My Drunken Email to Michael Lewis: A Graduate School Story

Tonight, an object lesson for students in the age of social media. (Actually, I’m surprised this story has remained ‘off blog’ for so long since my friends are ever-so-happy to hear it told.)

In 1999, I worked as a teaching assistant for Michael Lewis while a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Lewis, who was just writing The New, New Thing and beginning work on a book called Moneyball, helped secure me a freelance writing gig with Rolling Stone and introduced me to Tom Wolfe (We spoke of San Francisco haberdasheries).

Unfortunately, we butted heads in the classroom. Worse, I didn’t find his writing on technology that inspiring in comparison with the writers I’d worked with at Wired and the teachings of Katie Hafner and Kara Swisher.

One evening after a great deal of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey I wrote him a 5,000 word email detailing those failings. I was righteous and sure in my prose.

Until the next morning. I peeled myself out of bed, a shroud of doom upon me.

“Did I send that email,” I asked my then girlfriend.

“Hell yeah you did,” she said in the kind of tone that let me know she didn’t envy my coming few hours.

I didn’t remember the particulars but I knew what I sent was bad. I recalled the words “fraud” and “hack” being used. I pulled up my Sent file. And read. And read. And ready.

When I arrived in Lewis’ office, both he and wife were there. In lieu of an apology, I simply said, “Sometimes I howl at the moon” (while his wife, MTV’s Tabitha Soren made no eye contact with me).

While he allowed me to finish the semester as his T.A., a search of the Rolling Stone archives will find no record of any of my published stories, you will find no letters of recommendations in my file, and I can impart no sage advice on writing given to me outside the classroom.

Of course, I owned my email, accepted the bridge burned, and traveled forth. Years later it made a wonderful story. My friends still take great delight in texting me images of his books from bookstore windows, or screenshots from his appearances on televisions.

I take them with the love they are offered, and the knowledge that sometimes you just have to let the demons loose and see what burns.

But damn: I didn’t know he was going to inspire all those Academy Awards.

A Crowdsourced Book about Computer RPGs: The First 100 Pages

Many months ago, back in May, I contacted Brad King about a crazy project I had: a free, crowd-sourced book on the history of Computer Role-Playing Games. The goal was to collect the knowledge spread throughout countless websites, forums, magazines and brains and compile them into something accessible and interesting for newcomers and veterans alike.It would feature articles, reviews, history, mod recommendations, trivia, interviews: everything a CRPG fan could wish for.

Of course, a a project this size never goes as we expect. In my ingenuity, I had hoped for a September release. Ha, it’s now December and the book is still about 60% done. I also had a lot more difficulty than I imagined in getting people to believe this would ever be done. I waited too long to create a website for the book, many forum threads about the project never got a single reply, and very, very few news posts by the media were made. And this is a free project, I can only imagine how hard it must be for those trying to promote a retail product.

But there were also many exciting surprises. Right from the start famous developers like Chris Avellone and Tim Cain jumped aboard and helped to add some weight to the project. It became easier to find volunteers, and 70% of the 300 reviews were assigned in just a couple of months. Later on, I even managed to contact Scorpia and Johnny L. Wilson from the extinct Computer Gaming World magazine and they both agreed to help. My 12-years-old self would be in awe, I’m sure. Hell, I’m still in awe.

Not to mention what an experience it has been to contact CRPG fans all over the world, of all ages. To hear their stories, edit their texts, research & learn about gaming history, play hundreds of classic games and see everything coming together nicely.

Overall, it has been a great ride, and one that’s still far from over.

This week we’ve reached a milestone that I’m very proud of: the public release of a 100-page preview. Although it has many typos, spelling mistakes and thing that wl be changed, I think it also has a lot of passion and dedication, and provides a hint of what we intend with the full book.

You can grab it here (PDF) and here’s a single-page version, for those using tablets (PDF).

