Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Game Theory: Criminal Recidivism

When outlining I take long walks during which I occasionally even manage to think about what I'm outlining.

But mostly I think about random crap. For example, it occurred to me (and I imagine many other people before me) that once you got that being a criminal label, one of the big motivations not to commit a crime has been removed. After all, before you commit your first crime you're threatened with both prison time and going from a clean record to a criminal record. Afterwards it's just the prison time and a more extensive record (in addition to various other motivations such as gaining criminal training/networking in prison, and the criminal record making finding non-criminal jobs more difficult).

One resource says that about 50% of released prisoners end up back in jail within 3 years--which is pretty awful. Perhaps it's mostly the same 50% that keeps getting out and going back in, but the other 50% is a much larger population of one-time crooks--but that's sort of doubtful.

Anyway, I was curious if there had been any programs tried out where former prisoners could somehow work off, perhaps through community work, their criminal record and if having such a program helped reduce crime. Of course, some people would try to game the system, but I'd imagine there'd be little point in putting in a bunch of community work hours to reduce your record if you were planning on going back and commiting more crimes. Also, having the hope of getting a fully clean record might provide an additional incentive for former prisoners to do the community work and stay straight.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Houston Glamour Shots

On my several trips racing through Houston on Interstate 10 what I mostly saw was vast tracts of industrial wasteland -- much like Elizabeth, NJ, but not as brief. Naturally, Houston didn't strike me as high on the livability list.

However, Jaru and I explored it a bit yesterday from the southwest -- away from the freeways. And that part was downright gorgeous. Lots of tall trees, some nice bayous, and Houston even has a mid-size (for U.S. cities) Chinatown -- size-wise bigger than central Jersey but smaller than Monterey Park (in LA). She even found some of that revolting tapioca drink that is sweeping the West Coast.

Screenwriting Stuff

I've been plugging through two new screenplays while waiting for other stuff to go through.

I got a chance to talk to the director of The Sound. Apparently he's still tentatively in the loop on the project. The big company has since hired someone else to do a couple rewrites, fired that writer, then hired someone else to do yet more rewrites. From my understanding, this is the way things go sometimes.

The business is all rather odd, since one of the newer drafts left out a bunch of stuff that the director specifically wanted added to the film. That makes me wonder if the writer was just a little lost, or if the higher level producer has his own idea of what the film should look like and wants the director to just do what he's told.

Regardless, it's looking less and less likely that the film will have much in common with my draft if this company makes it, which is a big if since they've now lost a bunch of the co-financing, and might lose the distribution deal, and have to re-submit to actors, and so on.

Hopefully, I'll also get a chance to steal the director away from them for one of my new projects. In an otherwise messy and ego-laden process, he impressed me with his pragmatic and disciplined approach to getting the work done. While there's a fair bit of art in making a movie, much of it is just getting all the logistics in order and that requires getting down to work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Rednecks, Peacocks, and Zen Priests

Looking at myself in the mirror today I discovered that I've become a redneck -- a clean line separates my pallid chest and back from my livid shoulders and neck. Think I'm gunna buy me a truck...

Jaru and I did some driving around Texas this weekend. There's some rolling hill country to the west of San Antonio, cut through with streams and rivers. 45 minutes of driving and you're in pure countryside -- no cars or people in sight.

On the way back we're heading along this two lane road and we see a peacock just standing at the side. Not one of those ratty beat-up peacocks you see in zoos either; this one was pristine. Worried that it'd try mating with a Ford F150 going 75 mph we escorted it back inside a fence. Interestingly, a 2000 Honda Civic's horn sounds exactly like the honk of a peacock. We had a little conversation.

I keep neglecting to mention this, but it's pretty exciting news: Jaru's going to be ordained as a Zen priest. This will probably happen next summer (it takes some time to prepare) and the ceremony will be in New Jersey, so we'll be heading back for that. I plan to learn how to make little cucumber sandwiches with pimento cheese spread and the crusts cut off in order to fit my new role.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Game Theory: WGA Writing Credits

The previous post on game theory and football was actually a setup for today's post, where I talk about the Writer's Guild of America's guidelines for assigning writing credits, which are the screenwriting credits you'll see in movie credits, titles, and on websites like the Internet Movie Database. This will be a critical essay, but I'll try to follow up later with at least some ideas on how to improve the credit "game".

Section 3 of the WGA's guidelines for credit arbitration lay out the considerations that go into determining what the credits will look like for most movies you see. I've also copied part B.4, the guidelines for the "Screenplay by" credit, to a seperate blog post since I'm going to focus on that.

Other than some minor quibbles, it's a perfectly acceptable historical system of determining the writing credits. I have seen some comments that it's too subjective an account, which is definitely true. But certainly no-one was expecting to create some sort of algorithm into which you plug various drafts of screenplays and out of which comes a definitive answer. It's the sort of process that you really need a group of people to look at to evaluate correctly and the suggestions:

The percentage contribution made by writers to screenplay obviously cannot be determined by counting lines or even the number of pages to which a writer has contributed. Arbiters must take into consideration the following elements in determining whether a writer is entitled to screenplay credit:
* dramatic construction;
* original and different scenes;
* characterization or character relationships; and
* dialogue.

strike me as something reasonable people could use to come to some sort of decision in what is necessarily a messy process.

