Five Stories, Four Walls, One of them Broken

I love a good story. I especially love a good story when it’s really well told. But I get the most excited when I encounter a good story that’s told well in a way that’s new to me.

On a recent family trip, we stopped to visit Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. I had lobbied to make it a point of call for us on the strength of a scant few facts: it had enlisted dozens of artists to create a fun house for adults, and it had $3.5 million of George RR Martin’s “Game of Thrones” fortune behind it. The nutritious vegetables of art combined with the delicious cheese sauce of lasers, arduinos, and black lights? Yes, please.

What I didn’t realize until we arrived and began exploring was that there’s a coherent narrative that underlies all of the mad, divergent installations that fill the House of Eternal Return’s 20,000 square feet. The story of an Orwellian totalitarian society, a family of experimenters, and an immortal hamster is told by means of pictures, a clothes dryer you crawl through, interactive exhibits, diaries and notebooks, and newspaper articles. Exploring the vast, dizzying space while stumbling across clues as to what happened to this family and where it lead them was one of the most engaging narrative experiences I’ve had in a long time. (Caveat: when at peak capacity, it becomes tough to fend off the jostling crowds enough to dig into the storyline. The “Blue Man Group has a rap battle with Burning Man while Tim Burton judges” vibe is still terrific, though.)

While not everyone has a taste for this sort of creative weirdness, I love it when storytellers try new things. If you’re a fan of this sort of thing, here for you are a few of my other favorite stories told in unusual ways:

The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of our Teeth” was the first play I remember seeing where the characters of the play address the audience directly, and the world of the story gets thoroughly mixed with the world of the play’s production. It blends the silly, serious, and sublime irresistibly. When I saw it for the first time in High School, it was one of the most emotionally affecting experiences I’d had up to then, even 40 years after it won its Pulitzer Prize. It gets produced from time to time on both amateur and professional stages; keep your eyes open for it!

Device 6

Device 6” is a narrative game that runs on iOS devices. While largely prose based and story driven, it does weird and wonderful things with the text that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional medium: turning words of the story itself into a map of the protagonist’s travels, blending beautifully-produced audio into the game’s puzzles, and having the soundtrack’s composer make an appearance in-game. It’s well worth the purchase if only to see the fascinating narrative devices that Simogo uses to tell its tale; the fact that it’s actually a good story is lagniappe.

S (Ship of Theseus)

Doug Dorset and J.J. Abrams, the same fellow who brought us “Lost” and some of the recent “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” films, also penned “S” (also known as “Ship of Theseus”), a terrifically interesting experiment in narrative in novel form. There are several parallel stories going on as you read through S: one is the text of the book itself. Another is a dialogue in the margins, purportedly left by readers of this copy of the book who wrote back to forth to each other in marginalia. Additional depth comes through other “real world” items — postcards, newspaper articles, ticket stubs — stuck in the book. Reading through all of these things and piecing together how the disparate parts fit together provides a wonderful sense of being “in on it,” of having stumbled across a rich, private world by accident.


Back in 2001, when I was working for Electronic Arts, that company launched Neil Young’s “Majestic,” a groundbreaking Alternate Reality Game. At its heart, Majestic was a conspiracy-theory riddled science fiction thriller. The storyline itself wasn’t particularly novel, but the way it was played was different than anything that preceded it. Rather than launching a game on the computer, players interacted with the narrative using all of the tools of real life: they received emails and faxes from characters in the game, got chat messages, scoured real websites for clues, and fielded phone calls and voice mails that advanced the plot. This blurring of the lines between real life and the game was fascinating and made for a really compelling narrative experience, and increased my disappointment when the game was cancelled around a year after its launch.

Each of these experiences tried something new and made their stories richer. They are some of my very favorite storytelling experiences as a result. What are some of your favorites that have tried new things and pushed the boundaries of the form?

Christmas Letter 2013

(This is the non-illustrated semantic HTML edition. Also available: the fancy photos-included PDF edition.)