In just two days we had more than 5,000 downloads worldwide, and I invite you to also give it a try, read a couple of pages and share what you think. Every feedback is welcome – and if you would like to help, we could always use another volunteer.

Thanks for reading, merry Christmas and a great 2015 to us all!

Indy WordLab: Readings from So Far Appalachia + The Summer Run

On Monday, December 1, the folks at Metonymy Media asked me to host Indy WordLab at Indy Reads Books. I’m not a big fan of readings, but I’ve put so many other authors in the hot seat with The Downtown Writers Jam that it felt rude to say no.

Agreeing to read also meant I needed to get my own writing together. I spent the last few weeks polishing up the opening of So Far Appalachia and pulling together my short nonfiction book The Summer of RunIf all goes well, both will be finished in 2015.

Until then: I hope you enjoy the words.

Introducing the two books

So Far Appalachia

“Introduction”

“Chapter 1: The Road to Beaumont”

The Summer of Run

“Prologue: A Moment in Palo Duro”

An Evening in Images

So Far Appalachia: A Reading at Indy Reads Books

Thanks to my friends at Indy WordLab, I’m giving the first public reading of So Far Appalachia: A Memoir of American Mythology at Indy Reads Books.

I’ve been working on the tone and style for the last few months, and it’s finally starting to come together. This is the last rough draft before Part I goes into the drawer and Part II gets written. You can listen to my final reading prep before I headed up on stage.

This is the “Introduction” and “Chapter 1: The Road to Beaumont”.

An Open Letter to Berkeley J-school Dean Edward Wasserman Regarding the Proposed $10,250 Fee

On September 14, 2014, the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s dean announced his intention to pursue a $10,250 fee. The news came as a shock to alumni, students, and educators. Doubly concerning was Dean Edward Wasserman’s decision to pursue this increase without faculty support.

In the last week, I’ve had the chance to talk with fellow alumni and reflect upon what this increase would mean for the culture of the school. Today, I sent this letter to Dean Wasserman and various media outlets that covered the initial announcement.

**Update: At day’s end, I received a heartfelt and polite response from the Dean. The particulars are here.**

* * *

September 19, 2014

From:
Brad King, Class of 2000
www.thebradking.com

To:
Edward Wasserman, Dean
University of California at Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism

Re: Proposed tuition hike

Dear Dean Wasserman:

My name is Brad King (’00), and I’m writing because I’m concerned about the new $20,000 tuition fee you’ve proposed for incoming students. I fear the unintended consequences of your initiative on the J-school and its legacy.

I care deeply about this issue because the J-school changed my life.

As an Appalachian kid from a small town, there weren’t many ways out. This isn’t to say my situation was dire. I lived in a good, solid, working-class town with hard-working people who did an honest day’s labor and expected to be treated fairly in return. However, the roads leading out of our little town were covered with quite a bit of brush. Finding your way out wasn’t easy.

Growing up, I was lucky. My mother and father encouraged my love for reading. I devoured books and stories. I read magazines, such as boing boing, The Whole Earth Review, and Mondo2000, that grew out of the cyber-culture in the Bay Area. This may seem a small detail to you, but for me those publications meant everything. As I looked around my hometown in 1984 when I was 12 and realized there weren’t other people like me, I could always dial into the BBSs in Berkeley and read what was happening in that exotic place. I found a community of like-minded people years before I stepped foot in California.

In 1997 when I decided to attend graduate school, I sent my application to only one place: the Berkeley J-school. (I didn’t realize how crazy that was at the time.)

I applied knowing full well that in order to attend I would need to work a full-time job and take out student loans. In my two years, I packed away enough debt that I continue to pay it off in 2014.

Still, not a day goes by that I am not happy with my decision to attend.

Even though we were near the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, I don’t mean to suggest we were poor. I’m not a cultural warrior who claims to come from an impoverished background in order to build an argument on the backs of those who truly suffer. I merely mean that my family’s lifestyle was modest. My mother, father, and extended family pooled money so that I could attend a good state college, but that was as far as our resources went.

