Wednesday, December 29, 2010

9 Ways to Make the Right Decision (from Goodlife Zen)

Over the last couple of days, I've had to make a moderately-sized decision about how to spend the next month or so. Juggling all the variables involved got so confusing that I did an internet search on how to make decisions, and found this excellent article: 9 Ways to Make the Right Decision | Goodlife Zen

It's a guest post by Patrick Burga neuroscientist who writes about the biology of everyday life at He has nine suggestions, that don't have to be followed in any particular order - and I found that what he says in the article is actually true: just doing the steps that appealed to me, in no particular order, really worked. So, here are 5 of the 9 suggestions I found particularly useful:

1. Listen to your instincts but don’t let them boss you around.

Write down your gut reaction to the problem. What are you feeling? But then dig deeper:
Ask “why did I think that?” or “why do I feel that way?”

2. List your alternatives.
Write down every option you have for the decision you’re making, get it out of your head and spend some quality time on each one."

3. Rephrase the question.
Whatever problem you have, try writing it down in three or four different ways. Forcing yourself to think about the problem in different ways makes it easier to come up with different solutions.
4. Anticipate history.
Remember what happened last time you were in a similar situation. Go slow and be critical with your recall – beware of only remembering your wins vs. your misses.
6. Think of this as a test.
The human brain is not isolated – it’s hard wired to function in social situations with our peers. The upshot of this is that we devote a lot of time and energy to working in groups and maintaining friends and our status. Imagine that you’re going to be graded for the decision you’re making and you will automatically pay more attention to the process. Write down why you made your decision and follow this by thinking: “This is an exam. I’m handing this in, and I won’t get another chance to change it. Others will see it and grade my logic”. Doing this makes you more likely to examine the “why” of what you’re doing and weed out poorly made plans.

There are more tips at the original article: 9 Ways to Make the Right Decision | Goodlife Zen

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Long Range Thinking: How to save the world

Merry Christmas! The previous post talked about nine 'boundaries' that we have to keep the world operating inside, to first avoid environmental collapse and then to keep Earth on a stable footing. Several of these boundaries are affected by population pressure.

For the first time while watching, I saw conceptual links between three different presentations. It was very cool, because (watched in sequence) they give a clear argument and solution to stabilising world population at around nine billion people.

First up, Hans Rosling sets the stage by illustrating that an increase to nine billion is inevitable (barring nuclear war or massive die-backs). And he does it in a way that's low-tech and convincing.

After that, the obvious question is how do we lower or stabilise the birth rate? Hans Rosling makes a good case for educating women being the key.

Finally, this presentation by Sugata Mitra lays out a low-cost, resource-light way of spreading education into the areas of the world that really need it. His thesis: let children educate themselves. Warning: this presentation is wicked.

I'm going to be on the look out now for more talks that lay out simple solutions to these nine boundaries:

- climate change
- ozone levels
- ocean acidification
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- freshwater use
- rate of biodiversity loss
- changes in land use
- air pollution
- chemical pollution

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Long Range Thinking: Ready for the most exciting phase in human history?

This TED presentation is a must-see: it makes dealing with climate change and related problems seem achievable, and the presenter (Johan Rockstrom) delivers a fantastically engaging first half presentation via an inflatable globe and some unconventional stage moves, before moving into an assertive, more pragmatic second half.

He makes the case that this will be the most exciting 30 years in human history, as we undergo an unprecendented social and economic transformation in order to make the Earth a viable, ongoing business proposition for 9 billion people.

Rockstrom lists nine parameters (or 'safety fences') that humanity has to operate within. Basically, he sets out an owner's guide to operating the Earth. Those parameters are:

- climate change
- ozone levels
- ocean acidification
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- freshwater use
- rate of biodiversity loss
- changes in land use
- air pollution
- chemical pollution

Rockstrom identifies three of these parameters as having already passed into the danger zone:

- climate change
- levels of nitrogen and phosphorus
- rate of biodiversity loss

By setting parameters that we have to operate within, and identifying the ones that urgently need to be dealt with, Rockstrom makes dealing with climate change and its related problems seem achievable.

Highly recommended (and a hat-tip to Hot Topic, where I first saw this presentation on the quadruple squeeze.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Books: October to November

During this time period I started to realise that not every book was worth blogging about; so, rather than a comprehensive list, these book posts are moving more towards some edited highlights.

Kashmir is a screenplay about three specialists hunting down Osama bin Laden. An enjoyable, fast read. Probably still available at scriptshadow, if you want to google for it.

After watching Surrogates, the Bruce Willis movie about people who stay at home and live their lives through remote drones that look like them, I felt like I needed more exploration of that idea. Kil'n People by David Brin is a noir version of the story (rather than an action-adventure), and it contains both a twisty mystery, great uses of the first person narrator, and a lot of excellent ideas about what would happen if you could clone yourself, live 5 different lives, and then reabsorb the memories of those clones. I was a little disapointed with the mysticism that ended the book, but (overall) a good read.

The Ask and the Answer is the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go. As I mentioned last time, I was resisting reading this, but Jenni told me that the book shifted from a single narrator to alternating between two points of view. That (plus the third POV she hinted would be introduced in the third book) was enough to get me reading it again. The Ask and Answer was great at getting me to like the characters again, but in terms of plotting it became a little bit plodding and event-based (this happened then this happened) without any real sense of meaning behind the events. I stopped reading it twice because I almost lost sympathy with the main male character; the author deliberately pushes the line here. However, the story built to an excellent finale.

The sequel, Monsters of Men, is just excellent. Definitely the best of the series; flipping between three different points of view means that the plot is advanced without the annoying 'knock the protagonist out' tricks of the first book. There are cliffhangers with nearly every chapter, and I'm a sucker for battle scenes of mass combat - the ambushes and strategies - which this book definitely delivers.

Overall, this Chaos Walking series has a great payoff but it was definitely a struggle for me to get there.

Exegisis is a short little science fiction tale about an artificial intelligence sending emails to its creator. An ok, fast read with one or two moments of genuine insight about how the world might 'look' to an AI.

How to Make it All Work is about looking at your life from a high-level perspective, setting goals and how to recognise when you're heading in the 'right' direction for you. I'm still figuring out how to apply stuff from this book; I think it'll be up for a re-read in a few months.
The Race is the second book by Richard North Patterson I've read this year. He's got a thing for writing well-researched thrillers which I approve of. This one is about a Republican presidential primary: overall, the story felt a little familiar to me, having watched Seasons 6 and 7 of The West Wing and followed the last few US elections and mid-terms fairly closely, but it's got a great final act (set at the Republican convention, illustrating the wheelings and dealings that go on). It's also interesting in that the book addresses the internal contradictions and unstable alliances between the different social groups that make up the Republican party (or at least did, pre-Tea Party).

