Wednesday, May 24, 2006

THIS WEEKEND!


The SLAVE QUEEN seeks to spread her evil wings across the world. Who will stand in her way? Why, pirates, ninjas and those who associate with them, of course. We GUARANTEE Dinosaurs, Pirates, Ninjas, Monkeys AND Robots. Er, pretty much.

Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island. This Sunday afternoon at Con-Fu. Hope to see some folks there.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Peking Opera Map

In case I hadn't mentioned it before, Stone Software's Create is one of my favourite pieces of software ever. Right up there with Sketch-Up and VoodooPad.

And every so often I just want to fart around in a piece of software I love and make stuff. Which is where these battlemaps come from.

Here's a Peking Opera House to go with the Teahouse we've already offered. Guaranteed fun!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Perfect For You

Actually kind of bursting with things to talk about: Conan, zombies, Alexander the Great, music, and the meaning of the Internet. Let's see what we can do about tying it all together in one nice neat package.

First off. It's Intuitively Obvious To The Most Casual Observer (IOTTMCO) that Conan the Destroyer is a better film than Oliver Stone's wretched Alexander the Great. In every possible way, really. Except that Rosario Dawson's bosoms are in fact larger and more ostentatiously displayed than young Olivia d'Abo's. But something is wrong when a twenty-year-old De Laurentiis quickie hack job shot in Mexico with a recycled score outperforms a multi-million-dollar star-laden production. I mean, Conan feels more authentic, for crying out loud. The sets and effects are BETTER. And it has Grace Jones!

Grace Jones, by the way, is a crazy woman. If you didn't know that, you haven't seen this movie. She's nutty. She's not perfect. But she's perfect for Dolph:

But number 82 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women In Rock And Roll, apparently. Not bad for a disco loony. Makes me wonder who the bottom 18 were.

(quick Google search)

Ouch. I bet that really burns Ani DiFranco's indignant little biscuits. But Gloria Estafan (number 81) sleeps well at night, thank the Good Lord. Let nothing disturb the slumber along Miami Sound Machine Boulevard. Although were I Ms. Estafan (a stranger mental image one might be hard-pressed to find), I think I might worry that the imperiously muscled Grace might seek out a more direct way to move herself up a rank on the list.

"Come on baby shake your body do that OH MY GOD PLEASE NO"

Crunch. And Gloria disappears behind the sculpted muscles of Grace Jones' gleaming torso.

I've heard Conan the Destroyer referred to as the best D&D movie ever made, and I agree with the assessment. You've got your party of adventurers, each with their own role, you've got your NPCs, you've got a dungeon or two and you've got your evil, slinky-outfit-wearing queen to stir up trouble. And you know what, it moves along okay, Arnie's hilarious, d'Abo can act and Grace Jones is, uh, COMPLETELY INSANE.

And it doesn't have these stupid flashbacks where we watch our hero (who we know will survive, since we've already watched the rest of his life) struggle with his mother (who we know will survive, since we've already watched HER in later days) in a life-or-death -- or rather a, um, completely unimportant and trivial battle. Steph suggested we send a copy of Conan the Destroyer to Oliver Stone as instructional material.

I thought Grace Jones should deliver it.

So Oliver, if there's a knock on your door and a COMPLETELY INSANE woman is standing there with a DVD case, don't ask her about Gloria Estafan. Just take the disc, watch it over and dude, stop TEACHING and start STORY-TELLING.

Simple example of what I mean: towards the end of the film, Alexander is consumed with the drive to conquer India, even in the face of mutiny from his troops. We get a flashback (this comes to us as no surprise, as we have endured similar flashbacks before -- indeed, the entire movie is actually a flashback) of the death of his father, Philip. Philip is portrayed as a stern man whose approval Alexander has never been able to acquire. He dies in Alexander's arms, victim of treachery, and we see that Alexander is deeply affected by this.

Cut to: Alexander trying to conquer India and nearly killing himself in the process.

You see the problem? Stone is EXPLAINING Alexander the Great to us. He's setting us up with first the strange behaviour on Alexander's part (conquer or die!), and then showing us the "explanation" for it (denial of his father's approval). Which is completely ass-backwards in cinematic story-telling. Because a movie is fundamentally driven by TENSION. And that tension must be visual. In Stone's little didactic effort, there is no tension, because he witholds from us the vital knowledge of our heroe's desire.

Tension comes from the audience knowing more than the characters. In a case like this, what we SHOULD know is that Alexander wants his father's approval. He doesn't know that -- if he did, he'd be able to deal with things in a slightly less, let us say, DRASTIC fashion. But the fact that we know that he is vainly trying to impress a dead man lends tension and pathos to his efforts. We're pulling for him to understand himself, and watching in agonized expectation because he doesn't.

