Sunday, December 25, 2011

My project for the holidays: learn to edit by editing Monster of the Week

Mike's hired me to edit his game, Monster of the Week. It's exciting (because I've had a lot of fun editing and giving unsolicited feedback on games before).

It's also a completely new work process for me. I've peer reviewed and edited 10 page briefings and given overviews of novels before. However, it feels a little different to actually be working 'on the clock'. I'm being paid for about 10-12 hours of editing time, and I want to give Mike value for money.

At the moment, I think the best approach is to treat this in the same way I treated all the feedback I've received for Left Coast: I've read through the rules for Monster of the Week, making notes as I go. Now I'm going to create a mind-map of those notes and choose which of the issues I've identified are the most fundamental ones - the ones that'll make the biggest differences to the book. That's where I'll focus my efforts to start with - not on a line-by-line proof-read, but on a 'how could we present this information so that it feels like it's in the right place'.

I think my feedback (at this level) is going to feel more like the starting point for a conversation than a list of instructions to follow.

Collapse! A game about transitioning through peak oil

Writing games to help us imagine what life may be like after a massive social change is a design space I'm interested in exploring. Dave Pollard is designing a boardgame at the moment that looks interesting:

via Energy Bulletin - by kristinsponsler on 12/22/11

Some of you are aware that I have been working on a cooperative board game called Collapse! designed to help people learn and practice grassroots community-building and preparing locally for the various crises that may precede civilization's collapse. I've finally got a first outline draft of the game, and decided to share it with the world before I go any further. Here are the rules and some images of the game equipment that I have developed thus far, along with a list of what I still have to do to complete the game's development.

You can read more and give feedback to Dave directly on his blog: here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2011 has been a good year for gaming for me. What's it been like for you?

Reflecting on what I've achieved in 2011 in game design and playing - here's what's been going on for me:

  • Reading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and feeding its insights about overcoming creative blocks into every area of my creative life, including gaming.
  • Participating in the second Festival of Flawless Victory, re-kickstarting my design of Left Coast.
  • Overcoming my fears of playtesting and getting feedback on my own games.
  • Working with Paul Czege, Jonathan Walton, Luke Walker, and Alasdair Sinclair on a convention scenario for My Life with Master.
  • Playing and giving feedback on McDaldno's Monsterhearts (the game of twisted supernatural romance).
  • Running and getting my first professional RPG editing gig on Mike Sands' Monster of the Week (the game of kick-ass monster hunting).
  • Finishing an epic Apocalypse World game and feeling like I'd learn three years worth of lessons about playing a protagonist.
  • Becoming better friends with the people I play with.
  • Being part of informally developing a supportive group of playtesters and game designers in Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Working hard on a honed, simplified, and signficantly revised version of Left Coast - to publish early next year.
What about you?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What would happen if there was a by-election in Epsom and National won?

Let's say, for some reason, John Banks was unable to serve a full term as MP for Epsom. A by-election is held and a National candidate, rather than an ACT candidate wins.

According to my calculations at (and using these results) this creates a Parliament of 121 seats, and the following blocs of parties:

National + United = 60
Green + Labour + Mana = 50
Maori = 3
New Zealand First = 8

That immediately creates some exciting options for coalitions and re-negotiation of confidence and supply agreements.

It would also take rhetorically take off the table everything that National and ACT agreed to in their confidence and supply agreement.

Is that right? Am I missing anything in my workings-out?

EDITED TO ADD: Graeme Edgeler posts about an even more intricate version of this type of scenario, here. Extrapolating from his post, it seems that ACT would not disappear from Parliament after this result:
[A] policy decision was taken that finality was more important than proportionality, and the possibility that an election petition (or by-election) could change multiple seats (e.g. by removing a party from Parliament because it no longer passed the one seat threshold) months after an election was thought to be the greater evil.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Should you tell the people playtesting your game what you're looking for (before you start playing)?

@drbunnyhops said (in my previous post) she was thinking about having some questions for people to consider while they play - but she wondered if that'd be too distracting.