While the first two books of Jessica Amanda Salmondson's Tomoe Gozen trilogy are fun, they didn't really move me. Her stories about a doomed female samurai have quite a bit to say about honour and feminism, but they felt a little disposable. The third book, Thousand Shrine Warrior, is infused with a melancholy mood and Tomoe becomes part of a fascinating moral dilemma: each person that Tomoe is forced to kill in order to save her life is actually part of a grander plan of revenge. That sense of doom and the awareness that violence only made the problem worse lifted this book into Yojimbo style territory. While the ending felt too easy, to me, I would love to read more Tomoe adventures (and I'd definitely want to see a film of this particular story).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Top Writing Tips

Here’s my top writing tip: visualise the person reading your article; they’re busy, suffering from information overload, and will skim read your article. Your reader wants to know why it's worth their time to keep reading.

To keep them reading, here are two more writing tips (each with a couple of suggestions):

Spend 50% of your writing time planning your article

+ Make sure you define the article’s purpose: To convince? To inform? To entertain? …

+ Do a brain-dump or mind-map of everything you want to write about in this article.

+ Summarise your post or article into four short bullet points before you start.

Make your article easy to read and understand

+ Put your main point at the front; don’t make the reader work to discover your magnificent conclusion (assume they’ll quit reading before they reach the end of your article).

+ Say what you want to say using the simplest but most precise words possible.

(Tips condensed down from a course I did a few years ago.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Have Done List: November

Played Apocalypse World

Read Two Bear Mambo (Joe Lansdale), The Race (Richard North Patterson), Tomoe Gozen and The Golden Naginate (Jessica Amanda Salmonsen), The Four Hour Work Week (Timothy Ferris), a bunch of Elric stories and most of Billy's new book.

digitised my CD collection

made a tough decision about my writing future

watched Jennifer's Body (it's suprisingly good)

brainstormed a national advertising campaign

help create answers for a Parliamentary Question

watched as the end of that chain of answers led to the resignation of 'my' Minister

handed in a film funding proposal for 2011

went to Apollo 13: Mission Control, where I was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and seized control of Mission Control (best interactive theatre experience ever)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Building a Habit: Using the net less

What I became aware of was that using the internet had become a habit: something I didn't think too much about, I just sat down and surfed (at home, at work). Sometimes an hour would pass and I snap out of my netdaze and wonder what I'd been doing.

That's an hour of my life I could've been doing something with. And each of those hours could be multiplied by several times every weeks.

It wasn't just the big hour-long blocks of my life that I was concerned were slipping away. There were the 'five minutes' here, the 'ten minutes' there. The "I'll just check one thing" net-checks that spiralled out of control until I'd find myself on a website dedicated to the covers of 1970s science fiction novels with no real idea of how I'd gotten there.

My time is valuable ... and I needed to make myself understand that. So I decided to apply some basic reward and punishment strategies to my internet use. The reward was money (effectively, pocket money I'd give myself to spend on anything I wanted - guilt-free) and the punishment was working extra time at work, unpaid.

I started by giving myself a certain number of checks per day; I tried to make this number quite large, so it'd be easy to achieve. So I started with giving myself 10 trips to the internet every day. Not only that, but I decided to be generous: checking the internet at lunch-time and between 7pm and 7.30pm would be ‘free’. They wouldn't count against my 10 trip limit.

I also introduced 'penalty zones', times when using the internet counts for double. For the first hour after I wake up, between 10 and 11, and between 3 and 4; these are the times when I really want to be working on my own stuff.

After two weeks, I dropped down from 10 internet visits per day to 9 (and then kept dropping it every two weeks after that). That's when the tension really began. I started feeling the limitation, but I also started to feel the habit breaking.

I discovered two things about myself through doing this:

+ a lot of my internet time is ego-driven; I'm checking to see if anyone's replied to a post I've made, or to an email.
+ I completely under-estimated the perniciousness of 'just wanted to check just one thing', that impulse to google a random piece of information and then be led astray into the glorious and seductive wilderness of the internet.

I'm at 5 internet visits a day now, and I'm going to keep it at that level for a while to consolidate the habit. This feels like a behavior I'm going to have to manage for the rest of my life, because I suspect it'll be very easy for the browsing and googling to slowly creep up if I don't pay attention to it.

Doing this has felt good though - I definitely have more disposable time, and I've been feeling less stressed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

How to get things done: Stop getting things done!

One piece of advice about setting up a system to get things done (GTD) more efficiently: be prepared to experience a combination of ‘adrenaline from *doing* stuff’ and ‘feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you have to do’. I’ve experienced this twice now: the first time I set up my GTD system, and just last month (when I radically simplified it).

Both times, I was left feeling stressed by the amount of stuff I’d taken on.

Which reveals one of the secrets to this whole GTD system: be careful about what you take on and decide to do. Taking an inventory of all of your commitments will reveal exactly how much stuff you feel obligated to finish and achieve.

Last year I read a book called Margin, which described the feeling of free time in your life as the white margin around the pages of a book. The more stuff you pack into your life, the less margin you have, the less freedom to relax, unwind, contemplate.

If you want margin, you’ve got to push back against obligations:

+ push some of them into your ‘Someday/Maybe’ list rather than doing them right now
+ drop some of them (or renegotiate to do them later)
+ take a break from using this system; just vege out for a day or two.

My mind, at least, is not designed to be productive all the time. It needs ebbs and flows. Being aware that sometimes you don’t need to get things done is key to this.

In that spirit, I was originally going to end this series of posts with an offer to help people who are interested in this stuff set up their own GTD systems. Instead, if you’re interested in this stuff, let me know and we can discuss it sometime.

In the meantime, ‘How to Get Things Done’ is available from the library (and from me); you can also read the Simple Dollar’s review of How to Get Things Done.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How to get things done: Review everything at least once a week

Now you’ve got your organizational system set up, and it includes:

  • a lists of projects you want to tackle
  • a way of reminding yourself about things that are coming up (your calendar, a tickler file)
  • a list of next actions to take

But this isn’t the sort of thing you do once and then forget about it. You’ll always be having new ‘stuff’ coming in: emails, appointments, news that ranges from surprising (your mum’s in town) to life-changing (your flat is being sold).