Dear family and friends,

It has been quite a year for our family. We’ve enjoyed some great times together  with family and friends, a few promotions, a terrific (though slightly bittersweet) family vacation, a visit with alligators, an eviction from our house, a repatriation, and a new addition to the family. Read on for all of the details!

Kathy began the year working at Horizon Bay, an elder care facility around the corner from our house, as a caretaker. While she has a fantastic affection and gift for interacting with older folks, this was not a completely ideal appointment: it demanded a fair number of overnight shifts and other times that were inconvenient for her and the family, and it didn’t make much use of Kathy’s Therapeutic Recreation degree. After proving her worth and presenting her case to her boss, he appointed her Program Director for Clare Bridge, the Alzheimer’s community at Horizon Bay — a role that hadn’t existed before. She has received a number of accolades in her new position and, more importantly, loves it.

Emily continued her schooling, taking a few more art classes at ACC where she turned in some excellent work and continued to expand her artistic skills. In the middle of summer, she completed a long-planned move to Baltimore, which has the dual attractions of an art school that she’s interested in and portions of her family that she wanted to spend more time with. Her first few weeks there were a trifle rough: her car was broken into the first day she was there and the rougher sections of the city had her feeling a bit ill at ease. After selling the car and moving to a better section of town, she began to feel much more comfortable with the city, and is now enjoying it a great deal. She’s taking classes there and has been working a job at The Pratt Street Ale House for several months now, and has enjoyed the opportunities to visit with family and friends up in that part of the country.

Abigail is now in her Senior year at the high school. She’s taken up swim team this year, and has done quite well. She is turning in solid times on her events and enjoying her team and teammates a good deal. She has also been learning ukulele (it’s easier on her fingers that guitar was) and continuing to do some singing. One of her favorite classes at school has been a Special Education PE class, where she helps the kids there to stay fit and engage with others. Her plans for next year are still a bit murky, but we’re talking about and weighing the advantages and expenses of work, travel, college, etc.

Liam is halfway through his Freshman year. He has found the transition to High School easier than he expected, though the demands of marching band came as something of a surprise to him. In the month before school started, the band would arrive at 7:30, march until noon, and then practice inside until 5:00. During the first week of that, he would come home, eat a bit, sit in a chair in the living room answering questions in monosyllables, and stumble off to bed around 8:00. His playing is excellent, and he earned second chair among all the French Horn players at his school, beaten out only by one senior. He’s pulled straight A’s so far, and has also been learning some programming in his spare time, writing a few iPhone apps with a little coaching from Dad.

Maggie is now in 7th grade. She continues be a great favorite of her teachers thanks to her sweet nature, generosity, and willingness to work hard. She loves animals, and was delighted at the opportunity to have a lengthy horse riding lesson over the summer thanks to some friends of ours. (It was accompanied by a shooting lesson as well, at which she did startlingly well.) She also continues to enjoy art a great deal, and created several lovely pieces for family members at Christmas. Stories are also a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed reading and rereading Maximum Ride and Harry Potter this year, in addition to reading through Jurassic Park, Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and All Creatures Great and Small with her Dad.

Sean is finishing up his second year at Mutual Mobile, where he has been writing iPhone and iPad apps. He recently moved to an Associate Director role, which means less day-to-day programming and more strategic work and caring for people there. He’s also playing music with O’Malarkey, a local Irish band, whenever he can squeeze in the time, and has been enjoying cooking for family and friends more this year. The building of a 25′ tall trebuchet, some delightful long hikes, and a train trip to Chicago with Liam and Sean’s brother rounded the year out nicely.

Over the summer, knowing that Emily was planning her move to Baltimore, we pulled together a last big family trip: a week in New Orleans, where we had spent a day as a family a few years back and all really enjoyed. The vacation was terrific. We stayed on the edge of the Vieux Carré, and enjoyed rides around town on the streetcars, trips to the botanical gardens, aquarium and insectarium, and one of the most memorable meals we have ever enjoyed. (At Jacques Imo’s — “Warm Beer, Lousy Service” and highly recommended.) A particular highlight of the trip was a boat tour through Honey Island swamp, where we met a family of friendly warthogs and saw a number of alligators up close.

