Sunday, December 10, 2006

Final Draft 8? Already?

Crafty Screenwriter, Alex Epstein, recently posted that the makers of Final Draft are now fielding requests for what should go into Final Draft 8.

After downloading the recent 7.1.3 update, uninstalling the old version, installing the new version, then locking up, crashing, and reporting the error to Microsoft, I'm trying to figure out if the snarkier response is:

  1. A working version of Final Draft 7.
  2. Final Draft 6, again, but with a prettier splash page.

A slightly less-snarky response is that Final Draft 6 actually works quite well, and I'll go back to using it just like I've done every other time I've patched FD7. This has led me to wonder how many other people have purchased Final Draft 7 but are still using an earlier version. So I set up a poll:

Do you own Final Draft 7 but use an earlier version of Final Draft anyway?
No free polls

Personally, I don't think purchasing FD7 but still using Movie Magic Screenwriter or some other software counts, so I didn't make that an option. This is because we often prefer older versions of one brand to shiny new versions of another, whereas new versions of the same utility software should, in theory, just be better.

Of course, I figure that I don't get much screenwriter traffic nowadays, but maybe the handful of people that drop by will show a trend.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

So Much Truth in One Cartoon

--From the deliciously nerdy Piled Higher and Deeper.

The only bit that could use adjustment is that the adjunct faculty should look poorer, more harried, and lonely.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Incting Incident and then the... um, Inciting Incident

In Syd Field they're plot points but I think there's a fair bit of crossover with the inciting incident.

The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life. -- McKee, Story

-- and typical examples of these are things like the shark eating a girl in Jaws (and her washing up on the beach) or Luke discovering that his parents have been killed by imperial stormtroopers.

Part of the idea is that in the first part of the film or story you get to see the world as it usually is -- see the characters with their ordinary problems -- then, after the inciting incident, the various crises throw all that out of balance (though it'll often tie back into the characters' original problems.

But I've noticed that for most of my screenplays the thing that throws the world out of balance really occurs in the first 5-10 pages. The characters typically won't realize it until a bit later, after we've had time to meet them. But the threat is already in motion.

Many films do this actually. For instance, both Terminator 1 and 2 -- the Terminators show up in the first scene then we get to see them slowly track their way to the protagonist.

Of course, one reason I do this is because I'm rather paranoid of boring whoever's slogging through the stack of spec scripts mine happens to be in. I'd like to pique their interest early so that hopefully they'll at least remember the character names by the time they get to act 2.

I wonder if the modern trend where writers have to break in via spec scripts is part of the reason we see more punched up first acts as opposed to spacious introductions.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gravity Sucks

I think I'm still playing catch-up to many of Charlie Stross's ideas, but while on my interminably long train ride it occurred to me that if we haul our fat asses off this planet, it'd be a better idea to just leave them in space rather than drop them down some other gravity well.

In the classical vision of the Future of Humanity, we see sleek starships plopping people down on various alien worlds -- perhaps terraforming them so that their local terrain will better match the Starbucks, Staples, and Best Buys we hot-drop from orbit there.

But, really, why bother with the planets? Gravity's a drag. Hoisting heavy loads of cargo 36,000 km out of a 9.8 m/s*s sinkhole only to drop it onto some other sinkhole doesn't make any sense. Gravity is an energy tax on everything we do.

Were we to just hang out up in space, we could hit the minerals we dug out of an asteroid with a short, and very energy-efficient, burst of acceleration and off it would go to wherever we want. Our main decision would just be trading off how much energy we're willing to spend versus time we're willing to take.

Things like the space elevator might still be handy -- but they could be much easier to set up on something like our own moon. Lower gravity means less stress on the cable, and less work to lift objects off the surface.

In fact, a Death Star would even have practical applications -- simply blow up the Earth, turn it into an asteroid belt, then mine the pieces.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Where's "Junior"?

While I believe that the Encore channel's All-Arnold day benefits them far more than it benefits Conan the Incumbent -- I can't help but notice that, instead of running a full retrospective of Arnold's body of work, they stick to repeating three of his better films -- the two Terminators and Conan the Destroyer. Of course, if they were really stacking the deck, then Conan would have been swapped out with Predator.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Boring News Network

Jobless rate at 5-year low, fanning fears of inflation -- Mercury News

You have to be impressed when newspapers can spin any story into a terrifying new prospect. Oh no! Hordes of employed people will be out there running up the housing costs! Do your part for the economy -- fire someone today.

I've wished for a couple years now to have the sort of money to put together a Boring News Network. It would consist of un-photogenic reporters sitting in front of a camera and reading stuff (or introducing clips) pulled from local affiliates around the world. Our entire purpose would be to get the lowest ratings ever, but have such low overhead that it wouldn't matter.

Since we're not looking for ratings we would not repeat the exact same news 48 times per day -- instead running two popular news reports per day, then focusing on no repeat stories for the rest of the cycle. This would force the network to look at a variety of issues.

Fortunately, you can already get something akin to that by using an internet news collecting service -- at least for international perspectives. Still, they work by collecting reports from local papers -- which of course try to drum up business the same way other papers do.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Epidemic You Don't See on Film

One of my earlier screenplays had a main character that suffered from clinical depression. This is such a common malady, and a devastating one, that I thought having the protagonist navigate it would make for an interesting story (against the backdrop of things eating people's faces and so on, of course).

The problem though is that it makes for a passive character -- someone who is withdrawn, and retreats from conflict. And that's hard to create a story with.

Moreover, passive characters are typically unappealing to both producers, who get the thing paid for, and actors, who are often needed to get the thing paid for.

This is why, when you see depression on the big screen, it is typically the backdrop to some other, more active, ailment. For example, the vast crowd of alcoholic men in lead roles. Other forms of self-destructive behavior as symptoms work well too.

But not true clinical depression. Even indie films have a hard time getting an audience to watch someone caught in the kind of withdrawal depression brings -- though they can sometimes indicate the mood by the pacing and structure of the overall story.

Which is unfortunate -- because depression is a widespread ailment and seeing how characters on screen deal with problems (even when their solutions are utter bullshit) can help others figure out ways they might approach their problems.

Monday, October 16, 2006

San Francisco

Jaru and I got back from our San Francisco trip last night. Our formula was I watch Jaru eat indescribable food composed largely of material extruded from the earth and she watched me eat various kinds of pizza. Blondies Pizza, just south of Union square, was very tasty, with a thick crust that was crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Don't ask me to describe Jaru's food.

Below are some photos easily uploaded with Picasa software and web albums provided by my Google overlords:

My favorite:

From San Francisco...

Jaru's Favorite:

From San Francisco...

Me, as Zombie:

From San Francisco...

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Perfect Spokesman

Since my friends have updated their blogs I thought I should stop being so lazy and lazily post about some random crap I saw on the internet (not as exciting as surfing in Shark City though).

Anyway, during the random trawling I came across the ad at the side there.

Um, I don't think I can really add anything that isn't already transparent from looking at the picture...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

More American Than Apple Pie

After recently re-discovering a grand dessert, I'm launching here my campaign to replace apple pie as the American dessert icon with something far more American: the Rice Krispie treat.

Apple pie comes laden with problems. For one thing, apples aren't even native to America:

Apples, as the Europeans knew them, were not native to America. Explorers, Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries, and early European settlers brought seeds and occasionally small trees with them to plant orchards around their new homes. --

Moreover, what other light, apple-filled pastry with a cinammon-y flavor is out there?

Äpfel strüdel

Just look at the image to the right for how transparent this similarity really is. I don't think the greatest generation defeated Hitler so that their grandchildren could goose-step to Axis desserts.

