Monthly Archives: February 2011

Some Rules of Amateur Journalism: from a completely unqualified non-journalist.

Wisconsin is a total mess right now. You know the type. It’s a scene from a movie. Two sides gnashing their teeth at each other, spouting slogans, sharpening knives, yelling unintelligible things in incomprehensible languages at each other.

Okay. It’s not quite that serious. Well – in my opinion it’s pretty serious but it’s actually quite civil which is shocking in this day and age. It is heated. It is impassioned and what’s more it has quite a few of my Facebook friends scurrying about like mad trying to stock up ammunition like a winter war between school kids. This includes me.

So, seeing as we are all acting the parts of amateur journalism, and seeing as i am probably the least qualified individual to write such a thing i figured i would supply a small primer on how to conduct yourself in your search for said ammunition. Please take into consideration – in case you missed it – that i am entirely unqualified for this job and have absolutely no journalism experience whatsoever. The following are simply rules of thumb gleaned – as always – from an overactive brain that is presently completely untaxed by the rudiments of active employment.

1. Always consider your source –

Sources may come in a vast array of forms, dizzying to the eye, tantalizing to the ear. They are the equipment of your snowball building, ammunition gathering endeavors. They may promise to be the ‘snowball maker T3000’ and turn out to be the doofus without gloves on the playground. Every source has a reason that they are sources and it is critical that you learn what that reason is before dancing gleefully into the giant pile of mint garnished horse shit they have just laid before you. This includes governors, editorialists, protestors, senators. Let’s just say anyone.

2. If it smells like bullshit and looks like bullshit there’s a really good chance that it’s bullshit (in spite of the garnish)

Bullshit is terrific sculpting material if you know how to use it and many of the people you will listen to have taken a masters level course in the medium. They are much better at making a pile of bullshit look like a duck and make you admire it while they make quacking sounds in the background. It will take some training on your part to discern when something is bullshit or not, particularly when someone has put so much time and energy into making you think it’s a duck. This is where the first rule comes in.

In the case of the present crisis, just as an example, the governors continual quacking about this issue being a matter of economy and money seems to be masquerading the fact that the people on the other side have already conceded that point. It might be a little complicated on that score because if you notice the pile of bullshit that it’s all about money you might not notice the other pile that says that the money issue was created entirely by the same guy who is quacking, and who constructed both smelly ducks.
And if you do have the aesthetic discernment to notice the first two smelly ducks, it still might not be enough to notice the third one which is that the whole thing has been expertly sculpted by the Michelangelo’s of the medium – the Koch brothers. In a way, the Governor himself is simply their sculpture – an employee hired to do exactly as he is doing. He has a job to do. He was hired to do it. If he doesn’t do it he will be fired.

Now – as a source here you SHOULD be able to see my perspective. Proceed with caution but please do proceed. If you succeed at reading through this and can spot the angle then you have gone a long way towards learning how to discern information.

3. Statistics are usually the expert disguise of bullshit.

Everybody – and most sources – will use statistics to bolster their points. Take a statistics course. Statistics are a way of interpreting facts. Imagine a fact (the thing you will eventually wish to find) Now imagine the same mint garnished pile of bullshit wearing a fact coat and a fact moustache. Now you have statistics.

This is not to say that statistics are necessarily wrong or misleading but lets be brutally honest here – you will only read and take any interest in them if they support your premise. Sometimes, if you’re honest, you may use a statistic to equivocate your point and actually use them as information. This is not a bad practice. First it gives you the illusion of a genuine interest in reality, and second it expertly masks the bullshit that you yourself are trying to write.

63% of all journalists use this method. In an average poll of AP journalists it was determined that 43% prefer, however, to use the particularly biased version while 22% will refuse to use statistics of any kind unless they can be independently verified by a totally impartial observer (and thus they never use statistics of any kind because that observer is a myth concocted by 3/4ths of the general population.)

4. A fact is more precious than gold. Anything that you actually get someone to say is a fact. The contents of that statement may not be but if you can legitimately have a record of them saying it it is a fact. Your job is to collect these facts. If you state that the Journalist Bismark Von Stinkypoo said thus and such on such and such a date that may be a fact, provided that Mr. Von Stinkypoo actually did say it.

Facts are something that can be independently confirmed. All you need to do to prove a fact is find the instance of it’s veracity. If someone said something and it’s on record – such as a phone call – then it has been established as fact. The fact that Ahmadinejad is a liar can be proven by finding a homosexual in Iran. If you can find one, and i’m certain that you can, you will prove that Mr. Ahmadinejad has the capacity for lying and in the instance where he stated “there are no gays in Iran” he was lying.

When Anderson Cooper presented Hosni Mubarek as a liar he was stating an independently verifiable fact. There is nothing wrong with this. It may be seen as unseemly by other reporters to whom stating facts is subservient to the demands of having access to a source (and thereby being a willing recipient and conduit of the aforementioned bullshit.) but it is representative of fact.

