It’s hard to make a good game

It’s easy to come up with a new game; my kids do it all the time. But coming up with a good game, one that people will enjoy playing over and over, is really difficult. It needs just the right combination of luck and skill (or if not skill, at least the opportunity to make choices that influence the outcome). Grownups have fun playing Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders with their kids at first, because, hey, it’s their first game! But it’s not long before a game that is entirely based on luck becomes too much for the adults to bear.

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Art and intent

In August, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, where we saw an interesting exhibit called A Matter of Abstraction. One of the pieces we saw there was a sculpture by Ulysse Comtois called “Column No. 6”.

The piece looked sort of like an IKEA CD storage unit: a number of rectangular aluminum slabs mounted on a pole which ran through their center. The slabs were arranged in a gentle spiral pattern all the way up, except for the top three, which were more visibly staggered. I wondered about the appearance of the piece, especially since it was sitting in the middle of the floor, with no barrier or guard rope around it. Did the artist intend to have those top three slabs set off differently? Had a curator set it up that way during installation, either on purpose or accidentally? Or had a museum patron bumped into the piece, or perhaps mischievously moved the slabs?

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You never know

Funny story, from a memoir by a prominent conductor:

After a performance of the Meistersinger Prelude, I asked Sir Georg Solti why he still used the [score] after what must have been his three-hundredth performance of this piece.

“You never know what you might discover.”

Amplification in the theater

In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics and attendant observations on theater, Stephen Sondheim writes:

What bothers me [about amplification] is the softening effect it has on the audience’s concentration. [S]itting in those ceiling-scraping seats, hearing an orchestra hundreds of feet away, and squinting at Mary Martin’s face, which was the size of a dime, we had to concentrate. Mary Martin had a small, coy voice, and in order to hear her, we had to lean vertiginously forward. None of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us – we had to lean into it. The concentration required was so great that we had to shut out the real world, and in so doing we became participants in the experience, all of which made it easy to suspend disbelief and enter another world; and the more of that in the theater, the better. With the advent of amplification, ears became lazy and audiences now tend to visit rather than enter.

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Presenting with VLC

I lecture quite a bit on musical topics, often having to do with opera or dance. Putting together one of these lectures, or a set of them, often used to involve traveling with a bag full of LPs/CDs/DVDs/VHS tapes. Over the past few years, I’ve moved to digitizing everything, extracting just the excerpts I need. So now instead of a bag of stuff, I have a folder of MP3s and MP4s which I copy onto my laptop, and I’m good to go. It takes some upfront time the first time I prepare a lecture, but it’s well worth it.

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Let’s run it in.

An often-repeated story: In 1993, still a couple of years away from getting to the major leagues, future Yankee captain Derek Jeter was in spring training with then-captain Don Mattingly.

The shortstop and the veteran first baseman were finishing up a workout on a back field, all alone, the seats empty, not a player or team official in sight. A spent Jeter had started walking off the field – no urgency or bounce to his step – when a jogging Mattingly came up behind him and in passing said, “Let’s run it in. You never know who’s watching.”


This is a screenshot from the iTunes page of a handy iPhone app called Quotebook which allows you to collect your favorite quotes from different sources. I especially like the way it includes two autocorrect-induced typos.

Efficient communication and trust

Let’s say I’d like to accomplish the following task with some code: I’ve got a list of names of fruits, and I want to know how many contain the letter ‘a’. Back in the day, this might have been done in assembly language, very low-level instructions which directly tell a CPU the details of which bytes to move into which memory locations and how to examine them in order to find out the answer.

A more recent way of doing this in a typical high-level structured programming language (like C#) would look like this:

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Look, no hands!

A friend of mine linked to an NPR story called “What Happened to Leonard Bernstein’s Hands?”, which includes this wonderful video (watch what he does after the first 8 or 9 seconds):

As my teacher, the late Frederik Prausnitz, used to say, “You just have to figure out where you need to beat. It is a myth that orchestras need every beat of every bar. Some bars they don’t need it altogether.”

Giving a clear beat is in some sense both the most fundamental and the least important thing that a conductor can do. This Bernstein video is kind of an edge case, but it’s very illustrative nonetheless. Bernstein was a great conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra, and they worked together often and had a close relationship. Haydn’s music is not technically challenging for this orchestra; they could probably play it quite well with their eyes closed. And in this particular case, what the video shows is an encore of a movement they had just finished performing, with Bernstein conducting normally.

So does all this mean that Bernstein is doing nothing and just letting the orchestra have at it? Not at all. A conductor’s face can be as important as his hands in communicating with an orchestra (if not more so), and Bernstein had a very expressive face. What he is showing, very clearly, is the desired character of the music, along with an indication of how different parts of the orchestra take the lead at different times.

Most importantly, his face telegraphs changes in the music right before they take place, just like a good preparatory beat with the baton.