Alas, when we returned to San Marcos, it was to a home with a broken toilet supply line which had flooded a good portion of the house. Some of our good friends were checking on the homestead while we were gone and discovered the problem before it got even farther along, but it still ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. We moved to a three bedroom apartment for “no more than 45 days.” That ballooned to three months before we finally got home. Fortunately, USAA (our insurance company) was very helpful, one of our church friends was gracious enough to build us a beautiful new built-in bookcase, Kathy was able to replace the abhorrent pink tile that has lurked in our bathroom since we moved in, and the house now looks better than when the whole ordeal began.

During our exile, Maggie got stuck sleeping on the couch for much of time time which, understandably, became tiresome for her partway through our stay. As a thank-you for her forbearance, we (perhaps rashly) promised her a kitten upon our return home. Hewing to the family tradition of absurdly named animals (“Fluffy” the hermit crab, “Llama” the gerbil, “Hasenpfeffer” the rabbit), she christened her new black kitten “Mayonnaise”. He’s quickly made himself at home, and has even won over Liam, the most pet-skeptical among us.


As we review our year, it is apparent how blessed we are to have such terrific family, such wonderful friends — what a different year it would have been without those of us who give us regular support, and those we know are further off in the wings, ready to offer friendship when it’s needed. Thanks for being a part of our lives, and for allowing us to be part of yours.

May all the joys of this blessed season be yours in full measure. Merry Christmas!

The Clan McMains

(San Marcos Chapter)


From the Mixed Up Files of Mr. John Rogers

This earned a tea-snort from me this morning:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Thanks, Kung Fu Monkey.

Kindle Impressions

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with an Amazon Kindle over the past week. The Kindle is Amazon’s attempt to bring book reading and distribution into the 21st century. It’s essentially a small, purpose-built, handheld computer that incorporates several interesting technologies to create a compelling experience for the book lover.

The first distinctive thing about it is the display. Rather than using the LCD or OLED screens that are common on laptops and cell phones, the Kindle uses electronic paper, a display made up of thousands of tiny capsules filled with black and white particles that can be dragged to the top or to the bottom electronically. It functions (and looks) a bit like a high-resolution Magna Doodle.

This screen provides a couple of advantages: first, it gives the kindle a distinctive, book-like appearance. Though the 800×600 display isn’t quite as high-resolution as print, it looks very good, and the four gray scales allow for some basic graphics and diagrams to be included (and some lovely screen savers). One might reasonably wish the background color were a purer white, rather than a light grey, but the constrast ratio is still very high, close to that of a newsprint. Second, the electronic paper display is extremely power-efficient. Because it only draws power when it is changed, the Kindle can run for up to a week on a single charge — something unheard of with emissive displays. Third, because it is reflective, it can be read in all the same conditions one could normally read a book — bright sunlight presents no problems. (The ironic flip side of this advantage is that you need a book light to read it in a dark room.)

The second distinctive thing about the Kindle is that it has a built-in wireless data connection that runs over Amazon’s Whispernet service. Amazon subsidizes the service through device and electronic book sales — it doesn’t cost anything to use. It’s built on the cellular phone network, and therefore has excellent coverage, though the bandwidth is fairly limited. However since it’s used primarily as a delivery mechanism for textual content, that’s rarely a concern. One can use the device to grab a sample of a book from the Kindle store nearly instantly, and can download an entire purchased book within about a minute.

According to the hackers, the software that runs the whole show is largely Java on top of Linux. However, as a user, you’ll never be aware of the fact. The system is controlled with an easy-to-use system of menus which are almost entirely accessed through a little scroll wheel. I gave Kathy (who will be the first to admit that she’s no big fan of technology) 20 seconds of instructions on how to use the scroll wheel while we were driving to San Antonio last week, and she, without further help, kept herself entertained for the two hour car ride downloading sample books, reading, and exploring the device — an impressive testament to its ease-of-use.