I don't have enough experience with this to know for sure. The act of playtesting is almost always a sign that you're not sure how the game will play or if it works yet. It's pretty useful to admit that to everyone who's playing, right up front. Given that, it probably can't hurt to focus your playtesters' minds - perhaps by telling them about a couple of areas you’re interested in or that you think are weak

But there's another school of thought, which Ben Lehman articulated in his post: 'Playtesting: Stop

Decide what you need playtested. Think small. Start with the absolute bare minimum rules your game needs to achieve its goals. Identify the top 1-3 things you need tested. Ignore everything else. Create scenarios that will allow playtesters to focus and test these top priorities.  
Design your scenarios so what you’re testing isn’t obvious to the playtesters. Your scenario might be, “create a character” but what you’re specifically testing is “how long does it take”, “is stat allocation frustrating”, “does character creation give the GM enough information to design an adventure.” Don’t tell your playtesters what you are actually playtesting.  
Take caution that your scenario doesn’t influence your playtesters actions. Don’t ask leading questions or make leading statements. If you want to test “how long does this take”, in your scenario, don’t say “character creation is super fast”. Don’t influence!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Recording my latest Left Coast playtest could be the best game-writing decision I ever made

Mike, Simon and I played Left Coast last Sunday, and I decided to record it all on my cellphone. I'd taken a crack at simplifying the rules after the Scottish playtest (conducted by Gregor, Malcolm and Per) identified that the game had a lot of over-complicated and potentially unfun or game-breaking procedures in it.

Last Sunday's game was fun, and we all pointed out even more places where simplification was needed. In Simon's words, it's got an inspired setting and a functional core, but its overly-fussy mechanics are working against the laid-back vibe I want the game to help create. So: edits! However, reviewing the audio file has revealed a whole bunch of stuff that we didn't articulate and that I'm working on now. I think this next draft of the game is going to be far cleaner and simpler, with two radical changes that I'm looking forward to testing out.

Anyway, for my own future reference, here's what I'm doing with the audio recording:

  • listen to the whole thing, logging the conversation by recording the timecode where interesting comments occur 
  • identify moments that (in hindsight) are unacknowledged examples of procedural clunkiness and clunky procedures
  • review this log and create a mind-map of the comments that seem to obviously group together (into categories like 'Simple Edits', 'Playtester Questions', 'Radical Ideas')
  • listen to the logged points that don't seem obvious, and put them on the mind-map too
  • use the recording to adjust the rules to reflect how I explain them in person
  • identify examples of play

Monday, November 28, 2011

Is Breaking Bad about putting more and more pressure on ordinary people?

Because if that's it's thing - having to make decisions under lots of pressure, and those decisions leading to terrible consequences and even more terrible decisions that need to be made - then I can see how (a) it becomes a great but tough watch, like Mike said, and (b) how, after a few seasons, it might be difficult to find a plausible, satisfying way to wrap up the show. However, it's great to see the writers keep re-focusing the responsibility back onto Walt, any time it looks like he's going to run away from making a choice.

And the show has won a lot of credit from me by making Walt's wife (Skylar) a character who  takes smart, completely-believable actions. It gives me confidence that eventually the whole cast are going to be well-motivated and interesting.

About Breaking Bad's visual style

I'd describe it as sympathetic but impersonal. The camera (and the script) treats Walt, his family, and Captain Cook as people it likes, but there's also with a degree of distance: for instance, when Walt's lying unconscious on the carwash floor, or the Captain's in the car with his former cooking-partner, Emilio. I got the impression that anyone could die at any point, and the camera would just be happy to watch it happen and then keep recording what happens next.

A good tone for this sort of low-crime show to hit.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

OK, Breaking Bad is off to a good start.

It's done a fantastic job of creating characters who are either sympathetic or memorable assholes, and it's doing the 'reasonably smart people trying to figure out the logistics of committing crime', which is totally my favourite genre. But most impressive of all, the pilot episode did an outstanding job of conveying Walt White's complex thought processes and making the decisions he makes believable entirely via subtext and performance - no need to resort to voice-overs, clumsy commentary by other characters, or on-the-nose speeches.

Looking forward to Episode 2.

Monday, October 10, 2011

I'm working on a plan to deal with all the feedback on my Philip K. Dick game (Left Coast)

One of the things I only recently realised about creative projects is how much crap builds up around me while I'm writing them: it's like I excrete pages of notes and scraps of paper filled with random ideas and shower-inspired insights.

My first great leap forward in writing organisation was to put all of these into a folder marked "Next Draft". My second great leap forward was to actually look at them.

It's that process of looking at the notes that helps me make decisions about what's in and what's out: what insights have stuck and still ring true, and which insights have helped me move on to a deeper understanding of the project but are no longer relevant.

As I mentioned in my previous post (How would you process feedback on something you've written), I'm working out how to apply all the feedback I've received for Left Coast, my game about science fiction authors. I put all of these notes onto a one-page mind-map, so that I can get a sense of how much there is to do, and what themes have emerged from the feedback. The mind-maps for Left Coast is filled with people's observations from playing and reading the game, and it's also got a section called 'Big Questions' - which is about challenging myself to go deeper into the feedback and test my assumptions.

