Learned is a blog-via-email about pop-culture and languages and information tools. It's about understanding more and it's about being better.

Learned #38: Live to Tape

In which we watch some concert films.

By the time this issue of Learned is sent out, Bruce Springsteen's "On Broadway" will have been available on Netflix for about 24 hours. Which means, by the time you read this, I will have watched it approximately 4 times, pausing only to catch quick cat-naps in which I dream in technicolor visions of the New Jersey shore. Or something like that.

More seriously, this particular concert is being lauded all over the place as both a transformative performance by Springsteen and as a decent-to-good concert film. Which has got me wondering, what makes a good concert film?

Maybe it would be better to ask, how is a good concert film different from a recorded live performance? Is there anything inherent in the format that makes "Stop Making Sense" any better than Nirvana's MTV Unplugged? And, continuing that, is there anything that makes the film any better than Eminem's performance on Jimmy Fallon?

Is a recorded performance like Charles Bradley's moving take on Changes for KEXP radio a concert film? I mean, Bradley explains his reasoning and talks to his audience...for that matter, how about NPR's Tiny Desk series? Or Triple J's Like a Version? Those are concerts, and they are often very good, but are they concert films?

I don't really have an answer yet. I can rattle off a list of favorites and I can tell you that a film is more than just a performance but I can't really tell you how. Or why. And that's why this week's issue is all about the art of concert films.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Live to Tape

  • What We're Reading: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Live at Jools’

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning

Live to Tape

Wikipedia's category page for concert films lists 268 entries. At a quick glance, I have seen maybe a tenth: The Song Remains the Same? Yes. Sign O' the Times? Sure. We Are the Champions: Final Live in Japan? No, but I'd like to...

What's maybe more interesting about that page, is the other categories it links to:

Some entries are cross-linked between lists, so, Woodstock counts as both a "documentary film about music festivals" and a concert film, but Eddie Murphy Raw does not. So, I'm confused. Just what is a concert film?

T.V. Tropes has a good answer:

Filming a concert by a musical artist, group or any other sort of performer(s) (comedians, acrobats, stage musicals,...) is essential for many entertainers. It shows off their skills and gives the fans who weren't able to watch a concert in person to get a grisp (sic) of the experience they missed. Audience Participation and a Concert Climax are also a huge part of these events.

By that definition, all the other things I mentioned - performances recorded for radio stations and posted to YouTube, t.v. shows dedicated to live performances, etc. - should be counted as concert films as well. Maybe not single song performances for variety shows, but small sets, sure, why not?

Unless you want to get pedantic about the definition of film, that is. Critic Ben Brock happily includes Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, as well as the whole of MTV’s Unplugged, with the caveat that it’s a cheat because, “it’s a TV concert after all.”

But I don’t feel like that’s quite a necessary distinction anymore. We’ve got so much media now, and recording is so easy, that YouTube is full of full concerts that have been simultaneously recorded professionally and by thousands of fans on a variety of phones. But that brings us back to the bigger question - what makes a good concert film?

One idea comes from Ashley Clark in their introduction to an article called 10 Great Concert Films:

cinematic artistry, superhuman performance, socio-political relevance – or a combination of all three – these concert films all deserve their reputations as classics of the form.

Or, how about this definition from Josh Jackson, writing in Paste magazine:

While the concept of a concert film is simple, dating back to 1948’s Concert Magic featuring violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a great concert film requires inspiration from both director and performer, a collaboration that unifies the best qualities of filmmaking and music.

Skirting the issue a little, concert listings site StellarShows.net lists the following criteria for a great concert:

  • Venue with an Intimate Atmosphere

  • Planned Out Show

  • Comfortable Atmosphere

  • Passionate Artist

  • Element of Surprise

Presumably, then, a good concert film would capture all these disparate elements as well as add a certain something to the mix.

To that end, here’s a good list of concert does and don’ts, which includes things like “do get multiple angles, don’t put your mic in front of a speaker.”

But I think if you put all these things together you can come to the conclusion that a great concert film takes a great performance and elevates it beyond the level of just good camera angles and nice lighting.

Ben Brock, again:

The concert movie is a strange and ambitious thing, marrying live music to moving pictures and permanently fixing a fleeting, one-night-only live event for the masses so that you can recreate it alone, on tape, whenever you like. It’s a noble objective, but a difficult one.

