Thursday, July 20, 2017

Summer 2017 Course Revisions: Game Programming

I introduced the main ideas of my CS315 Game Programming course revision in my previous post. Since then, I have worked on the course design and come up with a plan that I think will work. I have posted the course description online in case anyone wants all the details; here, I want to document a few of the decisions and their rationale.

To get the students' hands dirty, I developed an assignment I've called "Flappy Whatever." The assignment specification is actually posted up on Ball State's Canvas instance. The university is conducting a pilot investigation of Canvas as an alternative to Blackboard; I am coming in on the second or third semester of the pilot, and I figured putting the assignment there would give me a chance to get to know the interface a bit. Short version: it's fine. More to the point, the assignment is for individuals or pairs to develop a minimally playable game in Unreal Engine 4 that meets the following requirements:

  • Includes firing a visible projectile in a parabolic trajectory, using UE4's physics engine
  • Include a scoring or end condition
  • Source code is posted to our class GitHub organization
  • Game title includes the word "Angry" modifying a noun
This is a riff on an assignment I gave one of the first semesters I taught CS315, where the students had a week to make a simple projectile-based demo. I fondly remember one of my students styling it as Homer Simpson throwing donuts. I've scheduled two class during which students are working on this, and I've added a requirement that students bring in questions about what they encounter. I hope that this will drive us quickly to the areas that are both important and misunderstood. We'll close up the assignment with a demo day, where students can show off what they came up with. I'll put together a demo of some kind using UE4's Paper2D system, since this will be something useful for the Collaboration Station revision, but I would be fine with students building something in 3D space for the assignment as well.

From there, I want to move rather quickly into incremental and iterative development. I will do one or two classes to introduce fundamentals of Scrum since there will be too many students for me to directly manage: I plan on using a Scrum-of-Scrums configuration, with students optionally rotating who is acting Scrum Master each iteration. I didn't put this in the course description, but I plan to grade each iteration the way I normally do for my game studio courses, with each student participating in a collective reflection and writing a personal, individual reflection. I intend on allowing students to shift between groups between iterations if they wish, and I am considering asking each team to identify its own OKRs based on the ones I wrote up before.

Careful readers may notice that I completely dropped the concept of my students making a public or private "How to learn UE4" site. As I imagined the structure and rhythm of the class, it seemed too far afield. I don't doubt that it could be interesting, but it would also necessarily distract the students from participating in the communities, forums, and wikis that are already out there. If some students express strong interest in it, I could bring it back as optional, but I don't think I'd really miss it if it were gone.

I am obligated to somehow interpret my students' project-based learning experience honestly into a grade, so I decided that the most clear and direct way to do this was to have them chase MacGuffins. Students earn MacGuffins for satisfactorily completing Angry Whatever and each project iteration that we endeavor. They can also earn a MacGuffin for completing an achievement, of which I currently have two: one is to participate in a game jam such as Ludum Dare; the other is to present at the 2017 Symposium on Games in Academia that my Serious Games Knowledge Group will be hosting in November. I will probably think of others as the Summer continues. If a student does all the expected work of the course satisfactorily and completes an achievement, they get an A. For each step down (or, equivalently, each MacGuffin they did not find), it knocks down one letter grade. This sounds fair to me: do only the in-class stuff, and you have done Very Good ("Well", natch). Skip an iteration, skip the intro assignment, or royally screw up someplace, you did Average. Anything less is Poor.

This plan leaves me with a bit of prep yet to do, such as designing the specifics of a Scrum tutorial and perhaps making some UE4 tutorial videos, but overall I think it is sound. Even if I simply left this alone until the semester started, it's enough to get everything rolling. That's good, because I think it's time for me to turn my attention to the revisions to CS222—which is moving to a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, affording some potentially significant changes—and retheming my game design colloquium around or upcoming project. More about that in later posts. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Background and preliminary planning for the Fall 2017 Game Programming Course

It's that time of year where I design my courses for the Fall and share my thoughts and plans on my blog. This year, however, I have been having some difficulties, and so in the spirit of reflective practice, I've decided to write about some of them instead.

In the Fall, I will be teaching Game Programming (CS315) again, the first time since 2015. Normally it would have been offered last year, but we had a teaching pinch as we were conducting three faculty searches simultaneously. Last time I taught the course, we used PlayN, which remains one of my favorite game-programming libraries. I even wrote an article in the Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges about it. This year, however, change is afoot.

I have a grant from the Indiana Space Grant Consortium to enhance Collaboration Station, the educational game about the International Space Station that my team—Space Monkey Studio—developed in Spring 2015. You can read all about that in my post from the end of that semester. It's a small grant, but I figured I can supplement the scholarly production goals by dovetailing the project into my teaching. Hence, I will use the revision of Collaboration Station as a case study for this coming semester. I will recruit a small team to finish and publish it in the Spring, but I would like to see my CS315 students providing much of the creative production work during the Fall.

Two of the primary goals for the revision are cross-platform support and robust, cross-platform multiplayer support. When we started Collaboration Station in PlayN, I had hoped to use the cross-compilation feature to produce an iOS build; however, that was right around the time that licensing changes made that feature questionable. Additionally, the Bluetooth-based networking that we implemented on Android was not possible in iOS. During our production, we tactically dropped iOS support from our plans and successfully released the Android version, but this future work will revisit the issue.

I talked to several vendors and developers at GDC this year, and based on those conversations, I decided that Firebase could provide a perfect solution for networking, and that Unreal Engine (UE4) would provide a robust and learnable platform for development. Learnability is important: as much as I love PlayN, it was always challenging to teach with, since there are not many tutorials. The APIs are best explored by reading the source code and exploring GitHub repositories, which my students tend to have trouble with. It's a good skill to develop, of course, but it takes time! UE4 has myriad high-quality official and unofficial tutorials, videos, online courses, and assets, which means it should be easier to let students explore in their preferred mode. Also, in case you haven't seen it, UE4 contains an excellent graphical programming environment called "Blueprints". Here's an example from my UE4-based implementation of the Collaboration Station memory minigame:

The whole block is commented to describe its intention, as one would do with any source code comments. When this agent receives the "Play Grid Complete Effect" event (red, upper-left), it sets a 0.5-second timer, after which it fires—and handles—the "Delay Complete" event. After that, a new grid object (of class "BP_Grid") is spawned at the location of the previous one. After that, the old, finished grid is destroyed. Epic has put a massive amount of effort into making Blueprints easy to work with, but it's still very robust and powerful. I have heard some well-meaning evangelists claim you can use UE4 "without programming", but make no mistake: this is certainly programming! It's just visual programming rather than text-file-based programming. This gives it a much gentler syntax than C++ (which is the alternative in UE4). The Blueprints API is also completely searchable from withing the Blueprints editor itself, which means that once you learn some core terminology ("event", "actor", "pawn", "vector", etc.), you can often find what you need without having to leave the IDE.

