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.