I haven’t really found an answer beyond the paraphrasing Potter Stewart: I know it when I see it. But within that caveat are certain similarities across various lists of bests: great concert films take a performance and elevate it somehow, whether that’s by stripping away everything until just the performance is left, like in Stop Making Sense, or in capturing the atmosphere and surroundings that created the performance, as in Gimme Shelter or Shut Up and Play the Hits, or in subverting the art of filmmaking itself like in Awesome! I F*ckin’ Shot That!

Here’s the list of articles I consulted to put this all together:

But I’ll close by saying that I think the era of the big concert film, like most of the ones cited here, are coming to an interesting crossroads. Now that everything is being recorded and uploaded, it’s going to be up to a new generation of artists to steer the genre away from theatrical releases to new formats and media. I’m curious to see where it goes from here.


What We’re Reading:

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

by Robert Dimery

I love books like this - basically just a long, long list of great records you might want to listen to; these are the kinds of books I like to have on my shelves to just take down and glance through when I'm in need of inspiration, motivation, or just a break from the daily grind.

This particular book* is a pretty thorough list of generally-agreed great records from the mid-50s onwards. From the publisher's description on Amazon:

The ultimate compendium of a half century of the best music, now revised and updated. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is a highly readable list of the best, the most important, and the most influential pop albums from 1955 through today. Carefully selected by a team of international critics and some of the best-known music reviewers and commentators, each album is a groundbreaking work seminal to the understanding and appreciation of music from the 1950s to the present...

As I alluded to above, the best way (for me, maybe for you) to read the book is to choose pages at random. In other words, don't try to make it straight through the book from cover to cover, instead, use it as a discovery tool to find records you may have overlooked or never gotten around to hearing. Used that way, the book can be a great addition to even the most die-hard music lover's bookshelf.

Oh, and don't pay any attention to the bombastic title, which I loathe as there is absolutely nothing you must do before you die save live the best life you can for whatever that means to you. It really is a great book, it just has an idiotic title.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Live at Jools'

These days, there's one t.v. program in particular that has taken up the mantel of live music and held it up as the aspiration for dozens of young artists and bands: Later with Jools Holland. Jools started out as a pianist, arguably gaining most of his fame during his stint with Squeeze, before turning to television hosting. His program has been running in one form or another for nearly 30 years and has featured outstanding performances from dozens, if not hundreds of musicians. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.

Learned #37: Ear Ye, Ear Ye

In which we learn to ear.

My ear itches. It's not dangerous and there's not really much to be done about it except to go to the doctor and listen to him tell me there's not really much to be done about it. Again. See, the thing is, I have several stray hairs growing in my ear canals. Chances are, so do you. It's weird, it's kind of gross, and it's a real pain in the...ear.

I first found out about these random hairs a few years ago when I went to the ear-nose-throat doctor to have a strange earache investigated. He put a camera into my ear and then clipped three six-inch long hairs out my ear. Now, my reaction to this was one of shock - I didn't know that this was a thing that could happen. But, apparently it is a common ailment and one we don't get diagnosed as often as we should because most of the time it isn't a problem.

The whole situation got me to wondering. I mean, I know lots of people who have had lots of problems with their ears. And their sinuses. And all the...stuff...or space...or somethings in between their ears and nose...areas. Which made me realize I have no sense of the internal anatomy of the human head. I mean, I know where the major parts go, and I kind of remember the parts of the brain. But, as for the rest of it, especially how it's all connected (or not), I really have no idea.

This week, we're going to try to fix that.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Inside the Human Head

  • What We're Reading: Gray’s Anatomy

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Lemme Take Your Picture

Let's get to it.

Photo by Hugo Barbosa on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Inside the Human Head

As with all complicated, in-depth questions and processes, the best way to begin understanding the subject is to break it down into smaller, more manageable questions. In this case, we'll start with the ear and how it works.

The Ear

Now, chances are good you know what an ear is and have a basic understanding of how it works, but let's review: The outer ear catches sound waves. These sounds then travel through the middle ear where they hit the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. The resultant vibrations then travel into the inner ear and the cochlea, where they are translated into nerve impulses your brain interprets as words and noises, etc.

What's especially important to understand is that your inner ear is what determines your balance:

In the inner ear, there are three small loops above the cochlea called semicircular canals. Like the cochlea, they are also filled with liquid and have thousands of microscopic hairs.