Below is a quick, low-fidelity screencast showing the memory game in action. It starts with a short introduction, then shows the player flipping cards. After a few flips, he realizes that the "randomize" developer option was turned off and clears the board easily. This earns him a "Boost" that can be given to another player. This is one of the new gameplay features I have planned for revision, something to make the game feel more like a collaborative effort rather than disjoint individual minigames.

There has been no bridge between Firebase and UE4, however, and so I was excited to read about GameDNA's development of a Firebase Realtime Database plug-in. Unfortunately, its release has been mysteriously delayed, with no new release date announced. Before heading out for a family vacation, I developed a skeleton software architecture as demonstrated in the video above. I hoped the plug-in would be released while I was away so I could pick it up on my return, but no such luck. If it comes out in the next few weeks, I hope to be able to stub in the essential multiplayer architecture; if not, that will have to wait until after the semester starts, when it's much harder to carve out days for serious engineering efforts. My experience developing the original Collaboration Station was that the networking layer was too technically complicated for my students to handle themselves—the course does not have any networking prerequisites, and writing production code is not the time to make all the newbie mistakes.

I have had these plans swirling around my mind for some time now, but I have found it challenging to turn these ideas into a coherent course plan. As I wrote about after Ludum Dare 38, it took me months to make sense of UE4, and that's with a lot of background knowledge about programming in general and game development in particular. I am sure the path I took would not be optimal for my students, and so I am left uncertain about the pedagogic details. Very roughly, I imagine a structure like I use in all my project-oriented classes, with a few weeks of fundamentals followed by group projects. I plan to incentivise teams to develop minigames for the Collaboration Station revision, although I don't want to mandate that for fear of diminishing the motivation of teams who have another vision. I am not sure where that balance should be between the up-front instruction and the guided chaos of learning-by-doing.

The course design is complicated by the sheer scale of the class: last time I taught it, I had about 14 students, and I was able to keep track of their 4–5 teams without too much effort, but this time I have a full class of 32. Our existing lab machines don't have graphics cards that support UE4 development; the department has acquired one game development workstation and has budgeted for two more, but that's still ten students per workstation! I know that some of the students will have laptops that are capable of running UE4, but I have no way to know how many until I meet them. If only a handful have machines that can run UE4, then there's not much point in trying to use the classroom to do development work—honestly, I'm not sure what that would portend, and so I'm just hoping we hit at least the 50% mark so that pairs can work together during scheduled class time.

I know I want to grade them based on their process rather than their product, since I know first-hand that it took a lot of trial-and-error before I was able to confidently make something reasonable in UE4. A focus on process means that I can pull on my experience with Agile techniques such as Scrum. I don't think XP will work here since it's not clear to me that test-first is the best way to write experimental gameplay code, and I expect a lot of what my students will write will be shot-in-the-dark experimental code. Other concepts of Clean Code can still be applied of course, such as the importance of decomposition: hundreds of Blueprints on one screen are just as bad as any other monolothic design. (Actually, whether a visual language or a text-based language is worse for readability of badly-written code would be a great research project.)

A few days ago, I suddenly remembered reading about OKRs late last semester and thinking that they might contain something interesting for use in my Fall teaching. For those who don't know, OKR stands for "Objectives and Key Results," and it's a way of orienting an organization toward productive work. They are famously used at Google, among other places, and this Google Ventures presentation gives a comprehensive overview. One of the important features of OKRs is that they should not be used for employee evaluation—something I had forgotten until I got one or two hours into reviewing what they are and how they work. However, I was reminded of another important property of OKRs: they can be deployed at any level of the organization. I decided to try my hand at writing OKRs for Fall's Game Programming course, with an eye toward considering how articulating my objectives might help me develop appropriate student learning evaluations.

Without further ado, here are the objectives and their associated key results:
  • Produce a stable beta release of revised Collaboration Station by the end of the semester.
    • No gameplay crashes through ten routine plays
    • Released as beta on Google Play Store
    • All the sources are in the github repository
    • Include six minigames, including UE4-implementations of the original four
    • Document, in the repository, how to write and integrate new minigames
  • Implement revised multiplayer support via Firebase
    • Players can join game by keying in an ID
    • Firebase rules enforce structure
    • Include boost-generation and boost-consumption in each minigame
    • Gracefully handle, through narrative, player drop-out
  • Produce a public Web site designed to help CS majors learn UE4
    • Provide four introductory paths through available materials
    • Curate and critique ten or more UE4 videos
    • Compose two original tutorials in text, video, or multimodal
OKRs are supposed to be ambitious, perhaps even a little painful. One is not supposed to hit them all; a reasonable target is around 70%. Keep in mind that this is really my first effort at using this technique, and yet I feel like this was a useful exercise; I think these may help me articulate my expectations for my students and develop assessments, likely through an achievement-style system as I have used in CS222 for several semesters. 

The first objective is about the software production itself, and the key results are all clearly measurable. At first I didn't have the "through ten routine plays" clause, but I realized that without such a clarification, there was no bounds around the KR to keep it feasibly measurable. The second objective deals with the multiplayer aspect, with the possibly-pessimistic assumption that this is something my students and I are going to have to deal with during the semester rather than my sorting it out over the summer. That last objective is based on something I tried way back in 2010, when I was first learning Android and having my students join me in the process. We structured the whole course around a public site; I wrote a little about this back on my old wordpress blog. If my students can figure out how to learn UE4 within the context of our course, then expressing how they did this should help them crystallize their own understanding, and it will produce something of value for future students. This also could give the course a different flavor for a student who was more interested in, say, running summer camps for kids on game development rather than producing games themselves: it's a different yet valid way of knowing the domain. Then again, I could cut that last piece entirely so as not to dilute my students' focus. Clearly, I have not yet decided, but I would like to have a draft course plan complete by the end of the week. 

I believe that I have laid out all the major elements of the course. As always, I welcome your suggestions and comments. Expect a follow-up post later this month that ties some of the loose ends together.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Painting Descent, Part 2: The Heroes

I am happy to report on the completion of my Descent: Journeys in the Dark, 2nd Edition miniature painting project—a project that spanned a few other painting projects in between! In this part, I report on the heroes, following up on my completion of the monsters back in March. For the heroes, I prioritized the painting of the three that we wanted to use as heroes first; the low priority of the rest is the main reason it took so long to finish the set.