The other thing I'm doing (and have been doing for a while now, to great effect) is I write a 'Future Vision' of what I want this stage of the project to end up like. This gives me a concrete end-point, which in turn forces me to stop and publish it rather than constantly rework it. The Future Vision for Left Coast looks like this:

I’ve published a massively simplified version of Left Coast that contains radically culled procedures for play and which clearly explains who does what (and when). This version is designed and written to inspire people to play, so it contains plenty of example NPCs, story seeds (and anything else I think is necessary for this ‘half-done’ draft). 
The game is laid out cleanly (with my Times New Roman layout). It’s divided into five sections: i) brief intro to game and some playtesting advice, ii) an ‘inspirational’ essay, iii) how to create PCs and setting, iv) how to play, and v) an afterword.
What I do this is write out where I am right now, and (vitally) I keep adjusting this 'Present Reality' every time I make changes. The Present reality for Left Coast, as at 10 October 2011, looks like this:
I’ve decided to write this draft for ‘my’ group initially, rather than for wider publication: my suspicion is I’ll get more done this way. 
Having added all the feedback to my mind-map, I now need to think about what needs to be done and prioritise it. Now that I’ve saved the rules summary onto my desktop, I suspect the simplest way forward is to run through my Rules Summary two or three times, adjusting it based on the mind-map of feedback, my marked up rules summary, and my marked up rules - and then review where I am. 
So, I need to start that process by putting the mind-map right in front of me and tackling point after point. 
… Then I can comb through the expanded rules for material for the ‘essay’ (which may be unnecessary for this ‘me’ draft). 
I should probably organize a one-afternoon long playtest with Simon, hopefully Mike, and Sophie for November. 
I need to ID all the ‘vibey’ stuff in the main rules, strip it out of the procedures and put it into an ‘essay’ about how you play Left Coast and why you’d want to play it. I’ll put the rules summary stuff after that. I also think that having four sample characters, each with four or five hooky options for NPCs in their ratings will be a good thing to do. 
It needs a table of contents, and I need to look at the Guide to Writing Free RPGs for some advice.
(This process of having a Future Vision and adjusting your Present Reality comes from a fascinating book called How to Make Your Dreams Come True by Mark Foster. It's a free download, and worth a read.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

How would you process feedback on something you've written?

I'm writing a game called Left Coast, where you play science-fiction authors teetering on the brink of sanity. In July, I pulled together my notes and created a draft that I thought would be fine for others to play. Since then, I've received feedback from:

- Wayne, who's read it
- Simon, who's read it
- various commentators on Story Games
- Mike, who I playtested it with
- various commentators on the Forge
- Malcolm, Gregor and Per, who have playtested it without me

That's a lot of feedback (which has all been stored in my 'Left Coast - Next Draft' folder). Now I have to pull it all together and make some decisions about what it all means.

First, I'm reading through it all and looking for any feedback that almost everyone seems to be giving me. Usually I get overwhelmed by the thought of doing that, so I'm converting the feedback into a mind-map, so I can group similar comments and observations together.

It's already obvious, just from working through feedback from the first five people, that the game is still too complicated: I've layered on so many procedures, and 'mandatory elements' and 'things to keep in mind', that people are having to spend all their time trying to figure out how to make the game work (rather than finding out whether the game actually does work).

So I have two next steps: simplify as much of the procedures as I can, while digging deeper to see if there's anything fundamental that's lying underneath the feedback: stuff that's non-obvious but is actually the 'real' work that needs to be done.

What about you? How do you process all the information when you get lots of feedback about one of your projects?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Links of Interest

Pig vs Dragon, improving Google, Cloudflare makes censorship easy, Facebook fixes crazy surveillance flaw, Modern Pulp, "Goverments don't rule the world; Goldman Sachs does." The Occupation of Wall Street, how to kill an aircraft carrier

I'm now looking forward to this movie.

Staring at the cave bear straight in the eyes: mass movements and decision taking in modern society | Energy Bulletin: Ugo Bardi discusses how to create societal change, and makes a good point about how the availability of information via the internet - information that can be readily disseminated and critiqued by a community - plays in to the formation of mass movements based on solid rationales.

Search engines are evolving rapidly and the ways they work today will be obsolete soon. What we need is structuring the Web in such a way that searches will be more likely to return high quality information rather than poor quality information. So far, this kind of structuring doesn't exist; just think how the best quality information we have, peer reviewed scientific journals, exist mainly behind paywalls and as a consequence are not available for decision makers.

iSucker: Big Brother Internet Culture - By Yasha Levine - The eXiled: Cloudflare sounds like a company worth keeping an eye on. It says it monitors nearly 1/5 of all Internet visits, but ...

