Monthly Archives: December 2009

The DoD Loves Complex Charts

As you know, Bob, I’m mildly obsessed with how to display data visually. Displaying data well is tough, especially when you’re talking about complex data. When I have to design a chart for some crazy-ass set of data, I often look at how others have done the same thing, and I keep tabs on blogs that cover chart-making in detail. I also like to collect examples of how to do it badly.

Thankfully, as I’ve mentioned before, the DoD is a great source of bad charts.

A Chart of Afghanistan Stability

Look at that thing! Click on it and behold it in its full splendor! Some of the data is color-coded, but there are multiple secondary labels per color. Those secondary labels are on top of the chart, partially obscuring words and the connecting lines. The light green is unreadable, and the light blue isn’t much better. Most of the nodes in this graph are blocks of text, except when they’re not. I know this is a working draft, and I know the chart’s designers are trying to convey a lot of information, but good grief this is bad.

(via TPM)

Oh, Authors, Why Must You Be Crazy on the Internet?

If I linked to every incident of an author being crazy on the Internet over a bad review, I’d be here all day, but this one is a perfect shining diamond of such crazy. It’s the platonic ideal of an author going insane over a bad review, and will be studied by future cockroach scholars as they comb through our lost civilization trying to understand why we spent so much time on the Internet being stupid.

At Amazon, L.B. Taylor gave a bad review of “Electra Galaxy’s Mr. Intersellar Feller”, an SF romance by Candace Sams. The first comment, by “Niteflyr One”, accuses Taylor of hating the author. Niteflyr One, of course, is the author Candace Sams.

What’s that? A sock puppet right out of the gate? That’s a classic move, the Queen’s Gambit of authors responding to bad reviews. But it gets better! She claims her response was just a social experiment! (“Here’s a run-through of the events of this experiment, for that’s what all this was ‘really’ about.”) The lurkers support her in email! (“For some time now, I’ve been getting messages from more equitable reviewers, agents and editors that this person (Taylor) was ‘known’ in the industry for having some very angry, almost hateful opinions…”) Godwin’s law in action! (“I’d liken their collective attitude to Gestapo tactics, but I don’t think anyone who left comments on the list on behalf of Taylor would know what I was talking about, let alone be able to spell it.”) I don’t actually mind the bad review! (“For those of you who don’t know…I was a police officer for almost ten years. I’ve been called things in languages from all over the world. Taylor and her webspinners hardly bother me.”) All of you people responding negatively are in on it and are out to get me! (“She responded just as I thought one of these nasty little reviewers would…she ran, hid and called out her little army of nothing-better-to-do malcontents.”)

And that’s only one comment! She ran through the whole Kubler-Rossian spectrum of wankery in one sitting.

What’s icing on the cake is her awesome claims. Thrill! to her claim that editors are responsible for the bad books, not authors. (I blame Joss Whedon fans for this defense.) Exclaim! when you realize that she points to Harriet Klausner as a model reviewer, the same Harriet Klausner whose reviews are typically nothing more than plot summaries that may or may not get the plot points right. Marvel! that she thinks that people who post bad reviews on Amazon then buy it in ebook format to sell illegally. Swoon! as she sneers how a sneer is the weapon of the weak.

But none of that can hold a candle to her calling in the Internet FBI. Seriously!

Candace Sams gives up around page 18, but who knows? Maybe she’ll be back!

It’s Not the Name, It’s the Persona

James Chartrand is a well-known blogger in certain circles through his articles for Copyblogger and his web design and copyrighting company, Men With Pens. Yesterday James admitted on Copyblogger that he’s really a she. She’d adopted a male pen name to make it easier to land freelancing jobs.

You know the punchline, of course: it worked.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.

This shouldn’t surprise you. Sexism, both overt and subtle, is still rampant. Women make less money than men for the same jobs. One recent study showed that having blind auditions for orchestras, where the reviewers didn’t see the candidate and did not know the candidate’s name, increased womens’ chances in the first round by 50%. For the final rounds? 300%.

Many women writers have used a male name or obscured their gender by using their initials. It’s especially widespread in science fiction and fantasy, where Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, C.J. Cherryh, James Tiptree, Jr., and J. K. Rowling all used a variant on their name so no one would know they were women.