Compare then, the Rice Krispie Treat:

  • 3 tablespoons margarine or butter
  • 1 package (10 oz. about 40) regular marshmallows or 4 cups miniature marshmallows
  • 6 cups KELLOGG'S® RICE KRISPIES® cereal

Note that the recipe includes two registered trademarks -- surely one of the truest signs of American influence. Note also that "Rice Krispie Treat" itself is trademarked.

Foodtimeline offers a short history of the Rice Krispie Treat (and similar treats), starting with the wholly inferior molasses and corn syrup based puffed grain treats from the mid-nineteenth century. You may have had these yourselves -- corn syrup popcorn balls glazed to an enamel like finish, better for use in cannon than as a confection.

Mildred Day, an Iowa State University home economics graduate, went to work for Kellogg and established the new formula --now using marshmallows.

Marshmallows provide an entirely different texture -- instead of rigid and brick-like, the Krispies are held together by a soft, pliable form of raw sugar -- a vast improvment (and also a vast improvement for popcorn balls).

This was improved even further by another American invention -- the perfection of the marshmallow making process:

Alex Doumak, of Doumak, Inc., patented a new manufacturing method called the extrusion process. This invention changed the history of marshmallow production and is still used today. It now only takes 60 minutes to produce a marshmallow. --

This invention brought inexpensive and uniformly sized marshmallows to the mass of new middle-class families that surged during the post-war boom. The uniformity in size was key, since it allowed one to measure marshmallow content without resorting to clumsy weighing techniques -- simply count out your 40 marshmallows. Parents could even use this as a teaching game for their children.

Traditionally, recipes were things shared between generations, passed on from parents to children, or occasionally published in local papers so as to create a kind of local identity. The Rice Krispie Treat forged new ground here as well:

Starting in 1941 Kellogg put the recipe on their packaging. Here then was a dessert where the recipe was passed directly from Faceless Corporate Entity to private citizen, as a result of marketing inventions from another classic American contribution: Madison Avenue. Advertising may have always existed -- but it evolved into a super-powered mutant in the American ecosystem.

The final link in this chain between Corporate giant and hyperactive child was provided by so powerful an American symbol that Sid Meier's Civilization IV, Warlords Expansion, made the supermarket the American civilization's special building (technically, the American special building is a super-version of the supermarket, called the mall; but since they were both invented by America that just doubles up the significance of this icon to American culture). It was through supermarkets that we gained access to both the ingredients and instructions for making this confection.

To sum up:
  • Invented by a home ecs major from Iowa
  • to help fund Camp Fire Girls
  • made with almost wholly trademarked ingredients
  • perfected with Jet-Puffed Marshmallows (TM Kraft Foods)
  • recipe delivered from Corporate Giant, at Madison Avenue command, via supermarket to private citizen

I rest my case.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Episode 2

My sister, Vanessa, had another serious case this week:

FULLERTON– A Fullerton man told police Sunday night that he killed his 4-year-old son, Fullerton police Lt. John Petropulos reported.

Gideon Walter Omondi, 35, walked into the Fullerton Police Department lobby at about 9:30 p.m. and told the desk clerk very matter-of-factly that he had killed his son. Officers questioned Omondi and sent police and fire units to his apartment at 3200 Palm Drive. -- O.C. Register

Again, her department told her that it had been over two years since the previous homicide, and now this. That's her in the photo, lower on the steps.

In the army, one of my roommates' parents were both in the police force. He said that working that job gave them a rather bleak view of humanity.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Zen Cat

We wrestled with it for a bit, but Jaru and I recently started letting our cat, Minou (that's her to the left), go out and meander the neighborhood. We were worried that she'd fight with other cats, run in traffic, smoke weed, and hang out with the wrong crowd.

I was also worried that she's an awfully pretty cat, and that somebody might go in for an impromptu adoption. To reduce the risk of this I made sure that we got Minou a collar with name and phone number etched onto it before we let her out. I figure that most people wouldn't adopt a cat that's clearly got an owner, whereas they might if the cat was pretty enough and the ownership was vague enough.

There's another cat in the neighborhood -- we call him Pinky. He's below. Pinky doesn't wear a collar. Maybe he's a stray, maybe not. Regardless, his owners, if they exist, have little to fear because he's one ugly cat. It's a bit disconcerting since his coloration is so close to Minou's -- but then you see that face (the pink nose is often scratched up from fights) and you just know the cat is safe from cat-nappers.

Chuang Tzu has a story where someone mentions a useless tree who's "trunk is so bent and knotty that nobody can get a good straight plank out of it. The branches are so crooked you can't cut them up in any way that makes sense."

Chuang Tzu points out:

So for your big tree. No use? Then plant it in the wasteland - in emptiness. Walk idly around it and rest under it's shadow. No axe or saw prepares its end. No one will ever cut it down. Useless? You should worry!

Friday, September 01, 2006

CSI: Fullerton

In more mixed news, my tiny sister, Vanessa, at the ripe age of 24, has recently started up her job working as a CSI and within the first month has to come across a case like this:

FULLERTON, Calif. - In Orange County, Fullerton police are investigating what appears to be the murder-suicide of a preteen girl and a 40-year-old man. -- KNBC-TV.

The Fullerton CSI unit is a civilian operation attached to the police department -- but Vanessa does get a badge. She says that murders aren't too common in her area, it had been two and a half years since the last one. Needless to say, the entire staff took the case very seriously -- they don't want to mess up the evidence on something like this.

Common of government work, despite being so young and having less than three weeks on the job, they threw her right in to help work the scene.

Big Tobacco Feeling Generous, Wants to Donate Another $250 Billion

Despite being on a smoking hiatus, I remain a tobacco apologist. While living in a world of Oscar Madisons might be nasty, brutish, and short, living in a world of Felix Ungers wouldn't be living at all.

With articles all over the web, it's hard to know where to start -- but the New York Times offers a relatively neutral interpretation.

BOSTON, Aug. 30 (AP) — The level of nicotine that smokers typically consume per cigarette has risen 10 percent in the past six years, making it harder to quit and easier to be addicted, said a report that the Massachusetts Department of Health released on Tuesday.

The study shows a steady increase in the amount of nicotine delivered to the smokers’ lungs regardless of brand, with overall yields increasing 10 percent.

Jack Shafer at Slate offers up a defense:

Yet serial liars aren't automatically guilty of every charge leveled against them. Even the tobacco company baddies, who took a wicked beating this week in the press, deserve a fair hearing before we hang them.

I suppose there's some possibility that the companies were accidentally increasing the nicotine content of their cigarettes due to perhaps new farming methods -- er, and accidentally engineering their filters to hide that fact from the testing machines (and only the federal testing machines).

Perhaps their lawyers will even be able to convince juries of this 5-15 years from now when a brand new set of class action lawsuits arise -- of the sort that previously resulted in a $246 billion settlement.

They will of course hope that conflicting data over the addictiveness of nicotine, and whether or not increasing the level of nicotine (secretly) made it harder for smokers to quit will earn sympathy from the jury (it seems to have worked on Jack Shafer). But I suspect the juries will focus a bit more on the cover-up and the likely reasons for the cover up.

Still, I thought it was awfully generous of them -- after having just recently gotten to a point where they might be able to put the past, and big lawsuits, behind them -- to offer up some brand new opportunities for future lawsuits.

There are perfectly honest and open ways to pander to our vices, and some companies do that. Hopefully they'll be able to capture a little more market share after the odd bankruptcy or two.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Secret Hold

Thought I'd spread this bit of news. By way of Flametoad:

WASHINGTON — In an ironic twist, legislation that would open up the murky world of government contracting to public scrutiny has been derailed by a secret parliamentary maneuver.