CloudFlare doesn’t just passively monitor internet traffic: [it] works like a dynamic firewall to selectively block traffic from sources it deems to be “hostile”. ... The whole point of CloudFlare is to restrict access to websites from specific locations/IP addresses on the fly, without notifying or bothering the website owner with the details. 
And here is an added bonus for the paranoid: Because CloudFlare partially caches websites and delivers them to web surfers via its own servers, the company also has the power to serve up redacted versions of the content to specific users. CloudFlare is perfect: it can implement censorship on the fly, without anyone getting wise to it.

As Yasha Levine says, "It all boils down to a question of trust: do you trust a shady company with known intel/law enforcement connections to make these decisions?"

Nik Cubrilovic Blog - Facebook Fixes Logout Issue, Explains Cookies: Kinda self-explanatory, but the negatives on this story seemed to have meme-legs, so it's probably worth reporting on how Facebook's addressed the problem

"I wrote a post two days ago about privacy issues with the Facebook logout procedure which could lead to your subsequent web requests to third-party sites that integrate Facebook widgets being identifiable and linked back to your real account. Over the course of the past 48 hours since that post was published we have researched the issue further and have been in constant contact with Facebook on working out solutions and clarifying behavior on the site."

I've started a thread on to try and figure out what are the modern-day equivalents of 1930s pulp stories (think Raiders of the Lost Ark): [Setting Riff] Modern Pulp

This comment from a trader about the realities of the global economic meltdown may be monstrous, but it's also (a) rare to see someone speak so candidly, and (b) strangely altruistic in the way he's trying to help people think about how to behave in a down market / crash:

It is, however, possible this is a hoax (despite the BBC fact-checking).

Occupy Wall Street | NYC Protest for American Revolution: The Occupation of Wall Street is another exciting citizen movement, and apparently it's spread to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Here's Michael Moore addressing the crowd using a technique I'd never heard of ('The People's Mic):

The War Nerd: China Joins the Yacht Club - By Gary Brecher - The eXiled: Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, discusses the implications of China's acquisition of an aircraft carrier

"It’s about national pride, not military usefulness. The Chinese [have come up with] a real weapon that totally neutralizes the US carrier fleet, a weapon that could sink all 11 of the US carriers in a few minutes, ... a long-range ballistic missile specifically designed to kill carriers and other oversized surface targets. This missile, the DF-21, has a 900 mile range and drops down on the carrier from directly above.

There's more links of interest (John Paul on rugby, Helen's poetry, the Emissions Trading Scheme) at my Google Reader Shared Items page.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Want to make a submission on the video surveillance bill?

It's easy. Takes about 5 minutes.

First, go here: Parliamentary Submission Form.

Then explain your submission. It can be dead simple - just "I oppose the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill, and request that it not be passed in its present form." You can find some good discussions about it here: Andrew Geddis.

No Right Turn's submission is here: Submission.

Here's mine:

I oppose the Video Camera Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill, and request that it not be passed in its present form. 
The retrospective component of the Bill appears to contradict two principles inherent in the rule of law: 
(1) that there will be certainty in how a law is applied
(2) that laws will not be changed in order to benefit those who are in a position change the laws 
These two principles can certainly be said to be in effect in the numerous cases said to be affected by the Supreme Court's recent ruling. The issues surrounding warrantless surveillances conducted due to a perceived urgency or danger have been identified since 2007, and are well known to the Police (see Hodgkinson v R [2010] NZCA 457, where the Crown conceded that a search warrant does not lawfully authorise the trespassory installation of a camera). 
Prosecutions affected by the Supreme Court's recent ruling have proceeded with the understanding that if the alleged illegal activity is serious enough, then illegally-obtained surveillance footage is admissible. This has provided both 'certainty' and an appropriate balance on warrantless surveillance conducted by the police. 
To change this using the proposed Bill removes a valuable check on police power. 
Given this, I see no need to pass the Video Surveillance (Temporary Measures) Bill in its present form, and recommend that the Search and Surveillance Bill is passed in the next term of government. 
In the meantime, police prosecutions involving warrantless surveillance should be allowed to stand or fall based on the particular merits of each case.

How would you write an adventure for Dr Who?

We recently playtested an adventure that Morgue's writing for the Dr Who role-playing game. After our game, I gave a little bit of thought to how Dr Who stories work. Here are the tropes I've identified - can you think of anything else?


A Threat (or Threatening Situation): ala 'Midnight', where you're stuck in a frozen train with a monster, or 'Blink'.

A Plot: where you have a bunch of ideas for a cool sequence of events (basically a railroad/tunnel of fun scenario).

A Mystery: where you have to get to the bottom of something weird. 'The Girl in the Fireplace' would be a good example of this.

A Relationship Web: there's a whole bunch of complicated inter-personal stuff going on, that the Doctor et al stumble in to (I'm thinking of 'Vengeance on Varos' or your adventure, Morgue). This is often related to ...

