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April 29, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut on what we can learn by graphing a story

Kurt Vonnegut at the Blackboard - Lapham’s Quarterly
I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here—great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively]. This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. Okay. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis]. Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is “Man in Hole,” but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers. Another is called “Boy Meets Girl,” but this needn’t be about a boy meeting a girl [begins drawing line B]. It’s: somebody, an ordinary person, on a day like any other day, comes across something perfectly wonderful: “Oh boy, this is my lucky day!” … [drawing line downward]. “Shit!” … [drawing line back up again]. And gets back up again. . . .
This ends up somewhere really intriguing. Please click through.

"When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer " by Walt Whitman

"WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5 Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."

War and Peace's lost footnote

War and Peace: The Missing Footnote
I finally read War and Peace - a great book of course, but one minor bit of self-censorship on Tolstoy’s part caught my eye. The context is just before the Battle of Krasnoi as the Russian army is about to crush the last remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée retreating from Moscow. Field Marshall Kutuzov first tells his gathered troops to consider that the French are human too and have suffered along with them. Then, after a dramatic pause he continues: “But, that said, who invited them here? It’s their own doing, f… th… in the f…”, he suddenly said, raising his head.” (Book 4, Chapter VI, p. 1089 of this edition.) So what could this be: “f… th… in the f…” ?
After much sleuthing, the investigator comes to this conclusion:
So this is the original phrase: “мать твою в гузно” The reason my colleagues didn’t recognize it is that it is a rather old fashioned phrase, and one that would have only been used by an old man, such as Kutuzov, even back then; but the literal meaning still carries a sting: “Mother’s ass fuckers.”

April 22, 2010

Indiana University professor restructures class with experience points, quests, guilds

University class swaps grades for experience points - Plugged In - Yahoo! Games Intriguing. This gives new meaning to the term "grinders," eh?
Inspired by popular video games like World of Warcraft, an Indiana University professor is applying game design principles such as clear, well-defined goals and gradual, incremental rewards to his college classes. A hit with students, the approach has some employers showing interest, too. Students at several of Indiana University's game design courses begin their class with zero "experience points," which corresponds to an F grade. Instead of completing presentations, they'll perform "quests;" sitting exams becomes "fighting monsters;" and handing in assignments becomes "crafting." Students even team up into "guilds" to tackle group projects. Setting assessments in the context of video game achievements helps students get motivated, according to the courses' coordinator, Indiana University's Lee Sheldon. "The elements of the class are couched in terms they understand, terms that are associated with fun rather than education," he told iTnews. "We are teaching the gamer, social networking generation."