An unidentified senator placed a "secret hold" on legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., that would create a searchable database of government contracts, grants, insurance, loans and financial assistance, worth $2.5 trillion last year. The database would bring transparency to federal spending and be as simple to use as conducting a Google search. -- Houston Chronicle

In addition to being upset that this would happen to this bill, I'm surprised that there's a provision for secret holds at all. Seems like a handy little device if you could kill legislation anonymously.

Porkbusters has a list of suspects along with photos.

I do suspect, though, that if this bill passes, the roads down here in my part of Texas might not be so pristine and brand new looking all the time.

UPDATE: Seems that the most likely suspect is Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, famous for his internet tube theory.

Friday, August 25, 2006

How to Make Movie Critics Your Little Pony

In the run up to release, the studio behind Snakes on a Plane announced they wouldn't have screenings for critics. Possible reasons for this:

  • The movie stunk.
  • Critics don't "get" this kind of movie.
  • Critics are irrelevant to the success of this kind of film
  • Critics are irrelevant.

At the last minute they had some special screenings for critics -- and other critics went and saw it on their own. And the lesson was LEARNED. Critics fell over themselves giving the movie "good for the kind of movie it is" reviews. Snakes on a Plane has a 68% positive response rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- for comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 has a 54% positive rating.

Just go to the Rotten Tomatoes page for Snakes on a Plane and you'll be treated with pull-quotes from the critics such as the following:

"If you can find a better time at the movies this year than this wild comic thriller, let me in on it. I'm there." -- Mick LaSalle SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

"This is an event. It’s a rare example of a film not just living up to the hype, but surpassing it. And it’s the best time you’ll have at the movies all summer, if not all year." -- Christy Lemire ASSOCIATED PRESS

I wound up seeing the film last Friday, and, as many critics suggest, I enjoyed it about as much as I expected to enjoy it. Samuel L. Jackson brought his energy. David Koechner was so funny that I now know his name.

It had that odd, patched-together quality of films with too many cooks. We're introduced to the bad-ass, heartless, baseball-bat wielding antagonist right at the beginning of the film, then a few minutes later see him kung fu-ing someone into unconsciousness -- then he disappears. Toward the end of the film Samuel L. Jackson is told, I believe over the phone, that the antagonist was captured by the police. Off screen.

Of course, that was actually the right choice because not a single person in the theater cared about the bad guy -- just the snakes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Vampires on a Plane

I refreshed my InkTip listing for my screenplay RED SKIES just this week hoping that I might parasite off the opening of Snakes on a Plane to get some people looking for this kind of script:

On a transpacific flight, a group of survivors must band together, led by CAITLYN -- an ex-army medic -- and JENNIFER Yiu -- a level headed flight attendant -- to hold off a crazed vampire long enough to land. Their one advantage: flying west into the setting sun triples the amount of time they have before nightfall.

I had written this last summer based on a short story I wrote some ten years ago (but, in the story, the vampire was a plane). I still like the original idea but it doesn't work well in a movie.

From a producer's point of view, I wouldn't have wanted to start up a monster on airplane movie with the SoaP juggernaut looming over the last couple months -- but I hope that after the wave passes this weekend RED SKIES might have a better shot.

P.S. Samuel L. Jackson's appearance on the Daily Show was the best movie-pimping talk show appearance ever.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The New Puritanism

William Saletan has an article posted at Slate discussing how air conditioning is creating a false consciousness about global warming -- thus leading us not to do enough to counteract it. There is also a strong sense of shame and blame at us for being so doughy and fragile and hedonistic as to need air conditioning.

Yesterday, CNN also had some loud fellow on with his own commentary show where he essentially said that people's wimpiness at using air conditioning is causing global destruction.

From the Slate article:

Based on government data, Stan Cox, a scientist at the Land Institute, calculates that air-conditioning the average U.S. home requires 3,400 pounds of carbon-dioxide production per year.

That's about equivalent to the CO2 output of 1/6th of a typical sedan. Instead of going on about manliness, they could purchase a small-car allotment Terrapass, and make up for not only their own carbon production, but also a fair bit more carbon production.

I take it that eventually, assuming everyone jumped on the boat, Terrapass might not work, or might need to find some new technology for reducing carbon presence in the atmosphere -- but I'd take that problem any day over our current ones.

In the meantime, this strikes me as the pot-smoking, dirty-dancing, free love generation -- the same people that made fun of religious puritans in movies like Harper Valley PTA and Footloose -- now growing up and realising that there's something morally wrong about pleasure, so it's not enough to fix the problem, but one must also suffer while doing so.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tumorous -- Metastasized

Antibody Films has posted an in-development announcement regarding my recent screenplay, Tumorous, on their website so I figure it's okay to mention it here now.

I had talked with the principles previously about another script, but even while I was doing so I was looking at that greenish tinted website with the threatening hospital environs and couldn't help but think that the script I was working on would actually be a much nicer fit -- and now it has all turned out rather nicely.

They're a small company, people just starting out (like me) but they're already cooperating with another company and in pre-production on a Direct-to-DVD feature -- and it's less than three months since they set up shop!

I haven't been doing this very long, but already long enough to know that a lot of places have trouble getting started, so Antibody's energy really impressed me.

And I like the vaguely Lovecraftian virus. That's how dread Cthulhu looked strange aeons before evolving into the stately squamous horror he is today!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hope I Die Before I Get Old

The above cartoon is via Slate and reminds me why I like The Who.

My guess is that at least 50% of the 40+ year olds running this country can't balance the country's checkbook, can't figure out good ways to finance social security, medicare, farm subsidies, and foreign adventures without raising taxes or cutting any one of those sacred cows (but no problem at all cutting higher ed funding), and simply disregard any studies, intel reports, or science that interferes with what they prefer to believe.

I've been contemplating a vampire or similar story focusing on young vampires who have to sneak around and overthrow the elder vampires -- who survive by cannibalizing their children. But a story so transparently metaphorical for American environmental and social policies would be too on-the-nose.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Cameron Structure

I'm going to reveal the one secret bit of useful screenwriting knowledge that I think I posssess: the (James) Cameron Structure.

You've probably heard of various 8-sequence, or 12 sequence, or whatever structures, I assume this is like those books, but really short.

My first screenplay was an action-horror piece and I wanted to write something that had pace and energy, so I decided to take a more careful look at Terminator 2, which I remembered felt like non-stop action.

Surprisingly, T2 wasn't non-stop action at all. There's a humorous teaser, then a build as all the characters come together at the mall, then a big fight and chase scene.

Then more talking and setup bringing us to the set piece where they rescue Sarah Conner from the mental institution.

Finally more prep and character development leading into the final, very long set-piece where they blow up Cyberdyne and face down the T1000 at the factory.

That's just three set pieces, but it feels like you're constantly moving and still gives you plenty of room to fit in character development. The basic structure looks like the following:

The Cameron Structure
  • First Act: Intro characters and their issues, build towards -
  • First Action Sequence: Try to get to this fairly early, before page 30 usually. Doesn't need to be long (T2's is only five minutes).
  • Second Act, Part One: You'll probably need to do some explaining of what's happening in the film here, but this is also a good time to have characters relax a little and just show us who they are -- this means they can do things unrelated to the plot or their arc.
  • Middle Action Sequence: In T2 (and Mission:Impossible) it was a bit longer, but you might make it short if you've chosen a long first action sequence.
  • Second Act, Part Two: Here you're mainly setting everything up for the third act, because...
  • Third Act/Final Action: The third act is almost entirely an action set piece. Because of this, you'll need to somehow slip any unfinished character arcs into the action (watch Neo learn to believe when he thinks he can stop the helicopter from going over the edge of the building), or into a short interlude (the part where Claire gets killed in the baggage car in Mission: Impossible).

