Sunday, October 24, 2010

Worlds Meet


TV Points Finger At Contractors

When the new FOX series Nikita premiered in September, it became the sixth series to feature the idea of a contracting industry that grows uncontrollably beyond government constraints. We dare to ask if fiction writers see this threat, why many government policy people and most media continue to ignore the problem.

In the climax of the opening episode, Nikita, a former operative of the Division rescues an African leader from an assassination attempt by her former employer. Nikita told the African leader that he was the target of a rogue department created by the government, which no longer maintained that control. The Division started as a Blackwater-like secret ops organization with specialized ninja-like rangers.

Contracting firms like Blackwater, now called Xe, are hired by the government to handle protection as bodyguards, accompany convoys of trucks and even gather intelligence from areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nikita became the sixth series recognizing contracting firms as a threat. The CBS series Jericho (which ran from 2006 to 2008), showed the culprit of a contracting firm called J&R that could destroy US towns in order to preserve national security. The season before it ended, 24 (FOX) presented a contracting firm that decided the national interest called for smuggling nuclear material into Washington D.C. along with a seizure of the President. Both Flash Forward (ABC) and The Unit (CBS) demonstrated the ability of those rogue corporations to subvert the FBI, CIA and national security forces. This year’s The Event (NBC) casts a president kept out of the loop by such a threat.

Yet the problem of such corporations is being ignored by most people. Blackwater was temporarily banned from working in Iraq when a series of citizen killings alienated the Iraqi government. But the ban was short lived and the company was called back because the Pentagon considered its work necessary for national security. When a key writer for The Nation detailed how Blackwater’s founder was implicated in murder in an August 4, 2009 article, the warning produced little attention. One court even suggested that the black ops people were outside of any US jurisdiction. We should dare to ask if these corporations are exerting even more unseen influence and perhaps exert power to suppress information.

Blackwater or Xe, or Blackwater Worldwide, which it was before becoming Xe, lies at the tip of a threatening iceberg. The Center for Public Integrity reported that since 1994, the Defense Department entered into 3,601 contracts worth $300 billion from 12 corporations like Xe. Arguments claim these corporations are an inevitable measure to save money. However, those comments don’t explain how paying a Xe contractor $600 a day while billing the government for $900 day compares to using standard army personnel.

A recent NPR report described the death of a Taliban leader during a strike. Oddly, the report also indicated the Taliban leader code-named White, was a black ops contractor. So when we see reports like that spotlighting our supposed enemies as those we placed to protect us, maybe departments like the Division, or Jack Bauer’s foe, might not be as fictional as we think.

The threats abound. Is the cloak of protecting the country’s national security a massive cover for deciding the course of history without giving the public a voice in the decision? Dare we ask if the average Roman worried about seeing the Praetorian Guard around his leader? Did he fear that those guards might one day seize power without regard for democracy?

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of cinemovies.fr

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!


A Vampire for the Times

Season 3 of the critically acclaimed HBO series True Blood introduced us to Russell Edgington, the Vampire King of Mississippi and the big bad guy of the past season. After watching Russell in action throughout the course of season 3, I thought to myself that if Edgington had actually existed in the real world, he would have fit in extremely well in our current world order. We live in an age where we are reminded of the threat of another terrorist attack either internally or externally almost on a daily basis. The divide between rich and poor continues to grow at an alarming rate, and politicians and other religious and societal leaders preach unity and togetherness, but actually practice divisiveness, power mongering and hypocrisy.

On the surface, Russell Edgington (played with gusto, excellence and a touch of camp by Denis O’Hare) seems to be a cool, cultured blue blood of a vampire. He also donates regularly to the American Vampire League, a political organization that is trying to do their best to co-exist peacefully with humans. And he tolerates the Vampire Magister, the judge and jury of internal vampire disputes, although he finds the Magister and his ways archaic and prohibitive.

But Edgington’s fa├žade belies a bigoted, Machiavellian nature. Edgington sees vampires as the superior life form, and according to his world view, humans and the other supernatural species that inhabit the True Blood world are only good for food and/or slave labor. At close to three thousand years old, Edgington has been a part of many crucial moments in the history of the world, even going so far as to employ werewolves to do his bidding while roaming Europe and while masquerading as a Nazi during World War II.