The trick, then, is to set aside an hour or two every week to catch up on everything that’s new in your life. You’ll have to review that new stuff (and look over your existing obligations and items on your to-do list). The idea behind this weekly review is to make sure that you know everything that’s going on in your life; the consequence of that is that you’ll feel confident that the things you’re deciding to do right now are the best possible uses of your time.

I’ve come across a couple of philosophies about what to do with the realizations that come out of your weekly review: they boil down to (a) schedule fixed amounts of time into your calendar to deal with particular issues or projects, or (b) rely on checking your to-do list to figure out what your next action should be.

I’ve tried (a) for a while, especially in a work context, but at the moment I’m more a fan of (b) … playing things a little looser is feeling both easier to maintain and easier to adapt to changing situations.

There’s a couple of deeper level reviews that you can do as well; the only one I’ll mention in any detail is that after I finish my two ‘New Things’ – the projects that I’m especially focusing on at the moment, I review my projects lists and goals for the year, to decide what my new New Things should be.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How to Get Things Done: List out all your projects

This is the third of four posts about How to Get Things Done, a book by Dave Allen that shows you how to set up a system to feel more on top of everything in your life.

Today I want to talk about the one element of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system that I resisted for years: having a complete list of all of the projects you want to do.(*) Through a combination of OOS/RSI and scattering information about my projects in handwritten notes spread through 10 different manilla folders, I found it really difficult to review everything that was going on in my life, or that I wanted to do.

* Allen defines a project as anything that 
needs more than 2 actions to complete.

My series of posts on 'The New Thing' started to change my mind though. I've come to the conclusion that I can really only consider two things at any time as being my main priorities. What I needed to do was figure out how to present all of my commitments and things I wanted to do so that I could easily choose what to focus on. Here's what I've done (and this is still a work-in-progress, liable to be refined) ...

Two massive Word documents: Vital and Wild

I decided to divide my projects into two categories. First, there are the things I consider to be vital; they're either urgent, necessary, or they feel essential to my growth as a person. Second, there are the things I'd like to do, the wild and crazy ideas I've had, the things I'm not sure about yet, the goals that once seemed really inspiring but now I'm left a little bit cold by them.

What I've done is created two Word documents (one called 'Vital' and one called 'Wildcards') and put very brief descriptions of each project into them, like this:

  • Buy a new cellphone (*)
  • Digitise my CD collection

The (*) indicates that that project has some supporting material attached to it; sometimes I write down some notes or brainstorm some ideas about a project, and I want to keep it for when I finally start to work on it. I store these in two manilla folders in my filing cabinet (one for 'Vital' and one for 'Wildcards').

Sometimes I'll write down the next action I want to take with the project, just as a prompt:

  • Learn how to edit on Adobe Premiere: ask Norman for footage

I'm storing these files in Dropbox (and I should totally set up a project to figure out how to make the files automatically sync every time I make a change).

A list of the projects I'm actively working on

Out of all of those possible projects, there are going to be somewhere between 8 to 100 that I'm working on at any one time.(*) I record these in a notebook I've set specifically aside for my list of 'Active Projects'.

* 'Up to 100' is Allen's number; so far 
I've found it sets between 5 to 20.

Each of these Active Projects has a manilla folder filled with all the supporting material I need for them, and I store these in a separate drawer of my filing cabinet, for easy access.

As part of my Weekly Review (which I'll talk about in the next post), I make sure that there's at least one item in my to-do list that tells me the next action I need to take for each project.

Why am I going to all this trouble? It's simply so I can feel like I'm aware of everything I've got responsibility for and I can easily spot if anything's falling between the cracks. The end result is simply that I feel on top of stuff, and I'm confident that I'm moving stuff forward and finishing things.

Focus on two things

Finally, to make sure I'm making progress, I choose two things and work on them for 20 minutes first thing in the morning, and first thing when I get home. Mark Forster calls this the 'current initiative', and I've found it a great technique.

Only once I've completed both of those 'things' do I choose what to do next.

One more post. In this one, I'll talk about how I use all this stuff (the Weekly Review, which I mentioned above).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Apollo 13: Mission Control is a must see

I am still recovering from how good a time I had at Apollo 13: Mission Control on Saturday night. This is a play at Downstage recreating the Apollo 13 disaster: audience members play members of Mission Control and have to perform vital tasks throughout the night in order to bring the astronauts back home again safely (I’ll talk a bit more about this merging between being an audience member and a performer in a few paragraphs).

Here’s who I think should go see this: Jenni, Lee, Norman, Luke, Sam, Matt, Debz, Mike Sands, Bryn, Jacqui, Karen, Malcolm, Donna, Sophie, Simon Shuker and anyone else who thinks it might be quite cool to pretend to be part of Mission Control for a couple of hours.

Without going into spoilers, I totally got to be a hero during the course of the evening: identifying a potential danger on the ship; representing Mission Control during a TV interview with Walter Cronkite, and (eventually) taking charge of Mission Control itself for about 5 minutes – which meant I was spotlighted on stage with about 200 people watching me as I averted a complete and total meltdown.
(Actually, I just re-read that paragraph and I reckon there are spoilers in there, so ... inviso-texted).

Fracking brilliant.

The Audience / Performer Split

Talking about it with Jennifer afterwards made me aware of something I hadn’t considered about attending an ‘interactive theatre experience’.(*) She said that she never forgot that she was an audience member, watching a performance. I, on the other hand, really got into it; I took my role as Guidance Comms Officer really seriously and totally brought in to the drama of the mission.

                                                                                                 (*) It’s basically a LARP.

In some ways, it’s like the observation that people play games for different reasons: some people play to hang out with their friends; some people play to win; in the case of role-playing games, some people play to stay in-character while others play to construct a challenging story.

Your reason for being there and what you want out of it will give you a completely different experience from someone sitting right beside you who’s there for different reasons.

In my case, taking it seriously and buying in to the reality of the show had the benefit of getting me “into character”, so that when I was chosen to take part in a live interview on TV with Walter Cronkite(invisotext), I was totally in the zone and able to entertain the audience with my answers. I also, seriously, wanted to win: I have no idea if you can ‘fail’ Apollo 13, but I wanted to do everything we could to help it succeed; in effect I was trying to clock the performance.

Digging in to why it was so good

I had no idea, when I arrived at Downstage, that I was going to have one of the best creative experiences of my year to date. I expected to have heaps of fun, and I fully intended to get into it as much as I could … but to have it affect me this much?

So, it’s resonating but I’m not sure why. There are a lot of different factors at play here: my life of science-fiction and space flight; taking charge in a crisis; being in the spotlight; acting; a bit of improve and script-writing.