James has taken a lot of heat for this. Not all of it has been from people who want to deny the sexism her experience highlights. Jessica Wakeman, writing at The Frisky, rails against James deciding to “pass” and calling her an Uncle Tom for not fighting the sexism directly, and in doing so shows that she and the point of Chartrand’s experience aren’t even in the same zip code. Wakeman deliberately co-opts racial terms to make her point, which is troubling to begin with, but her point makes no sense. “Chartrand just contributed to the stereotype that male copywriters are more talented than women copywriters,” she writes, which is the exact opposite of what Chartrand has done. Like James Tiptree, Jr., Chartrand ‘fessing up to being female shows that females are indeed as talented as male ones. Like the blind audition study, Chartrand has shown the unspoken gender bias that’s going on every day.

If you’re going to be down on James Chartrand, be down on the persona she created. She not only used a masculine name, she went out of her way to sound as super-manly as possible. As Amanda Hess pointed out, Chartrand’s company is named “Men With Pens”. Chartrand described her lone female employee, Taylor Lindstrom, as “the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club.” She illustrated her blog posts with pictures of naked ladies, and chided mommy bloggers to give more weight to male voices. It’s as if every morning before writing she tied a red bandanna around her head, nodded sagely to her poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and downed her usual breakfast of whiskey and cigars. She responded to the sexism she was experiencing by creating a sexist persona.

That’s the real problem with James Chartrand’s story. It’s both a good anecdote about the sexism women experience and a cautionary tale about a woman who decided she had to be a man’s man to get ahead. I’m not disappointed that James Chartrand chose not to fight the sexism she experienced. I’m disappointed she decided to perpetuate it herself.

I’m practicing saying, “I am an artist.”

I think a lot about other people’s artistic styles–about how I wished I’d thought of what they’ve created. Or maybe I wish my stuff were as cool as I perceive theirs to be. Maybe my work is cool and maybe it isn’t. I’m not writing this down to garner praises or sneers for what I do. At this particular minute, I’m not even sure what it means for my stuff to be cool.

As with different kinds of style, it seems that craft work can be a bit faddish. Things look nifty and everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon. Looking at artist’s magazines really emphasizes this. I love them and look forward to my monthly trip to B&N to sit and troll the mags while Liza plays with the trains. I even buy one occasionally. What I’ve discovered from looking those over for the past year and cruising 100+ blogs a day is that there a whole lot of people doing very similar things. I’m not saying that what they are working on is bad, I’m just saying I’m starting to see the cycle. And oh boy, does the internet feed that beast.

Here’s the thing: when I look at what’s swirling around out there, I realize that my stuff doesn’t look like that.
My Bumblebee Romance
Some days I don't feel crafty.

A few weeks ago I found a set of videos of a well known artist journaler explaining her process step by step. (Incidentally this is the same blog where I first found out about artist journaling.) I was really excited to see how Teesha made her own notebooks out of sheets of watercolor paper. That bit of info solved a problem about my own journal that I’d been working on for a while.

I immediately got a sheet of watercolor paper and, just for kicks, decided to follow her process. Wow, was that hard! Staying inside of her lines was nearly impossible for me. And what I ended up with only bears a passing resemblance to what she does. As a copy of her work it stinks. But what a learning experience it was for me! And hard! So much harder for me than my own process. So I came away armed with a solution to a problem and also a bit of security in what I do on my own.

So my angst comes down to this: I want to grow as an artist. I want to find my own style and be more comfortable with it, be willing and able to claim that style. I want to proclaim, “I am an artist!” And I never feel as if I’m quite ready to do that. How can I call myself an artist when I don’t have a body of work? I can’t stay focused on one thing. I want to try every little thing that catches my eye. (Maybe that’s where my contribution to the fad kicks in.) One week, I’m all about ATCs. The next week, I’m all about artist journaling. I make notebooks and cross-stitch. I want to try traditional bookmaking and printmaking. I want to do better graphic design. I want to start drawing again like I did in college. I want to figure out how to combine some of this stuff and cook up something awesome. I’ve got so many irons in the fire, I don’t know which one is hot.