While Edgington wants vampires to take, what he believes to be their rightful place on the top of the food chain, he won’t hesitate to sell out his own kind for money and power. Some examples include giving and selling vampire blood to both humans and werewolves, and exposing the Vampire Queen of Louisiana’s dire financial state of affairs so that he could marry her, take over her territory and her V (the term for Vampire blood) business.

In an act of revenge, vampire Eric Northman, kills Talbot, Edgington’s consort in response for Edgington and his werewolves slaughtering Eric’s family in Sweden close to one thousand years ago. This causes Edgington to go off the deep end and exhibit his true vampiric nature. On national TV, Edgington disrupts a news broadcast, eviscerating the host on live TV. He goes on to declare that vampires are the dominant species, and that humans need to beware.

Edgington’s subsequent action causes anti-vampire sentiment and hate crimes to skyrocket. The American Vampire League denounces him as an extremist and a terrorist and declares that the brazen act of one vampire is not an accurate or fair representation of all vampires. Hmmm, where have we heard that before?

While Edgington’s actions on True Blood are heightened and exaggerated, the real world messages and analogies are clear and unmistakable. When a terrorist act occurs, it’s easy to give in to fear and assume that an entire ethnic or religious group is responsible rather than a select few extremists. Or that a select few that have power and influence, are above the rules and laws of their governing body and will do what they need to keep and consolidate their power (such as the AIG’s, Citigroup’s and the Bank of America’s of the world), even if it means exploiting those less fortunate.

Edgington has no use for government of any kind whether it’s the old school Magister or the American Vampire League, unless it benefits him in some way, shape or form. In order to consolidate his territory and power, Edgington forces the Magister to marry both he and the Vampire Queen of Louisiana. After the Magister performs the ceremony and threatens to report Edgington to the Vampire Board, Edgington kills him.

While not as drastic or visceral, we’ve seen this mentality countless times in the real world too. The Republicans and many Tea Party members use it as a mantra. They want the government to get their hands out of Medicare, Social Security and the banks. But when something goes wrong (like the financial crisis of 2007 or a natural disaster) , they’re quick to jump back on the government bandwagon only to go back to their “hands off” government approach once the problem is fixed. I know that many Wall Street brokers, credit card companies and mortgage lenders are baring their fangs because of all the new regulations that have been imposed upon them. But like Edgington, they have found loopholes and ways around the current restrictions, even going so far as to give their top executives nice, big bonuses this year.

In the end, many of us are just like the vampire. Despite our best attempts to be civilized and politically correct, when push comes to shove and we feel threatened or in a position of superiority, we turn our minds off, and show our basest, most savage natures.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of trueblood-online.com

Friday, September 24, 2010

Words Come Alive


Build Your World

You have characters that knock your socks off, and a fast paced plot, but whatever atmosphere your story fills, dare we ask how to complete it with a consistent world?

Worldbuilding requires detailed attention that forms the landscape your characters inhabit. The world casts an umbrella of social beliefs and traditions that framed the character’s family before he was born. And that world’s system of housing, transportation or even food distribution will affect the movement of the plot.

So how do we create a checklist of items to consider as we erect our world? A starting point could be the science of the world. Which item appears drastically different in the story’s world? For example, let’s play with the idea that the story occurs on a planet without metals.

Let’s view this planet’s societies through that lens. Where do we go from that point? One idea might be to form a checklist and think of the letters representing Social, Political, Ideological, Cultural and Economic factors, or SPICE.

Without metals, the societies would not meet a Bronze or Iron Age. How would they develop writing with weaker stone tools? That problem would affect the growth of social groups. Would they find an alternative to stone carvings that allowed some members to communicate and then become a hierarchy? If the absence of metal promoted stone works to the most useful material, would communities grow around stoneworks?

The political development would depend on the way the society shaped from the agricultural transition from hunter gatherer. Would the weakened tools allow for a steady growth of farmers to support a city-state? What shape would that city take without metals? What weapons would the leaders use to maintain control? Would forces of spear carriers be replaced by sling-shooters?

The ideology of the society would be affected by the lack of metals. If stoneworks were the hardest material for construction, then mythology might develop around stone workers, or stone gods. Would valleys that lacked stone quarries form alternative religions? Much of Earth’s philosophy has emerged around the disagreement over whether people were naturally evil or good. Would the metal-less world discover a philosophy based on a knowledge of stoneware so that the people thought goodness or evil arose from a deeper understanding of rocks?