However --

Writing credits are not history; writing credits are a game, the goal of which is to gain as much credit as possible.

In a historical project, such as determining the causes of the Amercian Civil War, historians do research, write papers, and argue -- but none of what they do has any effect on the Civil War itself.

But the guidelines for determining writing credits have a huge impact on how people write and rewrite screenplays.

Given that financial rewards, such as residuals, are directly linked to the writing credits, and future work or feeling good about seeing your name in the titles is indirectly linked to the writing credits, there's a strong incentive to write so that one receives a "Screenplay by" credit.

This means that if I get a chance to do a rewrite of a script, I have a strong (self-interested) incentive to substantially change at least 33% or 50% of the material, even if the material doesn't need that much changing. In fact, it's an interesting little game by itself: I'm best off if I change enough to get as much credit as possible, while making the story something good, and retaining key elements from the earlier drafts that the producers, director, and actors aren't willing to sacrifice (otherwise I get removed from the project or the project dies).

This is markedly different from when I do a rewrite of my own script -- then I keep the good bits and eliminate the bad bits, and, hopefully, after a few iterations of this I have a screenplay composed mostly of good bits.

Interestingly, the 50% rule is intended to protect the first writer. Yet, like the "promote the passing game" rules the NFL pushed -- the effect on the writing credit game is just the opposite.

Of course, financial and self-interested reasons aren't the only motivating factors for writers (and rewriters). Writers are also motivated by aesthetic reasons -- write the best film, and by moral reasons -- show respect for the previous work done on the project. But the WGA is telling me when I'm rewriting that adhering to those sorts of scruples can prevent me from getting a writing credit. Also, as the original writer on a project, I have to be sympathetic when someone comes along later and makes drastic and unnecessary changes because the WGA has essentially ordered them to do so, if they want that vital "Screenplay by" credit.

And, a set of guidelines that punishes writers for doing the artisticly or morally right thing is a bad set of guidelines.

The "Screenplay by" credit guidelines

This is just a copy of part of the WGA guidelines, posted here for ease of reference.

4. "Screenplay by"

(See Section III. A.6)

Screen credit for screenplay will not be shared by more than two writers, except that in unusual cases, and solely as the result of arbitration, the names of three writers or the names of writers constituting two writing teams may be used. The limitation on the number of writers applies to all feature length photoplays except episodic pictures and revues.

a. Percentage Requirements

Any writer whose work represents a contribution of more than 33% of a screenplay shall be entitled to screenplay credit, except where the screenplay is an original screenplay. In the case of an original screenplay, any subsequent writer or writing team must contribute 50% to the final screenplay.

b. Original and Non-Original Screenplays

For purposes of determining "Screenplay by" credit only, two categories of screenplays are recognized:

(1) Original screenplays (i.e., those screenplays which are not based on source material and on which the first writer writes a screenplay without there being any other intervening literary material by another writer pertaining to the project).2 If a writer is furnished or uses research material, the screenplay is still considered an original screenplay; and

(2) Non-original screenplays (i.e., screenplays based upon source material and all other screenplays not covered in (1) above, such as sequels).

c. Additional Guidelines for the Arbiters in Determining Screenplay Credit

In each case, the arbiters read any source material and all literary material provided to them in connection with the development of the final screenplay in order to assess the contribution of each writer to the final shooting script.

The percentage contribution made by writers to screenplay obviously cannot be determined by counting lines or even the number of pages to which a writer has contributed. Arbiters must take into consideration the following elements in determining whether a writer is entitled to screenplay credit:

* dramatic construction;

* original and different scenes;

* characterization or character relationships; and

* dialogue.

It is up to the arbiters to determine which of the above-listed elements are most important to the overall values of the final screenplay in each particular case. A writer may receive credit for a contribution to any or all of the above-listed elements. It is because of the need to understand contributions to the screenplay as a whole that professional expertise is required on the part of the arbiters. For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole. In addition, a change in one portion of the script may be so significant that the entire screenplay is affected by it.

It is possible to consider the writer of a story or treatment as eligible for screenplay credit, but only in those cases where the story or treatment is written in great detail, to an extent far beyond the customary requirements for a story or treatment.

d. Selection from Source Material New!!!

As a guideline for arbiters in cases involving a non-original screenplay based upon source material, it is a fundamental principle that selection of screenplay elements from the source material is a part of the creative process of writing the screenplay. Arbiters should give weight to any writer's original and unique utilization, choice, or arrangement of source material when it is present in the final shooting script, but not the employment of basic story elements which any other writer may have also selected. (See screenplay elements - Section III. B. 4.c. See story elements - Section III.A.4.)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hoping Michael Jackson is Innocent

I don't know if Michael Jackson is innocent or not, but I hope so. Of course, partly because the alternative is rather monstrous.