The liquid moves the tiny hairs, which send a nerve message to your brain about the position of your head. In less than a second, your brain sends messages to the right muscles so that you keep your balance.

(Source)

This very useful diagram comes from HearingLink.org.

The Sinuses

The sinuses, as it turns out, are not really a function of the ears. I'm going straight to Wikipedia for this one:

Paranasal sinuses are a group of four paired air-filled spaces that surround the nasal cavity. The maxillary sinuses are located under the eyes; the frontal sinuses are above the eyes; the ethmoidal sinuses are between the eyes and the sphenoidal sinuses are behind the eyes. The sinuses are named for the facial bones in which they are located.

Groovy. But, nothing to do with the ears except that when one is inflamed the other may also hurt. In other words, a sinus infection might make your ears hurt and vice versa because...

Connections

Aside from physical proximity, the nose and ears (and the throat) share similar functions (senses) and are constructed out of the same toolkit (membranes, lots of tiny hairs, fluids, etc.) But, the best way I can put it all together so that I can understand exactly what is going on in my skull is by using ZygoteBody - an online anatomy viewing tool (and that used to be Google Body).

This tool lets you look inside the human body in different layers and from different angles. For the screenshot I have here, I've loaded the adult male body, put the brain at full opacity (most visible) and the bones and nerves at half opacity so that I can zoom in and take a look at how it's all connected.

With a lot of this I don't know, or have forgotten, the proper names of the different parts, but that's not the point of this exercise. Using ZygoteBody lets me get an actual, textbook-like view of how everything works together. And, at least in this case, that's what I was really looking for.

So, About that Hair?

But, back to my main issue - what's up with the hair in my ears? It seems to be normal and a result of aging and testosterone.

Hair growth within the ear canal itself is limited to the cartilaginous ear canal – roughly the outer 1/3 of the ear canal. The inner 2/3 of the ear canal, called the bony ear canal, does not have sufficient dermis and hypodermis underlying the epidermis to support the hair root in the hair follicle. Therefore, ear hair is not found in the deeper (bony) structure of the ear canal. Hair growth within the outer portion of the ear canal seems to increase and become stiffer as men age (along with an increase in nasal hair growth).

(Source)

However, there seems to be some indication that ear-hair growth and/or a creased earlobe can be a predictor of heart disease (as in who may be more or less susceptible). Before you examine yourself in the mirror and panic (like I did), remember that nothing written on the web beats discussing your individual body and health with your doctor. Now then, I'm off to consult with my cardiologist and then a laser hair removal expert. In that order.

More sources:


What We’re Reading:

Gray’s Anatomy

by Henry Gray

In a perfect world, we’d all have libraries in our homes, leather-bound volumes of art science shelved on each wall with curiosities and oddities stuffed into every nook and cranny. Alas, it’s not a perfect world and the best we can do, sans personal library, is build a collection of interesting and lasting books.

Gray’s Anatomy is the standard from which much of modern medicine is derived. Written by Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter, the book has been reprinted and updated often, never having lost its original purpose, to educate: From Wikipedia:

In 1855, he (Gray) approached his colleague Henry Vandyke Carter with his idea to produce an inexpensive and accessible anatomy textbook for medical students. Dissecting unclaimed bodies from workhouse and hospital mortuaries through the Anatomy Act of 1832, the two worked for 18 months on what would form the basis of the book.

Like a lot of reference books, most of what’s relevant to the layperson has been indexed and made discoverable by Google. But there’s a certain feeling to holding a book like this on in your hands, in actually looking up whatever it is you want to know and reading off the page.

In lieu of an original, 1858 edition, this nice leather-bound version will look handsome on any shelf. But, for those of us who need a more practical guide, there’s always this


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Lemme Take Your Picture

Over the past few years, my wife and I have both had to have physical examinations for the insides of our bodies (my ears, her stomach). In both cases, the doctor was able to use a tiny camera connected to a monitor to more easily and accurately get a picture (ahem) of our insides. Medical cameras are a fascinating technological development that got me to thinking about other new, non tourist-issue cameras.

To start with the obvious, our the cameras in our phones have been getting better and better; what might not be quite so obvious is that the software that runs the cameras is what makes them so good, not the lenses or sensor size.

While medical cameras are getting small, other cameras are getting bigger and bigger. Then again, they used to be pretty big, so maybe it’s just the cycle coming ‘round again.