There is currently no SDK for the device, so one is limited to running the applications that Amazon ships with it. Amazon has hinted that they might consider creating an SDK in the future, but hasn’t made any official announcements yet. Even so, the Kindle is quite functional. One can, of course, buy and download books from Amazon’s library at rates substantially lower than what one would pay for a hardcover edition. Amazon also has a conversion service where you can send a variety of document types to a special email address and have them converted into a format viewable on the Kindle. It costs $0.10 to have the document sent to your Kindle over Whispernet, but is free if you use the included USB cable to put it on the Kindle yourself. Since the Kindle registers itself as a standard mass storage device, you can transfer files to it easily using a computer with Mac OS, Windows, or Linux with no additional drivers.

Amazon also includes several experimental applications, including a music player, a human-backed question answering service, and, most interesting, a basic web browser. While the browser doesn’t support a lot of advanced features, it works well for browsing well-formatted content, and is even quite usable for some web applications. I’ve been able to update my Twitter while walking home, though haven’t yet convinced it to display my RSS feeds in Google reader. Though the browser isn’t as good as Mobile Safari, its reliance on the cellular network means that I can use it in many more places than the iPod Touch, which relies on having a wireless access point nearby.

While the Kindle has a lot to recommend it, it’s not perfect. The display takes about 3/4 of a second to refresh when you move from page to page. It’s very easy to hit the Next Page and Previous Page buttons by accident. It’s rather homely. Purchased books are wrapped up in DRM. And it’s expensive.

However, by taking advantage of its unique place in the book selling market, Amazon has managed to create the most viable electronic book yet. For the traveler, the reader, or the person who needs convenient access to a reference library, it’s a very compelling product — and a lot of fun.

Some Reading For The Summer

Here are a couple of books I’ve quite enjoyed recently:

  • Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical: Shane Claiborne, the author of this book, is an interesting cat. He’s passionately devoted to the idea of living according to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, especially with regard to the poor and disenfranchised. I particularly enjoyed his accounts of time serving alongside Mother Teresa and as a peace emissary in Iraq. He also is engaged in some of the intentional community stuff that I get worked up about from time to time, and so found a particularly receptive audience in me. Stimulating and well worth the time, even if you don’t agree with Shane’s conclusions.
  • Little Brother: Cory Doctorow’s latest, in which a teenage boy runs afoul of the Department of Homeland Security and, after being released from a secret detention facility, decides to try to take the DHS down using a variety of interesting technology and tricks and teaching the reader about them along the way. A very-near-future dystopian novel in the vein of 1984 or Brave New World, I found it very compelling reading. One of the great things about Doctorow’s work is that he makes it available under a Creative Commons license, which means you can download and read his book for free! [Exercise for the reader: compare Doctorow’s insistence here that privacy is vital to a free society with David Brin’s insistence that privacy is a lost cause and visibility should be embraced instead in The Transparent Society.]

Do you have any recent favorites? Post them in comments! I’d love some good summer reading.

My New Favorite Book

Last week, Liam brought home a small book that he had created in school. I thought it was great, so am posting its entire text verbatim here. Enjoy!

Playdate with my dad pg 1

“OOOOOOH” this is going to be fun I said gleefuly on an early summer morning.  I am going on a very long play date with my dad. “It is going to be so fun” I said. First we went to a place called Peter Pan’s Mini Golf. I got a black putter with shiny new ornge ball. My dad got an ornge putter with a Shiny yellow ball. I got almost every hole a hole in one but two of them got hole in twos and one hole in three. one of the holes had a hill and I got a hole it two on that one. It was so fun at the mini golf place. Next we went to a very fun place called kid town. they have more mini golf, basketball, three playgrounds and a singing area (which you know I did not go on). First I played basket-ball. It made me so tird that I had to drink almost a gallon of water. Then I went back and played some more. Next I went and played on the playground for a very long time. my dad look lots of pictures of me.