After the holidays, I’m gonna sit down and come up with a plan. Christmas has depleted my Etsy store stock. I’ve been making custom-order notebooks for a couple of people for Christmas and also making a few personal gifts. I want to get my store up and running ASAP after the first of the year, and then carve out some time to start working on all this other stuff.

Maybe all of this is just part of what an artist experiences. The desire to figure our our artistic selves. The search for the idea that opens up our life’s work. The time spent working on every little thing until the big thing grabs our attention and doesn’t let go. Maybe I’m more of an artist than I’ve ever given myself credit for before.

How to Choose Board Games in Many Easy Steps

Since I have the bad habit of collecting board games in much the same way that the Collyer brothers collected newspapers, people sometimes ask me to recommend board games. Often they want a recommendation of something to buy for their non-board-game-playing friend. That’s a hard question to answer. It’s like saying, “My friend doesn’t really watch movies. What movie would be best for him?” It depends on the friend’s tastes in other entertainment, what kind of genres (if any) they like, and more. There is no one “best” game that will, without fail, entertain everyone.

That said, there are a lot of good games that even non-board-gaming people might enjoy. Your average person, if they’ve played games, will have played ones like Monopoly, Uno, or (heaven help us) Candyland. There are far and away better games to play, I swear. You can find lots of them on BoardGameGeek. The site’s stuffed full of reviews and information, but going to it for game recommendations can be like going to Pitchfork to find new music. The BoardGameGeek audience is self-selected for people who really really really love board games, and they dislike games that involve a lot of luck. If you were just to pull from their list of top-rated games you run the risk of buying your friend a copy of Advanced Squad Leader, and no one wants that.

That’s why I’m here to help. Instead of giving you a list of top games, I’ve listed several by genre and type of gameplay and described a bit of what they’re about. I’ve also leaned towards simpler games where possible.

Fluxx, the totally random card gameRandom games: Fluxx. Fluxx is one of those games that non-gamers like a lot more than gamers because of its randomness. It’s a card game in which you try to collect the right cards (like Chocolate or Love) to win. However, you also play cards that change what cards you have to have to win, how many cards you draw each turn, how many you discard, and more. Because the rules keep changing you can’t develop a long-term strategy, but you still get to make meaningful choices. Fluxx games are fast-paced, don’t take too long, and because it’s a card game it’s easy to carry around.

Acquire: Like Monopoly, Only FunGames that you should play instead of Monopoly: Acquire. Like Monopoly, Acquire is about making money off of hotels. Unlike Monopoly, Acquire is fun to play and can be completed in fewer than seventeen hours. You play tiles that represent a growing hotel chain and you buy shares in the various hotel chains. Eventually separate chains merge and the stockholders of those chains get bonuses in the form of cold, hard fake cash. The person with the most money at the end wins.

Apples to Apples: Zero Strategy But Still FunSocial games: Apples to Apples. As party games go, this is a good one. Each player has a bunch of cards with nouns on it, like “lawyers”. One player, acting as judge, draws a card that has an adjective on it like “handsome”. The remaining players then choose one of their cards that they think best matches the adjective and play it face-down. The judge goes through the played cards to decide which is the best match, according to whatever criteria the judge chooses. It’s all extremely subjective, of course, but can be a lot of fun with the right group. (Other similar games: Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow, in which the group tries to decide who among them are werewolves and most everyone dies.)

Kill Doctor Lucky: LUCKY MUST DIETraditional board games with a twist: Kill Doctor Lucky. You know how, in Clue, you’re trying to find out who killed Mr. Boddy? Here everyone is vying to kill off Doctor Lucky. You can only try to kill him when no one else on the board can see you, and other players can block your attempt by playing Failure cards. Eventually everyone uses up their Failure cards and someone wins. It’s a nice inversion of the Clue scenario, and who doesn’t love a game that embodies the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

Ticket To Ride: No Beatles References, PleaseGerman-style land grab games: Ticket to Ride. Most people think of Settlers of Catan in this category, and it’s a fine game in its own right, but Ticket to Ride is much simpler and is a hell of a lot of fun to play. Everyone’s competing to build train routes between US cities. Each route you build nets you points, with longer routes worth more points. You also get points at the end of the game if you have the longest continous set of routes or for meeting certain destination goals, like building routes linking Dallas and Seattle. Highly recommended. (Other similar games: Settlers of Catan)