Cultures depend on art and music to further the aims of the society. Would the metal-less society find an alternative to paper since the cutting of trees for the resource would be more difficult than on Earth? Would the society find a grain that could be used as papyrus for writing material? If stones were reserved for the upper class or priests, then stones might not be used for popular music. The society might focus on reed instruments.

The economic world could face obstacles. The making and transporting of products would require new methods. Without metals, the axels of wagons would be difficult to construct. Wood could be used, but cutting trees would be a problem to overcome. Once axels could be fashioned, then systems of transportation could bring goods to parts of the society. But other methods of making goods would have to be designed. Without furnaces, would the society be able to reach the industrial age? Could they bypass it by constructing goods in another manner?

These considerations show many obstacles exist for a writer going through the thought process of creating a world. But writers could bypass the lack of metal if science allows a substitute. Could diamonds be discovered in a plentiful amount so people could construct tools from the gem? What if people found the ability to control EM fields through mental thought? Then the potential of controlling plasma could form tools and weapons. If people channeled wind currents, forms of wind shields could be developed to erect protection for homes or used for weapons against armies.

Worldbuilding requires thoughts and details that arise from thinking through the implications of how the science plays out on the planet. From that beginning, a checklist of concerns like SPICE acts to assist writers in finding those details. That way, the characters in a moving story can strike out in a more complete way to engage the reader.

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sample_conworld.jpg

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Response Meter


The Data to Cover All Your Bases

Whether you work in the business-to-business or consumer publishing and media world, having up-to-date demographic information on your subscribers and members is vital. The more information you have on a particular subscriber, the easier it is for circulators to effectively market to that person. And while it’s necessary to keep up with any changes to your subscriber database either internally or with the help of an outside fulfillment house, there are other databases that every company whether big or small, should also have in their stable.

The first is what is called a Reserve or Hold file. This file is composed of people that a publisher or CEO feels does not exactly fit the exact demographics of the magazine, website, or newsletter. The people in a Hold file could also be put there because the publisher does not want to exceed his or her rate base. The Hold file is an important file to have and to continually update because it gives a publisher or CEO a well to pull from in case the rate base is running low. It’s also a good source for audience developers to use, especially if their brands are in competitive markets and they are running low on key demographic stats that are important to their advertisers.

Any expires or subscribers that have cancelled or dropped their subscription should also be kept in a separate database and segmented for promotion at a later date. If you’re trying to meet rate base and have depleted your budget to purchase lists, an Expire list is a good source to have. Promotion to these names usually involves an incentive to get these former subscribers back into the fold. Some ideas include a percentage off an annual subscription or giving them a “special” issue or a number of issues for free.

And the last important database that every publishing or media company should have is a Pass-along database. These are the names of people that your current subscribers think would benefit from your company’s products, whether the product is a magazine, enewsletter, digital edition, an event, or a webcast. Pass-along names are important because they are usually the same, highly qualified, targeted colleagues of your current subscribers.

Now, more than ever, having highly targeted, up-to-date and integrated lists are a key to success. With the economy still struggling to right itself and a finite amount of advertiser dollars up for grabs, it’s vital for circulators to have as much demographic information as they can across all of the above lists. Name and address is great, but information like email address, phone number, title, etc. can help target Circulation promotions and also help Sales with lead generation programs.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of xbaseview.com

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Laughs Abound


Washington DC — Supreme Court Rules on Children

In a move to placate activists who want to control children of illegal aliens, the Supreme Court ruled on a wide range of issues that change the status of children.

The activists wanted a decision that changed the status of children born in the country to illegal aliens. Like most civilized countries, the US has held through the 14th Amendment that children born in the country were citizens. However, the activists wanted to focus on the word illegal that described the parent.

To widen the scope, the court ruled that all children would have to change their heritage. From the end of this year, new born Asian-Americans would be classified as Africans. Those born from African-Americans would be called Latinos. Those of European decent would be characterized as Asians.

“This isn’t what we wanted,” said a spokesman from Keep the A in America, a group that feared losing some of the letters of the name of the country. “We just wanted to bar citizenship from those who had illegal parents.”