Speaking of small, it turns out that those 007-style spy gadgets and cameras were not completely fictional. What’s more, there are dozens of modern spy cameras on the market and some of them are frightening in their implications.

And it’s those implications that has us creating new privacy laws and standards - like in Japan alone (where I live), the shutter sounds on phone-cameras cannot be disabled, taking someone’s photo in public without their permission is prohibited, and drones are limited to very secluded areas.

This is all a bit crazy and getting crazier. In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, there are swarms of flying, floating cameras that act as a single lens, but that’s just fiction, right?

Random Fact:

The Japanese title of Pixar’s Inside Out is Inside Head.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.

Learned #36: My YouTube

In which we watch some videos.

Remember life before YouTube? Pulling videos off the internet in painfully slow, often-broken, obscure file formats from the sketchiest of chatrooms and bbs systems? It was both liberating and slightly terrifying as the implications of digital video began to sink in and then…

Then YouTube arrived in all its glory and the world changed. Over the past decade and change YouTube has become a boon for nostalgia-seekers, language learners, DIYers, and everyone else with some time to kill. It has spawned dozens of clones and copy-cats, some dedicated to Art, others to, well, not art. Add in some monetization and, boom, “a YouTuber” is now every kids’ go to answer for “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

So far, it’s done a lot of good for the world. Easy access to news and learning content is truly a good thing. However, at the current moment, we’re starting to see machine-created, algorithm-generated content proliferate at rates that surprise even their creators. And a lot of this stuff is for kids. Only, this new content may be breaking their fragile little minds.

This is problematic. Not only do I let my kid watch far more of the YouTubes than I probably should, I recommend it to students and parents all the damn time. I mean, for anyone learning a language, YT is the ultimate resource - thousands of native speakers of dozens of different languages talking about whatever is on their minds or going on in their culture? People used to travel for months in the harshest of conditions to have that kind of access…

What to do, what to do? Is YouTube really the great resource and tool that it was designed to be? Or is it a hopeless swamp of the worst the world has to offer?

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: Why YouTube Has Become a Problem

  • What We’re Reading: How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Since We’re All on YouTube Anyway

Let’s get to it.

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

The Problem

A little over a year ago, I came across this post on Medium: Something is Wrong on the Internet by James Bridle. It’s not a comforting read. In it, the author details the largely automated process by which a lot of kids material can be generated…

A friend who works in digital video described to me what it would take to make something like this: a small studio of people (half a dozen, maybe more) making high volumes of low quality content to reap ad revenue by tripping certain requirements of the system (length in particular seems to be a factor). According to my friend, online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale.

…and the horrific videos that can result from it:

in the official Peppa Pig videos, Peppa does indeed go to the dentist…In the version above, she is basically tortured, before turning into a series of Iron Man robots and performing the Learn Colours dance.

I don’t want my kid to see that. Bridle cites this piece from the New York Times in his piece, which has its own horrors:

The 10-minute clip “PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized,” was a nightmarish imitation of an animated series in which a boy and a pack of rescue dogs protect their community from troubles like runaway kittens and rock slides. In the video Isaac watched, some characters died and one walked off a roof after being hypnotized by a likeness of a doll possessed by a demon.

Good grief. In the year since these pieces have come out, highlighting the problem, YouTube (and corporate owner Google) have made attempts to combat the problem, but to little effect.

What to Do About It

So. YouTube is a cesspool of algorithm-generated horrors that no child should be allowed to watch. And yet, kids gonna kid and they want their YouTube. Also, let’s be honest, as parents, we want a break. If a half-hour of YouTube is going to keep them happy so we can vacuum and wash the dishes, ok, so we can take a nap, then so much the better. So what can we do?

Caroline Knorr, writing on Common Sense Media, put together A Parent’s Guide to YouTube that I, personally, have found very useful. In the article, Ms. Knorr recommends several easy steps, including:

  • watching with your kid

  • subscribing to good (e.g. safe) channels

  • checking out the channel and video creators

  • and turning on restricted mode

Of all these, I feel like the first and the last are most important. By watching with your kid, you can get a feel for the kinds of videos they are most interested in and, more importantly, which videos the recommendation engines are picking up on and serving more of. Once you’ve got a good idea of what content your kid is interested in and what is being served to them, you can use the parental controls to limit access to only what’s acceptable within those limits.