It seems important to me to dig into this a bit deeper to try and figure out exactly why I’m so stoked by this. If anyone wants to help me figure it out, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some advice to myself

I’ve just handed in an application for a NZFC Talent Award (one of the goals I set myself earlier in the year when I was posting about the New Thing). It’s at moments like this that it’s easy to rest on my laurels (n. an honour won, in a field or achievement).(*)
(*) I thought it meant ‘arse’.

But: working on the assumption that the future is, you know, whimsical, here’s some advice I gave someone earlier this year; hopefully I can take it too:

If you're interested in applying for this Talent Award again, my advice would be to start writing for it now. It will come around sooner than you think, and your projects will be much stronger if you've developed them for 6 months.

I'd also suggest actually working on your projects, developing them (and making some of them). That’ll strengthen the case for giving you an award next year.

Get your ideas to peer reviewers early. My suggestion: in your head, make the deadline two months earlier than it actually is. That'll give you a chance to really reflect on and incorporate any feedback you're given.

I have follow-up goals from making this application; I’ve decided not to share them (taking on board that advice about how telling other people about your goals – as if you’ve already achieve them - makes you less likely to do them). But things are moving.

Friday, November 19, 2010

How to Get Things Done: Write Everything Down

I'm talking about How to Get Things Done, a book by Dave Allen that changed my life by showing me how to set up a system that captures everything that's going on in my life, helps me figure out where it all fits, and then gives me a way to prioritise what to do next.

Capture everything

If you're like me, you have a crapload of stuff going on in your life: things to write; people to see; obligations to fulfil; (hopefully) holidays to plan; kids to raise; emails to send; bills to pay; and more, and more, and more ...

The theory behind the Getting Things Done (GTD) system is that you need to write everything down and review it. Writing it down means you've gotten it out of your head. If you've gotten the idea out of your head and you can trust yourself to review it, then your brain becomes a lot calmer and stops thinking about the idea over and over again.

I've had this happen to me many times when I can't sleep because I'm thinking about something. If I just take the time to turn on the light and write it down, I usually find I pop off to sleep five or ten minutes later.

If you've known me for a while, you'll know that I write everything down in a hipster pda that I carry around everywhere. This is why - I want to capture every idea and look at it later to see if it's worthwhile or something I want to commit to doing.

Here's how to build a hipster pda:
  1. cut up a bunch of paper or get a bunch of 3"x5" file cards
  2. clip them together with a binder clip
  3. there is no step 3

There are other sources of information I have to collect from as well:
  • my intray
  • emails
  • texts and phone messages
  • meetings and conversations

Organise Everything

Once you've captured everything, the next step in the GTD system is to figure out where it goes. Is it something you should do right away? Is it something you need to think about for a while? Is it a project, and if so is it urgent or more something you might do someday?

There's a place for everything in the system, and How to Get Things Done goes into quite a bit of detail about how to set up a filing system, use a calendar, and set up something called a tickler file (which effectively allows you to 'post' things to yourself):

Every item you've captured will go somewhere: into your to-do list; into a list of actual or potential projects; into your calendar; into the trash.

Next up, I want to talk about those project lists - because that's something I resisted doing for years ... and I was wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How to Get Things Done: What's the Next Action?

There's an observation in my previous post about economics that really sticks with me: most people are too busy dealing with the day-to-day tasks in their life to lift their heads up every once in a while and see the bigger picture. I've certainly felt like that, and its that feeling - coupled with setting up a new organisational system at my work - that's motivated me to talk about one of the books that really literally changed my life.

How to Get Things Done by Dave Allen is a book that - at its most basic level - is about how to set up a filing system. But really its about how to set up a system that captures everything that's going on in your life, helps you consider where it all fits, and then gives you tools and routines to help you prioritise what to do next.

I've been using it since 2005, and I only now feel like I'm beginning to apply some of the deeper lessons from it (and that's after doing some extra reading and thinking about it).

What I'd like to do in the next few posts is talk about the basics of the version of the system I use. Perhaps it'll be helpful; most of it will probably be similar to (or an extension of) things you're already doing.

The Next Action List

Over the last few years, I have shifted to a single to-do list, which captures everything that's going on in my life.

However: the items on this to-do list are all written using one of two basic principles of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system; each item describe, in very specific terms, the next physical action I need to do. For instance, it doesn't say:

  • Sell spare clothes to the Costume Cave.

Instead it says:

  • Call Costume Cave (385-9682)

The item before that might have said:

  • Google 'Costume Cave' and find out phone number.
The other basic principle is that if an item can be done in under 2 minutes, do it then and there. You'll make more progress, and it'll be easier and faster than writing it down and revisiting it.

I've tried a lot of systems for organising my to-do lists but the best version I've found is called 'Autofocus', developed by productivity expert Mark Forster. There's an online demonstration of how it works, here.

Essentially, I have one to-do list stored in a 1B5 notebook. In the next post, I'll talk about how things get into that notebook.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Books: April to June

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in a trilogy of young adult novels. It should be right up my alley (which is a reference that seems much more relevant to me now that I've moved to an apartment in an alleyway): the series is set on a world that's been colonised by people from Earth, who have had a nasty conflict with the indigenous species, and as a result been infected with a disease that has given everybody uncontrollable telepathy. Coupled with that, the protagonist is trying to escape from the village he lives in, a village populated only by men, most of whom are homicidal patriarchal fascists.

But the book really bugged me. While the author made me care about the main character, he also stuck strongly to a first person POV coupled with a few 'unreliable narrator' tricks. As a result, I felt cheated by the frequency with which information was withheld that the main character knew (or should know), and annoyed at how often the author had to knock the main character out in order to advance the plot.

I've been on the fence about trilogies for many years now - reluctant to read them because for the most part I think they're padding. At the end of Knife, I decided not to read the next two books in the series: while the main character was trapped, indebted to the men he'd spent the whole book trying to escape - an army of men who'd just taken over the whole planet - I wasn't particularly interested in how he would get out of this situation. I just expected he would, and felt no obligation to read two more books to find out how it happened.

It took a few months, but Jenni changed my mind about this (more to come in the next book review post) ...

Reading Knife also reinforced my hatred of modern dust jackets on books. Sure, the design work that goes into a contemporary book is top notch, but I swear that the blurbs give away plot spoilers up to about page 200. It's infuriating.

Jenni lent me What's the Worst that Could Happen? It's her novel about a super-hero whose power is that she can see the worst case scenario for every course of action. I enjoyed reading it, and quickly saw the potential in it. Jenni blogged about our feedback session.