But also because I want to believe that a person can be flat out weird, without also being evil -- or even crazy in a way that leads to evil acts. Sure he's strange, but he's strange in a way I find plausible -- not common, but interestingly unique. And if the version of him mentioned in the Slate article I linked to is true, then I think the world's a better place with people like him (and J.M. Barrie) in it.

Some of the jurors mentioned that they thought Jackson did commit crimes, but the evidence didn't warrant a conviction. Certainly, different people will come to different conclusions but here's two of the quotes:
I cannot believe that this man could sleep in the same bedroom for 365 straight days and not do something more than just watch television and eat popcorn. I mean, that doesn't make sense to me.

And a different juror:

The allegations of past abuse were considered credible to some extent. There are not too many grown men we know that would sleep with children but we had to base it on the evidence presented to us. There were a lot of things lacking.

What bothers me a little about those quotes is that it seems some people cannot imagine that someone can be strange without also being prone to committing pretty awful crimes. This is particularly disturbing when we recall that most child predators are perfectly normal seeming relatives and neighbors, and, of course, priests.

I'd be interested if any of my friends know of any (reputable) studies showing, one way or the other, a link between odd behavior and sexual predation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Game Theory: Football Excitement

American Football (and most other sports) constantly changes its rules, either to address shortcomings, adjust for changing technologies, or make the game more commercial.

About ten years ago I heard of some rules changes they had made to make football more exciting for the fans to watch. Apparently the classic running game where burly offensive linemen shove back burly defensive linemen and the fullback makes a consistent 2-3 yards isn't very entertaining. So the powers that be decided to make the rules more passing-friendly.

I don't know all the details but I think one of them (at the time) was the no-bumping rule. It used to be that the defender (a cornerback usually) could "bump" and shove around a little the wide receiver or whoever was going out for a pass. The rules change made it so that you couldn't bump the receiver quite as often, or as early, or something like that. Some other various rules were thrown in as well to make the passing game a little easier.

Seems like the right approach -- you want to promote passing so you make passing easier.

However, the upshot was a bit different from what they expected. You see, coaches hate big exciting passing plays ruling the game. If you're in charge you want consistency, not randomness -- and these guys are already nursing enough ulcers as is. So, since making passing easier makes offense easier, the coaches shifted more and more of their best players to defense.

Also, defensively it was no longer efficient to defend against the pass by covering the receiver -- the no-bumping rule makes it too easy to accidentally foul, or simply for the receiver to escape. However, it's still plenty okay to hit the quarterback, as long as he's still holding the football. So the blitz is on -- rush the biggest, fastest, and strongest players on your team (some of whom may have once been offensive linemen) straight at the quarterback and hit him as hard as possible before he releases the ball. Sure, you'll give up some big passing plays in the early part of the game, but toward the second half the quarterback won't be so mobile, might be a little dizzy, and might not even be playing at all.

The lesson for me was fascinating and valuable: rules that might otherwise seem intuitive can have consequences entirely contrary to your goals. After all, the last thing the NFL wanted to do was put all its superstar quarterbacks in the hospital; that would certainly kill the passing game.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Pimping the Gmail

I got a gmail account a little while back and like it enough that I thought I'd pimp it a bit (it's the email in my profile). The web interface is fast and simple and has a bunch of features.

For instance, you click on a contact and below the contact info you get a list of all the email you've received from that contact. I'm also using the contacts list as my main address book -- it has the advantage that I can list all the various email addresses some of my friends collect, then collect their emails together.

There's a nice little labelling system where you can label emails in multiple ways and then use those labels to collate stuff. You can also use Google's regular search engine on the material.

The other big thing is that you don't delete emails, you archive them. Google adds a couple megabytes of storage per day to your account so, in theory, you'll just never run out of space and never need to dump an email. They're touting it as inifinite storage since Google plans to exist well past the death of the universe and become some kind of cyber-deity. In turn, I plan to upload my consciousness to Google sometime around 2048 and thereby unify with Google-nature.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Finding Your Niche

One advantage of an expanding population is that it becomes more and more likely that you'll find someone or some group who shares your tastes.

So I'm looking through the bookstore today and come across a book titled Ill Wind (by Rachel Caine). The cover just happens to have a drawing of a Mustang Mach 1 on it -- and I just happen to have a fondness for that breed of Mustang.

So I've got to do some blurb reading then. I'll just pull out a little quote from the back cover:

The Wardens Association has been around pretty much forever: Some Wardens control fire, others control earth, water , or wind...

Not only am I fond of the title, Warden, for protags with superpowers -- but I also like the idea that they have some kind of control over primal forces.

So I guess now I'll look inside a little -- and first thing up the main character has some sort of control of Djinn -- and the female lead in my first screenplay also had a connection to the Djinn.

In addition to all that, I love thunderstorms and it's about a weather warden.

The moral of the story for me: even if your particular niche is Mustang Mach 1 driving heroes called Wardens with primal thunderstorm powers gained via Djinn not only can you find an audience for your novels, but you can find a novelist who writes books for you.