Because of this I accepted that I would pay my Berkeley tuition, which was part of the toll on the road to a better future. It was a way to clear a bit of that brush off the roads leading out of my hometown. The tuition was my own personal investment in my future, and it has made all the difference. I owe my career and my professional life to the Berkeley J-school.

Today my full-time job is as a professor at Ball State University. Since my graduation from Berkeley, I’ve worked at Wired magazine and Wired.com, I’ve written a book (and have another in the pipeline), I’ve worked at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, I’ve taught programs in England, and I’ve been asked to speak about storytelling in the digital age in Hungary and South Korea.

I have served on the advisory board for South by Southwest Interactive for more than a decade, and I’ve hosted its largest entrepreneur event (Accelerator) since its inception; I currently serve on the advisory board for the Indiana Writers Center; and I serve as both an advisory board member and an editor for Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press.

None of these doors would have been opened had I not graduated from Berkeley, which is why my heart ached as I read your email about the tuition.

In 1998, I worked a full-time job and took out $40,000 in loans to attend the J-school. With the proposed tuition hike, my loans would total more than $80,000 (assuming I could find a job to cover rent and living expenses.)

I can unequivocally tell you that with your proposed tuition hike Berkeley would now be forever out of my reach.

This isn’t a plea that is ignorant of university funding. A professor myself, I understand the financial realities of running an independent program. I just spent 2 1/2 years meeting with my university’s president and cabinet working through a budget for a new program.

Our current national funding crisis requires all parties in higher education to rethink our operation. My issue: While it’s very easy to create short-term funding avenues, those decisions can undermine the culture of a school.

No matter what the final decision on the tuition hike, I know the J-school will find students. It was at one time a highly ranked school and I know the faculty will once again restore that reputation.

But if the hike is enacted, Berkeley will have effectively cut off access to a large swath of those on the wrong end of the socioeconomic ladder.

So I write this letter to you with a heavy heart.

If the tuition hike is approved, I can no longer in good conscience support the J-school. I have to ask myself: If a school takes no interest in attracting the people who come from where I have, why would I continue to give my support? More importantly, how could I justify such support as I travel and work in Appalachia?

If the fee is adopted, I’ll take down my diploma in my office, I’ll cease conducting entrance interviews, I’ll stop judging student competitions, I’ll no longer visit the campus, and I’ll remove Berkeley’s Knight lectures from my classes. When I speak and give lectures, I’ll use Berkeley as a case study in what went wrong with journalism programs in this country.

These will neither impact your day-to-day operations, nor will it dent the school’s reputation. I have no delusions of grandeur. My small, collective actions will simply be my final contribution to the soon-to-be-removed inclusive culture of the J-school.

I believe whole-heartedly in elite education, and its transformative power. However, I reject socioeconomic elitism. The proposed action may not undermine the education at the J-school, but it will most definitely favor those with more means.

Berkeley has meant more to me than I can ever adequately express. Earning my degree was one of the single, best moments in my life. North Gate Hall was – and has been – a lighthouse for me, a beacon that helped point me in the right direction. Under your watch, however, I fear its light is fading for people like me.

Sincerely,

Brad King, Class of 2000

On Why Reading Too Much is Exactly What Kids Need

This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, my writing collective. The post was originally written on April 19, 2014.

The headline screamed “Is Reading Too Much Bad for Kids?“and the subhead framed a teaser that could be run as promotion for anylocal newscast across the country: “Clinging to print can isolate kids and alienate them from the digital world of multitasking.”

Somewhere Nicholas Carr was smiling.

As you might imagine, the sensationalized headline sent ripples through the Web.

Fortunately, the article’s author wasn’t making that claim.Scary headline and subhead aside, and the article is a lament about the loss of print books and the concern that connected reading devices are prying attention away from books (be they books in print or on devices like the Kindle Paperwhite), which is a topic I explored in “Why Serious Reading Might Not Take a Hit from Computer Screens.”