The court has acted to answer some of those demands. In the future, children who have a parent convicted of speeding will not be able to drive cars. “Those foreign cars are just flooding the borders,” said Manny Fold. “If the Federal Government doesn’t stop all of this illegal activity, we’ll spot check each car to make sure it’s a Detroit make.”

The court has also declared that a child from law breakers will not have the right to buy food in a supermarket. “Those kids are taking food away from decent law abiding citizens,” said the leader of the group, Keep American Food Safe. “Our shelves are lined with too much of that fancy Italian cheese anyway. Who needs all that greasy olive oil that spills on your hands?”

Local police forces are now instructed to forget about follow up with homicide and burglary cases. Rather they will have to check the pockets of children who leave supermarkets to make sure that they have legal parents.

“This should help the country make more local products,” said the leader. “It’s about time the police monitored the illegal import of those foreign sauces.”

Another item covered by the court bars children who have parents convicted in ponzi schemes from carrying money. “We don’t want those future adults threatening us with more ponzi gimmicks,” said Green Back. “These rules help keep money in the country and next year, we’ll go after all those people who carry around Euros and Yuans.”

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of Congressofhope.com

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Worlds Meet


Let The Fear Mongering Continue...

The good folks at CNN have decided to give Republican nominee for NY governor, Rick Lazio a platform to express his views about the funding of the mosque and cultural center slated to be built two blocks away from Ground Zero. I was a bit surprised that CNN would give a political figure like Lazio, who also happens to be running for a state office, a platform to express his political views and in essence, further help his campaign to become governor of New York State. But it wasn’t just the fact that CNN allowed Lazio a pulpit from which to preach, it was what Lazio was being allowed to say that was somewhat troubling and concerning. As I was reading Lazio’s “commentary”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the fear mongering days of the Bush Jr. administration, and I wondered why a “serious” news organization like CNN would agree to promote this type of attitude.

On CNN.com, Lazio declared that he believes that the proposed mosque scheduled to be built two blocks away from Ground Zero (called Park 51) should be halted until a full investigation into the motivations of one of the project’s co-founders, an imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf, be looked into strictly on the pretense that he is Muslim.

Unfortunately, in Lazio’s world, all Muslims are nefarious, evil doers and Park 51 is just a front so that Rauf and his cohorts can wage their jihad against an innocent, unsuspecting public. This is somewhat humorous considering that Rauf has been outspoken in his views against terrorism and terrorist behavior.
Heaven forbid if there might be a non-radical Muslim or group of Muslims out there that doesn’t support terrorism or groups like al-Qaeda or Hamas. There may even be Muslims that support Hamas but don’t advocate violence or radical behavior against the United States or any of its allies.

What Lazio and his fellow neo-conservatives are doing is not only polarizing an ethnic group, but perpetuating the stereotype that that all Muslims are dirty, out to get us, and are ready to strap a bomb to their backs to blow up innocent women and children. I liken it to the way the Japanese were portrayed during World War II as sneaky, slanty-eyed mongrels with big buck teeth.

It’s unfortunate that after all these years, that we as a nation are still driven by the same paranoia as we were years ago and susceptible to the same internal scare tactics. It’s unfortunate that we can’t look upon the mosque that is being built next to Ground Zero as a symbol of healing rather than hate. It’s a shame that we can’t realize that many Muslims and Muslim-Americans despise terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or Hamas for what they stand for, and feel that these organizations have only made it more difficult for them to be accepted into mainstream American society.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a moment of clarity when he opposed Lazio’s demands by saying, “Government should never — never — be in the business of telling people how they should pray, or where they can pray. We want to make sure that everybody from around the world feels comfortable coming here, living here and praying the way they want to pray.” President Obama also weighed in with his approval but then sadly felt the need to backtrack when he felt pushback from Republicans and other opposition groups.

That’s the real message we should be supporting and pushing. Media outlets like Fox News and now CNN, have chosen to harp upon the same archaic fear mongering tactics that promote separation rather than unity and ignorance rather intelligence. If Lazio is allowed to express his opinions, why isn’t CNN allowing an opposing viewpoint to be heard? There are millions of Arab-Americans living in our country who want to be accepted into mainstream American society and want to help contribute to the United States’ success. Instead of giving a few radical fundamentalists their moment in the sun and the opportunity to further their agendas, shouldn’t we giving those Muslims who have struggled to achieve the American dream and who have played by the rules, a moment to shine?