Oblig. Box Art Photo. As per FFG/Runebound tradition, none of the pictured characters are in the box.
After trimming off mold lines, I decided to prime all the heroes using Vallejo Grey Surface Primer, applying by brush as per Ghool's video tutorial. I used two coats to get a good, clean layer of primer over the plastic. For my overall approach, I was inspired by Sorastro's painting techniques, where he generally uses a base coat, wash, and highlight. He pays great attention to detail to get a very high tabletop quality; I was more interested in getting decent results to the table quickly. That is, looking at it as a design problem, my fitness function was essentially "Is this model painted well enough that I can be proud of it when it hits the table, without spending inordinate effort?"

In Sorastro's newer videos, he has been using zenithal priming, which is a form of pre-shading. This involves priming the figure black, then laying down a layer of grey primer from about 45 degrees, and then a layer of white primer from above. This looks like a nice way to start a model, but from what I understand, it requires an airbrush, and that's an investment I have not been willing to make. One of the main reasons I have avoided thinking about this is that it would require me to clean the garage workbench to make room for a spray station. Before he got into zenithal priming, however, Sorastro mentioned a technique in his Jain Fairwood video where he primes in white and then applies a thin wash over the model. The result is similar in spirit to zenithal priming: it pre-shades the recesses. I tried this, using my homemade ink wash based on Lester Bursley's recipe, starting with Avric Albright. The result was immediately recognizable as a failure. The Vallejo Surface Primer, when brushed on, has strange hyrdophobic properties. It's a bit like painting Bones plastic, if you've ever had that experience: the paint pulls into pools on the base coat, requiring multiple layers just to achieve coverage. I asked Ghool about this online, and he confirmed that this is how it goes with brush-on, although the same product behaves differently when airbrushed on. So, what happened with the ink wash was that it beaded up rather than flowing into recesses. I don't have any photographs of what happened to the miniature because I immediately grabbed a big brush of water and cleaned the stuff off the miniature as best as I could. There were still some faint ink tide marks, but these were easily covered by the real base coat.

There was another surprise regarding this new priming technique. Based on my experience with the attempted pre-shade, I knew I had to use thicker paint than usual to get good coverage on the base coat because of the strange primer properties. I painted a few heroes and the results were fine. About halfway through is when I interrupted this set to work on some others, and I used the same priming approach except that I used only one coat instead of two. On those models, the paint behaved much more nicely, without so much beading. I am still not sure if I am seeing a property of having used two layers of primer or something else about the plastic or the environment. I returned to spray priming for my next painting project since the weather was just right for it, but hopefully I can figure out all the variables here sometime.

OK, that's all the background and context. Let's move on to the figures!
I started with Leoric of the Book, the character I intended to use for our Road to Legend tutorial campaign. I am quite happy with the results, and I think it's some of my better work. Priming in grey, instead of the black gesso I have been using, made it much easier to get bright whites on Leoric's robes and tassels. Miniature painters know that eyes are troublesome; I watched Sorastro's video for inspiration and noticed that he didn't paint the eyes at all. I decided to do the same, and I think it gives the figure a great haughty expression, with his head tilted back, as if he's looking down his nose at some measly goblin archer.

Next up is Avric Albright, the cleric. I think I did a nice job with his cloak, and the checkerboard detailing on it really helps sell it. I spent some time on the shield trying to emphasize how light reflects off of metals, but it's really too subtle to show up here; using metallic paints (TMM, True Metallic Metals), it didn't really matter as much as if I was doing it without (NMM, Non-Metallic Metals). For Avric also, I did not paint his eyes, obscured as they are behind his helmet, and I think that was fine. Longtime readers may recognize that this is uncharacteristic for me not to paint the eyes at all. It's a small thing, but it was something interesting for me to consider.

My son played Syndrael, the elf knight, for our campaign. Of these three, she was the most straightforward to paint, since she's mostly gold armor and green cloth. The hardest part was matching the tones, which for the armor was done by mixing metallic gold paint with nonmetallic yellows and beige. Once again, no eyes, but with a slightly different stories. I painted the eyes on Syndrael, and they came out kind of buggy. Putting her next to Avric and Leoric, the difference was noticeable, so I ended up painting over them with flesh colors, leaving her with a somewhat distant facial expression.

I will make a quick note about the basing here, in case I ever need to come back to my own notes and base additional Descent figures. The bases were all done with a mix of fine, medium, and coarse ballast, about 4:2:1 ratio. This was painted black and drybrushed up to medium or light brown. Flocking was done with a 50/50 blend of burnt grass and medium green fine turf. I like how the turf suggests a combination of low-growing greenery, and on top of this, I added static grass to most of the heroes. A mix of green and black tea leaves was used for the rest of the flock; these were taken from teabags, which are finely cut and contain a nice assortment of tones and shapes.
My son wasn't so happy with Syndrael, so the next one I painted was Grisbane the Thirsty, the other warrior from the base set. I am quite happy with the results here too. Like all the figures, I didn't pick the paint scheme; I just tried to match what was on the character art. Still, I think his mix of reds and browns turned out great, contrasting against the grey hair and metallic highlights. I spent more time on his face than any other, glazing on a reddish hue to his nose and cheeks.

The first of the scouts from the base set is Tomble Burrowell. His color scheme is a lot like Grisban's, with reds, browns, and bright accents. I mentioned this in my previous painting post about the Visions of Dawn expansion, but it was kind of hard to be motivated to paint the scouts. For three players, I'm inclined toward a party that includes Fighter, Healer, and Spellcaster, which leaves Rogues out of the mix as an optional fourth. Maybe once this current campaign is done we'll try a different mix; although the Road to Legend app allows for multiple campaigns at once, that does require tedious swapping of cards, a process that drained a lot of my energy for Imperial Assault back when I finished that and tried running two campaigns at once. Honestly, I don't know if these Scouts will ever hit the table if the Imperial Assault co-op app is released before our Descent campaign is finished, since I'm hopeful that it will breathe new life into IA and allow me to bring those minis back to the table.

Let me leave myself a quick note here about these photographs. These were all taken in the morning (which means without direct sunlight into my office, which has south and west windows) from my lightbox. I used the same postprocessing that I mentioned in the Visions of Dawn heroes post, namely, that I boosted the whites using the Google Photos "white" slider in their Web-based image editor. I believe that these photos are quite good representations of the actual miniature.
After finishing the Road to Legend mini-campaign, my wife and son were switching to characters from Visions of Dawn for the full campaign. I thought about keeping Leoric since I quite enjoyed him, and I was not so interested in the abilities of Master Thorn—the Mage from Visions of Dawn. Returning to the base set, I realized that Widow Tarha could be a fun character to play as a Runemaster, so I painted her up, and it's been a blast. Her re-roll ability is priceless, especially with the 1/6 chance of a miss that plagues Descent (and was cleverly shifted away to a defensive ability in Imperial Assault). I think the fiture turned out quite nice, with a lot of contrast between the colors. Perhaps I could have taken her skin highlights up higher, since it does look a bit dull compared to the rest of her. The fur headdress was painted bright white and then toned down with a series of washes. Again, in retrospect, I could have done something more elegant here by blending different base colors on the headdress and then using washes to unite the colors; I'm sure this perspective is influenced by some of Sorastro's latest videos where he uses this approach on classic Star Wars characters such as the Rancor and Jabba the Hutt.