Then I organised a trans-humanist science-fiction death match. I got out two books from the library, read the first chapter of each and then chose which one to continue.

I chose Newton's Wake by Ken McLeod because its Scottish protagonist seemed to have more of an edge. It's a fairly interesting soap opera about the aftermath of a war with AIs and first contact with a distant colony, but by the end, the story was a little confusing and felt like a failure.

Then, when I switched back to Glasshouse by Charles Stross, I was impressed by how smart it was. Our hero needs to go into the 30th century equivalent of witness protection. He signs up for an experiment to recreate 20th century society, where our social and moral codes are enforced by a points system. Things quickly deteriorate as the experiment's participants decide to play to win (and ignore the fact that there's a darker agenda going on). A great examination of how our culture ticks, and a tight little thriller.

In my last book review, I mentioned that there was a book that scared me. Kindred by Octavia Butler is it. It's the story of an African-American woman from the 1970s who's thrown back in time about 150 years to the Antebellum South. What I realised is that I can watch trashy horror films and read Thomas Ligotti short stories all I like, but this story - about this character who seemed very real and very human, thrust into absolutely the worst environment for her - well, this story didn't feel safe. After the first two chapters, I had no idea where it was going or how far it could go, and I ended up putting it down.

I switched, instead, to The Bohr Maker, a science-fiction novel about nano-technology, that felt ... superficial to me in comparison to Kindred (which I was still thinking about). The story follows two protagonists - well, one of them's mostly just a character who things happen to for the majority of the book, and the other is so unsympathetic that I wouldn't have been unhappy to see him/it fail entirely. Perhaps that's a good technique ... it certainly kept the outcome I wanted the book to have alive and in question for me, but made The Bohr Maker a bit of a tough read

Afterwards, I went back to Kindred, and read another two or three chapters. Just when I thought it was settling into a predictable groove, Butler threw a massive curveball into the situation, one that I found very compelling.

After reading to see how that resolved, I had to decompress for a while. I ripped through Roadside Picnic by Stanislaw Lem. My memories of this have faded now, but I found this a tight, fast read infused with melancholy and a sense of transcendence. Actually: recommended. It felt like good Philip K. Dick.

Finally, I finished Kindred and was satisfied with how it all wrapped up. If you're familiar with the RPG Steal Away Jordan, Kindred is one of the media inspirations for that game.

The Sparrow is a definite contender for the best book I've read this year. It's a first contact story: humanity has picked up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The story follows (and deals with the aftermath of) an expedition funded by Jesuit priests to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music. What struck me most about this story was its sense of humour, the lightness of touch and sense of truth in its characterisations and the way it deals with issues of guilt, celibacy, the nature of God and faith - all wrapped in a vivid writing style. Jenni, Helen R: you might like this one.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Have Done List: September to October

Here's some stuff I've done in the last month and a half that I think's notable:
  • defriended a couple of people on Facebook (if you're reading this, you're unlikely to be one of them)
  • gave feedback on Jenni's novel
  • asked Matt if he would digitise episodes of lovebites for me (which he very kindly did)
  • decluttered, massively

  • got an exciting comment about people who are interested in playtesting Left Coast

  • got good feedback from Jenni about my feedback on her novel
  • bought a desk and assembled it myself

  • broke a desk
  • went on holiday
  • stayed reasonably dry in the middle of a three day storm
  • re-learned how to build a fire

  • introduced Jennifer to story games

  • cleared all of my emails (believe me, this is a big thing!)
  • fixed a desk
  • broke a filing cabinet
  • threw a temper tantrum (which fixed the filing cabinet)
  • set up an filing system at work 
  • deposited 20 boxes of emails and script notes from the lovebites TV series at the Film Archive (closure, baby! Yeah!)
  • learned how to give effective feedback in a personal/non-literary context (Describe when it occured; Describe exactly and objectively what happened; Explain the impact it had on you).
  • Decided to write a scholarship application in 24 hours
  • Had a lot of fun with Jennifer on Halloween weekend, including becoming a raving fan of the pies at Sweet Mother's Kitchen
  • Inspired mcdaldno to write more of his game: Monsterhearts.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Characters need a "Thing"

While reading Scriptshadow's review of 'Retreat', a Dead Calm-esque thriller on an isolated island, I came across a great little insight. (One of the great things about Scriptshadow's review format is the little insight at the end of each review; quite often there's something that sticks with me.)

Anyway, this idea is relevant to the work I want to do on Left Coast, making the supporting characters that surround the lead character as real and pro-active as possible.
[E]very character should have a “thing” going on.

Everybody’s got a “thing.” My friend Dan’s thing is that he’s obsessed with women, to the point where it’s ruined a marriage and a couple of other great relationships he’s had. My friend Claire’s thing is that she refuses to rely on other people for help. She has to do everything herself, even when at times it’s impossible.

Kate’s thing [in this script] is that she can’t forgive her husband for putting his work before her.

Think about all the friends in your life. You can probably break all of them down into having that one “thing” that identifies them. This “thing” is what you use your screenplay to explore. Sure this [script's] concept is about a deadly virus that could potentially end human existence. But really this script is about a woman trying to come to terms with what her husband did to her, forgive him, and move on.

OPost Optionsnce you identify what your main character’s “thing” is, you can use your screenplay to explore it. If you’re not doing that, I got news for you, you’re going to have a hard time writing a good screenplay.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"A meaningful prosperity": Changing the economic system

I found this 20 minute talk by Tim Jackson about the limits of growth in our economic system to be worthwhile. Essentially, it's a clear explanation of how we could handle a global population of nine billion people all wanting a 'good', 'Western' lifestyle.

The talk points out the intersection between economics and the desire for novelty, which leads to resources being used to create new, shiny consumer goods.(*)

(*) Like iPads, which I'm still restraining myself from buying.

When Jackson couples this observation with a discussion of the levels of consumer debt leading into the financial crisis, he comes up with this pithy summary:

This is a story about us, people being persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about.

There's lots more to this talk, but the thing that really stuck out to me as relevant to the idea of developing our long range thinking is the observation that we're too busy taking care of the small-scale, day-to-day stuff to deal with the bigger picture or more intractable problems.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Long News

A three minute talk about gaining some perspective on world events.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The deep dive

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of giving Jenni some feedback on her most recent novel. Towards the end of our session, I tried a technique that I'd heard about in a governance seminar last month; it's called a 'deep dive', and all it involves is taking the time to dig into one particular issue, asking questions about and exploring its various facets (without having a particular agenda or wanting a particular outcome), and seeing what emerges.