This sort of structure has also worked well for me in horror films, which I think supports my theory that horror films are just action films with weaker heroes and stronger villains.

Mission: Impossible clearly has the Cameron Structure -- the only difference being that the first action sequence occurs a bit earlier (but is also tamer, so the writer could fit some nice banter in). I think Aliens had the Cameron Structure too, but since I've only got the extended version on DVD, I'm not sure.

The key feature of this structure for me is that the story centers around three largish set pieces, roughly distributed as above, and this somehow makes it feel like you've got non-stop action, even though there's quite a bit of time just devoted to characters.

I'll typically work off the structure during the outlining process, since it gives me a place to start, then be willing to change stuff if cool ideas present themselves.

Undoubtedly, there are an infinite number of other structures that work as well -- but one interesting feature of infinity is that even though there an infinite number of ways to do things right and an infinite number of ways to do things wrong, discovering a way to do things right can still be much more valuable because the ratio of right ways to wrong ways is so horribly low.

Postscript: I call it the Cameron Structure because I learned it by watching James Cameron movies. There's a pretty decent chance it's been around for a lot longer so if anyone can identify earlier films with this structure I'd be interested to hear them.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stross on Gygax, VR, and World Domination

Charles Stross has a post titled Gary Gygax, World Dictator up -- here's part of it:

Sad to say, the political landscape of the early to mid 21st century has already been designed -- by Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary didn't realize it (D&D predates personal computing) but his somewhat addictive game transferred onto computers quite early (see also: Nethack). And then gamers demanded -- and got, as graphics horsepower arrived -- graphical versions of same. And then multi-user graphical versions of same. And then the likes of World of Warcraft, with over a million users, auction houses, the whole spectrum of social interaction, and so on.

Which leads me to the key insight that: our first commercially viable multi-user virtual reality environments have been designed (and implicitly legislated) to emulate pencil-and-paper high fantasy role playing games.

Sure, Second Life shows a pattern for Ludic environments that is non-RPG based, more user-directed -- after the pattern of LambdaMOO and similar -- but again, the LambdaMOO experiment fell out of dissatisfaction with the fantasy RPG limits that the earlier MUDs imposed on social interaction, and the MUDs were basically networked multiuser implementations of the Colossal Cave Adventure and friends, which all came back to Gary Gygax.

There's no bloody escaping it. The gamers have given rise to a monster that is ultimately going to embrace and extend the web, to the same extent that TV subsumed and replaced motion pictures. (The web will still be there -- some things are intrinsically easier to do using a two dimensional user interface and a page-based metaphor -- but the VR/AR systems will be more visible.)

I'm not sure we've reached the equivalent of Netscape's 1.0 release. New interaction mechanisms are going to come along, especially once the VR experience moves away from the desktop computer paradigm and goes mobile, using PDAs or smartphones, head-up displays, and ubiquitous location services (and speaking of the latter, it is reported that the Galileo PRN codes have been cracked). But VR will be the first medium where the primary path to commercialization will be through game-play.

If you subscribe to the theory that the structure of a language also structures the ways of thinking of its native speakers, then think about what effect the basis of the new hyper-reality will have on the future.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Learning By Seeing What Others Do Wrong

Occasionally I've seen (and even made) this sort of comment in regards to reading motley assortments of screenplays and films -- the premise being that in a film such as Voodoo Tailz you'll at least learn some ways not to make a film, or in reading the worst screenplays for a contest or company, you'll learn how not to write a screenplay.

I no longer buy into that theory. There are an infinite number of ways to write a bad story. Eliminating one of them still leaves you with an infinite number.

What you need to learn is ways to write a good story (or frame a nice shot). And that's why you should read even the bad screenplays or watch even the bad movies.

For instance, The Grudge, while financially successful has some serious story problems. However, it also has some amazing visual moments: a ghost floating up in the corner of a room while her impossibly long hair swarms down the walls. That sort of liquid image is something I've seen replicated in other stuff since then.

Tarantino has made a living off of seeing the terrific moments in less successful films then combining and using them in new ways.

Or the wonderfully budget-conscious Necropolis: Awakened, previously mentioned here. I'm still enamored with its idea that the zombie-king hires some hit men to come and take care of his pesky-protagonist hero-killing-all-the-zombies problem. That's just remarkably common sensical -- though, were I to steal it, I'd instead have it be the townsfolk ordering out for mob hitmen to come in and take care of a vampire, or similar monster -- something that they couldn't convince the government to take seriously but bad enough that they couldn't handle it themselves.

The reason this works is that everyone's got a few good ideas and if they write their one story, make their one film, or sing their one song, that's where those ideas end up -- well, except for Voodoo Tailz.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Success Has Made A Failure Of Our Horror

One thing that I can't quite figure out, is that in comic books (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman) and roleplaying games (John Tynes, Dennis Detwiller, Greg Stolze), the horror genres are where you go to see all the smart writing, but in films, while there's a few sharp pieces, there's also a lot of sloppy trash.

Moreover, it's not like filmmakers couldn't steal these guys away from their current job for the length of time it takes to make a film -- RPGs pay practically nothing and film budgets are such that even successful comic writers could be lured.

I have a theory on this, though. The success of the horror genre in film is what has lowered its average quality.

Eventually every small production company that's starting out figures that they ought to make a quick horror film or two to help drum up the cash for their real movies. So you have some people who actually don't like horror making decisions about how horror should be made.

Once they set their mind to it they'll convince themselves that they're horror fans and understand the horror genre because they liked Aliens and The Exorcist. I liked When Harry Met Sally, but I can guarantee you that I do not understand the romantic comedy genre.

In some cases the project will take the form of "we want to make sure that everyone knows that we're just having fun here, not taking it seriously, and you should look out for our real stuff down the line". That often results in campy horror, which in the 80s could make decent money, but today doesn't even warrant a theatrical distribution. And it sucked in the 80s too.

Otherwise, it'll just result in a series of mediocre decisions -- often partially saved nowadays by higher budgets, thus allowing talented cinematographers and production designers to at least make the visuals powerful.

Despite this, even mediocre horror films can turn a tidy profit. And this is another reason the average quality of horror films is low.

If you've put together a $1-3 million budget drama about the trials of family life or the emptiness of the human experience, it has to be fantastic to make it onto more than three screens.

But you do the same with a horror film, and as long as it doesn't actively stink, they'll toss it out onto at least a few hundred or a thousand screens and make some cash. Which, of course, drives more people who have no interest in horror to try their hand at making horror movies.

And the final link in the chain is me, and people like me. Horror fans desperate for the kinds of stories that they won't show on television, and who enjoy seeing a film in the theater -- so we're willing to buy a ticket to even the mediocre ones because they're all we got, and even a mid-range film usually includes a few excellent moments (which is often what makes it a mid-range film).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Comics, Hamster Poop, and Art

J'aime Wells offers a sharp, common sense introduction to some issues in the philosophy of art in this post. She knows something about this stuff, having worked with Professor Peter Kivy, one of the leading scholars in this field. Since people don't click on links, I'm quoting it all here:

Chapter Seven aims to define art, and anyone with a course in the philosophy of art is probably cringing just hearing that. You can see what he is thinking. One thing he wants to do in this book is to salvage the reputation of comics as an art form. So naturally, he thinks that he will define "art" and then show that comics fits within that definition. The problem being, of course, that hordes of philosophers of art have written hordes of books about their attempts to define art, and after Arthur Danto shot them all down, everyone pretty much gave up and started thinking about other questions for a while.

McCloud writes, "Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn't grow out of either of our species' two basic instincts: survival and reproduction." (Boldface is to approximate the look of the lettering in that panel.)

This is so clearly a hopeless definition, that I won't fill space listing counterexamples. Instead I'll take a quick break to go artistically clean out the hamster cages. Excuse me.

