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“That’s when I gave up pinball”*…



Readers will recall the hysterical efforts of “Dr.” Frederic Wertham to protect children from the dangers of comic books; pinball machines faced a similar challenge…

During the decadent reign of Louis XIV, restless courtiers at Versailles became enchanted with a game they called ‘bagatelle’ which means a ‘trifle’ in French. This game was played on a slanted felt board. A wooden cue was used to hit balls into numbered depressions in the board – usually guarded by metal pins. The game arrived in America in the 19th century, and by the turn of the 20th century attempts were being made to commercialize the game. According to Edward Trapunski, author of the invaluable pinball history Special When Lit (1979), the first successful coin operated bagatelle game, Baffle Ball, was produced by the D Gottlieb Company at the end of 1931.

Soon the metal plunger took the place of the wooden cue stick, and lights, bumpers and elaborate artwork appeared on the machines. The game had arrived at the right time – the Depression had just hit America hard, and the one-nickel amusement helped entertain many struggling citizens. It also kept many small businesses afloat, since the operator and location owner usually split the profits 50/50. The game was particularly popular with youngsters in claustrophobic cities like New York, which boasted an estimated 20,000 machines by 1941. That year, one local judge who was confronted with a pinball machine during a case voiced the complaint of many older citizens when he whined: ‘Will you please take this thing away tonight. I can’t get away from these infernal things. They have them wherever I go.’

Although pinball was quickly vilified in many parts of America, the poster child for the vilification was none other than ‘the little flower’ himself: the pugnacious, all-powerful Fiorello H La Guardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. La Guardia argued that pinball was a ‘racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality’, which took money from the ‘pockets of school children’…

The whole sad story at: “A menace to society: the war on pinball in America.” (And more on the history of pinball machines here and here.)

* Haruki Murakami, Pinball


As we limber up our flipper fingers, we might spare a thought for a man who’d surely have approved of neither the comics nor pinball, Increase Mather; he died on this date in 1723.  A major figure in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Province of Massachusetts Bay (now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), Mather was a Puritan minister involved with the government of the colony, the administration of Harvard College, and most notoriously, the prosecution of the Salem witch trials. His piety ran in the family: he was the son of Richard Mather, and the father of Cotton Mather, both influential Puritan ministers.



Written by LW

August 23, 2016 at 1:01 am

“We’re supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs”*…


The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole…

Frans de Waal on the flaws in the “competition-is-good-for-you” logic: “How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy.”

* Bill Hicks


As we concentrate on cooperation, we might spare a thought for Martin Gardner; he died on this date in 2010.  Though not an academic, nor ever a formal student of math or science, he wrote widely and prolifically on both subjects in such popular books as The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion and as the “Mathematical Games” columnist for Scientific American.  Indeed, his elegant– and understandable– puzzles delighted professional and amateur readers alike, and helped inspire a generation of young mathematicians.

Gardner’s interests were wide; in addition to the math and science that were his power alley, he studied and wrote on topics that included magic, philosophy, religion, and literature (c.f., especially his work on Lewis Carroll– including the delightful Annotated Alice— and on G.K. Chesterton).  And he was a fierce debunker of pseudoscience: a founding member of CSICOP, and contributor of a monthly column (“Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” from 1983 to 2002) in Skeptical Inquirer, that organization’s monthly magazine.


“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…


Taxonomy, the art and science of classifying life, really should be a civilized pursuit. It encourages solitude, concentration, care. It rewards a meticulous attention to detail. And while it might occasionally receive some good-natured ribbing from the popular culture—think of all those butterfly collectors stumbling around in Far Side cartoons—it continues to play a vital role at the foundations of modern biology.

It can come as a bit of a surprise, then, when that veneer of civilization cracks, and the field reveals itself to be one of the more contentious arenas in science, a place where arguments over names and classifications rage through the literature for decades. This is both a strength, as challenges to current classification keep the field dynamic and relevant, and an expression of its hardwired vulnerabilities…

More at “Why Do Taxonomists Write the Meanest Obituaries?

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


As we contemplate classification, we might send carefully-spelled birthday greetings to Alfred Mosher Butts; he was born on this date in 1899.  An architect, artist, photographer, and inventor, Butts found himself at loose ends in the early 1930s, and set out to design a board game, settling on one that utilized both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles.  He carefully analyzed how often each letter is used (thus determining how many of each letter to include and how many points each one would earn), then drew a board and glued letters on some balsa tiles.  He first called his creation “Lexiko”, but later changed the name to “Criss Cross Words.”  In 1948, he sold his game to James Brunot, who made a few minor adjustments to the design and renamed the game “Scrabble.”  Today it is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages; approximately 150 million sets have been sold worldwide.  Roughly one-third of American and half of British homes have a Scrabble set, and there are over 4,000 Scrabble clubs worldwide.



Written by LW

April 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, not have way”*…


A few times each decade, the number of acceptable Scrabble words grows. Some sixty-five hundred new words—“lolz,” “shizzle,” and “blech” among them—will officially enter one of the two major competitive Scrabble lexicons on September 1st of this year. The grumbling that results when a word list lengthens is not so much about the inclusion of obscene or offensive words—though a cleaned-up list was controversially published in 1996, after someone protested the inclusion of “jew” as a verb. Instead, it is more about the growing divide between two Scrabble communities: North America and everywhere else…

The history of everyone’s favorite word game– and an explanation of the controversy roiling it today– at “The battle over Scrabble’s dictionaries.”

* Steve Martin


As we reach for a triple-letter double-word combo, we might recall that, while February 23rd, 1455 is the traditionally-given date of the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type, the first evidence-based date is this date in 1456: the copy in the Bibliothèque nationale de France contains a note from the binder establishing the time of its publication.