For Jenni's novel, I asked her about the various ways she - as the author - had used 'anger' in her novel. It's a bit of a recurring motif, and it's something I have a particular interest in; The Limit is all about anger, and in fact writing The Limit taught me a lot about dealing with anger in my own life. That one question revealed a lot of things to me that weren't clear from my reading: in particular, the use of anger as one of the stages of grieving, and the repressed anger of the novel's love interest.

Pretty much all of the stuff that came out of our wandering conversation during this deep dive, I was able to think of ways to apply to the rewrite of the novel, hopefully strengthening the elements that Jenni already has in there.

It's not a technique that I'd do very often; maybe once every couple of script meetings; but I think the deep dive has a real place at the writers' table.

The Hobbit: What's next?

OK, so there’s a lot of stuff going on with the Hobbit right now. Drawing on your knowledge, what are the factors that are involved in this? What’s worth further investigation?


Some ideas to start this off:


-          Tax breaks

-          Actors’ Equity

-          SAG (the US Actors guild)


(This is a test post, published by email.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting under my skin

I've recently watched all three Jason Bourne movies, and the process of trying to figure out what I liked about them made me dig a little bit deeper into my own tastes. I've been inspired by Jesse Burneko's post 'Examine your source material'; he talks about examining the things we read and watch, and trying to articulate what it is about them that really speaks to us:
[T]here’s a gap between simply what one enjoys and what actually speaks to one on a personal deep inspirational level.
So I ask you, look at your media. Draw that line in the sand. What have you enjoyed vs. what has gotten really and truly under your skin and into your heart?
Articulating the difference between what I enjoy and what gets under my skin has been pretty useful. See, I enjoy action sequences, and gunfights, and space battles, and complicated brain-boggling mysteries.

With the Bourne movies, I felt that each of them was better than the last in terms of action ... but it's the first one that has the most kick for me. Jason Bourne's dilemma of whether - even with amnesia - he can transcend being the killer that he used to be, whether he can stop sliding back into being an assassin holds a lot of appeal for me. While the action sequences in the next two movies are exciting, that theme of trying of trying to not be a bad person, holding on to your new identity is only sporadically dealt with.

And actually it's that question that really attracted me to Lost in the first season; when the survivors crash-land on the island, no-one knows who they were in their previous pre-crash lives; they have the opportunity to start fresh, to try and transcend their own instincts and habits and flaws ... if they want to. At a deeper level, this is about people trying to change and being dragged down by their own pasts.

Another book that really speaks to me is Marooned in Realtime, a murder mystery set fifty million years in the future, when there are only a few thousand human beings left alive, and the death of any one person is a real threat to the survival of the species. In the same way, I realise that it's those stakes that really appeal to me about Battlestar Galactica: sure, there's space battles and mysteries about the cylons, but the thing that always gets me in that show is Laura Roslin keeping a tally on her whiteboard of the number of humans left alive. It drives home the stakes of the show, and the fact that murder, mutiny and civil war have a cost; you may get what you want, or gain power, but at the cost of jeopardising the survival of humanity.

One final example: I love the first Harry Potter book - to me it's a great examination of a child who's lost everything and who's been alone and misunderstood his whole life finally having the opportunity to make friends with people. The subsequent books, where friendships are tested, and the movies, where friendships are assumed and where Harry Potter is kind of presented as a kid who not only deserves this sort of success but is actually kind of totally entitled to it, leaves me cold.

I'm sure there's more, but it's late and that's a start. What about you? If you dug deep into the things you love, the things that you keep coming back to and that feed your soul, what would you find?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Music: March

I fell in love with Spoon's Mystery Zone a little bit - bouncy, catchy. Here's a live version:

I'm becoming a fan of LCD Soundsystem. Time to get away is a nice taste of nerd funk:

Oh yeah. I road-tripped up to Auckland to watch The Pixies peform Doolittle and a cross-albums encore. Frank Black is oddly disconnected from the audience, Kim Deal rocks. Gigantic was great, but from listening to the Pixies in the car on the way up, this song stands out:

Finally became curious enough to check out a few Lady Gaga videos. My conclusions:
- Bad Romance is a good song
- the costume design in the videos is so aggressively NOW that it feels dated already. But it's way more interesting than either Paris Hilton or Taylor Swift, so I cannot wait for the Gaga imitators to arrive
- I'm fascinated by the financials of the Lady Gaga business; who earns the money?
- She seems like she's a strong contender for being a pop star with some longevity
- She can't dance, as evidenced by Telephone (youtube it if you want; it's 10 minutes long)

However, watching Telephone reminded me to check out Beyonce's Single Ladies - in the interests of triggering Helen's ear-worm again, here's the vid:

And, fuck it, here's Gigantic. Go the Pixies!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

RPG: Playtesting so I want to keep writing

Hey, it's 10/10/10 today. That's worth commenting on!

Over the last couple of months, during spare-time, I've been writing little bits of Left Coast (my game about slightly crazy science fiction authors in 1960s California). The writing's been going fine, but I've also been thinking about what the next stage of playtesting will be.

Playtesting, for those who don't know it, is like redrafting a script or an essay but for games. You write a draft of a game, play it with some friends, and then figure out whether the game created the sort of fun you wanted it to create. If not, change some rules, change your approach, strip the game back and start again until you get it delivering the consistent fun you want.

It's a process I enjoy but something's been bugging me about it recently; this quote from Ron Edwards helped me articulate what I think the first step in my playtesting process needs to be:

My current thinking is that in earliest playtesting, people should be participating "for love," with less emphasis on breaking or even evaluating mechanics. I find feedback of this kind to be disruptive and demoralizing, including oh-so-helpful advice about how to write anything.
My concern at this stage is best served by addressing Color, i.e. the sort of imagery and flashy-stuff that characterizes the game (which may or may not include a specific setting and/or fixed characters); and Reward, i.e., whatever it is that I as the designer want to be the point and most fun about the system.
I've found out the hard way that including people not committed to these things, at this stage, can stop a project in its tracks.

So, less emphasis on mechanics and getting the rules 'right'; more emphasis on fun, being inspired to continue writing, brainstorming what the game could be.

This ties into my previous post, On Giving Feedback; again it's a quote from the Forge, which I'm finding to be a valuable resource for thinking about how to lead a productive creative life:

What I need is feedback that puts energy into my efforts. What I need is feedback that helps me see the full elephant, to understand the meaning of the whole beast that has yet only a crude shape under my mortal hands.
I am already scrutinous and critical enough of my creative efforts. What I need is feedback that strips away the bullshit that's holding me back, empowers and armors me against the certain doubts and contrary notions of others, and gives me energy and momentum.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Hobbit: Wingnut vs Unions (Round 2)

Oops! This should have auto-posted days ago, but it's been stuck in my Drafts folder. I'll post it now, and I've scheduled some more posts to appear while I'm on holiday. See you next weekend!