OK, I'm back. McCloud doesn't really mean what he just said anyway. He is haunted by the ghosts of aesthetic theories past. For example, R.G. Collingwood argued that (real) art was expression of emotion. Dwight MacDonald argued that (real) art was distinctive expression of the individual. There is a whole family of these theories, which McCloud seems to want to align himself with. Some of his Chapter Seven examples include a caveman blowing a raspberry, a bicycle messenger riding with "personal style," and an average person signing his name. These things are said to "have an element of art." That element is self-expression. McCloud also says that he does not believe in a dichotomy between Art and Not Art. So I think what he envisions is a continuum, ranging from acts with a small element of self expression (perhaps the signature) on one end, to acts that are almost all self expression on the other end, with no clear dividing line defining Art. This doesn't, of course, require the ridiculous definition of art that includes hamster cage cleaning. A theory with a continuum still allows one to say that one end of the line is definitely NOT art, even if one declines to say exactly where the cut-off is. There can be clear cases and unclear ones. There isn't THAT much self expression in cage cleaning, so it would fall on the low end of the spectrum, and he'd be free to say that my activity there was neither survival/reproduction-related NOR artistic.

McCloud's goal here is clearly to get the broadest possible definition of art, to cut off the rather boring discussions of "That's not art! Oh yes it is!" I have a lot of sympathy for that motivation. I'd just as soon include anything that wants to be art, myself. Unfortunately, the "art as expression" theories are completely barking up the wrong tree. Whatever the continuum is, it can't be about more vs. less self-expression.

For one thing, consider modernist or conceptual art. Some of it may involve emotive expression, but many pieces are purely intellectual, and not emotional at all. You could say that intellectual "self-expression" counts as art too, but then you'd need some way to separate conceptual art from the papers in academic journals. It seems highly implausible to count academic papers as art. But whatever separates them from conceptual art is the very thing that makes art art. No kind of self-expression can make that separation.

McCloud mixes this discussion up with considerations about the motives of the artist, which is another red herring. It's not the same red herring as in the above paragraph: you could make intellectual, nonemotive art for any motive. Lots of people believe that "pure" art has to be made from "pure" motives, like individual expression, and not for "dirty" motives like making money or getting famous. But this obsession with artistic purity only dates from the nineteenth century. Shakespeare wasn't concerned about it - he was aiming to please his audience, with jokes for the groundlings and flattery for the royalty. (Look at Henry V!) Velazquez made a living painting portraits of the royal family of Spain. Mozart composed on commission all the time. The notion of "selling out" would have made little sense to them. On the other hand, some of the crappiest teenage poetry is the most pure and sincere self expression. So "expression" neither defines art as opposed to non-art, nor defines good as opposed to bad art. Lots of art, good and bad, is characterized by self-expression. Some is not. That's all.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bryan Singer Teaches a Class on Doing Sequels Right

Caught Superman Returns last week and I didn't know what to expect. But as soon as the retro title sequence fired up I had a good idea, and thoroughly enjoyed the remainng 2.5 hours of it.

This is old time cinema, with a blend of action, romance, and humor -- and that makes sense because the film fit perfectly in as the third movie in the trilogy that should have been, instead of the trilogy that we actually got. When they sell box sets of Superman DVDs in the future they should just include this one and drop the original 3 and 4.

One impressive thing about this is the suppression of ego required to make a sequel that both builds on, yet is continuous with the themes and stories from the original films. This requires the writers and director to admit that someone else actually did something right, that someone else had a good idea and maybe I should shape my work around that -- not at all a common thing to see anywhere, let alone Hollywood.

James Cameron did a great job of this in Aliens. He took the Ripley character and used the movie to explore her in depth. Why was she such a cold-hearted hard-ass in the first film? Because she needed to keep distance from people. But her dealings with the marines, and particularly Newt, breaks through that.

If the people who made Alien 3 and Terminator 3 understood what Cameron and Singer know, I'd own two more DVDs.

To wrap up, one more thing I appreciated about Superman Returns was how immersed it was in Superman-as-boy-scout (to use the Dark Knight's term): helping cats out of trees, telling people that flying is still the safest way to travel. In a world of Jack Bauers, where the people in charge of America are saying that torture's actually got some things going for it, where cynicism seems to rule the day, it's nice to see a film where the hero aspires to a higher ideal -- despite the fact that it makes him a goofball.

Another point I thought interesting: when Clark Kent expresses those ideals and acts that way in the film, people see him as a quaint nerd. But when Superman expresses them, they're ideals to respected. I think the subtext here is that we should respect the Clark Kents of the world a little more.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Second Drafts Are For Structure

After taking a week or so off to vaguely contemplate future screenplays and play/write various game stuff, I'm back to the screenplay in progress. This is the second draft and I've picked up the habit where this draft gets devoted almost wholly to structure.

Part of that typically involves trimming 7-10 pages out of the first act. For some reason the fat goes right there -- I think it's because I have a bit of floundering starting out, and I'm trying to get the characters and their issues down, so I end up repeating myself a lot.

The big structural thing I look at is level of tension at different points in the script. This feels almost like putting together a musical composition, where I want some lulls or low tempo sequences, then high tension bits. And, sometimes, it's fun to play with a high tension bit and see how long you can make it without losing that tension, kind of like having a long riff in a song (not that I have any real knowledge of music). I particularly enjoy doing this in the first big action sequence.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Wisdom of Spam

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Never judge someone until you have travelled a mile in their shoes

Emphasis mine. I received the above spam today and felt so edified by the inspirational postscript to their pornographic advertisement that I just had to share it with the internet.

It's like a Fortune Spam.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

RPG Geekdom

I released a new game book in electronic format via RPGNow and ENWorld today.

I had entertained the notion of going into RPG publishing full-time, but that's an even more brutal business than screenwriting. Not only are pay scales low, but the frequency of doing work--under contract!--and not getting paid for it is stunningly high. And, since nobody has any money, there's typically little point in calling out the lawyers.

One of the saddest parts, is the churn rate in great game designers. The Steve Peterson responsible in part for Champions (and why I go by Steven Palmer Peterson in all my writing) is working in computers somewhere now, despite helping design the equivalent of the calculus for roleplaying games.* Aaron Allston writes novels now. The folks at Pagan Publishing are now all mainly doing video or computer games.

But terrific new designers keep popping up -- and I'm adding a few more of them to the link list at the right.

Adrian Bott -- He's been doing some work for Mongoose, and I mainly got interested in the excellent, and very non-railroady, Drow War series. If you trawl the better game shops you might also find a delicious bit of nastiness titled, The Book of Unremitting Horror, to which he contributed.

Monte Cook -- One of the few designers who I suspect could actually write RPGs for a living for the rest of his life. My current players are suffering through multiple of his books at the moment.

Bruce Cordell -- The squamous illithid overmind of psionics. Check out Hyperconsciousness for psionics pushed to where it really ought to go -- and for an example of why it's worthwhile to think more seriously about one book -- one author for RPG books. The unity of vision allows for something very interesting.

Charles Rice -- We started the RPG writing at the same time. He's written buckets of material, and his books for d20 Modern are one of the best reasons to play the game.

* While some might take this as a mere joke about the complexity of Champions, or the fact that I used to write up stuff for my Champions game during our high school calculus class -- I also mean it because such a vast number of very influential ideas came out of that system. You can see analogs for multi-powers, elemental controls, and variable power pools in many modern games. Effect-based design was something Champions pioneered, and is now practically a cliche. Even genre emulation, Champions via its wahoo knockback rules and friendly way of keeping people from getting killed too easily, can be traced back to it.

Friday, June 16, 2006

What Falls Out Your Behind?