(The Jikji— the world’s oldest known extant movable metal type printed book– was published in Korea in 1377.  Bi Sheng created the first known moveable type– out of wood– in China in 1040.)



Written by LW

August 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100″*…


English-speakers might say “existential despair,” among a number of different terms. Germans refer to Weltschmerz. As is often the case, the French have the perfect term to represent a somewhat intellectualized world-weariness that positively cries out for a pack of Gitanes. The term is ennui, and it’s so useful that we’ve incorporated it into our language. Using a French term gives the depression that extra bit of useless panache.

A game designer named Josh Millard has created the perfect Nintendo-style game to match that mood—it is called Ennuigi, and in it you can “spend some time with a depressed, laconic Luigi as he chain smokes and wanders through a crumbling Mushroom Kingdom, ruminating on ontology, ethics, family, identity, and the mistakes he and his brother [Mario] have made.”

Did I mention you can play it? Yes. You can play it.

Here is the complete list of controls:

left/right: walk around
up: ruminate
down: smoke…

More at “‘Ennuigi’: Nintendo for pretentious Existentialists.”


* Woody Allen


As we wait for the man, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that Microsoft discontinued the Xbox home video game console.  Introduced in 2002 to compete with Nintendo’s Mario-hosting Game Cube (along with Sony’s Playstation and Sega’s Dreamcast) , the Xbox had been the first U.S.- produced video game console since the Atari Jaguar disappeared in 1996, and had sold nearly 25 million units (on which, Halo and scores of other games were played) by the time it was replaced by the Xbox 360.



Written by LW

August 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The worst thing a kid can say about a game is it’s too easy”*…


…Just a few of the hundreds of games available at The Internet Arcade.   As it’s Sunday (and a Sunday with an extra hour, at that), readers may want to kick back and click…

The Internet Arcade is a web-based library of arcade (coin-operated) video games from the 1970s through to the 1990s… Containing hundreds of games ranging through many different genres and styles, the Arcade provides research, comparison, and entertainment in the realm of the Video Game Arcade.

The game collection ranges from early “bronze-age” videogames, with black and white screens and simple sounds, through to large-scale games containing digitized voices, images and music.  Most games are playable in some form, although some are useful more for verification of behavior or programming due to the intensity and requirements of their systems.

Many games have a “boot-up” sequence when first turned on, where the systems run through a check and analysis, making sure all systems are go. In some cases, odd controllers make proper playing of the systems on a keyboard or joypad a pale imitation of the original experience…

Still, it’s a hoot…  The Internet Arcade, a service of the invaluable Internet Archive.

* Henry Jenkins


As we flex our fingers, we might send the heaviest of birthday greetings to Ronald McGovney; he was born on this date in 1962.  Having previously played with James Hetfield in the garage band Leather Charm, McGovney joined Hetfield in founding Metallica, playing with the band through its first year of performing and recording demos. The first of five bassists who’ve played with Metallica, McGovney left in late 1982; he went on to play in the thrash metal band Phantasm.

McGovney (left), with Hetfield (singing), Lars Ulrich (drums), and Dave Mustaine (guitar)– Metallica’s original line-up



Written by LW

November 2, 2014 at 1:01 am

“I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly”*…


The game Monopoly was created in the early 1930s as “The Landlord Game” by a Quaker anxious to illuminate the dangers of unbridled acquisitiveness.  But by 1935, when it was acquired by Parker Bros., it had been copied, re-titled, and remade into the paean to aspirational capitalism that’s been a huge success ever since.

But times have changed; the methods of wealth accumulation have morphed…  and now there is a new set of rules to reflect this new reality.

It would be hard to simplify capitalism further than Monopoly. The game attempts to express the ruthlessness of raw capitalism by declaring that whoever has the most money at the “end” is the winner. While it’s true our culture proclaims the rich as our greatest heroes, the method of financial gain in Monopoly is not a system that allows for any creativity. Roll the dice, buy a property, pay rent, pass go, and collect $200. Repeat.

Simple models have long been used to help understand complex ideas. With a few small changes Monopoly can be a space where we can play at being in control of the economic system. All it takes is a few new rules.

Rule Change #1: The Banker

In the original rules the role of the banker is simply a chore–the board game equivalent of taking out the trash. But in real life the banker is no passive entity. The banker is the center of the universe.

The Libor scandal, the UBS money laundering scandal, the SAC Capital scandal, FINRA suing Wells Fargo and Bank of America, TD Bank paying to settle charges of a ponzi scheme, Galleon Group’s insider trading scandal. This list could go on. The point is that banking is
exciting work!

The role of the banker is special. The banker should have no piece on the Monopoly board, but this person is in charge of the bank’s money. The success of the banker is judged the same as any other player: Whoever accumulates the most wealth is the winner. Of course, as in life, the banker has some advantages (like control of all the money)…

Read the rest of the new rules at “Rethinking the game of Monopoly“…  then roll the dice.

Playing this version of Monopoly won’t help you understand the details of a banking scandal. But you’ll have experience with a simplified model of the financial system that generates regular “scandals.” A game where arguing and backstabbing are part of the rules and the winner is hard to determine. This simple model recreates the same results found in the real world.

* Stephen Wright


As we wonder why no one’s done time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1882 that the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange was formed;  it later merged with with Los Angeles Oil Exchange to become the Pacific Stock Exchange.  In 1999 it became the first stock exchange in the U.S. to demutualize, and in 2003, closed its trading floors and went to electronic transactions. The PSX, as it was known, merged into the New York Stock Exchange in 2006.

The San Francisco home of the Pacific Stock Exchange from 1930 to 2003


Written by LW

June 5, 2014 at 1:01 am

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