But Stone takes all that away, by waiting until AFTER we've watched everything (without any context) to give us his little reason for why Alexander did what he did.

I mean, leaving aside the fact that suggesting a nation went on the warpath and conquered the entire known world just because one man wanted to impress Daddy is facile and obnoxious, it's the execution I'm really decrying.

In Conan the Destroyer, we know right from the get-go that the evil slinky-outfit-wearing queen is up to no good. So that throughout the film we're waiting for her evil hammer to fall on our unawares heroes. This is basic story-telling. But Stone eschews that practice in favour of, I don't know, trying to surprise us. Or as though he were afraid we wouldn't get HIS point, that we're not smart enough to figure out what HE wants us to think. As though it were important for us to know what he wants us to think.

Stone's just another autocrat trying to tell people how they SHOULD behave. Worried that if folks act like individuals, they'll just ruin everything.

Which brings us to zombies.

We watched Resident Evil: Apocalypse last night. We're on a bit of a cheese bender these days (hence Alexander and Conan The Destroyer) and while the first Resident Evil film left us both cold and bored, we decided to give this one a shot.

And you know, it's better than the first one. There's a story here, a pretty straightforward one (good), and it moves REAL FAST (also good). There's some deeply stupid disappointing bits, and the fight scenes are overcut like they always are these days (folks, go watch the masters. Watch Jackie and HK John Woo and Peckinpah and heck, watch some friggin' Buster Keaton, will ya?), but Milla delivers the Milla-thing and Oded Fehr is in it. We love Oded Fehr.

Look him up, you. I'm not doing ALL the thinking here.

Anyway, while washing dishes, I ruminated on the mainstreaming of the zombie film that we've seen over the past few years, and I realised that zombie films are about individualism -- about defending your individuality from the faceless hordes that want (literally) to devour you. Of course there's more to zombies than just that (otherwise they'd be dull tropes), but I found that one particularly powerful. I think it explains why the zombie film has perpetuated beyond the taboo-breaking point of Romero's early work.

Night of the Living Dead is about total breakdown of social norms, and remains one of the greatest and gruesomest horror films ever made. Weird that people get all squiffy these days about Saw -- come on folks, remember the little girl eating her mother with a trowel? Maybe it's just me thinks that's bad news. But the zombie movie is no longer about the grue. Resident Evil: Apocalpyse isn't even Restricted. The zombie is moving into pure symbology, I think, much like the vampire and werewolf have done. Which is interesting to watch happen, because they're such a recent invention. George Romero watches Carnival of Souls and says to himself "The bits with all the dead people chasing her are kinda scary -- could I make a whole film out of that bit?"

And now we have a wonderful symbol of life in the modern world, where our fear of becoming lost in the sea of bodies manifests itself in the violent struggles that usually take place in these films. Although perhaps the reduction of gore nowadays means that the fear is not so overwhelming anymore. Maybe we're working out our ideas as to how we all get along in the post-industrial world.

Like maybe we make our own movies:

A Swarm of Angels

I hope everyone contributes to it. Not so much because I think the final product will be great, though I have a feeling it will be. But because this is an important moment in the internet, it seems to me. This is a big project, and a project that's happening entirely outside the "mainstream" channels. It's stuff like this that the recording industry, the broadcasters, the movie studios, seem to be completely missing out on. While they're worrying about kids on LimeWire, THIS is the stuff that is really undermining their hold on their industries.

Which is cool. Says me. Because it's about people doing what they love and what they're good at it, and getting better and making that fit with what's needed. No matter what you're good at, I think the Internet is starting to show us, there exists a market for it. And with the increased ability to act as our own broadcasters, and to select through and filter the mass of material coming at us, it's getting easier and easier to find that market.

We're realising that the masses of the world AREN'T zombies, that we don't have make headshot after headshot to hold on to ourselves. In fact, lately, in my life, anyway, there seems to be more celebration of individual effort and personality than ever.

A couple of folks at work are enthusiastic musician-types. Like myself. Only, unlike myself, some of those people actually have considerable talent. So a bunch of folks brought in their musical instruments and set them up -- an electronic drumkit, an impressive Korg keyboard, a couple of guitars, a bass, even a mandolin (?!). And there's been some futzing about, learning songs, having fun.

HUGE amounts of fun. Playing music is a very great joy. Especially with other folks, listening to each other and trying to contribute to the overall effort -- it's one of my favourite things. And it turns out I'm not alone. It turns out nearly everyone on our team has either talent or enthusiasm -- often both. Friday afternoon, the beers come out around 5:00 and suddenly the whole team is hanging around the instruments, taking turns playing, futzing or just banging on beer bottles (okay, that was me). It was amazing how many people can actually play -- and it made me wonder what we do when we're teaching kids music that makes us not do it EVERY FRICKIN DAY. Hateful piano lessons, dreary band practices -- most of us, even if we grew up playing music, play very little in our adult lives, and it seems such a shame.