Here is the other scout: Jain Fairwood. Despite my uncertainty about the future of these scouts, I do think that the result is good here. In retrospect, I could have probably taken the highlights on the cloak and hair even higher. I had a hard time with the part of her cloak that falls down over her back since it is rather flat. It took several layers of highlights and base color glazes to get something I deemed acceptable. The final effect is somewhat mottled, which is an artifact of having done an ad hoc mix of layering, wet blending, and feathering.

Finally, here's Ashrian, who I painted last, giving her the unenviable position of "I'm ready to be done" paint job. Her pose is quite dynamic and interesting, but the either the sculpt was sloppy or the casting was poor. She was covered in awkward, unreachable mold lines, including across the middle of her hair. I think I have mentioned before that I believe Descent can be credited with some of the growth of miniature board games and the painting hobby, leading to the massive success of Kickstarter projects like CMON's, It seemed to me like the average quality of the Visions of Dawn miniatures was much higher than the base set characters; is this a reflection of Fantasy Flight's recognition of the value of hobbyist painters, or perhaps market-driven improvements in miniature production technology? I don't know that anyone has a definitive public answer, and I know that FFG is generally very quiet about their products and production.

In any case, Ashrian turned out fine. I could have added a bit more detail, but the result is a fair interpretation. The hair on the card art is a bit more yellow than I have here. Who will ever play her, though, when we have Ispher? Still, she passes my fitness function.

Let's go journey in the dark!
I am happy with the result of this set, and they look good on the table. We have never played Descent by the classic rules, only playing with the co-op app. The game takes just slightly longer than I would like, but this is due to family constraints of trying to fit it between when the younger kids go to bed and before the oldest one does. My second son has shifted his bedtime in the last two few weeks as well, so I don't know quite what that means for our campaign.

I am glad I followed through with the idea of using the same fundamental technique for all the characters. I wasn't a zealot about it, using a bit of wet-blending or two-brush blending when it seemed appropriate. Base/wash/highlight worked well over the light grey primer. It's not clear that it saved me much time over working up from black primer except on those heroes with a lot of white showing, such as Leoric and Widow Tarha.

It's a good feeling to finish a set like this and know that I've created some interesting art that enhances my family's enjoyment of our boardgaming hobby. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Observing a critique in a freshmen-level figure drawing class

Almost ten years ago, I participated in an NSF-sponsored workshop on studio-based learning (SBL) for computer science education. Briefly, this technique is inspired by the pedagogy of traditional studio disciplines such as art and architecture; it is characterized by the crits (critiques) through which students present artifacts that represent their understanding, formally and informally, and they receive feedback from peers and experts. Participating in the workshop was highly influential on me as a young assistant professor, both for the content and for the professionalization: I was able to see how the workshop was run and spend a lot of time talking to educators—new and seasoned—from all over the world. I wrote a few scholarly articles on SBL, and I'm a little disappointed that it didn't become more of a movement. The old Web site is gone, and there are not many new publications exploring this approach. I suspect it will be another blip on the historic-pedagogic radar, but that does not take away from the positive impact it has had, and continues to have, on those of us who follow it.

About two weeks ago, I ran into a friend of mine who teaches at the BSU Honors College, and we got to talking about effective teaching techniques for engaging honors students. Students have to be bright to get into the Honors College of course, but this means many of them have developed bad intellectual habits: they got through K-12 by being smart, not by being diligent. In particular, I told him about how I have my students bring posters that represent their week's efforts, and we stick these to the wall for group discussion; I want more students to engage more authentically with the work that is shown, to explore the connections among ideas, where many of them tend to sit back and stay quiet. My friend suggested that I should go observe a crit in an art class. Of course I should! I have internalized much of the pedagogy of SBL, but I have spent very little time building an understanding of where it comes from. I did observe informal crits in a friend's animation class a few years ago, but I had never seen a formal crit. I had lunch with a different colleague later that day, and who should enter the restaurant but my friend Barbara, who is an art professor! I hopped up and asked if she was teaching any summer courses and whether I could observe a formal critique. She was happy to have me, and so today I am sharing my notes from observing Monday's class.

This summer, Barbara is teaching Figure Drawing, a freshmen-level class for art majors. It is a foundations course taken by all art majors regardless of intended specialization. She was apologetic about them being freshmen, so they themselves were new to the process of giving and receiving feedback through crits; however, this is exactly what I wanted to see, since I was more interested in how she scaffolded their learning about this rather than what they already knew about it. If I used any of these techniques with my Computer Science majors or interdisciplinary courses, odds are it would be brand new to these students as well.

That should give you enough of a background and context for the following notes. I will share my observations of what I saw along with some reflections of what I think, along with notes about how this might be useful for my teaching.

The format crit took place in a different space than their usual classroom. In the hallway outside the School of Art administrative offices is a large, white, bracket-shaped ("[") wall designed to have work pinned to it. The twelve students, the instructor, and I sat on the inside of this wall; the students tacked their work to the wall, along with a small paper showing their name. The particular work being shown was a pair of self-portraits, one a value study from earlier in the semester, and the other a contour drawing. I don't think I had ever seen a contour drawing before, and it got me thinking about how I might use the concept of secondary contours in my miniature painting.

One of the first things I noticed was the obvious variety in outcomes. Some of the work displayed high standards of technical skill, conceptualization, and execution; others were amateurish in comparison. As I mentioned, this course is taken by all art majors regardless of specialization, and so I assumed I was seeing differences in, say, someone focused on drawing vs someone focused on ceramics. Still, I think it is noteworthy, and it's definitely relevant to my own courses: students always come in with a range of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and subjective misconceptions. I saw some students putting up their work, and so I also noticed that even the best among these drawings did not really look like their subjects: a student with a pocked face is shown with a clear complexion; a student with squat, square features is shown with more elegant proportions. I do now know, but I am curious, whether this was because the students were studying the ideal proportions of human faces, or whether I was getting a glimpse of how the students saw themselves. I am less certain what this property means for my work, since I don't ask explicitly for self-portraits, but given that work will always reflect its creator, I wonder if there's something there to draw upon.

