first few lines of Bolano's description:

The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton's name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times.

The novel proceeds in this direction for several more lines, enumerating how many times certain words were used by the two conversationalists.

Italo Calvino, in his novel If on a winter's night a traveler..., satirizes people who read books by counting up the number of specific words used. So if a book uses a preponderance of military words, you can be certain that the book focuses on war. In the context of Calvino's book, it's a biting critique of those who don't truly read. But in Bolano's able hands, it works.

And remember, it's not too late to join the group read.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yale School Musical

I'm not sure if this is the work of a madhuman or a genius. But make sure to watch until the LARPers.

As a marketing-focused guest-blogger (hey, another guest post is up), I do find it interesting that I watched what amounts to a ~16 minute ad for Yale. 16 straight minutes is a pretty significant hold on my attention.

Via @KenTremendous.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Taking This Show on the Road

This is an exciting bit of news. Starting, oh, about 25 minutes ago I became a guest blogger for a cool site called PhoneMarketingInsider.com. I'll be blogging there each weekday, for at least the next two weeks, about all types of marketing. This is only good news for people who like what I write: I'm still going to come hang out here, to write about all things not marketing. But now you can find me each weekday as well, part of this traveling roadshow thing I'd like to develop.

So check out my first entry, and remember to hit up the new link conveniently located on the right side of this blog.

2666 Group Read

Just a quick public service announcement: Matt Bucher (editor of bolanobolano.com, presenter at last year's Footnotes conference, and administrator of wallace-l, the DFW online group) is organizing a group read of Roberto Bolano's book, 2666. The format of the group is modeled on Infinite Summer, the recent online group read of Infinite Jest. Discussion of the first 50 pages will commence on January 25, so there's still time to procure a copy of the book and to get reading. For more on 2666, The New Canon has some nice background information. I'm going along for this ride. Anyone want to join?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Paragraph of the Week

From Neal Stephenson's Anathem:

Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people had interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day's end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them...All others had to look outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars were so concerned with sports and with religion. How else could you see yourself as past of an adventure.

As you can tell from my reading lists, I don't really read sci-fi/fantasy, at least during the last two years. But I really liked Anathem. It's a seriously immersive read.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Change the way you think

Some symbols just won't die. Open up your version of Microsoft Word and look at the button used to save your document: it's a floppy disk. This image used to make sense, because floppy disks were the dominant mode of computer storage for a twenty year stretch. But that floppy reign ended more than a decade ago. A significant percentage of today's computer users have probably never even seen a floppy disk. Yet there it is, the international symbol for saving a document.*

*Granted, it's not easy to come up with a replacement symbol. The floppy disk example demonstrates the folly of equating the save symbol with the physical object used to save information; things just move too quickly. Maybe a cloud, representing cloud computing, could work. But even this less-literal metaphor equates the method with the outcome. 

In a similar vein, New York's Vulture blog recently had some fun compiling a list of movie clichés that technology just can't kill, including my personal favorite, automatic windows:
Any time a character needs someone to roll down a window, they still make the crankety-crank motion, assumably because mime-pressing an imaginary automatic-window button is just way too hard to decipher.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Your feelings on the new Sherlock Holmes movie will probably mostly depend on your feelings on superhero movies in general. Make no mistake: Sherlock Holmes fits squarely in the superhero genre that we've all become familiar with over the previous decade. Holmes, of course, follows the Batman model (basically human and theoretically--if not practically as the title character in a movie desperate to spawn a franchise--mortal) more closely than the Superman model (not human and not really mortal); his specific power is a big brain. That's a slight shift from the usual superhero fare but it's one of detail rather than overall direction. Holmes still gets to save the girl, and defeat the villain (on top of an unfinished bridge, suspended hundreds of feet in the air, no less), and frustrate his sidekick with unnecessary risk taking, and dedicate some time for comic relief (nothing's funnier than a flatulent dog), and set the stage for a sequel.* I might be bored with movies in which there's no possibility for anything seriously bad to happen. (The most egregious example here is Watson's unexplained survival of an elaborate three minute explosion sequence.)

*Sherlock Holmes has already earned $228,975,000 worldwide according to Box Office Mojo, so there's no chance that a sequel won't be made, but I think it would be fun to track movies that obviously set the viewer up for a sequel but fail so spectacularly that one is never greenlit. Just a small bit of schadenfreude directed at overconfident directors.

But even if you're not yet bored with superhero movies and conventions, your enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes will also depend on your enthusiasm for Scooby-Doo-style storytelling techniques. This is because the plot of Holmes precisely follows that of an episode of The Scooby-Doo Show. The mystery is established, Holmes or Fred (or Velma or whomever) acts counter-intuitively to defeat the villain, and the rest of the movie/episode is spent explaining the mystery. In Sherlock Holmes, the good detective pauses every twenty minutes or so to explain to Watson--or, less plausibly, to the bad-guy--why he did something and how he saw through the deception. An awful lot of Robert Downey, Jr. explaining things goes on in what is supposed to be an adventure movie.

Monday, January 4, 2010

DFW and the Village Chorus

I just finished James Wood's excellent How Fiction Works. This is a longish quote, but it's excellent. Wood has just described how authors utilize what he calls free indirect style, whereby the character being described affects the perspective, diction, and style of even a third-person narrator. He continues with the following short chapter on DFW and his use of this technique:

A contemporary writer like David Foster Wallace wants to push this tension to the limit. He writes from his characters' voices and simultaneously over them, obliterating them in order to explore larger, if more abstract, questions of language. In this passage from his story "The Suffering Channel," he evokes the ruined argot of Manhattan media-speak:

The other Style piece the associate editor had referred to concerned The Suffering Channel, a wide grid cable venture that Atwater had gotten Laurel Manderley to do an end run and pitch directly to the editor's head intern for WHAT IN THE WORLD. Atwater was one of three full time salarymen tasked to the WITW feature, which received .75 editorial pages per week, and was the closest any of the BSG weeklies got to freakshow or tabloid, and was a bone of contention at the very highest levels of Style. The staff size and large font space meant that Skip Atwater was officially contracted for one 400 word piece every three weeks, except the juniormost of the WITW salarymen had been on half time ever since Eckleschafft-Böd had forced Mrs. Anger to cut the editorial budget for everything except celebrity news, so in reality it was more like three finished pieces every weeks.

Here is another example of what I called "unidentified free indirect style." As in the Chekhov story, the language hovers around the viewpoint of the character (the journalist Atwater), but really emanates from a kind of "village chorus"--it is an amalgam of the kind of language we might expect this particular community to speak if they were telling the story.

And later: "In Wallace's case, the language of his unidentified narration is fairly ugly, and a bit painful for more than a page or two." Even later-er: "Wallace pushes to parodic extremes his full-immersion method: he does not flinch at narrating twenty or thirty pages in the style quoted above."

Anyone who's slogged through the Wardine section of Infinite Jest is here nodding in agreement.