I'm walking today and the local paper reports that San Antonio has a $75,000,000 budget surplus.

Meanwhile, my wife's former advisor told her that New Jersey will be cutting funds to the universities again -- this despite having the highest per capita income in the United States.

Frankly, it's a bit incomprehensible where they spend their money. Unless you're a superstar, the pay scale for professors in New Jersey isn't much higher than here (if any higher) -- yet the cost of living there must be close to twice as high.

But I was reflecting on how it seems that San Antonians (and their city) just have money falling out their behinds. It's like -- I've got too much money, I'll need to buy a 5-6 bedroom mansion on an acre of oak-forested land, with solid granite counter-tops everywhere, for $375,000, to store all it. Then buy 4 or so pickups and/or SUVs to cart all that money around.

Even when the gas prices sky rocket and somebody pulls their Hummer (I swear, more here than in L.A. -- but this is also a military town) up to the gas pumps, the most they can manage is mild annoyance at the gas prices because, really, they can easily afford it.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Book Prices in Dungeons & Dragons

Brad DeLong has posted an article about the rules put into place when the University of Naples was established in 1224.

Students at the university had to use their books as collateral, it seems, and if they didn't pay off their debt before they left, the books would have to stay with the university.

Professor DeLong goes on to mention:

Back in the thirteenth century, a book copy sold for the same share of national product that $14,000 is today.

Just prior to that:

At the end of the fifteenth century, a book copy sold for the same share of national productivity that $1400 is today--the equivalent relative expense to this laptop I am typing on.

The ten-fold drop in price is largely due, of course, to Gutenberg.

I always thought that putting fantasy-era RPG prices in dollar equivalents, or at least having dollar equivalents floating around, would do a great job putting things in perspective.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The (I Suspect) Sad Saga of Snakes on a Plane

Snakes on a Plane has inspired at least two screenwriting blogs, one Alien Loes Predator comic, and God knows how much other internet bandwidth.

It even has its own Wikipedia article. You can see a trailer here. I'm not sure where you can find a clip of Samuel L. Jackson shouting "snakes on a mother-fucking plane!"

So the film is developing a nice little fan base before it's even released -- it seems mostly people who are already thinking that it's so bad that it's gonna be good.

And I'll definitely be seeing it too. But I'm going to engage in some expectation management.

In order for a film to be good via being bad, it must be earnest. The producers have reacted to the free publicity by shooting some new material, attempting to intentionally appeal to their prophetic fanbase. I read somewhere that they are even using things seen on the internet to aid in their re-writes, and probably re-edits.

Must be a rare joy to be the screenwriters that not only have to take notes from everyone involved in the production, but now also random people on the internet. At this rate, perhaps the big screen will finally see Kirk and Spock take it to the next level.

Worse for the film, since as soon as you try to be bad, you cease to be funny.

Camp is the the lazy filmmaker's humor. Everyone knows the tired cliches so everyone can intentionally write tired cliches -- then throw the actors on screen and have them smile really hard at the audience: "We know this joke is ancient, but, see, we're all just having fun here. Please smile back at us." At its very best, camp manages to be cute and successfully beg an indulgent smile from you.

I'm sure the original writers weren't striving for camp. Someone probably saw the metal detectors at the airport and thought to themselves that they'd never detect something that was organic and lethal -- like a snake -- so wouldn't a snake be a clever weapon to use?

And a little hook like this can be all you need to hang a film around. If the other bits like character and suspense work well, then the hook can intrigue people enough to come to the theater (or read the spec) and the material can entertain them enough to enjoy the movie.

But the problem is that even when there is some sense to an idea, sometimes just a hint of goofiness can undermine any chance at suspense or serious drama.

I still have hope though. A particularly zealous performance by Samuel L. Jackson could make this a fun film -- so long as he plays it straight.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Personally, I Wouldn't Last To The Check Out Line

Via the Freakonomics Blog -- someone has decided to blog about his experiences with an all-Monkey Chow diet.

Monkey chow apparently comes in convenient kibble form and is, in theory, nutritious enough for monkeys to use as their only food source. So why not humans?

Must be a grad student.

Definitely check out the video links on his site -- they're hilarious in a "you, poor, poor, man" sort of way.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Secret to Productivity

-- is being married, without children, and having your wife go on a trip.

Yesterday I got up, walked to the local store to buy a fresh bagel, came back, toasted it for breakfast, then wrote 10 pages on a new screenplay.

After that I still had too much time so I went to see An American Haunting, since a period supernatural thriller could be interesting, or at least good research, despite its mediocre reviews. I walked out after an hour though because it was a bit tired. I know it's realistic to debate whether or not there are really ghosts doing all this, but I've seen it hundreds of times already so either make it fresh, or at least make it brief. But I was bothered more by the scenes of the 14 year old daughter getting raped by a ghost. It seemed to tread far more closely to child porn than The Exorcist's scene.

So I came back -- walked back to the grocery store for Pepsi, then home to make some spaghetti.

Watched four episodes of Alias, 1st Season, while eating and dicking around on the internet.

The internet dicking about led to the long post from yesterday, and another big post over on Jonathan Tweet's message board regarding immigration policies.

Finally, a couple completed quests in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion -- then print out two copies of a recent screenplay and drop them along with sundry release materials at the post office so that they'll catch the morning truck out.

Single men don't have this much free time, since they're out doing single guy things, and often wasting far too much time trying to stop being a single guy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Scary Business of Saying "No"

I'm not at all a tough negotiator -- but, at my attorney's urging, I made counter-offers to the two places that were looking for an option that they would eventually turn down.

So now I've got no active option offer.

Part of the reason I was willing to stretch it like this is that someone else came in expressing interest -- and if that works out it'll be a substantially better deal than the others.

But there's no option offer yet and so that leaves me in the rather tense circumstance of waiting to see what this guy's partners/contacts will say.

In the past I played it safe and found out that I didn't need to -- so this time I'm not playing it safe and we'll see if that backfires.

I wouldn't refuse an option "on principle" -- because it was too low or whatever. If it's the only game in town and it's not looking too likely that someone else will come knocking, then sure, it's the only rational choice. And even low/no money options bring other advantages: you might be able to score an attorney or get a reference to some kind of representation; the no budget producers of today could be development execs at a mid-sized place in a couple years; and even if their careers don't work out, they still can get your script in front of other people, who might appreciate your writing style or ideas.

But accepting an option locks up your screenplay -- perhaps for a very long time. And if it remains available, sometime down the line one of these places that made the initial option offer might be in a better position to make another request -- in these cases typically because they'll have finished up with their current project and thus might be better able to put your script on what counts as the fast track for us beginners. Moreover, you would have waited for this anyway, since even if they did option your script now, they'd still need to get their current business out of the way.

Also, a lesson learned from Velvet Steamroller, beginning companies are prone to teething problems as they arrange their legal advice, set up their offices, and figure how they're going to handle the internal workings. This is fine -- that's what starting something is all about. But if you can keep the shopping rights to your script while they work those issues out, why not?

That said, even when the option money is microscopic, there's a psychological and time investment that companies put into scripts they've optioned. After the option it becomes partly theirs -- and that makes them love it more -- and that makes them work harder to get it made.

Friday, May 26, 2006

My Favorite Book Cover

Off to the right is my favorite book cover image ever. It's for some edition (who can keep track of them?) of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game published by Chaosium.

After I found this nice high-res image on the web I chopped out the middle bit to 800x600 and made it my desktop. Now I just stare at the screen and mumble unspeakable oaths all day.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

This Just About Pisses Me Off

Toke away you hippie bastards -- a recent study shows that even heavy pot smoking doesn't increase the risk of getting lung cancer.