Of course none of this helps when kids have gotten interested in something you don’t feel like they should be watching in the first place, but that’s a different discussion entirely. For the moment, for my household, we’ve made an effort to follow the steps outlined above. We’ve watched the videos my kid likes and made sure they’re from legitimate channels and that the recommendations don’t take her too far away from the creators and series we think are okay. I can only hope it’s enough.


*Note: I very deliberately did not link to the videos mentioned in the sources I quoted. In some cases, they’ve been removed, but in all cases, they’re just a little bit of misery no one needs in their life and I don’t want to contribute to their view counts even by proxy.


What We’re Reading:

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7

by Joanna Faber & Julie King

Being a parent is hard enough; I don’t particularly want to do homework for it. But, I do want to be a better parent sometimes. (Other times, I’m the best Dad in the World. I have a mug that says so and everything.)

The book is fairly long, at 400 plus pages, but it’s been recommended to me by a couple of friends and teachers so I guess I should take the hint.

From the Amazon page:

This user-friendly guide will empower parents and caregivers of young children to forge rewarding, joyful relationships with terrible two-year-olds, truculent three-year-olds, ferocious four-year-olds, foolhardy five-year-olds, self-centered six-year-olds, and the occasional semi-civilized seven-year-old. And, it will help little kids grow into self-reliant big kids who are cooperative and connected to their parents, teachers, siblings, and peers.

Well. Sign me up.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Since We’re All on YouTube Anyway -

Up in the intro, I mentioned that YouTube is a fantastic resource for anyone learning a second language, and it is. You can find natural language videos in Spanish and French, naturally, but also in dozens of more obscure, less-widely-spoken languages like Hawaiian (approx. 600,000 native speakers) and Cherokee (approx. 12,000 native speakers.)

Learned #35: Typical

In which we learn to touch-type.

62 Words a minute. That’s my score, that’s my speed, according to this typing test I found just a minute ago. And, you know, that’s not bad. Not great, but not bad. Back in the day, I used to type at close to a hundred words a minute. I know because my 7th grade typing teacher was impressed and because my Typing 101 teacher didn’t believe me.

I’ve maintained for years that typing was the single most-practical skill I learned in all my years of school. It has helped me type papers, stories, essays, and reports. It has sharpened my thoughts and helped me to concentrate. But it wasn’t easy to learn.

In seventh grade, my teacher taught us by having us copy sentences from our textbooks, a few introductory letters at a time, on clean, white sheets of paper via electric typewriters. He told us to read the copy in advance and search out letter combinations that would occur frequently. Eventually, he had us typing our own letters and reports in (then) current business format.

By contrast, my Typing 101 teacher just yelled a lot. It’s not entirely her fault. Her classroom had only recently had the typewriters replaced with computers and she did not really know how to use them. On the other hand, she did not believe that anyone under the age of 20 could actually type correctly. It was not a fun class.

Methodology and technology aside, both instances share a core similarity: the schools at those times felt that typing was a skill important enough to warrant classrooms outfitted specifically for learning it. As I alluded to above, this is one of the very few occasions where I find myself in complete agreement with the faculty of the schools I attended.

My daughter is three. She’s growing up in a world where smartphones and tablets are replacing computers and voice-commanded virtual assistants are replacing keyboards. I don’t know that she’ll ever need to type. Should she learn anyway?

In this issue:

  • What we’re learning: How to Type

  • What we’re reading: The Field Guide to Typography

  • Down the rabbit hole: Beyond QWERTY

Let’s get to it.

Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

How to Type

Typing, like anything, requires practice. Like most of you, I imagine, while I type a lot, I rarely sit down to practice typing. Instead, I just type. Relatedly, I don’t often write a lot before I start composing. Instead, I just…type. These two things together mean that my speed and accuracy have decreased a lot in the years since I first learned to type. And, frankly, I don’t think I’m going to begin doing typing runs anytime soon.

I liken it to a musician prepping for a live performance versus going into the studio. The former situation requires practice and preparation because there can be no room for errors. The latter requires skill and knowledge, but leaves a lot of room for corrections and re-composing. I am not a performer. My typing may leave a lot to be desired (have fun finding the typos in this issue!), for the most part, corrections get made and the reader moves on never having seen how the sausage gets made.

But, I’ve been a little obsessed with brain training recently. And typing is often heralded as one method of doing so.

Useful?