We should, but sadly we won’t as long as “fear” sells papers and generates hits to websites.

- Hamilton Maher

Images courtesy of news.yahoo.com

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Worlds Meet


The Seeker’s Nation Building

When the hero of last year’s television series, Legend of the Seeker, told his bodyguard that they had to detour from the major goal of saving the world of the living from the underworld, he thought about providing basic support for the local population. His comments could have mirrored the attempted nation building in Iraq or Afghanistan. Even if the end of the world came for the society within a day’s time, that day’s hours could be filled with suffering from hunger, roving bands of militia or torture. The Seeker’s idea focused on responsibility. Does an action only aim to counter the overwhelming obstacle, or does the action have a duty to give aid to immediate problems? The peasant about to be tortured may be one person, but his fear of death looks at the knife at his throat rather than the events of tomorrow.

Recent setbacks in Iraq have happened as the once patrolled streets in areas by local factions have stopped. The Sunni-led government has failed to pay the patrols that the US supported. In Afghanistan, US forces are seen as aiding a corrupt Kabul government. Those examples stem from a lack of nation building, or a way to build systems so local people have a say in security and progress.

Yet those issues were exactly what Richard as the Seeker saw as crucial. During a scene where the Seeker struggled to stop forces from the underworld from destroying all life, he teamed up with former enemies and discovered the aftermath of war. A former unit of the army fighting him turned to give him aid, and the fighting and torturing expert Mord’Sith — a blend of female Klingon, and ninja — became a bodyguard to protect him. But, before he resumed finding the answer to the ultimate destruction of his world, he witnessed villagers who were left without homes. Those people suffered from injuries and became filled with hate at the thought of working with anyone from another land.

The Seeker faced an option of focusing on using his new military power to claim the throne so overall destruction could have been avoided. But he told his supporters that they must first treat the locals because the results of war meant he owed a responsibility to those people.

Could that be a form of nation building? While his attempt answered a vision of being responsible, the action also set up ways to stop further chaos. Those villages would either support or oppose the future world the Seeker built. Without homes, they would live on the road, and maybe attack other villages for food or survival. Without treatment for injuries, possible plagues could threaten the area. Without trauma treatment, they might resort to a rage that stopped them from working with other villages in a common struggle.

So the Seeker was left with key tools of the military and logistical knowledge to tend to the villages. He could have used the troops just to stop creatures from preying on the villages, but that would not have solved the food shortage or calmed an anger directed at other strangers. He had other tools of logistics that allowed him to dispense justice between the villages and tools of observation about where food could be obtained. The Seeker chose to use the tools that would prolong the lives of the population over the tools of military force. The use of force is the key. Of course the Seeker swung his blade, but the purpose centered on protecting people. When a military questions whether protecting the population places its troops in danger, that military misses the real enemy. The enemy isn’t a danger to itself. The real enemy is that force that is hurting the society that the military hopes to protect.

So let’s look at the comparison. The people in Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling to regain ways to obtain food, shelter and overcome distrust. When the military is used to enforce the rules of questionable governments, disruptions often occur in the lives of the population. In Afghanistan, farmers resort to growing poppy. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, homeless people seek comfort from a warlord and the general person feels anger to the local government.

Maybe the question we dare ask is whether nation building happens only when we use the military or if it can occur by focusing on the population by making sure they have work, shelter and relief from the trauma of war.

The Seeker worried about a larger threat — that of his entire world being destroyed by the underworld. Maybe our larger threat is an underworld of terrorism and black markets.

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of beta.moviegoods.com

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Behind The Mask


Are Comics Still A Viable Medium?

The San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) has just wrapped up and as in previous years, most of the buzz generated by Marvel and DC had focused on their gaming, animation and movie news. Whether it was the introduction by Marvel of the cast of the upcoming Avengers movie or the promotion of DC’s upcoming Green Lantern movie or its fantastic trailer for their DC Universe Online game for the PC or PS3, the focus on the surface seemed to be about all things non-comic book related. In an age where print product consumption has steadily been dropping and the shift to games, social media, digital comics, movies and online has been consistently increasing, I wonder if the comic book in its purest, print form will continue to have a voice.