There's not much that will piss off an un-reformed but on indefinite hiatus smoker more than knowing that the least lethal method of imbibing fire is illegal and exacerbates my already excessive fondness for Doritos.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Golden Age of Geek TV

I know I've seen it mentioned around the web a bit, but it could have been mentioned more strongly -- the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series ROCKS!

I had stayed away from it because I wasn't a fan of the original series -- too much of that 80's goofiness and a little too space opera-y. But the new series has a gritty intensity to it and that human drama grounds it in realism despite all the science fiction elements surrounding the characters. I think the approach of the new series has also given the show its own identity, whereas the first series showed too much of its roots as a Star Wars knock-off.

Anyway, not only is the series good and watchable, but it's one of the best things I've ever watched, right up there with Lost and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and a little bit better than 24 and Alias (all in my geeky opinion of course).

Galactica, Lost, and Buffy are all examples of shows I like better than even big, successful and great films. In the end, I also like them better than the X-Files, as a series. And I think the reason for this is the excellent writing attached to the ongoing serial nature of the stories. I get into this position, like in an engrossing book, where I can't wait to watch the next episode, which works fine because I'm watching them on DVD.

Or at least works fine until I catch up to the current season -- then I have the long, awful wait until the next season comes out on DVD.

And I have to say this: the TV shows, particularly the dramas, we've had in the last decade are much better than the stuff I had growing up. You kids today don't know what it was like back then, everyone had big hair, the show had to close on a corny joke, and there was always this underlying goofiness to programs. Really, you'd have to go all the way back to The Prisoner to find a show that could compare to today's sci-fi.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Immigration Debate: Where Reason Goes to Die

The immigration debate fascinates me with the frequency it provokes comments that are completely at odds with reality.

About a month ago on Anderson Cooper 360 he brought out a couple people to give the two sides of the story. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who argued in favor of relaxing immigration laws, made the following statement:

VALDES-RODRIGUEZ: And this is taking -- it's really not a valid debate because this was an issue two years ago -- it was three years ago. You need to -- you all need to ask yourself why this is an issue now because it's deflecting attention from the White House onto brown people.

-- as if she's trying so hard to be a liberal that she completely fails to realize that this is the one issue on which she and the White House agree.

Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist, has a weblog where he posts various interesting bits and makes me think that I should have gone into Economics instead of Philosophy way back when. He recently posted about the Open Letter on Immigration, drafted by a bipartisan collection of economists.

In the comments on that post I see things like the following:

"Immigration in recent decades of low-skilled workers may have lowered the wages of domestic low-skilled workers, but the effect is likely to be small, with estimates of wage reductions for high-school dropouts ranging from eight percent to as little as zero percent."

I'm sure that "studies have shown" this, but I do not believe the studies. In any case, immigration is only part of a continued, multi-pronged attack on American labor, and not just unskilled labor. Hence the country-club conservative support for immigration, along with the other parts of the attack. -- link

Here it's the country club conservatives supporting immigration loosening -- oh, them and Brad DeLong, the guy who calls for Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to be impeached in every third post.

I'm particularly fond of the "I do not believe the studies" comment. It's emblematic of an era where, despite volumes of careful data collection and scientific study, we'd prefer to form our opinions without looking at any facts whatsoever.

For the philosophers out there, this is the modern version of the contingent a priori.

This whole discussion misses the point. The main problem with too many immigrants is not a matter of economics--it's the blight of overpopulation. This country is too crowded already. We don't need a whole bunch more people here. Our natural environment does not need a whole bunch more people here. I shake my head when I hear economists say that Americans benefit from immigration. Not American plants and animals, not American wilderness areas. -- link

There is a point here, but it just seems orthogonal to the debate. We should keep immigration down to protect the environment? Have these people seen the environment in developing industrial nations? Also, maybe the poster lives in Manhattan, but looking around from where I'm at I see almost nothing but open land in a 200 to 800 mile radius (save for Austin). I figure we could fit a few more people in somewhere.

Help me out here, radek; if I'm supposed to be in favour of bussing in union-busting blacklegs when they're from the next country over, why would I not have to support it when they're only from the next town over? Yes, yes, we understand that *you* think undermining workers is a good thing, but explain again why *I* should, in terms that don't make a religious appeal to the panglossian Adam Smith Fairy.

When did destroying the power of the poor to strike for a higher income ever get the poor a higher income? -- link

I'm continually puzzled why so many people think they're the champions of the union-protected working class when the unions have lined up on the other side of the fight:

  • United Farm Workers
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
  • Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE)
  • and the Laborers' International Union of North America

All the above support relaxing the immigration laws, see here and here.

Does anyone know or have links to what unions are on the other side?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How Writing is Like Being a Wizard in Dungeons & Dragons

Big congratulations out to Richard!

He not only received a couple option offers, but also a manager (!) via InkTip, within a few days of posting something there again for the first time in a while.

Richard has recently done well in some contests, had a short produced, and done some writing on assignment: Dog in Space. He's a terrific example of how putting in the time, i.e. constantly writing, can make something happen, even in the wilderness.

If you clicked on the "Dog in Space" link above you'll likely see a somewhat disturbing looking dog. And it certainly sounds like Richard had his doubts about that assignment as well. But he soldiered through it, made a little money, and gained some invaluable experience (and perhaps a writing credit).


In Dungeons & Dragons it can be awfully tempting for a low level wizard to sacrifice two of their wizard levels to pick up something like some monk training. You get a +3 to all saves, good skills, and the always valuable evasion. Moreover, all you sacrifice for these benefits is maybe one magic missile spell and a cantrip.

And, assuming you're playing that character for a while, that'd be a terrible mistake.

Because once you hit 17th level you'll realize you traded all that off for a power word, kill or timestop.


Writers are in a similar situation. As a beginning writer (either novels or screenwriting) even if that book/script does pay off, it'll likely be around a few thousand dollars. And getting that couple thousand dollars will take months of work.

Clearly, working at practically any other job for a few months will earn you a bunch more money than writing, so the rational choice would be to scrap the writing. I imagine more than a few of you have been told this repeatedly by your relatives.

But the value of that first sold book or screenplay is like the value of that first wizard level -- it makes everything you do later more valuable. Moreover, for novels, the book itself becomes more valuable as you build your career. If it's decent, even a moderately successful pro writer can earn money off it for years.

Even if what you're working on doesn't sell, it helps push you through to where you write stuff that does get published/picked up. Then, once you do establish a career, all that stuff you wrote earlier gets a second chance. Some of it won't deserve a second chance, but I'm confident that some of it will.

So, if you have some confidence in your ability to make a career at writing, and have an opportunity to trade off a little extra money now for the time you need to get an additional novel or couple scripts written, I think choosing the writing is not just a starry-eyed matter of following your dreams, but a rational long term investment.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Tom Cruise Beat Down

Former Rutgers anthropology grad student, Kathryn Kluegel, didn't care much for Tom Cruise -- but she did like the movies where he got beat down, such as Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut.

This struck me as a sharp insight. I caught the intense Mission: Impossible III tonight (had to pry my claw-like hands off the arm-rests afterward -- who'da thought you could have a 2 hour movie with only 3 five-minute slow periods; I wanted a cigarette afterwards).

Tom Cruise plays his fairly usual role: a cocky, over-confident sort who smiles a lot, then a sequence of increasingly awful catastrophes destroy that confidence and reduce him to his rawest self. He plays both ends of this range perfectly -- especially for a spy character like this who is initially putting on a show about being normal and in control of things. Cruise's exagerrated smile, his almost urgent need to appear happy, looks just right for a character who's pretending at a normal life and pretending to be happy in his new, mundane digs.