There have been some further exchanges of press releases and articles in the Peter Jackson/Wingnut Films vs the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) battle for hearts and minds. In my Round 1 post, I focused on breaking down the initial press releases between the two organisations. In Round 2, I want to look at the analyses and comments from The Standard and Kiwiblog to see whether viewing the issue through a more political lens can throw some light on things.

First, though, I might try and summarise my current understanding of the positions of both parties. This is definitely a work in progress and I don't guarantee its accuracy; part of why I'm writing these posts is to try and figure out exactly what is going on here.

The MEAA is representing its New Zealand subsidiary, NZ Actors' Equity. The MEAA's negotiations are intended to provide actors in the production of the Hobbit with access to residuals (dividends) from the film's distribution. Providing residuals for actors appearing in a production is standard international practice. As 'Anonymous' pointed out in the comments to my previous post (and I'm paraphrasing), the New Zealand contract would also give people the protections of employment law (such as minimum wage, right to challenge dismissal etc).

Wingnut Films (through the public face of Peter Jackson) takes the position that the MEAA is no longer a legal entity as it was struck off the Ministry of Economic Development’s (MED) Register of Incorporated Societies last week (source: Screen Hub, via Kiwiblog). Because it's no longer a legal entity, it can't be negotiated with (*).

* Which ignores the fact, if I've got the timeline correct, that 
MEAA was a legal entity in NZ when it issued its August 17 letter.

Wingnut states that if they hire an actor who is a member of SAG (the American-based actors' guild), they honour the provisions in the SAG contract dealing with residuals. Their press release also states:
For the Hobbit, Warner Brothers have agreed to create a separate pot of profit participation, which will be divided up amongst non-SAG actors who are cast in the film. This was not done because of any pressure from Guilds or Unions - it was actually Warners doing the decent thing, and New Zealand and Australian actors will be the principle beneficiaries. SAG members have their pot, and non-SAG members now have theirs.
Finally, Wingnut is also positioning this as a fight for the survival of the New Zealand film industry (or at least its ability to attract big-budget overseas productions to film on location here).

A particular point of contention seems to be the number / percentage of New Zealand actors that are represented by this union. As Svend pointed out in the previous post's comments, there's a standard figure of 80-90 actors, with the initial Wingnut press release estimating the available pool of NZ actors as between 1000 and 2000. An alternative calculation, here, indicates that 588 people identified their occupation as 'actor' in the 2006 census, and the initial Wingnut press release estimates the membership of NZ Actors' Equity as being between 100-200 actors.

There's an attributed quote over at Russell Brown's Hard News post about this that might shed some light on this issue:

"John Barnett told me he suspected the union let its registration lapse (by failing to file reports for the last three years) to avoid having to reveal the size of its membership." (opinion)

And there's one question I still want to know the answer to is, "How much would employing unionised actors with contracts that give them residuals cost The Hobbit production?"

Anyway. On with my cutting and pasting of other people's posts on this subject. IrishBill at The Standard has a nice summary of a particular perspective on the issue ('Union boycotts Jackson'):
I’ve known quite a few film workers over the years, workers who were happy to work long hours for bugger all money when the industry was in its infancy simply because there wasn’t much money about and they were getting valuable experience.

But nowadays the industry has established itself, there’s clearly enough money for Jackson to have his own private jet and international stars are here shooting on a regular basis.

The thing is the terms and conditions haven’t changed – film workers are still being paid peanuts, being treated as independent contractors to avoid employment law, missing out on royalties and being blacklisted if they dare to complain.


The man with the $68m private jet and the castle and the millions of dollars of vintage aeroplanes and the knighthood says the union is greedy because it wants a fair deal for its members. And it’s not a matter of him keeping sub-standard work conditions, it’s a matter of national importance!
Digging through the comments thread for insights produced the following not-necessarily-verified observations:

  • There were actors in LOTR who were unable to profit properly from their use in the film (for money made from licensing products bearing their image) because there are no effective collective agreeements here.
  • Since 2006 NZ Actors’ Equity has been an ‘autonomous’ branch of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance and has been an affiliate member of the Council of Trade Unions under its MEAA name. It was struck off the Ministry of Economic Development’s Register of Incorporated Societies last week under its registered name of Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.It is therefore an unregistered union under the Employment Relations Act and is therefore legally unable to negotiate a collective agreement for its members. It’s also illegal for Peter Jackson to enter into negotiations with them for the same reason.
  • You get the impression that there is some pretty significant blacklisting goes on inside the industry. The only real way of fighting that is to do it collectively.
  • As far as I know there’s been debate for quite a while about the relative lack of unionisation of Kiwis working in the international film and TV industry in NZ (for crews as well as cast). It has been argued that one of the advantages is that things get done quicker because there’s less job demarcation, meaning the crew don’t need to wait for the person/s with the allocated job title to get something done. But the disadvantage is insufficient protections for workers.
  • It’s not Aussies telling us what to do at all .... The MEAA is the union for actors and similar workers in Australia, who have had a formal alliance with our version here for some time. They act on behalf of our actors at their request, not by way of an imposition.
  • These actors are employed as independent contractors, which means they have no collective bargaining rights, no rights to holidays, minimum wages etc. It\’s a great way to avoid employment obligations and the reason why Jackson can claim that NZ law doesn\’t allow them to collectively negotiate. Of course, there’s a way around it : they could be employed as employees and then there wouldn\’t be any argument about their right to negotiate.

A comment in a subsequent post at the Standard provides a little bit of historical context

On Campbell Live just now, Bruce Hopkins (actor in Hercules, Xena, LOTR), threw some light on the Jackson-actors’ union issue. It seems it goes back to some time in the 90s when the Nats deregulated unions, and set a minimum limit on the number of members needed to form a union. The actors’ didn’t have enough members to be a union & have tried attaching themselves to other unions in the past. But this wasn’t very satisfactory because they were attached to unions they had nothing in common with. So, then a key leader put out a call for a union to affiliate with in Melbourne, and MEA responded.