That’s actually an interesting topic, but thosewho understand the science of how we both process information and develop critical thinking skills know that interactive experiences and visual movies can’t replacethe learning experiences of reading and writing.

The loss of print or the decline of skills?

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On Writing about the NSA and Terrorism on September 11, 2001

The proliferation of cell phones, e-mail and faxes is making the hunt for terrorists increasingly more difficult. Security agencies have literally billions of messages to sift through every day — many with encryptions that make it impossible for anyone other than the intended recipient to read. — From the opening of “Hiding Like Snakes in the E-Grass” on Wired.com on Sept. 14, 2001.

Throughout the years, I’ve been haunted by two stories that I worked on while at Wired.com. The first story was never published. ((In the days after one of the early 9/11 commission reports in 2002, the Wired.com journalists poured through the document. While most people gravitated to the larger stories. I was intrigued by a few throwaway lines about vulnerability of the power grid because of old and failing sensors. After 3 weeks of reporting, I was ready to file my stories when I decided to leave the company during a round of layoffs. I left my notes with an editor, but I turned my attention to my own book. In August 2003, the New York City power grid went down for precisely the reasons outlined in the report and my reporting.)) This is the story of the second one, which which came out in the days after September 11.

As the nation tried to collect itself in the hours, minutes, and days after the terrorist attacks, our president rightfully spent a great deal of time and energy reassuring the public. While I didn’t vote for President George W. Bush, I’ve always believed that as an American it’s our duty to support and back our leader (even if we respectfully disagree.) I have little tolerance for those who find it appropriate to cast insults. As such, I appreciated the president’s steadfast and earnest compassion that he showed on those workers who were on the ground. ((He always seemed much better when he was ‘hanging out’ than when we was reading speeches.))

What I didn’t believe, though, was the insistence that we could adequately monitor digital communications in order to find out if there were looming threats.

As a technology journalist, I was dubious. Such a system was simply not possible unless you believed the rumored capacity of Echelon really existed or you believed backdoor technologies like the Clipper chip had been secretly deployed. Short of that, you simply couldn’t monitor every IM, chat, and private conversation in a meaningful, real-time way back then.

I began reporting my story on September 12. I called security experts, analysts, academics, and scientists while trying to wrap my head around just what we could and couldn’t realistically accomplish in terms of monitoring communications.

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Why Boys Can’t Read

This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, my writing collective.

As the mother of 3 boys aged 9, 12 and 18 I can see direct comparisons with state education here in the UK and the increasing underachievement of our young males. Its my belief, and has been for many years, that young boys are floundering in our political correct schooling system which favours non-competitive sports and teaching methods and exams which inadvertently discriminate against males. — Jane Turley, “Reading Underground: The Question of Male Reading Habits and the Rise of Illiteracy

As I’ve toiled over the opening graphs of this essay about boys and literacy, I found myself sifting through the work on various women writers in order to find a starting place that may mitigate gendered attacks. Theres more than a subtle irony in this fact: I’m a writer, a man, and a trained reading instructor, yet I’ve held off writing about the subject of boys, literacy, and teachingbecause I fear the gendered backlash.

We live in a good, but complex, time in debate. So I write thisaware of two facts:

  1. Whenever a white dude writes that he’s afraid of “gendered attacks,” the assumption is that nothing good is coming; and
  2. It’s possible that backlash will be well-founded.

Still, I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge all of these forces before writing about a topic that is likely to cause a stir. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to find women writers such as Jane Turley and Allison McDonald who have argued — in various ways — the points I seek to make here.

The fact that so many women are writing about the topic is heartening, but the issue stillfeelslike one that should be taken up by more men.