Why listen to professionals play music for you when you can do it yourself? With beer and friends?

We're back to that whole doing what you love and what you're good at. Or at least, getting better at, let's say. And not worrying about CREATING something formal and "important". The joy of futzing is a powerful one, I find, of just enjoying the moment for what it is.

I'm reading about Open Space Technology and finding it utterly fascinating and exciting. It embodies so many ideas I subscribe to: simplicity, intelligence, respect for all, getting shit done, and having fun. Dying to run an Open Space event right now.

RIGHT NOW.

Saturday, May 6, 2006

A Giant To Me

Two things to do. One: Watch this video of the Huygen probe's descent from the probe's point of view. Two: say to yourself, "Holy shit, that's the surface of fucking Titan."

I bet Sir Arthur C. Clarke loved that. I remember Imperial Earth with great fondness.

Actually, I remember a LOT of Sir Arthur's books with great fondness, and it's only looking back now that I realise how powerful an influence he was on me. Not so much as a writer (my big influences there are probably A.A. Milne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Steven Brust), but on my whole idea of what life was all about, what we were expected to do about it, and what the possibilities were.

The possibilities were limitless, in his writings. I read his books again and again (at one point I remember calculating that The Fountains of Paradise had surpassed The Lord of the Rings as my most-read book (the professor has since repassed the knight, I'm sure Sir Arthur is sorry to hear)), and Sir Arthur's optimistic, tolerant and humanistic view of the world has deeply shaped my own.

Steph and I were talking about how you figure shit out in your life, and we broke it down to two basic principles:

Firstly, you have to be able to simplify things, to get down to the essential nature of the issues that face you. If you're considering the question of capital punishment, you have to take that down a step further -- is killing okay? Cause if you're going to say killing isn't ALWAYS bad, that's an important part of your worldview. But if you can't get from the specific case of capital punishment to the general case of killing, you'll never be able to construct some sort of consistent view of the world and if you can't do that, you're just making decisions in the dark, with no way to LEARN anything.

Really, this is all about logic. If you can't think and argue with basic logic, you're screwed. I don't think I ever got taught basic logic, though. I think I picked it up through reading and stuff, but I'm pretty sure that nobody in, say, grade one or two, sat me down and said, "Look, here's how you assess a position and compare it with another." And that would have been helpful.

The second basic principle is being able to complicate things. Yes, that's the opposite of the previous one. You need to be able to bring in as many relevant data points as there are, and for any reasonably complicated issue, that's going to be a huge number. To take our previous example of capital punishment, there's obviously all kinds of considerations -- how much does it cost to execute someone versus how much does it cost to keep them alive, or which method punishment actually deters crime more? If you can't generate significant numbers of these sorts of points around any decision you're trying to make, you're operating with insufficient data, and that NEVER works very well for very long.

How do you do that? By being creative. You gotta have imagination to think up all the things that could possibly affect any given situation. You need the ability to throw your mind out and just make shit up. If you can't make shit up when it's called for, you are once again screwed. And again, I don't know that anybody taught me this -- and it IS a learnable skill.

In part, I learned both those skills from Sir Arthur's books. His ideas were so rooted in actual science that you could learn a great deal from them -- most of what I know about lunar geography (which is probably enough to surprise a Lunarian) I learned from Earthlight and A Fall of Moondust. And from the coincidental fact that I was born on the first anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Where was I? Right, logic and creativity and Sir Arthur.

So his books feature actual science, so that when he describes something, you could actually go look it up and find that whatever he'd said about it would be largely true, if expanded a bit from existing knowledge. But at the same time, he had some pretty radical ideas -- Childhood's End remains one of the most spectacular views of human destiny I've ever encountered (and is possibly the greatest science fiction novel of all time). And a lot of the social ideas in books like Imperial Earth or Rendezvous With Rama seem even now to be right out on the edge of what anyone would publish. Maybe especially now, given the current conservative climate round hereabouts.

Anything was possible in his stories. I remember one (forget the title) about a form of space travel that involved bending space like an inside-out donught around the traveller, so that you could travel a short distance to you that covered light-years in space. Or the space elevators in Fountains, or even the pursuing allosaurus in that short story with the jeep and the test station. I forget what it's called.

Reading Arthur C. Clarke taught me two of the most important skills I ever acquired, and made me believe that one day we'd see the surface of Titan ourselves. And what do you know.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Naginata = Badass

After a few days of having assorted Katori Shinto Ryu videos up on Google Video, it turns out that everyone loves Naginata. That's understandable. Naginata is cool:



If you don't think that's cool, I got nothing.