So, basically, they have a history of not being able to negotiate bottom-line conditions of employment. This issue pre-dates LOTR. And Kiwi actors are about the only ones in the world who haven’t been able to negotiate a basic agreement.
... which was contested in a subsequent comment:
I think Bruce should stick to the acting (which he’s rather good at) because his history is FUBAR. He might start by asking someone at the CTU to send him a copy of the Employment Relations Act – which was passed by the Fifth Labour Government.

More interesting opinions, this time from Russell Brown at Hard News:

The present unrest seems to have begun with this letter last October from the US-based Screen Actors Guild, which reiterates the SAG's Global Rule One and states that a New Zealand or Australian performer must be covered by either a SAG or an MEAA agreement to work on a New Zealand production.

The conspiracy theory, which I heard yesterday from one producer, is that the SAG is looking to protect its own members by preventing so-called "runaway productions" in Australia and New Zealand. They've succeeded in Australia, the theory goes, and now they're turning to New Zealand.
And finally, Gordon Campbell summarises the 'employee' versus 'independent contractor' dynamic nicely in his post at I'm going to excerpt large chunks of it here, because (again) I think it helps build a broader historical context for what's going on:

According to Spada (the NZ producers association), it is against the law to enter a collective agreement with the ‘independent contractors’ that comprise the sector, and industry practice has been known to everyone (and set out in the so-called industry ‘Pink Book’) for the past 15 years.

This is a debatable version of history. In reality, the people insisting that the sector is comprised of ‘independent contractors’ are the producers themselves. The Jackson productions have been instrumental in fostering that climate – and yet now, if you believe Spada, they feel bound by a situation that enables them to require workers to manage their own tax affairs, arrange their own insurance, and qualify for no penalty rates for working at night, or on weekends or public holidays?
Conspicuously, Spada has failed to mention the case of James Bryson, an ‘independent contractor’ on LOTR who duly signed papers to that effect. After he was dismissed, Bryson asked the courts to enable him to pursue a personal grievance case. Despite the existing paperwork that Bryson had signed, the lower court found – and this was later backed up by the Supreme Court – that the determining factor was the reality of the employment situation, and not the paperwork. Bryson, the courts decided, was really in an employee situation – and thus, he could use the personal grievance mechanisms available to him under our industrial law.

That’s very relevant to the current dispute. Because it means that if the employment situation really is an employee one in most or all respects, the mechanisms open to employees – such as collective bargaining – should be available. This leaves Jackson with at least a couple of options. He could volunteer to waive the demand that the people he hires accept the (arguably, bogus) status of ‘independent contractor’ and start treating his workers onset as what many of them would seem to be in practice : namely, employees. Or short of that – he could recognise that the contractors can negotiate collectively with his Three Foot Seven company over conditions on The Hobbit – and this, arguably, can be done legally if done openly, and without the aim of carrying out wage and price fixing within a negotiated market.

OK, there's lots of lots of links and extracted comments and quotes there. What are your thoughts on the above? I'm going to mull over it for a while, and try and bring it all together after I get back from my holiday. In the meantime, I'll be setting the blog to auto-post some book and music reviews.

    Wednesday, October 06, 2010

    Books: March to April

    While I've lost track of some of the books I've read during the last couple of months, but that's been compensated for by the introduction of a new system for getting books out that's paying great dividends: I read reviews of books that sound interesting; type them into a file on my phone; by the time I get to the library to get something out, I've forgotten the exact plot of the book so I choose something at random, get it out without reading the back cover (which I've found usually contains massive spoilers for up to 200 pages of a book), and then read it with a completely fresh eye.

    Going into books blind has been fun!

    Lost for books to read, I pulled a Roger Zelazny novel that I've owned for years out my 'To Read' bookshelf. Turns out it was the second book in a series, but it had a pretty good recap of events in it. I was about 80 pages in when I realised that I'd be going to the library the next day and getting out the other four books in the series.

    Zelazny's 'Ambert' quintet is fun, smart high fantasy with a taste of Moorcockian surreality ... but most of all, it's a noir. The third book, Sign of the Unicorn, is basically a series of flashbacks explaining backstories (and in some cases, twisted motivations) of the lead character's family members. Later in this post, I'm going to be talking about my dislike of trilogies and series, but this was good. Like, 'finishing one of the books every night' good.

    Declare is the first Tim Powers novel I've read. What starts as a reasonably normal Le Carre-esque Cold War spy thriller slowly becomes an alternate-history biography of Kim Philby and a textbook study of how to slowly reveal a complicated mythology. Like a Clive Barker novel by way of John Le Carre, it inspired me to immediately get out another Tim Powers: Last Call - a story about a gambler who once lost a very important game of poker, and is now about to pay the price for it.

    Gino: Read Last Call. Anyone else, if you're interested in the Tarot, the story of the Fisher King, or stories that feel like 80s style Clive Barker with less gruesomeness and less misanthropy, check it out too.

    Pearce bought a copy of Life's Lottery by Kim Newman, which I immediately seized from him and read three times over the next three nights. This is the literary Choose Your Own Adventure novel I've always wanted to read. A story where the main character changes his very personality based on the choices you make. The story covers about 40 years, centring around Thatherite and Blarite Britain, was constantly riveting and insightful ... and I still feel like I haven't tapped all of its depths. It was also a great deal more magical realist (and violent) than I expected, with a fantastic authorial voices that sometimes talks directly to the reader (and sometimes passes judgement on you).

    (Great to see that my propensity for cheating at Choose Your Own Adventure books is undiminished; at one point I think I had four fingers stuck in various pages so that I could try out various alternatives.)

    After waking up from a dream in which I had bought a roleplaying game about a city under the ocean, I decided to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. First thing that surprised me: it was in the children's section of the library. Second thing: it's effectively the 1860s version of hard sci-fi. Jules Verne seems to be striving to make every detail seems as plausible as possible based on the science and engineering capabilities of the time. Third thing: it's kinda boring. The book is mostly a travelogue that spends very little time fleshing out its characters, and the big incidents of the book are separated by many pages worth of descriptions of fish.

    While reading this, I struggled to see how you could adapt this into a feature film for the 21st century. Surely the sense of wonder about the undersea world has been lost. I didn't get to see Oceans at the Film Festival (which might have changed my mind), but it sounds like I happily avoid the narrator-rage that people experienced in listening to Pierce Brosnan for 84 minutes.

    How to Get Rich was a fun non-fiction read about how to be an entrepreneur. Unsparing in its description of the prices you'd have to pay in order to be rich, and filled with a lot of wisdom. Along with the Four Hour Work Week, this is one I think I'm going to have to re-read.

    Next post, why I finished The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first book in a trilogy), and didn't feel the need to read the rest of the series; and a book that scared me.