While movies, animation and games certainly dominated the talk at SDCC, according to Newsarama.com, Marvel had eighteen separate announcements concerning its comic book products and DC had seventeen. While the number of comics sold is down 2 percent compared to this time last year, their sales volume is up 1 percent compared to the year before, according to the June 2010/2009 stats courtesy of comichron.com. Of course part of that increase in sales volume is due to the fact that comic book prices have also increased over the past year, but to me the difference is relatively negligible and shows that comics are still a vital part of the overall comic media market.

Comic books need to exist whether they are in print or digital form. Not only is it necessary for the exploits of so many great characters to continue, but the writing and artistry in these books serves as the blueprint for their continuing adventures in other media, including movies, animation and games. For example, there probably would not have been a Planet Hulk animated movie without Greg Pak’s epic, fifteen issue masterpiece in the pages of the Incredible Hulk comic book, for example. Hell, there may never have been a Superman, Batman or Spiderman movie made if not for the decades and decades of amazing writing and art that came before it.

There’s no doubt that TV, movies and games generate big bucks for the Marvel’s and DC’s of the world (when done properly). As such, both companies will continue to invest big money to make sure these media properties prosper and continue to prosper.

Comic book fans tend to be a loyal and hardcore lot and also enjoy the feel of a freshly printed comic in their hands. That’s why I think comic book sales have not suffered as drastically as other print products such as magazines and newspapers. As long as comic book prices do not suddenly skyrocket to obscene levels, I think that that loyalty will remain, and overall comic book sales will not drop excessively.

But, I also think that the powers-that-be should understand that in order to continue to thrive, they will always need to have the comic book in some way, shape or form as a foundation. For as long as the comic book remains, other creators, whether they are game designers, directors or animators will have a treasure trove of stories and art to pull from. This will allow them to create their own visions, and at the same time continue and expand the mythos of so many great characters.

- Hamilton Maher

SDCC image courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Words Come Alive


Novels Require Translators

Readers might be swept away following the exploits of a former slave who started a Gandhi-like resistance in the 1850s. They might be amazed at how the former slave threatened the plantation owners’ militia. But the readers would become glassy-eyed if they had to follow the organizational chart of three economic groups that vied for power. Those readers could feel lost with the political infighting among Southern and Northern senators. So we dare to ask how the author becomes a translator to more effectively bring the reader into a complex story. Readers become engaged with people. In many ways the writer translates the forces in his story into gripping concerns that affect individual characters.

Translation means more than explaining words from one language to another. The term could mean explaining how specific people are affected by concepts.

Writing stories cries out for a blending of the characters with the concepts. But the focus has to lie with the characters.

Writers need outlines to prep for a novel, and those outlines are guided in part by the concepts in play, whether the story is an SF, historical romance, comedy or mystery. Themes such as the misuse of power, trusting the masses, the fear of technology or the loss of ethics, allow writers to develop variables around which characters can move.

But when the scene development arises, the writer has to translate the material into a personal zone. The outline frames the basics of the movement in the scene. For example, the writer might have listed that the protagonist needs to find an ally in the midst of a peace conference. The outline further could list that the conflict arises when the protagonist faces the disruption of the conference.

The author has to delve into the personalities of the characters to translate the material. That means explaining the connection between the protagonist and the drive for the peace conference. Why was he caught up in the peace effort? If the conference is disrupted, then who is the agent and what connection does the agent have with the protagonist?

Another level of translation has to occur. Once the writer has answers to those questions, he has to explain those answers in a certain way. He could simply tell the reader in some prose. Yet that usually comes across as slow and too distant from the action. The author could show the reader by having his characters act out or verbalize the answers to those needed questions.

Imagine the scene taking place in the following manner. The protagonist enters a conference room of the UN to find his contact on the floor, dying. The man whispers as he dies that he failed the protagonist’s goal. Medical supplies will not be brought to a key village, and a lasting peace will not be found. He regrets failing, and knows his death will stop the conference. As the protagonist rises, he discovers his lover, standing in the corner with a gun. She stopped his plans to help the village because she needed the supplies to be developed so they could have a larger quantity. She offers him the chance to use his skills at distributing medicine to a greater degree because the peace conference would have held up development of the medications.

