Archive for September, 2010

Andrio Abero’s Psychometry Mixes

September 30th, 2010

Do yourself a favor and bliss out to Andrio Abero’s newest mix, the fourth in his excellent Psychometry series. Better yet, subscribe to listen via iTunes or RSS — that way, you’ll get DJ Andrio’s dance parties to go as soon as they’re available.

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Enjoy Deerhunter’s New Record: Halcyon Digest

September 29th, 2010

Deerhunter is an interesting band. Their music always seems straightforwardly lovely, but I have a sense of them as a really psychedelic and strange band. Maybe it’s all due to their singer, Bradford Cox, and his on-stage dress-up antics… In any case, stream their new record Halcyon Digest (out as of yesterday on 4AD)in its entirety above. I’ve certainly been enjoying it today, trying to recall the light feeling of long days and bright sun.

Whatever it takes to hang on to whatever traces of summer we’ve got left up here in the Northwest.

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Panini Sticker Books: A Prototypical ‘Achievements’ Model

September 27th, 2010

In case you don’t already lust after Foursquare badges and spend hours trying to kill every zombie possible in Dead Rising long after you’ve beat the actual game, I’ll let you in on a secret — achievements are the next big thing in game design. Started quietly on the Xbox as a way to rack up your Gamer Score (translation: how badass of a video gamer you are), achievements were basically extra mini puzzles that you could solve just by playing the game a certain way. They weren’t a necessary part of the game, they were just there to award you for, say, playing long enough to kill 100,000 zombies.

Well, as it turns out, these little awards resulted almost immediately in a marked increase in the amount of time gamers spent playing a game. Without doing anything, really, game designers had managed to make their games many times more engaging to the player. Result: now you’ll find achievements everywhere.

In the location-based check-in application FourSquare, achievements such as the “I’m On A Boat” badge are awarded for, what else, checking into a location that happens to be a boat. Foursquare users actually will seek out certain locations just so they are awarded the badge. These badges don’t get the user anything except for whatever feeling of pride that comes with cultivating a collection of colorful badges. Yet, take them away and FourSquare loses a big part of its charm. Genius.

However, as with most things new under the sun — this same concept has been used before as a way to raise consumer consumption of a product. I refer, of course, to Panini Sticker Books — the addiction of my youth.

Panini stickers were sold in packs like baseball cards, except they came in practically every flavor of game and children’s movie franchise known to man. The special thing about these sticker cards, though, was that you were also supposed to buy a special book in which you pasted the stickers you collected. For each card in the set, an empty box with a description of the missing sticker taunted you until you managed to serendipitously purchase the sticker to fill it. You would keep buying these stupid little packs of stickers long after it started being repetitive and the fun was drained from the whole endeavor just so that you could fill all the empty spots in your book. As you see below, there were even large empty spaces that required you to find multiple stickers that added up to make a complete picture. This is the Panini equivalent of unlocking special levels in your video game after filling your badge collection.

Adding a compelling structure to inane and often repetitive collecting is basically ‘achievements’ in a nutshell.

What is questionable is that now achievements are being hailed as a legitimate way to gamify the world. Simple game mechanics like scoring and achievements are being tacked on to everything from websites to brushing your teeth (watch this great video of Jesse Schell at the DICE conference). There’s no question that it works, but it does start to seem psychologically manipulative. It might be the cheapest possible route to engagement, and, as such, is ripe for abuse. Experience designers should make sure that there are adequate rewards for engagement beyond obsessive collecting, or I think we risk creating disillusioned users and a real loss of fun. Time with our websites, apps, and devices is real time in real people’s lives that we’re borrowing to make a dollar. We should be careful we’re not imprisoning people inside the outmoded and lame parts of human nature.

If only we could get Foursquare badges to add up to a giant picture of Megatron… then we’d be just rosy.

Design, Gadgets, Ideas

School Of Seven Bells & (not that) Genesis

September 14th, 2010

School of Seven Bells is a rock/psych/electronic/drone band from Brooklyn, NY. They’ve recently released their second full-length record — soberingly titled Disconnect From Desire — on Santa Monica-based label Vagrant Records and Ann Arbor-based Ghostly International.

The record is very good — better than their first, I dare say. The precision melodies of the harmonized female vocals makes me want to compare them to Stereolab, but they’re really much more Kevin Shields-ish. A bed of texturally complex but largely droning electronic and guitars elements lay down a soft bed of noise on which the voices of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza have ample space to soar.