... A Moral Crime: Like 'Vengeance on Varos' again, there is something unconscionable (by our standards) happening, and it will permanently remain this way unless someone intervenes. These moral crimes have 'People in Power', 'Victims', and (possibly) a 'Resistance'. All the people involved will want the Doctor or the companions to do something (much like in Dogs in the Vineyard).


When I thought about it, Dr Who stories seem to be set in one of these arenas:

- Earth's past (with or without an alien component)
- Earth's present (usually with an alien component)
- Humanity's future (either on Earth or off-world, usually with an alien component)
- An alien environment (it usually doesn't matter *when* this is set)

Jenni wrote more about our game, here: Playing established characters.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Links of Interest

Making Kickstarter rock, defending the Net from viruses, Michael Moore hires Navy SEALs, You are on The Global Frequency

Story Games - Kickstarter/IndieGoGo, RPGs and You: This Story Games thread starts by asking a few simple questions about peoples' experiences with Kickstarter (where people contribute money to fund projects they're interested in, and if the project earns enough money it goes ahead). Those questions elicit a variety of perspective, all of which are pretty damn fascinating. By the end of it, you'll have a heap of ideas about how to use Kickstarter. (For extra credit, check out Daniel Solis' ideas about how to use Kickstarter.)

Mikko Hypponen: Fighting viruses, defending the net | Video on This talk inspired me with one major plot idea for the New Thing, but it's also a really entertaining history of computer viruses, and an insight into how modern organised crime works and is (ineffectively) policed at an international level.

Michael Moore: I was the most hated man in America | Books | The Guardian: Michael Moore tells a story from his new book, about what happened to him after his Oscar acceptance speech in 2003 denouncing President Bush's invasion of Iraq.

"I got the call some days later from the security agency.
"We need to tell you that the police have in custody a man who was planning to blow up your house. You're in no danger now."
I got very quiet. I tried to process what I just heard: I'm … in … no … danger … now. For me, it was the final straw. I broke down. My wife was already in her own state of despair over the loss of the life we used to have. I asked myself again: what had I done to deserve this? Made a movie? A movie led someone to want to blow up my home? What happened to writing a letter to the editor?"

Watch Global Frequency Part 1 Online - VideoSurf Video Search: I've been hoping to watch the pilot for Global Frequency for five years, ... and now I can tick that off my list. This adaptation of Warren Ellis' crowd-sourced version of Thunderbirds where everyone in the world has the potential to be called up at any time to save the world from disaster is (a) a bit patchy and low-budget, and (b) really true to the optimism and potential of the original comics.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

How my Film Festival turned out (I liked 6.5 out of my 7 films)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams:

What I said before the film: I've always wanted to see the paintings in Chauvet-Pont-D'Arc, and a 3D tour guided by Werner Herzog seems like my best bet to achieve this dream.

My take: A thought-provoking, poetic, slightly challenging guide through the cave paintings of early cro-magnons. The experience was so vivid that a few times I totally drifted off and imagined what it would have been like to have lived 35,000 years ago. I'll definitely see this again.

Recommended to: John-Paul

13 Assassins:

What I said before the film: Takeshi Miike does a samurai film that's better than his best film? That's some hype I need to check out for myself.

My take: This film has a great set-up that examines how duty and honour collide with morality, when you serve a really loathsome villain who happens to be related to the Emperor. I was a fan of how most of the movie unfolded, but I felt the start of the epic final battle was far too comic-book (in the sense of being detached from a sense of reality). However, that soon faded and that final action sequence was a really brutal and satisfying series of slugfests and murders.

Recommended to: Pearce (who has surely already seen it), Chuck, Dean, Keane, Wayne.

Taxi Driver

What I said before the film: I really disliked this the first time I saw it, but I suspect I completely missed the point. Seeing a restored print in 35mm seems like the best way to determine what I think of it.

My take: A great portrayal of a place and time (1970s New York), and of the mind and POV of a mentally unstable man.

In fact, it made me think about how effective the script-writer and the editor can be in a highly-POV based movie: selecting what to show the viewer and what emphasis to place on it. Nearly every scene contained an element of sex, race, or violence that reinforced Travis' world-view.

As for that ending: Scorsese is on the record as saying it's literal, that Travis survives and is hailed as a hero (but that he'll probably do it again, and next time he won't be so lucky). I don't think the film supports that, though: when I look at the trouble Travis caused the presidential campaign on three separate occasions, I can't believe that Cybill Sheppard would treat him the way she does at the end - and if I can't believe that, then it undermines the reality of the ending for me.

Recommended to: ... a hard call. Perhaps Jennifer, given that it's a landmark 70s movie.