Barbara gave a bit of direction as students posted their work, telling the students to spread their work out horizontally rather than posting them low near the floor, and to place the two portraits next to each other. Once everything was in place, she distributed a worksheet to each student. The top third of the sheet contained three questions for the artist, some dealing with technical aspects of the work and some dealing with aesthetic and narrative aspects. She gave them a few minutes to complete this top portion, then collected the sheets, shuffled, and redistributed them; by this mechanism students were assigned a peer's work to critique. This surprised me, since naively I had pictured all the critiques being communal, that everyone would look at everyone's work, as I do it in my game design class or during the poster session-style review of the two-week project in CS222. Once the worksheets were redistributed, students' critiques were guided by the bottom two-thirds, which included five questions for the critic. These questions again included technical and narrative qualities of the work, and Barbara reminded the students that these aligned with the learning objectives of the assignments. The students had fifteen minutes to write their comments. Even though Barbara had told them they should get up and observe the work both from near and far, about halfway through, she had to remind them again to get up off of their comfortable beanbag chairs and walk up to the work.

As I was watching them work, I thought about how some of this could have been done beforehand, especially the artist's reflections. However, I suspect that doing this at the beginning of the meeting helped prime students to think critically about their work. The papers provide a convenient, tangible means of assigning critics, and they also give the instructor something concrete to collect and mark. I could imagine doing something like this for the CS222 two-week project evaluation, which for the past few semesters I have done as a poster session. I encourage students to view each others' teams work, and I model this behavior myself. Practically everyone is engaged, but in retrospect, they don't have concrete scaffolding in how to discuss the work. I think they talk about the kinds of things we have discussed in class, that are covered in the book, and that I have presented in my formal presentations and assignment feedback; I can hear them talking about algorithms and design, and students are always eager to ask successful teams, "How did you do that?!" I wonder if random assignment of critiques—with a handout like Barbara's—would add rigor and learning to this experience, or if it would diminish the interest-driven and spontaneous conversations that arise? With the amount of dynamic conversation and chaos in the room, this may be the kind of research question that needs external evaluations or analysis of recorded sessions.

Also during this time, Barbara told me that one of the explicit goals of the formal critique is to help students develop their ability to use the right nomenclature. (I even learned a new word: chiaroscuro!) I acknowledged the sense of this, but it wasn't until a few moments later that I grabbed my notes and pointed this out—that the program has explicit goals about helping students develop the right nomenclature, that the crits can help with this, and that I didn't at first jump on this idea and write it down. Even while compiling my notes for this write-up, I had to rediscover this fact! I think this should not be overlooked, however. I have pointed out several times in discussions, probably in blog posts, and certainly during foundations program assessment in Computer Science, that my sophomore students frequently have very little grasp of the technical terminology of our field. I regularly hear students talk about "if loops" for example, or say "class" when they mean "method" or "object" or even "field". Looking at the pedagogy leading up to my course, however, they have almost no opportunity to develop their use of these terms. I used to have students write lab reports back when I taught the intro course over ten years ago, but I don't think anyone else here has expected their CS students to do so much writing. However, we need to help students develop clear ideas, and communicating these ideas is the best way to identify the holes and misconceptions contained therein. This coming academic year will be another assessment year for my Foundations Curriculum Committee: as long-time chair of this committee, I like to alternate focus between assessment and revision. I will be sure to look more carefully at how we help our students learn to communicate the right ideas, including—naturally—what I can do in CS222 to facilitate this as well.

After the students completed their written critiques, Barbara gave the students a pep talk about how to proceed, as this was their first formal crit. She reminded them that what they are doing is difficult, but that it gets easier the more you do it. She also tells them that each critique should give the artist something concrete that "they can do tonight" to improve the portraits. I noticed that this was not actually one of the explicit questions on the worksheet but rather an emergent property of a successful critique; I wondered if it was purposefully not listed as a question on the worksheet or if this was an oversight.

Barbara chose an ordering to go through the work based on how it was arranged on the walls. The critic stood by the work and introduced it, being invited to either read or summarize the artist's statements from the worksheet; some read, some summarized, and most did a mixture of the two. The critics gave their presentations, with the instructor occasionally interjecting to ask for more specific details or to encourage the right nomenclature. After the critic's presentation (and occasionally during), Barbara turned to the rest of the class and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the critique. Following this, the artist was invited to respond to the critique, and then they moved on to the next one. I watched about half of the crits before I had to leave, which included what I considered a good range of the output quality. I noticed that Barbara pushed back pretty hard on the bad parts of good work, I suspect because of the promise of real understanding or excellence. I noticed that I do this as well: I will push a bit harder on students who are getting closer to real understanding, whereas those who reject feedback tend to get less of it. I thought that both Barbara's and the critics' feedback was surprisingly gentle to some of the work that was particularly bad. The framing of her questions encouraged positive feedback, which is good, yet I found myself thinking, "Is no one else going to point out that this guy's eyes are 2/3 of the way up his head?" This may be because no one wanted to really hold a peer's feet to the fire, or because they are freshmen, or because of cultural differences; I cannot help but think a room of Computer Science students would be less likely to let stand something with obvious structural insufficiency.

The students were getting pretty punch by four or five crits in. I happen to know that these students are taking a boatload of summer art courses, which means they are all carrying physically and intellectually brutal schedules. Even with just twelve students, going person-by-person through a crit means that you're fighting against attention span. Perhaps students later in the program simply become more accustomed or enculturated into this.

I am very grateful to Barbara and the students for welcoming me as an observer to this class. I believe I have captured all of my important observations into these notes, and I hope that they might be useful to you, dear reader, even you are just Future Me. In the meantime, I'm going to read some more about secondary contours and chiaroscuro. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

An afternoon with ICRPG

I spent some time with my boys playing Index Card RPG this afternoon. ICRPG is a new RPG published by Runehammer Games. It is the work of Hankerin Ferinale (NB: yes, I am looking for an excuse to cite him by that name in a research paper), who is most well known for his YouTube series, Drunkens and Dragons. I've watched a few of his videos, mostly those about storytelling and DMing. Even if you're not into the hobby, his recollection and historical overview of Mazes & Monsters provides a nice, short  insight into Hank's background, style, and ethos. Index Card RPG is thus named because it is designed for use with illustrated index cards in place of grids, terrain, or theater of the mind. You can get a quick look at it in this video. I was immediately intrigued by the abstract use of space presented in ICRPG, and so when Hank announced the release of his ICRPG Core Rulebook, I decided to pick it up. The book distills a lot of the ideas that are covered in the Drunkens & Dragons YouTube series, presenting them in a concise manner with explicit encouragement to pick and choose parts of the system that are of interest.

One of the hallmarks of the ICRPG system is the use of Effort. For those familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and its relatives, it is as if all tasks have "hit points" that must be overcome. For example, picking a lock is not a matter of just passing a check: a player must pass the check and then roll effort to see how much progress is made on the lockpicking. This combines with fast-paced, round-robin turns to give a very different sense of time than in conventional tabletop RPGs. The Core Rulebook also includes a few other tricks and suggestions to add tension to adventures, many of which come back to this concept of spending sustained effort on tasks besides just whacking ogres.