I have seen an NPR article in which the band claims that the meaning of their name comes from some South American school for pickpockets, but I think this explanation reeks of bullshittery. Instead, I propose a much more likely and much more poetically relevant genesis of the name School of Seven Bells…

Ranna… the first, the smallest bell. Ranna the sleepbringer, the sweet, low sound that brought silence in its wake.

Mosrael was the waker… the bell whose sound was a seesaw, throwing the ringer further into Death, as it brought the listener into Life.

The above quotes are from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series of fantasy books, and they describes the first two of the seven bells used by necromancers to control the dead. Necromancy is an age-old magical practice where the summoner seeks to summon or control the spirit of a deceased person. In Nix’s books, the necromancer is a practitioner of this magic who use each of the seven bells to do this and that to dead people.

The bells were apparently very difficult to use, causing harm more often than not to the ringer of the bell if rung not-quite-right. Listening to School of Seven Bells new record — to the lyrics of songs like Heart is Strange — this theme seems close to the surface. Throughout, the deceptively simple and beautiful things in life seem to have turned on the song’s authors to reveal themselves as complex, overwhelming, and disappointingly hollow.

I might be way off on this, as art doesn’t necessarily implicate the author, but I sincerely hope that the band manages to find balance and satisfaction with their increasing artistic success and with the traveling musician’s lifestyle that I happen to know isn’t easy to maintain. Also, lord knows — any band with two tiny beautiful women in it must have to put up with more than their fair share of crap out on the road.

Anyway, they’ll be on tour all over North America for the better part of September and October, bringing them most likely to a city near you. Go out, see the show (which is pretty great, from my experience), find the band, and invite them over for a home cooked breakfast to send them on their way to the next gig. Let ‘em know you like their music, and that you appreciate them riding around in a van all over creation to bring it to you.

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Bloedel’s Retreat

September 7th, 2010

This past weekend, Sara and I rode our bikes onto the ferry to Bainbridge Island and headed out to spend the afternoon exploring the peaceful acreage of Bloedel Reserve.

In the 80′s, Prentice and Virginia Bloedel opened their former home to the public as a collection of gardens. Like all gardens, it is a curated, supernatural experience of nature. As if listening to a ‘greatest hits’ record of natural beauty, walking the grounds was an inspired dialogue  for someone left, too often, without the time or patience to seek out these sublime combinations in the wilderness. Unlike most other gardens, however, Bloedel Reserve is big enough to come across like the real thing. It is at once both wild and tamed — anarchic and groomed. It manages to be represent both inspiration and artwork all rolled into one.

One has the suspicion that the unique flavor of Bloedel Reserve has its roots in the union of personalities that birthed it. Prentice and Virginia were possessed of two very different sensibilities when it came to the things they fancied. Prentice was part of the Bloedel family — owners of a far reaching timber empire. He was Yale educated and, as a young man, desired to teach, but he was lured back into the family business. The way that he took to the industry, however, suggests that it may have the been the job he was born to do. He pioneered the economical practice of using sawdust and other mill “wastes” as fuel as well as the practice of reforestation of lands that were logged by planting saplings as the land was cleared. Overall, one gets the impression that he loved nature, the woods, and promoted man’s responsible and economical use of natural resources. He was attracted to the grounds that became the reserve because of its large acreage and rugged beauty.

Virginia Bloedel, however, fell in love with the French-style main house that occupied the plot (the Bloedels purchased the land and main house in the early 1950′s). She was lover of beauty and order. She filled the house with art and Louis XVI style furniture. She passed her love of art on to her daughter (also named Virginia), who ended up collecting (with her husband Bagley Wright) the bulk of what is now the Modern collection of the Seattle Art Museum. All the parts of the estate that seem to have an ordered class and an European beauty I attribute to Ma Bloedel.

There is a reflecting pool (pictured top) in the center of the grounds. It was the Bloedel’s favorite place to hang out in the garden. A single bench sits at one end of the pool, and a vase of bright flowers sits at the other. It’s a surprising venue for quiet contemplation.

The large shallow pool was built with the guidance of landscape designer Thomas Church and was later reworked by Richard Haag, who added a tall rectangular hedge around the whole thing. In a way, this place encapsulates the spirit of the entire Reserve — the surprising presence of man’s mind and hand in the middle of wild forest.

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