Bohnanza: A Bean Game With Lots of PunsFamily card games: Bohnanza. Plant beans; trade beans; harvest beans; win the game. Bohnanza has a number of nifty and unusual features, like how you have to play cards in the order that they’re in your hand with no rearranging. Because of the no-rearranging rule you have to make longer strategic decisions, but those decisions are never so complex that you feel overwhelmed. You also manage what’s in your hand by trading cards with other players, making this a very social and interactive game. (Other similar games: Space Beans)

Pandemic: Epidemic++Cooperative games: Pandemic. Not every game pits you against your friends. In some you have to work together, so that everyone wins or loses as a team. In Pandemic you and your buddies race around the world trying to find the cures to four virulent diseases before they kill everyone. Pandemic has some truly outstanding game mechanics and yet isn’t too difficult for non-gamers to start playing. This is one of my favorite games of the past several years. (Other similar games: Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot)

Carcassonne: French For 'Tile-Laying Game'Tile-laying games: Carcassonne. Carcassonne is one of those rare games where you build the board during play. Each turn you draw terrain and place it next to existing ones, making sure that roads, cities, and fields line up. Then you can stick one of your followers on a tile to claim a road, cloister, city, or field. Once all of the tiles are played, you get points for every map feature you control. The game is fast, the rules are simple, and the play is elegant. As a bonus, it’s an excellent two-player game. (Other similar games: Blokus, which is like a competitive sideways version of Tetris, and Galaxy Trucker)

Dominion: Like a CCG But Without the SpendingTwo-player games: Dominion. Since it came out in 2008, Dominion has become exceedingly popular. It’s like a collectible card game in that you build up a deck of cards, but you build up your deck during play and you don’t have to spend all of your allowance on hot new cards to have any hope of winning. While it’s designed for more than two players, Dominion works excellently as a two-player game. (Other similar games: Lost Cities, Carcassonne)

Modern Art: The Art's Not Really That GoodAuction games: Modern Art. Buy and sell paintings in one of the best and most definitive auction games ever. Everyone plays the part of an art auction house (beret not included) and takes turns auctioning off paintings from various artists. Anyone can buy the paintings, including the auctioneer. As soon as five paintings by any one artist have been offered, the round is over. Everyone then sells their paintings to the bank, with the paintings by popular artists (those who had more paintings bought during the round) being worth more. Popularity is cumulative over four rounds. At the end, the person with the most money wins, just like in real artistic endeavors. (Other similar games: Ra)

Michael Bay's Puerto RicoGerman-style resource management games: Puerto Rico. Now we’re getting into games with deep, crunchy gameplay. You develop plantations in Puerto Rico, deciding what crops to grow such as sugar and tobacco. You use the proceeds from the crops to build buildings which net you gameplay bonuses and victory points. You also gain victory points for shipping your goods back to Spain. Oh, and don’t forget to manage the influx of colonists, because without them you can’t harvest your crops or man your buildings. The game is complex, but for that complexity you get great gameplay and a lot of flexibility. There’s no one best way to play Puerto Rico, and that’s a large part of its appeal. (Other similar games: Agricola, which is Latin for farmer, so the game is not, as you might expect, about harvesting Pepsi cans.)

Arkham Horror: Yousa thinking yousa people gonna die? Sprawling rules-heavy games: Arkham Horror. Now we’re at the game for people who love complexity and miss how Avalon Hill’s games had rules with numbers like “2.7.3.1.4”. You and your friends cooperate as investigators fighting against the Lovecraftian horrors flooding the streets of Arkham. If you don’t close portals fast enough, eventually one of the Old Ones awakens and probably kills everyone. I like Arkham Horror a lot, and it’s a blast to play, but the game is complex enough that someone on BoardGameGeek made a flowchart to help lead you through the game. And if that’s not enough for you, there are some six expansions that add even more cards and additional boards that abut the original. Have no fear, though: the flowchart will lead you through the expansions as well.

Okay, Mister Smarty, What If I Only Want To Buy One Game And Not Think Too Hard: Ticket To Ride.