Learning to type can help your memory and your coordination (which, in turn helps further develop your cognitive abilities). Basically, everything I said in the Brain Training Issue (#32) holds true in this situation, too.

That said, here are a few things I found that extoll the non-brain-training virtues of touch typing:

Basically, in addition to good memory and cognitive function, good typing skills helps you save time, take notes better, improve your posture, and make you more attractive to the gender of your preference. Maybe. What’s less clear is if practicing typing, once you’ve already learned how, actually helps as well.

The argument can be made that if your Words Per Minute is slower than average (around 50 WPM) you might want to improve just to (literally) keep up. But, once you hit average or above average speed, there’s no obvious benefit to continuing to get faster unless you just really need to put the words down as fast as humanly possible.

Relevant?

As I said above, I'm not sure my daughter will ever need to learn to type. Computers are rapidly moving towards a Star Trek-like voice interface. (Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et. al.) Odds are, by the time she's in junior high, another ten years from now, keyboards will still be attached to computers and available via app on phones and tablets, but they will not be the primary interface, not the way they are now.

In addition to the virtual assistants and smart home components, software technologies like Dragon are making it so that even lengthy entries like reports or articles (or newsletter posts!) can be done via speech rather than text. Which begs the question - will she need to type?

And, assuming she doesn't - that by the time she reaches the working world, speech-to-text technology will be so good that she merely dictates to a computer, will touch-typing become a specialized skill reserved for people who work with code or other special graphical cases?

I don't know. I kind of hope not, but I'm curious to find out. I guess we'll just have to, literally, wait and see.

Further Reading:

This week’s post was directly inspired by the always excellent podcast, The Allusionist. Specifically, episode 89, titled WPM. In the episode, Helen Zaltzman reads an essay all about type and typing. It’s fantastic. Please listen.


What We’re Reading:

The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape

by Peter Dawson

Ever since I first learned what a font was, sometime in the dark ages of the early 90s, I’ve been fascinated by them. Not only is there a staggering variety of ways in which a given letter of the alphabet can be drawn, but the meticulous, precise methodology of applying a given way-of-drawing to the entirety of the alphabet and related symbols is mind-blowing. Add in the fact that we, as readers, can recognize hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on a theme and read an A as A even if it’s written in archaic, calligraphic script and, well, again, mind = blown.

So. After all that, what’s the book about? As the title suggests, it’s a field guide. The book…you know what? I’m just going to quote myself:

Typography is a rich, thought-provoking study with a deep, storied history. And yet, for most of us, it is an unremarkable aspect of modern life. We rarely stop to consider the fonts we use in our family newsletters; we do not question the availability nor the history of Times New Roman or Verdana. Typography surrounds us everywhere, every day, and yet we never see it.

Peter Dawson's The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape seeks to change that by introducing the reader to real-world examples. The book is replete with glossy, full-color photographs paired with histories, category, classification, identifying marks, and everything else you would expect of a working dictionary or encyclopaedia. Additionally, one of the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing aspects of the book are the breakdowns of individual fonts. These illustrations identify and label the various components of a typeface (baseline, descender, etc.) along with suggested meanings and evoked images or feelings.

Whoo-yeah. There are a ton of pictures (by me) at the link above, as well. If you or anyone on your gift-list is a type lover, get this book. You’ll not regret it.

*For the record, and in case Google gets confused, my review was also re-printed here, on Boing Boing.


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Learned #34: All In the Game

In which we get gamified.

My students have been requesting that I buy "Jinsei Game" for ages. I've been putting it off because I didn't want to buy a Japanese version of the game. No, since I teach English, I thought it would be much better if I could get a copy of Jinsei Game under its original name: The Game of Life.

You might remember the game. Each player gets a little station wagon and spins the wheel to see how far down the board they can get. Along the way, you have positive experiences, like promotions and pay raises, and negative ones, like job loss and unforeseen expenses. And then there are those little bundles of joy brought by the stork that can be good or bad, depending.

But the bigger question, I suppose, is why I would cave in and get a board game for my classroom in the first place?

The simple answer is that anything that gets kids engaged and willing to learn is a helpful tool. A board game like Life gets them to read, use stock phrases (like "It's your turn."), and, most importantly, enjoy their classroom experience.

The shorter but more complex answer is that I'm a believer in and a proponent of gamification. And we're figuring out just what that means in this week's letter.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Art of Gamification

  • What We're Reading:

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Game Crafting 101

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning:

The Art of Gamification

Google's return for the query, "What is gamification?"

gamification

ɡeɪmɪfɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n

noun

the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.