In the second half of the film that's all gone, and Cruise has a few techniques of showing emotion that I find extremely effective. There's one scene where he's walking into an unsafe area; however, he's not afraid for himself, he's afraid of failing because of the consequences it will have for someone he cares about. This is a very different kind of fear (a really good one for larger than life action movie heroes), almost like nervousness pushed to the extreme. When playing this, Cruise's hands jitter and he looks around with sharp little jerky head motions.

There's also this one way he has of looking out from under his eyes and appearing entirely lost, like he's just discovered that nothing he believed is true. This works particularly well because, with a slight change (the final reversal before the good guy wins) that look in his eyes switches from devastated to true-confidence -- not the fake stuff from the beginning of the film but the honest stuff that we like to think comes out of surviving one's darkest moments.

And I think this plays off his entire public persona. We see him so much in the media and tabloids appearing just like the early version of the characters in his films. Then, the character travels into the underworld and the audience sees what I suspect many of us think might be the real Tom Cruise -- and that vulnerability keeps him human.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hell Freezes Over

Despite temperatures ranging from 90F to 100+F over the last couple weeks -- and a current temperature of 86 degrees (30 Celcius) -- I am watching hail the size of mothballs pummel central Texas.

It's now 6:37, roughly an hour after the core of the hailstorm hit, and the temperature has dropped to 65F (18C).

You see, the reason why it's okay to teach Intelligent Design in the middle of the country is because science doesn't apply to the middle of the country.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

3rd Edition Nation, 1st Edition Rules

Via Mythusmage I read about Maine resident and blogger Lance Dutson getting sued by Maine tourism advertising contractor, Warren Kremer Paino Advertising, for criticizing them and pointing out (correctly) that an advertisement they put together includes the number for a phone sex operation, and not the Maine tourism board.

Mr. Dutson is getting sued for a few million dollars it seems. Fortunately, it looks like he's going to get some help in defending against this.

Since there seems to be bi-partisan loathing for this sort of thing, and "loser pays", like in the UK, seems to be the solution, does anyone know why we don't have that here in the U.S.?

I've heard occasionally that "loser pays" is too corporate friendly, but has it actually worked out that way in the UK?

In fact, a lot of things in the U.S. feel a bit like we're still playing Brown Box Dungeons & Dragons or running Windows 3.1, while the rest of the democracies have moved on:

  • no instant run offs for presidential elections creating all these unpleasant situations where you're not voting for your actual first choice
  • the quaint artefact of congressional districts, even though you likely work, live, and go to school in three different ones -- honestly, it seems their entire function is to facilitate gerrymandering and promote budget deficits via pork.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

When interest started trickling in on THE SOUND, it was spread out over a few weeks. Nonetheless it was three option offers, albeit from small places. That kind of scenario is ideal of course, but I had no means of fully exploiting it since I suck at negotiation. What benefit I did gain was the ability to be more indecisive and drag my feet about things -- to which people would react by offering me a little more.

One of the terrific fringe benefits of working with the producers on THE SOUND is that they hooked me up with a great entertainment attorney (Gordon Firemark) who'd do the work on what little commission I could generate.

To paraphrase another action film, an attorney... is like a warm blanket.

An option offer came in on one of my recent bits of darkness and, despite the smallness of the project, Gordon went right to work looking over the contract, making sure to look out for things that I wouldn't even realize had to be looked out for, and taking over the haggling.

To make things even better, now a second company is going to make an option offer. This company is a little bit larger (but, at the small level I'm working at, almost anyone can have solid enough connections to get a movie like this financed) and one can only benefit from having alternatives.

But, what inspired using the quote in the title was when I realized that this time around I'd have someone on my team who had the ability to make the most of this situation -- and that made me feel like John McClane.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Truth in Advertising Must Suck

I ran across the web-ad to the right while meandering today and thought how much the people paying for that must hate the requirement to include the line:

Simulated images, not actual photos

That's tantamount to saying that your results will look so much worse than this, that we'd rather show you something that you know is a lie.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Renegade Province Reloaded

Everyone can stop being angry about the U.S. kissing China's ass, and instead be angry about U.S. civil servants being half-assed.

Jaru called one of her Taiwanese friends who has a Green Card and discovered that it should say Taiwan, Republic of China, after all. She then verified by calling in and finally got someone to admit it -- we had to tell the civil servant that we had kidnapped their Rottweiler first though to motivate them to actually do something.

So now we'll fill out yet more forms...

When we went in to finalize her permanent resident status we had to set up an appointment online. We then show up at the appropriate time and they give us a number. About two hours later it's us and one old lady sitting in an empty lounge while people mop the floor. I go and remind the people that we exist, because that apparently wasn't clear from our sitting there right in front of all the civil servants in an otherwise empty room. Finally, a person makes a big fuss about how they'll take care of this then takes our form -- making sure to let us know how great a favor this service is. That part took about 15 minutes.

Personally, I believe the public's experience with the Department of Motor Vehicles, and places like the Department of Homeland Security are the single greatest threat to the U.S. getting public healthcare.

But it shouldn't have to be that way. The U.S. Postal Service had a terrible reputation when I was young (in the 70s or so). But nowadays the USPS is terrific. The offices are quick and helpful. Delivery is fast. and you have a bunch of options in how to mail things.

I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the USPS has some competition in the form of email, UPS, and FedEx? The commercial places might make the USPS work harder, and the USPS might keep the commercial companies' prices down and services up.

That makes me wonder if other public and private programs could benefit from similar competiton. For instance, if people could choose between a public healthcare program, or our current crop of private ones, could that make the overall system more efficient? One benefit of the public system would be that it could help standardize what are considered reasonable medical treatments and reasonable costs -- and private providers would then be able to point to the standard treatments to avoid malpractice, while they'd have to compete with the costs to maintain their business.

If I remember correctly from talking with Dan, Australia has a public healthcare system augmented by private insurance -- though I think that's more of a "by spending extra bucks you get better service or greater protections" system instead of what I'm envisioning.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bad Writers, Good Stories

  1. is
  2. can be said
  3. is
  4. has
  5. had
  6. turned
  7. nudged
  8. sits
  9. has
  10. used

Those are the first ten verbs from a novel I recently read (The Straw Men). More specifically, read and finished -- unlike a number of other novels that I began reading and quit about one third to halfway into.

This novel had four main characters, a female cop in her 30s I figure, then three men. All men were about the age of 40. One was an ex-cop, one ex-CIA, and one current-CIA. Making one of them, I don't know, a Japanese tree surgeon, would have helped me keep them distinct.

This novel, despite its fascination with passive voice, and way too similar characters held me all the way through, whereas I struggled to get to one-third in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, with its eloquent language, quirky people, and glowing recommendation from Neil Gaiman.

The thing The Straw Men had for me was pull-through. In part that came from the cheap, but effective tactic of using short chapters and ending them with nice little cliff-hangers.

But I think the real trick came from the writer's ability to regularly bring in surprising twists and reversals. They came along just often enough to keep me going -- and when they hit I'd want to stick around a bit longer to see the consequences of this new state of affairs.

And one thing I worry about is that when I comment on others' writing, or see comments on a story, that too often the pull-through part is not discussed, in favor of talking about mechanics or intricacies of character. And, while one's skill at prose and characterization are important, none of that will get you anywhere if you don't generate enough pull-through to get the reader through the novel.

Dan Brown seems to receive an abnormally large volume of criticism from writers on the internet for being an awful hack. And what worries me about this, is that it implies that these writers drastically undervalue the ability to create pull-through -- as if maintaining suspense and surpising the reader were easy or cheap.

But that's a huge part of storytelling, right up there with richness of characters and important or interesting ideas. Frankly, I think even more important than richness of characters. We've got plenty of enduring myths about one-dimensional gods and characters.