Another Earth

What I said before the film: Seeing the trailer after Sundance sold me on the tone it looks like this film's going for: introspective, melancholic science-fiction.

(This trailer contains spoilers, but they're so good that I think it's worth watching.)

My take: Far more of an indie movie than a science-fiction film. It's maybe 95% indie to 5% science fiction. In its indie A-plot, Another Earth focuses on two wounded people - one of them trying to find a reason to live; the other trying to atone. However, its B-plot (of a second identical Earth suddenly appearing in the night sky) contains four spectacular scenes.

All the way through watching this, I thought the film had another gear that it was going to shift into, a gear involving spaceships and Michael Bay-esque slo-mo training montages. Instead the film goes in a radically different direction - one that I enjoyed just as much because it was so true to the characters.

The film's premise makes a promise to the viewer, and Another Earth totally delivers on that promise. It delivers on it in such an understated way that I was still having realisations about its implications a day later. The ending strongly implies that Brit Marling (who's fantastic as both a script-writer and an actor, and I hope we see a lot more of her) has really been (and will continue to be) a hero, and that her choices involving William Mapother's character were right for a lot of reasons.

Recommended to: Chris

Martha Marcy May Marlene

What I said before the film: my must-see of the festival due to the subject matter: a young woman trying to leave a cult.

My take: Aaaahhhh. High expectations - you almost always screw with me.  Yes, this is a fantastic film, at least for the first hour. It's subtle, it feels psychologically accurate, and John Hawkes (as the cult leader) and Elizabeth Olsen (as the newest member of the cult) give great performances where you completely understand everything they're doing without needing to spell it out with dialogue.

The script also uses an flashback structure that immediately gets us into interesting situations in both the present day and the past. Another benefit of the structure is that it allows Olsen's character to make some really inexplicable, potentially audience-alienating decisions which then get explained and well-motivated later on when we see the same situations repeated with other characters.

The film has a major flaw, though, that meant I increasingly couldn't buy into it. The major relationship in the present-day story is between Olsen and her big sister (Sarah Paulson). There's a lot of good material in there: a sense of history and emotional baggage between the two of them, which is only aggravated by Olsen's refusal to explain what happened to her. But the problem is that the structure of most of their scenes together is identical - Big Sister tries to find out what happened, Little Sister blocks her, Big Sister gets increasingly frustrated.

I found myself rewriting that aspect of the film as I watched it (never a good sign). In my rewrite, the older sister is more proactive in trying to find out what had happened; she tries different techniques and approaches to opening her sister up. She wouldn't necessarily need to succeed, and I'd keep all of the other pressures in the older sister's life that are stressing her out, ... but making the older sister smarter and more focused makes her an antagonist for Olsen (and makes her silence even more meaningful).

Recommended to: Luke, Debbie, Matt, Svend, Morgue, Mike, Sophie and Simon (if you want to re-capture some of that Phoenix or Apocalypse World vibe.)

Troll Hunter

What I said before the film: Actually, I'm a little suspicious of this one. I fear that a mocumentary about troll disposal experts in Scandanavia might actually be a little too silly to be good, but I'm prepared to take a chance on it.

My take: So much fun. The film makes the masterful decision to play things pretty conventionally for a long long time, making it a character study/surveillance of a weirdo recluse ... and then, when things start to get into potentially silly territory, the film leavens it at every stage with touches of horror, suspense, and pathos. And some pretty cool action sequences.

Recommended to: Gino

Overall: I give the 2011 New Zealand International Film Festival a 6.5 out of 7.

Friday, September 02, 2011

If everyone on Earth had the same income, we’d each have US$10,000 p.a.

To respond to climate change, we’ll need to reduce our standard of living, and consumption of energy and resources. To figure out a starting point for what that would look like, I tried to calculate what it would mean if everyone on Earth had the same income. My conclusion: we’d each have US$10,000 to live on each year.

Eaarth, by Bill McKibben, argues that Earth’s climate has already been affected by climate change: effectively, we are now living on a new planet. The new world we live on looks similar to Earth but its climate is far harsher, and prone to more extreme and damaging weather conditions.(*)

(*) Living in Wellington last month, I found
 that argument persuasive.

McKibben says that to respond to climate change, we’ll need to reduce our consumption of energy and resources. This will lead to a general reduction in standards of living (including less travel, less disposable consumer goods, and more use of locally grown food and locally generated energy).

But for me, McKibben’s vision of what that standard of living would involve raised a question the book didn’t answer:

What would it look like if everyone on Earth had the same, equal standard of living?