The Core Rulebook includes three "trials," which are relatively simple scenarios that a group or an individual can run through just to get a feel for how all the pieces fit together. This sounded good to me, so I rounded up a some of my boys and we set to character creation. The trials could be done without any manipulatives, but the players all enjoyed picking out miniatures from their collection for themselves, and I spontaneously created two index card drawings to provide some of the setting.

Although the Core Rulebook includes some suggestions for a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world as well as a futuristic science-fantasy world, I decided to let my boys approach it carte blanche; after all, the goal here was to get a sense of the system and have some fun, not to start worldbuilding or begin an epic campaign. Character creation took about an hour, but this was really due to distractions and the kids' ages, and my need to explain all the rules, since the youngest of the three players does not read yet. The trial itself took about another hour.

Boy #1 created Kartlack, a mantid soldier/guard. This guy reads a lot, and I don't know if he picked up "mantid" from one of his books, but it was essentially a humanoid mantis. The first step of character creation is to assign six points to core attributes, and he allocated points to strength, dexterity, constitution, armor, basic work, and weapon damage. You can see that ICRPG unapologetically reuses the attribute system from Dungeons & Dragons, which makes for easy pick-up to someone like me who spent many years with D&D. We decided that mantids should get a bioform ("race") bonus to armor and dexterity. For his starting loot, he wanted something to increase his constitution, but the ICRPG Core Rules starter loot "Trusty Mug" didn't match his character concept: would a mantid even drink from a mug? I suggested a box of grasshoppers, such that if Kartlack eats one each day, he stays tough and healthy, and so was born the Hopper Box. Kartlack also started with miner's gear, steel claw sheathes as weapons, and 50 coins. The player explained that Kartlack's people lived underground like an ant colony, and hence the miner's gear. I pointed out—to a kid who honestly knows more about insects than I do—that praying mantises don't live underground. He justified it by pointing out that it's just a fantasy game, so they could live underground. How about that?

Boy #2 created Klac, the kobold healer. I think this may have been the name of one of the miniatures they have acquired from a board game or the local game shop, but this was not clear to me. The player put points into dexterity, wisdom, basic work, and magic effect. Kobolds also were not defined in the ICRPG Core Rules, so we decided that he'd get a bonus dexterity and armor, for his scaly skin. He took a Healing Touch skill, as described in the Core Rules Priest class, along with a dagger, healing herbs, and a hiding cloak. We made up those last two items, the former granting +3 Wisdom to heal checks and the latter giving +3 Dexterity to hiding checks.

Boy #3 is a preschooler, and he really wanted to join in. His inspiration was to be like a character from The Adventures of Loupio: The Tournament, a story where young squires form teams and compete in a tournament. I asked if he wanted to be a child in the game, but he said he wanted to be an adult. Unfortunately, we couldn't find our copy of the book when he looked for it to show me the inspiration. I asked if his character was a knight or a page, but he insisted that these were not right. In the end, Boy #3 chose the class "Grown Up", which quite pleased him. He ended up with Eagle, the human grown-up, with one point each in strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. As a human, we gave him a +1 wisdom and a +1 to weapons use. (Actually, the rulebook suggests +1 intelligence, but I remembered it wrong at the time.) His starting loot and equipment comprised an armor kit, armor, a bow, and a longsword.

That was a lot of words with no pictures. Here are the character sheets.
I chose the first trial presented in the book, which has the players escape from a burning complex. I suspect the trial was not intended for a group of three, but given their ages and inexperience, I was fine if we traded away some tension. The trial has three parts: overcoming or avoiding two archers, dodging crumbling walls, and getting past a locked gate while poison vapors threaten to overcome you. In the first part, Kartlack charged the archers while Klac hid and healed and Eagle fired volleys of arrows. Everyone got to feel like they contributed, and Kartlack even rolled a critical hit. The second part was a simple series of dexterity checks, which at this point the players had a handle on. The last part was interesting, as it was the first time they had to deal with Effort, which I described above. Klac went first and decided to start picking the lock on the gate, and he succeeded but only rolled two effort on the attempt for a task that would need ten. Kartlack tried to help but, with his low dexterity, failed to make progress. Eagle decided to try climbing the wall but could not get a foothold (i.e. failed his check). On Klac's next turn, I explained that he could keep working on the lock, but he was confused: hadn't he already picked it? I explained again that he would need to get a total of ten effort to finish the job, pointing out the d10 I had set out to track his progress. Now he understood, and he and Kartlack both tried to finish the job. Better than that, the players all decided to work together toward this one goal rather than having one trying in vain to climb the wall. A few attempts later and the lock was open, the heroes winning the day.

I asked the boys what they thought about the game, but they sort of fogged up at the question, so I asked instead what parts they especially liked. Boy #3 said he liked that no one got killed, paused, and then added, "except the evil guys." Boy #2 told me that it was fun getting through the wall. This was interesting to me since this was a non-combat conflict, but they still enjoyed having to overcome the obstacle while being in danger from the airborne poison. Boy #1 astutely observed that the increasing difficulty was enjoyable. I hadn't mentioned it above, but each scenario has a Target number that is used for all rolls: combat, dodging, picking locks, climbing—these are all made at the same target. I've never played a game with this approach, but it really was smooth as silk, speeding up play. The three encounters that made up the trial used Targets 10, 11, and 12, and Boy #1 has a good enough intuition for math to see how this increased the tension and excitement.

I asked them then if there was anything that they didn't like. Boy #2 would have liked more enemies, more combat, and he thought that a literal dungeon would be fun. Dungeons feel so cliche to me, but of course, he's a little guy: he would be perfectly happy with a senseless underground romp. I should make one. Boy #1 said that he missed the accurate sense of distance one has in games like Frostgrave, which we played some months ago, or miniature-based boardgames like Descent. I thought this was interesting since I found the loose, gridless, abstract space to be quite freeing, but of course the trial did not really express that: there was neither vastness nor claustrophobia in the trial, and it really could have been played just as well on some Descent tiles as anything. I bring this up to say that even though I think we all got a good understanding of the mechanics of ICRPG, I don't think we got a full picture of its aesthetics.

I believe this is my first d20. I don't remember where I got it, but I've had it for what seems like forever. Even my captions can be a bit wordy.
Last week, as part of my summer goal to play more tabletop RPGs with my family, I played a session of The Princes' Kingdom with my two older boys. I had played this once before, many years ago, and had a desire to try it again. I may tell that tale another day, but I wanted to briefly touch on the contrast between the two rulesets. The Princes' Kingdom uses an interesting conflict resolution system whereby the Guide and the player(s) roll a handful of dice and then take turns "seeing" and "raising", until one side wins. This leads to extended back-and-forth for the conflict, each side narrating what they do to push toward their goals. It's a slow oscillation, however, especially when playing with kids who need to try to imagine and then describe how they are making progress without yet succeeding—something made more difficult when describing non-combat conflicts, such as in our game, when convincing a character to give up a stolen item. This stands in stark contrast to the lightning-fast turns of ICRPG, whose fast and loose structures are clearly designed to keep the game moving. I would be curious to re-run the Princes' Kingdom adventure I designed for ICRPG, since it was really designed as a mystery, but of course it wouldn't be the same with my boys, since they've already solved it!