And Wikipedia gives us this bit of history:

Though the term "gamification" first appeared online in the context of computer software in 2008,[78][a] it did not gain popularity until 2010.[82][83] Even prior to the term coming into use, other fields borrowing elements from videogames was common; for example, some work in learning disabilities[84] and scientific visualization adapted elements from videogames.[85]

The term "gamification" first gained widespread usage in 2010, in a more specific sense referring to incorporation of social/reward aspects of games into software.

All of which is well and good, but what does it mean for me as a teacher and what do I mean when I say I'm "a believer in and a proponent of" gamification?

Believe In Me

How many words did you learn to spell as a child by playing Hangman? For that matter, how many words did you learn by playing Scrabble? Or by doing the crossword puzzle?

For me, these are the earliest examples I can find in my own life where I learned directly through playing a game. And not the more abstract concepts that I might have learned by playing Chess or Backgammon, but concrete ideas like discrete words and their correct spellings and pronunciations.

In fact, I can draw a through-line tracing my learning of different things to games designed to specifically teach those things. All of which begs the question - how is gamification any different from actually playing games?

I like this answer from Elizabeth Goodhue on eLearningIndustry:

There may be mini-games within the framework, but the gamification is the big picture. When you hear the word gamification in a sales pitch for eLearning, it means that students learn under a framework of gamification. The sole purpose of gamification is motivating and reinforcing student learning with feedback, rewards, and a chance to practice a subject until they master it.

As an example of that, let’s look at a mini-case-study, my favorite writing website: 750words.

On the very front page of the site, creator Buster Benson writes:

Every month you get a clean slate. If you write anything at all, you get 1 point. If you write 750 words or more, you get 2 points. If you write two, three or more days in a row, you get even more points. It's fun to try to stay on streaks and the points are a way to play around with that. You can also see how others are doing points-wise if you're at all competitive that way. How I see it, points can motivate early on, and eventually the joy of writing will kick in and you'll be writing without any external motivation at all.

So. Buster has added a gaming element - points - to his writing site. Write more, get more points. However, you (the writer / user) are not competing against anyone and there is no concrete prize for winning. Taken together, to me, that’s not a game, that’s a great example of gamification - putting elements of games into other activities to take advantage of the way human minds are structured. In this case, earning points makes me feel good so I go out of my way to earn more points.

There are many other examples of gamification out there. Many, like 750words, just use elements to increase user repetition or engagement, others take it several steps further and create full-on games. I linked to several a couple weeks ago when I wrote about brain training, but, as I touched on then, the question is, does it work?

The Game of Life. | Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Proponent

Gamification is not without its critics. Mainly, the thought seems to be that people do not function (be that learning or practicing or whatever) any better through gamified systems than they would using more traditional study methods. I think what a lot of those critics miss is that gamifying things generally makes them more fun and less of a burden. Whether that is worthwhile is another question entirely.

Other criticisms center on businesses who have made gamification part of their selling point. Robert Workman on Business News Daily says:

Critics even say that gamification efforts have learned the wrong lesson from game design by overemphasizing points, badges and levels as rewards that motivate people. They argue that game features serve as benchmarks for players in traditional video games to measure their progress; the real motivation and joy comes from the challenge of gameplay and story.

All that being said, my early experience as a teacher made me an advocate for gamification before I even knew what it was.

When I first came to Japan, I worked for an English teaching school in which we teachers would have groups of three to four students at a time and would have nothing in terms of teaching materials save for a textbook and some scrap paper. Out of desperation, I began drawing on a lifetime of game-playing experience and began setting challenges and quests for my students. In time, some of these ideas turned into full-fledged lesson plans that I still use in my own practice, and some turned into games that I am currently testing. (And many, many other ideas went down in flames. Pretty, pretty flames.)

The ideas that worked, worked because they used common elements that everyone could understand and enabled the achievement of a specific learning goal. In other words, by gamifying my lessons, I was able to help students learn.

Shameless Plug:

If you’re curious as to the games I’m working on, which grew out of my teaching, here’s the link to both print-and-play and pre-printed editions:

Big Sun English on Drive Thru Games

Further Reading:


What We’re Reading:

Punished by Rewards: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

by Alfie Kohn

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