For instance, the Governor of Wisconsin recently took a call he believed to be David Koch. This is a fact. What this fact represents is stunning if and only if:

5. Use your brain to draw conclusions:

This is the tricky part because your conclusions are, in the final analysis, your own sculpture of bullshit. They are your perspective, the conclusions which the tiny breadcrumbs of fact have led you to. This is the subjective enterprise of amateur journalism. It’s the whole reason you do what you do because in the end you then become the source. You see? Full circle. IF you reduce the amount of bullshit included, recognize the bullshit of others, and faithfully point out what steaming piles of it lie around so that others do not misconstrue them as cute little duckies then you have done your job.

One final note on sources:A source wants to be heard. A source also really wants you to believe that what they have to say is fact and not bullshit. But first and foremost they want to be heard. Some sources – like Rafid Ahmed Alwan Al-Janabi (code named Curveball) presented this bullshit, told people it was bullshit and then was stunned to learn that people who should know better thought it was fact. Some people, like Glenn Beck conjure bullshit out of thin air (which is impossible by the way, it has to come from the south end of a bull and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) then molds it before you, points at some empty point in space and say’s ‘look it’s a bunny!’ This is not an acceptable use of the medium and should be frowned upon by anyone with a degree of sense. In fact if you are duped by this use of the medium you really need to go get your head examined because you have actually disconnected from reality. There are, however, several people out there who claim to have this magical talent. You have been warned.

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An Accidental Education: Games and the Real World, Etc.

As a writer and former devotee of fantastical works of fiction i have an uncomfortable relationship with the entertainment diaspora of video games. I should say straight out that i am also an avid gamer. This is not the same thing as saying i truly like them. They are still mostly a distraction, a diversion, and sometimes a complete and total waste of time. What interests me most about them is their potential. Games, like most writers, would be graded with the dubious distinction in the classroom of ‘not living up to their potential’ – a remark i’ve heard many times on my own report cards from when i was a lad of 15 – lo these many decades ago.

The trouble with video games is that they are not literature. Literature aims at explaining ourselves to ourselves, deepening the experience of our reality through identification with others. Games, on the other hand, accidentally stumble into a strange form of education. Well, some of them anyway. Most of them only educate you on the best way to dispatch zombies. But see i’m one of those management RPG gamers. I love The Sims, Civilization, the Total War epics, etc. Anything where you build empires and attempt to maintain and grow them is my thing. The war and killing stuff – ehn. You could leave that out of them and i would still be a pretty happy world builder.

Literature, you see, often stumbles into the human psyche, telling us a lot about ourselves and how we view the world and overcome our own foibles on a very personal level. Games, because they aren’t literature and generally aren’t written by those with a literary mind, don’t do this much. Sure there are the story games that come pretty close: Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, etc. But for the most part they fall short because they are predicated on adversarial relationships of a violent (and entertaining) nature. Connection and real interest in the characters is often wanting – in the extreme. Therefore, truly interesting connection with the story isn’t really possible. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe reading, because it’s such a personal journey of the mind, can’t and shouldn’t be supplanted by games, but for an avid reader and a middling gamer i could use a little more.

Which finally brings me to the subject at hand. One thing i have noticed that games do very well is provide an opportunity to grasp difficult concepts in an informal and entertaining manner. The empire building games i love have really sparked my imagination and made me wish that even those games could do it better. Empire: Total War can be interesting in a way that a lecture on Napoleon and the age of Empires couldn’t. (unless you’re me of course) And the game itself is just deep enough to make it desirable to want to learn more. Age of Empires can teach about resource management and sustainability if you let it, and who could forget about trying to problem solve your way through the traffic snarls of SimCity?

I don’t believe that the designers of these games attempted much more than trying to make a lucrative game that would be widely engaging enough to make oodles of dough. That said they somehow stumbled into a way to teach real lessons about real things.

Lately i have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. True to form i don’t just play. Well… I do – while i’m playing it, but whenever i log off i am flooded by the sociological, anthropological, and theoretical. I’m taken in by where it COULD take me if it were more developed and more focused and less bent on rampant entertainment. What i have learned, so far, about World of Warcraft is that it is a crash course on capitalistic entrepreneurism. Every character created and every player behind those characters, want what we all want – to acquire stuff, to be legendary, to be heroes. But within the world of Azeroth the primary means of this legendary status seems to be capitalistic. You buy your way to the top, by making things and selling them on the market – often attempting to manipulate the market in your favor.

The game itself, in terms of the stories it tells, has quite a bit of morality to it. Every race of characters has a story and it’s easy to sympathize, but the primary means of moving through the story eventually becomes economical. I don’t think of this necessarily as a bad thing. I mean, it’s a game and it’s always important to remember that (as some occasionally seem to forget) The fact remains, however, that there is more that games COULD do, if the writers were there to work on them. The stories COULD become a great means of interacting with a world that is more or less in your control, and the morality and ethics of the training that is possible if the world were well written could be an invaluable resource to a world that is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day and each bit of information shot across the world. Can you imagine, for instance, a conservative christian playing as a Paladin banding unwittingly with a conservative muslim to save a virtual home from a raging force? It’s these possibilities that could be better explored and i hope will be.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what video games are capable of but i think, in a way, these educational moments will have to remain accidental and not heavy handed. Technology seems to have thrown open the doors on the possible and shown where it crosses with the intentional and the accidental. We’ve concocted an entirely new realm (sometimes literally) where people learn quickly how to adapt the new tools at their hands and put them to a qualitative purpose. I’d like to think the best of this technology. In the past few weeks we’ve seen how it has started literally changing the world we live in. For a while now i’ve been saying the days of ‘Wars for Regime Change’ can finally be put behind us once we start securing the right of people to information. Instead of dropping bombs, drop servers, bandwith, tweets. Yeah. I know that’s a little fantastical and delusional but we have yet to fully discover just how delusional that is – particularly when the power of thought expressed, shared, and evading dictatorial repression has just moved two mountains in the past month.