I had been thinking of dusting off PDQ, which I think is a brilliant little system that I wrote about almost three years ago. I think its learning-from-failure system is more philosophically and pedagogically sound, from the perspective of someone who wants my sons to learn something valuable while they're having fun. ICRPG's take on character advancement is, by contrast, wholly materialist: you are what you have, and you get more by having more. On the other hand, every time I sit with the PDQ rules, I have to re-read them, and designing adventures takes longer than I would like. For Princes' Kingdom too, I had to spend a lot of time reviewing the rules and writing up character templates for my single-island adventure. The fact that ICRPG draws on D&D tropes means that I never have to doubt which attribute I'm testing, and because there are no skills or proficiencies or any of that ephemera, it always comes down to a test of one of the six canonical attributes. I would like to try my hand at putting together some small adventures for ICRPG, since it seems like it might be just the right size to fit into the time I have available for it. Sometimes I'm not sure if it's the tabletop roleplaying that I miss, or the uncountable hours I had to spend on tabletop roleplaying and dungeon-mastering that I miss. There's no DM to tell me if I'm playing my Human Grown-Up correctly. I'll write a blog post about that someday.

I enjoyed reading the ICRPG Core Rules, particularly as someone who reads many more rulebooks than I do play games. The organization is a bit haphazard, but there are lovely thoughtful nuggets within, and I appreciate Hank's visual style. The Game Mastery section has an interesting oath that makes explicit many of the values of being a good GM, and the Dynamic Dice section contains great little tidbits that can be easily added into any tabletop RPG situation. I hope to return to ICRPG again later this summer, and it might even provide a good, lightweight system I could use to introduce fundamentals of RPGs to my game design students. As much as I loved Phoenix: Dawn Command, it was a huge investment of my time to get just half the class through it.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Painting Descent Visions of Dawn, Part 2: The Heroes

Following up on the monsters, I have finally finished up the heroes from the Visions of Dawn expansion to Descent: Journeys In the Dark 2nd edition. I started playing the Road to Legend co-operative app with my wife and son, and we enjoyed the tutorial campaign with a party comprising Leoric of the Book, Syndrael, and Avric Albright. I painted those first so we could start playing while I worked on the rest. We decided to switch up the party as we went into the main campaign, and so now we're using Widow Tarha from the base set along with Ispher and Sir Valadir from Visions of Dawn. I think we're a handful of scenarios in and enjoying the experience. Just this morning, I put the finishing touches on Nara the Fang to wrap up Visions of Dawn, but I still have two heroes left to paint from the base set. I think it's interesting to note that the three last figures have been the Scout archetypes. It seems to me that if you're playing a three-player fantasy game, it's pretty natural to consider that you need a healer and a tank, and then a glass-cannon spellcaster seems a natural third. Then again, this logic completely failed when we played Temple of Elemental Evil, where the rogue was perhaps the MVP because of his ability to remove those deadly traps.

But I digress. On to the Visions of Dawn heroes!

Well, not just yet. Let me mention that I'm still trying to figure out the best way to produce consistent, reliable, accurate photos of my miniatures. I took these pictures in my light box, but the whites were still muted and dull. I used the new levels editor in Google Photos to pop the white level up to the max in post-processing. I think these look just about right.

As I mentioned in Part 1, this expansion was a gift from my brother, and his primary motivation was that my family have this guy in our arsenal: Ispher. He has proven to be quite the resilient healer in our campaign so far, and I also think it's a mighty fine paint job. When I first looked at the card art, I got the impression that he was being front-lit by a fire:
It's hard to un-see that, but I suppose it's an artifact of having an orange-yellow front and a dark orange back.

The first step was wet-blending the overall skin tones. Just as Sorastro has started doing more wet-blending, I have also tried to think of ways to hone this skill. Here's a work-in-progress shot from this first step:
That's a pretty nice job, I say, and the later steps of ink wash and adding the scaly details help sell it.

I wanted to add additional spots besides the ones that are sculpted in, and the last time I've done something like this may have been back with my Imperial Assault nexus, where I added stripes to match the card art. I used a thinned sepia ink to add the spots. It turned out fine, but if I did it again, I would use more layers of thinner ink, with more variation in spot intensity.

You can barely see the vials on his belt, but I had never painted anything quite like that before. I was inspired by the techniques shared by Eye of Terror and C'tan. I used white as a basic glass color, which is also what is used in the card art. I thought about trying to tint it with the colors around it, which of course transparent glass would do, but this was the last detail, and I was getting a feeling of diminishing returns.

Overall, I'm quite happy with Ispher. He has a nice sculpt, and the paint scheme on the card art combines yellows and browns in a nice way, offset by his grey-purple dragonet. My only complaint is that he takes up an awful lot of room on the table, so it can be quite tricky to fit him onto the board when there's a melee fracas.

Next up, Sir Valadir:
A good sculptor will tell some kind of story with their work, and I want to take a moment here to share my thoughts about Sir Valadir's story—not having read any of the fiction or fluff around him. This guy is a cocky bastard, but he's talented. His smile tells you that he's ready for battle, and he knows he's going to win. He wears gaudy armor that's more for show than anything: he leaves his arms almost completely unprotected. Neither sheath nor scabbard for Sir Valadir: he carries his sword at the ready, resting it on his unprotected shoulder.

OK, now to the painting. Valadir was a challenge because of all the fiddly details on his armor, but the sculpt was nice and matched the card art almost perfectly. This made it fairly easy to block in the colors and then clean up the shadows and highlights. The four fiery tongues on the top side of the shield were outlined in the sculpt, but the bottom one I freehanded to match the card art. Freehanding is tricky in the best of times, but this was done over sculpted wood texture. I'm glad I added some extra layers and highlights, since my original pass was too dim. Looking at it now, it could probably have had even more highlights added, to help it read from across the table.

Last up is Nara the Fang. Once again, I found this to be a high quality sculpt for a board game miniature. The details were nice, and she's full of character. I'm happy with how the skin came out, even though it's a bit less yellow than the card art. I tried to be very intentional about increasing the highlights and contrast—something that regular readers of my painting reflections will know that I continue to focus on improving. Red is a tricky color to highlight, and maybe I could have taken it a little higher too, but I think it's sufficient here, and the lack of stark highlights implies an appropriate cloth-like texture.