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The Time is Now

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A Story Related to “Video Games: The Movie”

Several months ago on Kickstarter, I backed Video Games: The Moviea documentary by Jeremy Snead + MediaJuice Studios that traced the history of console games, arcade games (briefly), and PC games, and explored questions about games as art, interactive storytelling, violence in media, game communities, and the future of design and development in the field.

This all happened as John and I were immersed in finishing Dungeons & Dreamers: A Story of How Computer Games Created a Global Community (Second Edition), and so I gravitated to the work of others who were following the same narrative trails.

I bring this up because the movie hits theaters and video on-demand channels on Tuesday, July 15, and the digital pre-orders shipped in the late morning.

I’d intended on watching the film after my wife got home from work, but I made the mistake of watching the first few minutes. Immediately I was hooked. In fact, I’m writing this as the final credits are rolling on the screen.

Unlike our book, this film makes fewer distinctions about the differences between game platforms (console, arcade, and PC) and focuses on how each contributed to the long, slow growth of “game culture.” While there isn’t a great deal of new ground covered in the film, it’s a fun and breezy story about how console and computer games have turned into a global phenomenon and culture.

I expect there will be more reviews like Variety‘s, which argues that the film doesn’t address in a meaningful way social issues such as violence in games. It’s a common complaint about these types of projects, despite the fact that the issue has long been settled by scientists and codified by the Supreme Court. It’s an antiquated trope presented as intellectualism. (You can read the section of our book that address the science and legal history of violence in games, and you’ll see why this type of critique has little merit.)

If you want to read that story, it’s in our book (and it’s awesome). You can also just  take my word that the film deals with the issue of violence just fine, and it does so within the context of a fun, easy-to-understand, enjoyable narrative.

Instead, I’d invite you to sit back and enjoy a story that weaves together the loose histories of console, arcade, and computer games. You won’t be disappointed.

From executive producer Zach Braff comes an epic feature length documentary chronicling the meteoric rise of video games from nerd niche to multi-billion dollar industry. Featuring in-depth interviews with the godfathers who started it all, the icons of game design, and the geek gurus who are leading us into the future, VIDEO GAMES: THE MOVIE is a celebration of gaming from Atari to Xbox, and an eye-opening look at what lies ahead.

Available to own the day it hits theaters in the United States and Canada, versions of the film will also be available in many other countries around the world.

A Crowdsourced Book about Computer RPGs

Hello. My name is Felipe, and I’m currently working a book on Computer RPGs. After organizing the RPG Codex’s Top 70 list, I decided to expand that into a full blown book.

The book will feature in-depth reviews of over 250 great cRPGs in chronological order, from Akalabeth to Might & Magic X, plus interesting articles on the genre and interviews with developers. All that written by cRPG fans from all over the world, compiled into a beautiful book with big, colored screenshots. Part chronological guide, part critical analysis and part love letter to the genre, this is a book showing what the RPG genre has best, and how people enjoy it.

A book that after reading each review you’ll want to play the game described. Here’s a small WIP preview:

The entire project is fan-made and non-profit, with everything from the writing to the cover art and proof-reading done by volunteers, so the final e-book will be freely available for download, under Creative Commons and all that. And if everything goes well, I intend to make a printed version also available (via CreateSpace or IngramSpark), fully colored and in high-quality print, for those who want a nice coffee-table book. Non-profit as well, of course, sold at cost price.

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Game Communities: How They Shape What We Know about Community Building Online

I spent most of my life as a journalist working on the digital side of publications like Wired, Wired.com, and MIT’s Technology Review.

One of the reasons I left the profession was the decade-long fight I had with print folks related to how to structure online communities. Still today, it’s not hard to find so-called forward thinking media pundits discussing how to create communities around news, and what systems news organizations should use in order to create passionate users.

My argument then (as it is now) is simple: Game companies long ago mastered the art of building, finding, and communing with their fanbase. The answers have long ago been established in social science research, e.g. The Strength of Weak Ties, and practical application, e.g. Amy Jo Kim’s Community Building on the Web.

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