So what can Games teach us? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about others? Perhaps it will take a virtual world to teach us the value of the real one? Perhaps it will take Orcs and Taurens and Gnomes and Elves to teach us the absurdity of racial divides within ourselves? Who knows. Right now i can honestly say that Warcraft alone is fully capable of teaching us the intricacies of markets in a way the stock ticker on TV never could. I don’t know if thats a good thing or not but it’s more than i had before – particularly in regards to a subject i could have cared less about a month ago.

Now if you’ll pardon me i have to go check on how the Mageweave Cloth market is doing today and i’ve heard there’s a run on Iron Bars which i just happen to have on inventory.

Categories: Deep Thoughts, Video Games | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Think This Scene Is Killing Me

I haven’t had a blog post in over a week. This is an admission of writers block. Shocking. Get over it. It’s not that i haven’t been busy writing. I have. The trouble is my ‘busyness’ has primarily consisted of staring at a two page bolt of screenwriting text and asking it far too many questions. As you might imagine this isn’t exactly productive as the text never answers me. It simply stares back at me, though i am convinced the light beaming at me from the computer are mucking about in my brain and twisting it into strange, ugly, shapes like play-doh.

Before i get into all of that let me do what all writers are guilty of: Use a flashback as a cliched literary device. So a few years back my friend and i collaborated on a screenplay. The initial idea was entirely his but due to several circumstances that were tragic and entirely out of my control, i wrote it. So the fault is entirely mine. It was my first attempt at writing a screenplay. I did a little research on how it was supposed to be done (a very little research) and then i just wrote the hell out of it. Literally.

A screenplay is an entirely formulaic affair. There are formal rules on what it’s supposed to look like, the font used, the margins, etc. It turns out that there are very good reasons why these rules exist but at the time i knew nothing of that so i wrote it how i thought it should look and i will say that the result was a predictable disaster of epic proportions. But that problem was fairly easily resolved with the help of some software that can handle that sort of stuff pretty easily. The other formulaic problems, not so much.

For starters the thing rambles on. And on. And on. It’s funny, heartfelt, and very good in parts but to be quite honest – as far as screenplays go – it’s a bloated epic. And that is my blitzkrieg flashback. Not much of one i know. So now we are in the process of revising it. It turns out my friend and writing partner on this project is very good with knowing what to edit. He’s actually put a lot of work into it (so it’s no longer entirely my fault, thank god.) But the fact of the matter is that we have engaged in a wholesale slaughter of our darlings to the point that the screenplay that was is now on life support with a knife in it’s lungs. The screenplay that is is much leaner, much better, and it’s quite capable of fighting back.

This is why i haven’t posted anything in the past week. I have had my fingers around the neck of a set of scenes in the thing but it is resisting surgery, or arrest, or detention, or whatever. In fact it is tenaciously clinging to life and snarling, and biting and trying to gouge out my eyes as i work on it. I have foolishly engaged in days worth of internet research trying to get reality to work with the plot. (don’t ever do this. Proceed in the bliss of complete ignorance until… oh what do i know? It’s too late for me to give advice on that.) This research has led me into interesting avenues about things i should have remained ignorant on for my entire life: North Atlantic Fishing Zones, Commercial Fishing Seasons, Distances from Halifax Nova Scotia to Greenland, the range of the Eastern Canadian Wolf, etc. It’s actually interesting stuff – probably because i have to be interested in it. But the fact remains that the scene has not moved. It is resolute. It wants to kill me.

I understand that it’s all a matter of self defense and preservation. That doesn’t make it any easier. Apparently, somewhere along the way i made the mistake of bringing an eraser to a knife fight. Luckily the screenplay has so far only succeeded in hacking at my hair and turning it gray. I keep trying to reason with it but it may be that i have to take the nuclear option and just blow up a scene or two to get them out of the way so that i can proceed.

The stupid thing is, and if you’ve ever worked on a screenplay before you will fully understand this garbage, the scene that i am currently stuck on is probably less than a page in length. It’s hardly a scene and it isn’t exactly pivotal, but when your dealing with the tiny literary real estate of 100 pages every single page is a critical organ or a vein that, once nicked, will bleed out the whole patient.

So maybe i am making too much of this. A better writer will probably put it on a shelf for a while and work on other stuff but this writer is stubborn and unruly and insists that the operation must commence so i can move it off of my operating table and onto something else. If only i had some ether i could put it out and start the incision. But no.

So that’s my excuse. I have another one but you’ll have to read about it in the next post.

Categories: Movies, Writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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