You might be saying to yourself, "Hey, what about Master Thorn, the fourth hero from the expansion?" I already have a nicely-painted Master Thorn from Runebound 3rd Edition, so I didn't see a need for another. It gives me a convenient spare mini for some time when one of my boys wants something to paint.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Impeccable Taste

When I was around ten years old, I started taking computer classes at the local library. This was where I first encountered software such as word processors, spreadsheets, and The Print Shop, as well as the first-generation Mac and mouse input. 
The teacher for these one-on-one sessions was a kind man named Jim. In addition to teaching computer classes, Jim had an affinity for music, and for many years he had his own radio show at the local college radio station

Fast-forward twelve years or so, and I was in graduate school in Buffalo. I found out that Jim was also living in the city, so we got together for coffee and traded stories. We talked about music some, he asked if I was still into They Might Be Giants (of course, yes), and he told me that he thought I would like Sparks. I had never heard of Sparks, but the name stuck in my head. When I got around to looking into it, I was hooked: here was some fun, clever, jaunty music, perfect for lifting a sour mood. The early stuff like "Something for the Girl with Everything" has a great powerhouse sound,
and pop just doesn't get any better than "Moustache."

The album that I spin the most has got to be Balls. The title track is just the thing to push through some challenging programming.

The trio of more recent albums Lil' Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers, and Exotic Creatures of the Deep explore some interesting themes and layered sounds. Even though the sound is different from the earlier work, tending toward melancholy, but still with the signature catchy tunes and clever lyrics, such as in "Metaphor."

I picked up their latest album, a collaboration with Franz Ferdinand called FFS (Franz Ferdinand & Sparks, naturally). The album has a lot of winners on it, but just to give you a taste, check out "Call Girl."

But I digress.

I had been listening to a lot of jazz while painting, but a few months ago I decided to try out Google Play Music. At first I just listened to my own albums, and then I decided to try Sparks Radio—Google's auto-generated collection of songs for folks who like Sparks.

What fun! 

The channel features classic Sparks music and lots of contemporary music that I had never heard of before. It introduced me to the likes of Lene Lovich, John Foxx, Bill Nelson, XTC, Tubeway Army, and Pete Shelley. Most of these I had never heard of before; I only knew of XTC because of the They Might Be Giants song about them.

Once I looked up Tubeway Army, I recognized Gary Numan, and there are some nice grooves in his early work.
Bill Nelson has some great synth-powered pop, like "Flaming Desire"
and "Do you dream in color?"
Some of John Foxx's songs are what the future used to sound like.

On the lighter side, Lene Lovich has some great catchy pop sounds, such "Be Stiff" with a simple chord progression and a touch of brass (which my searching just told me is a cover of Devo's third single).

How about the groove on "Meccanic Dancing" by XTC?

I heard a few great songs by Dukes of the Stratosphear before I found out that they're basically XTC doing psychadelic pop. This one feels like it came right out of the 1960s.

I don't subscribe to Google Play Music's service, so I tend to get the same songs coming up quite a bit, but really that's been fine: some nice tunes I'm coming to enjoy interspersed with new ones, perfect to listen to while painting.

People sometimes ask me why it took until 2017 for me to try streaming Internet radio. The reason is fairly simple. I was actually one of the first people on Pandora when it came out. Great, thought I, here's something that I can use to capture my esoteric and impeccable taste in music! Let's see: here's Ween, They Might Be Giants, Prince—augh, no, I don't like Prince! Down vote. Try again. Devo, Talking Heads, Prince—Stop, no, downvote! Bonzo Dog Band, Weird Al, Prince. Seriously? You have no idea how often this happened. Every path led to Prince. There was no way out except to continue buying physical discs and ripping them to a digital library for convenience.

OK, time to take another giant step back in time. Some time in the early 1990s, give or take, my friend Matt recorded a special where Weird Al took over MTV for "Al TV." This was a combination of mock interviews, sketches, and wonderful music. This special introduced me to artists who would later come to be some of my very favorites, including They Might Be Giants with "The Statue Got Me High", 
David Byrne with "She's Mad",
Matthew Sweet with "Girlfriend" (just about the coolest video for fans of 1980s anime),


are you ready for this?

Hilly Michaels with "Calling All Girls."

Oh man. That is so ... 1980. I love it. When I found a cassette of the album Calling All Girls, I had to have it, and I don't think it ever left my car. Here's another for you, the "High quality audio" version of "Shake It and Dance."

There is one particular song that is so very bad that it has become, to me and my wife, an anthem for bad pop music. I speak, of course, of "U.S. Male," which I'm sorry to see does not appear to be on YouTube at all. Wouldn't it be convenient if some kindly soul hid a copy somewhere so that you could hear it? It's bad, but I love it, like a cheesy B-grade science fiction movie.

Incidentally, assuming Wikipedia can be believed, Hilly Michaels drummed for Sparks. I didn't know that until well after enjoying both artists. I'm sure it's not a coincidence: I seem to have a soft spot and a keen ear for this kind of stuff. Also, I know from Wikipedia that he had a second album, 1981's "Lumia", which I have never been able to find, neither on cassette nor on the deepest, darkest places of the Internet where one looks for forgotten culture.

For some time, I've thought to myself, "I should look up Hilly Michaels Radio on Google Play Music sometime when I'm painting," but inevitably I would think about this when I was doing something else and then forget about it. Well, today, I did it. Hilly Michaels Radio. My hopes were up. 

The first song was a tune by Hilly Michaels I had never heard before—"It Ain't Fair."

Success! The song is... fine. It's not from the mysterious Lumia, but I found out later that this is from his previously-unknown-to-me 2010 release, Pop This! The next song came on, an atmospheric piece, something familar... Danny Elfman? I wasn't sure, so I checked the app, ... Elfman, yes, with the theme from Tales from the Crypt.
Strange. Skipped that track, not quite the mood I wanted. The next piece was also instrumental, a selection from the Knight Rider soundtrack. (I looked for it to link here, but I couldn't recognize which one it was from what I could find. However, imagine 1980s action television background music. Yes, that's it, that's exactly right.)

OK, so was this just all going to be 1980's cheese?

The next song came on, sounds like synth pop...
And, ladies and gentlemen, I think that's the worst song I've ever heard—and I've listened to The Shaggs. I just listened to it again. My goodness, it's bad. There's a little tiny hint of Jonathan Richman in there, the rawness and earnestness. It's not like a good bad B-grade science fiction movie; it's like the ones that are so bad that they're just bad.

The next thing to come up was a TV commercial for Halloween III. Yes, I'll link it here, but I have not listened to more than 20 seconds of it. Caveat emptor.

I saw that the next track was from the soundtrack to Stripes, and I just couldn't take it any more.

The moral of the story is probably this: when your tastes run obscure, be careful on the Internet.