Playdate with my dad pg 2

Next we went to a resaruant called the Alamo Steak house. I found a gum-ball machine and if you got a black gum ball you got a free meal and guess what!? I got one of the black ball’s so we got a free meal and I chose the all you can eat buffett. I nearly barfed because I ate so many fries! Next we went to go swim in the San marcos river. I was collecting rocks for my collection. I found a heart Shaped one and gave it to my dad. Next we played with water guns and water balloons up in the grass. I acidentaly knocked my dads glasses of his head but luckily he found them in the tall green grass. next we went to mr. gatties and ate pizzia. It tasted very good. Next we went to the game Room. I had one hundred tokens and i bet you can’t guest how many tickets I got!? four thousand eight hundred thirty seven. i got a pool table, lava lamp, glow in the dark things, a pretend samiri sord and too-tsie Rolls. Next we went home wathch pirates of the caribean and went to bed.

Thoughts on Kindle

Amazon has just introduced a new electronic book reader called the Kindle, which looks pretty interesting. My thoughts while reading the details:

  • First mass-market use of electronic paper for a display. I wonder what the resolution is like? Ah, 800×600 with 4 levels of gray. (By comparison, the iPhone is 480×320, though it’s smaller and full color.) The screen refreshes in the video are kinda wacky. Pros: high contrast, shatter-resistant, low power draw. Cons: you need a booklight to read your electronic book! (Thanks to Mark for pointing that out.)
  • I really like the idea of being able to buy and have a book available in a minute or two, especially given that they appear to be selling for much less than their hardcover equivalents. Yay, cheap!
  • They tout the ability to read blogs, but apparently only those that Amazon chooses. I hope they update it to support any RSS feeds, though given that they have to make enough money on it to pay for the wireless service they supply, that may be challenging.
  • I wonder what the headphone port is good for? Are there audiobooks in its future? Text-to-speech? Nobody seemed to use it in the videos.
  • There’s a USB port and another port or two I wasn’t able to immediately identify on the bottom of the thing. It should be interesting to see what the Internet hackers are able to do with the gadget.
  • The decision to use a cellular network is an interesting one. Pros: coverage everywhere, low power. Cons: because piggybacking on someone else’s data network costs them money, they’ll have to pay for that somehow. Thus, free content (such as individual’s weblogs) will be hard to come by.
  • You know what else this ought to connect to? I’d love to have a giant virtual cookbook on my kitchen counter.
  • The “Email a Word file and have it sent wirelessly to your Kindle” feature is pretty cool. Nice to have easy access to reference copies of your personal documents. Seems like Doctors and Lawyers would really dig this aspect of it.
  • 256MB of internal storage seems a little paltry, but I guess if you’re storing compressed text, it would go a long way.
  • Maximum operating temperature is 95°? So much for using it outside in Texas summers.
  • I expect the Amazon content will have DRM slathered over it. It would be very nice if one could also put one’s own content (like Project Gutenberg texts) on via the USB port without wrapping it up in some wacky rights management scheme.
  • It sure is homely.

Farewell to Madeleine

Madeleine L’Engle is an author with whom I have enjoyed a long and fruitful (though one-way) relationship. From the early years with her science fiction for children to the later pilgrimages through the linked worlds of faith, science and art, she has rarely failed to both inspire and engage me. It was, therefore with heavy heart that I read news of her death.

Thanks for all of your stories, words and wisdom, Madeleine. May they enrich many generations to come.

An Earful of Stories

This is just a quick shill for Escape Pod, a Science Fiction/Fantasy podcast I recently stumbled across. It broadcasts well-read weekly stories along with a light sprinkling of discussion on top. The stories are of consistently high quality, and feature names such as David Brin, Robert Silverburg and Isaac Asimov which will be immediately familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the genre. New authors also appear, with a whole spate of Hugo Award nominees making a recent run.

If you have an interest in this sort of literature and listen to podcasts, it would be well worth your time to take Escape Pod for a test drive.

P.S. I don’t remember where I came across this podcast. If you tipped me off to it and I’m dissing you by not acknowledging that, let me know and I’ll remedy the oversight!