I had no idea about how to go about finding this out. A little bit of Wikipedia-searching led me to the concept of GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which I think involves the following steps:
  • calculate the final value of all goods and services produced within a country in a given year
  • adjusted that value so it’s being calculated in terms of being able to by the same goods and services in other countries
  • divide that result by the average (or mid-year) population for the same year,
According to the CIA World fact book (via wikipedia), the total global GDP (PPP) in 2010 was US$74 trillion.

If you divide the results of GDP evenly amongst all the people alive on Earth, everyone should get US$10,000 each.(**)

(**) This is my best guess, until I figure out 
a better way of calculating this.

We all know that standards of living are distributed completely unevenly across the world, and the developing world has extreme levels of poverty.
(***) Figures sourced from Wikipedia 
and the World Bank.

But even that figure for average American income is deceptive. The average doesn’t convey how deeply unevenly the wealth is spread around, as it’s distorted by the massive wealth held by a few thousand billionaires in the USA. While the bottom 40% of the US population hold just 0.3% of its wealth, the top 20% of American households own 85% of its privately held wealth.

Let’s let Jon Stewart explain it:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
World of Class Warfare - The Poor's Free Ride Is Over
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

So, leading on from that …

If we, as a global civilisation, have to:

a) reduce our energy consumption by 90 percent, and
b) use financial incentives like the Emissions Trading Scheme, carbon taxes, and increasingly scarce and expensive resources to modify behaviour ...

... then what’s to stop the top 1 to 20 percent of wealth-holders from just buying their way out of it and maintaining their lifestyle?

I don't have a good answer for that.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An excellent interview with Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat

Alan Sepinwall asks some thought-provoking questions, including why he like to tell Who stories that centre around the Doctor meeting someone when they're a child, and revisiting them through the course of their life:

Moffat: "The series has always been the story of how the companion changes, not how the Doctor changes. The Doctor doesn't change very much. That's always the story."

Sepinwall: "So the childhood meeting is just an easy way to illustrate that, rather than revisiting a former companion years later?"

Moffat: "I like things that force the Doctor to address that he's aging much more slowly than everyone else. I think that's interesting, whether you do it in the simple, cartoony way of him missing an entire growing up, or just seeing Amy and Rory. They're getting married, getting a house, while the Doctor is remaining fundamentally the same, while they grow up around him. Which is why he tries to get out of their lives. It's too hard. "

Making a submission on the Mt Vic flyover takes 15 seconds. The deadline's tomorrow

I just made a submission to the Wellington City Council (my first!) about the proposed massive roading and construction projects that are planned around Mt Victoria, through the tunnel and at the start of Haitaitai. If you're interested or concerned about this issue (and pressed for time), I'd encourage you to submit using the Green Party submission form, which takes about 15 seconds to complete (and then tell people about it).

You can also customise it or make your own independent submission. Here's mine:

I am opposed to the two proposed alterations to the Cobham Drive to Buckle Street transport network.

The basis for my opposition is my assessment that the pattern of private transport usage will not continue to increase (as it has in previous decades). Several international authorities have reported that the price of oil will soon rise, due to the demand for it exceeding the capacity to provide it:

* The International Energy Agency's 2010 World Energy Outlook [1] noted that conventional crude oil production peaked in 2006.

* A report from the US military's Joint Forces Command [2], warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear by 2012 and there could be serious shortages by 2015 (with significant economic impacts).

As these reports project an operating environment of increasing petrol costs, I conclude that the demand for widened roads will decrease over the next 10 years.

I would prefer this roading and infrastructure funding to be invested in increasing the availability of sustainable public transport (to match an increasing demand).

[1] 2010 World Energy Outlook Executive Summary:
[2] Joint Operating Environment 2010 Report:

If I buy a second computer, will I waste less time?

Seth Godin suggested a way to maximise the amount of productive work I do that's really gotten me thinking: buy a second computer to do all my procrastinatey stuff on (such as flash games, twitter and facebook, and culling my google reader feed).

In accordance with Seth's philosophy of creating ideas that spread, I'm going to selectively quote from his post (Are you making something?):

Let's define work, for a moment, as something you create that has a lasting value in the market. More and more, we're finding it easy to get engaged with activities that feel like work, but aren't. 
One reason for this confusion is that we're often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work.
Hence this proposal: The two-device solution
Only use your computer for work. 
Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking... (no need to have an argument here about [what constitutes work and what doesn't] ... draw a line, any line.... If you don't like the results from that line, draw a new line).
Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, "break time." And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you've just learned something important.

Seth's argument seems reasonable - but it's really:

a) making me wrestle with my frugality and desire to reduce the amount of resources I use
b) retriggering my compulsive desire to buy a tablet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If you believed in climate change, would you engage in civil disobedience? #tarsands

This week, concerned citizens are protesting outside the White House to prevent the extraction and transport of tar sands from Canada. This protest could represent the start of a shift in the mindsets of people who are concerned about climate change: a shift towards making it acceptable and expected for us to engage in civil disobedience and passive resistance (in order to change the behaviour of politicians and corporations).

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the London riots may have spread so effectively because disaffected and unemployed people saw that rioting was something that people like them did. In other words, being able to riot became an acceptable part of the way they saw themselves.

There's currently a two week protest involving passive resistance and civil disobedience occurring outside the White House. One of the organisers, Bill McKibben writes, in a Washington Post editorial (A watershed moment for Obama on climate change - The Washington Post):

Already, more than a thousand people have signed up to be arrested over two weeks beginning Aug. 20 — the biggest display of civil disobedience in the environmental movement in decades and one of the largest nonviolent direct actions since the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle back before Sept. 11.

This is exactly what identity decisions involve: people who share a strong enough belief create an expectation amongst each other about what sort of behaviour is appropriate for people who have that belief. As those expectations become more publicised, the belief (and expectations) have the opportunity to spread.

McKibben describes the belief here:

The issue is simple: We want the president to block construction of Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico. We have, not surprisingly, concerns about potential spills and environmental degradation from construction of the pipeline. But those tar sands are also the second-largest pool of carbon in the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. If we tap into them in a big way, NASA climatologist James Hansen explained in a paper issued this summer, the emissions would mean it’s “essentially game over” for the climate.

I note that these protests haven't gotten much media coverage yet.  I'm fascinated to see what happens if they do.

You can view some interviews with the protesters here:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The #londonriots have made it socially acceptable to riot now. At least every once in a while.

Rioting isn't a rational decision. It's an identity decision based on what you believe people like you would do. People in England have changed their beliefs about  rioting. Seeing people similar to themselves doing it caused the rioting to spread in the way it did.

The upshot: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.

How to believe it's OK to riot

I like to think that I make rational decisions, where I weigh up the pros and cons of doing something before I take action.

But there’s another theory that explains how I decide whether to do something: that before I take action I consult an ideal self-image and ask myself:

What would someone like me do in this situation?

No reasons, no accounting for what’s in my best interests, no concern for consequences.

Just: Is this something a person like me would do?

And despite the fact that I like to think I make rational decisions, I’ve seen evidence that I often make ‘identity decisions’. Some recent examples:
  • Lots of my friends were linking to Penny Red's article about the riots, ‘Panic on the streets of London’, so I decided to read it – and now I’m linking to it too.
  • People on a politics blog I lurk on became actively commenting about how ignoring a regular commentator’s posts was improving their reading experience, so I began ignoring him too (and found my reading experience marginally improved, but felt guilty I was succumbing to some sort of peer pressure / ostracism)

Identity decisions can explain a lot about the way the riots in England spread they way they did. To over-simplify, the thought process of a potential rioter would go: I’m watching people like me riot. … People like me riot.

It's okay for people like me to riot.

How to spread the belief that it's OK to riot

The second contributing factor to the spread of the riots is here: Scientists discover tipping point for the spread of ideas 
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always (and rapidly) be adopted by the majority of the society.  
As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”  
“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further….”
If you’re making an identity decision, you’re more likely to do something if you think people like you would do it:

People like me riot. People who are young, frustrated, or bored … we riot.

That’s a fairly precise population to spread a belief through. And it helped that this belief was being transmitted 24 hours a day on TV, radio, and every form of social media available.

You can see a demonstration of these two things combining here:

To use some of my ten-dollar words, the boundary of what is permissible has been expanded.

But really: It’s now OK to riot. At least every once in a while.

At the moment, this may be a temporary belief. If it becomes entrenched, though, the default way that people respond to situations of frustration, boredom, or to having persistent, intractable social problems that have been created over decades being ignored by authorities may change fundamentally. The key quote from Penny Red:

In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?" 
"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you." 
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’ 
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

A final aside

It’s important to point out that I’m not commenting on the underlying reasons for why the riots happened – just why they spread. To take one final quote from Penny Red’s post:

Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school.

I'm who Penny Red is talking about. I haven't watched much footage or read much commentary about the reasons for the riots. I don't live in England and I have a privileged upbringing. From my point of view, it seems there are AT LEAST seven conflicting or collaborating explanations circulating about why people wanted to riot:

  • A reaction to police mishandling of a shooting
  • Disrespect for authority after corruption scandals affecting politicians, the police and the media
  • Resentment from austerity imposed on the poor while the rich get away with benefiting from crashing the global financial system
  • Decades of joblessness and destruction of community
  • A permissive society
  • People have always rioted
  • Rioting gains attention where peaceful demonstrations have failed
  • Opportunists taking advantage to loot or cause chaos
This post is not commenting on that.