When writing a novel, the author might have wanted to show how ethics and peace could be entwined, but the application of the theme has to be translated into personal terms. Take the concept in the outline. Find the key force that moves the central idea of the concept. Then find a way to show the protagonist dealing with those forces and ideas based on his personality traits. Dare we think like the translator who explains the words from another language? We aim to show the full picture, but we need to bring the concept into the story by showing how a character deals with those concepts.

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of clipartof.com

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Follow The Bouncing Brawl


The Next World Sporting Event

As the 2010 World Cup nears its conclusion and many avid soccer fans start to go into World Cup withdrawal, I dare to ask how many of these same fans will be gearing up for the next “world” sporting event - the World Baseball Classic in
2013. The answer is probably not too many. Even though the World Baseball Classic is in its infancy compared to the World Cup, the WBC planning committee should feel good about the strides made in generating both American and non-American fan interest to the tournament.

Whether it was fans of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Korea or the Netherlands, or whether they were native born or naturalized, fans came out in droves to support their team. Their fervor was electric and you could feel the passion they had not only for their team, but also for the sport itself. Unfortunately, outside of the 6-5 do-or-die comeback win that advanced the United States into the semifinals of 2009’s tournament, the passion from the American fans for their team and the tournament was lacking. I don’t think it’s because the average American fan is any less patriotic than a fan from a team like the Dominican Republic or Cuba for example, or is any less ardent about the game. I think the difference has to do with our priorities as sports fans.

Scheduling. I understand the need exists to hold the tournament either before or after the Major League Baseball season, but if I were part of the tournament committee, I would vote to play the WBC after the final game of the World Series. Sure, there may be players tired and a bit beat up, but these same players would be battle tested and in a weird way, less prone to injury because they would have been playing baseball consistently for a full six to seven months. And in the event of an injury, players would have the entire off-season to heal up.

Too Many Sports, Too Little Time. Unlike many of the Latin American, European and Asian countries competing in the WBC and the World Cup, the average American sports fan’s time is spent watching a variety of different major sporting events. There are college basketball conference tournaments going on, the NHL and NBA seasons winding down and playoffs looming, MLB spring training starting up as well as a plethora of golf tournaments all going on at the same time. For the fans from most of the other competing countries, there is one sport that they follow and play religiously right now, and that’s soccer.

Protecting The Investment. During the last WBC, there was a spate of injuries not only to the United States roster but to other MLB baseball players playing in the WBC for other countries. Fans and MLB clubs alike are growing especially antsy. Fans want to make sure their favorite player on their team of choice will be ready for the start of the MLB season. Clubs that have invested lots of money in a David Ortiz or a David Wright for example, also want to be certain that their investments are ready to go and are ready to generate lots of money for their respective organizations.

As a baseball and all-around sports fan, I hope that the WBC continues to grow and thrive and ultimately becomes as big as the World Cup. When you look at teams like those from the Dominican Republic, Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, you would be amazed to see how many players on these teams are playing in the Major Leagues. The WBC has shown how rapidly baseball is becoming a “global” sport. In the end, as long as the best players from each country are allowed to play and showcase their talent to the rest of the world (and with a little bit of marketing help), fans both from the United States and from other countries will slowly, but surely make their way to the ballpark. A USA win in the next tournament couldn’t hurt either.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy


Shantaram’s Healing

A scene in the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts shows a leader in a Mumbai slum faced with the necessity of exerting discipline on a wife abuser. However, the leader blends the punishment with healing. Roberts’ portrayal of the slum draws us into the need of using a philosophy of exerting discipline mixed with an understanding of inclusion while managing a large group of people.

With over 25,000 souls living cramped in a vise of flimsy huts and an overheated climate, the slum’s residents have to cope with the problems of overcrowding, illness and personal rivalries while suffering from a lack of food and medical help. Yet the spirit of the community thrives as the people willingly seek to comfort others or listen to a leader who adds to the spirit of harmony. We might dare to ask whether that spirit may have grown because of the philosophy of mixing healing with discipline.

When Joseph, a member of the community, beats his wife after a drinking binge, the slum’s leader, Qasim was faced by the need to show discipline for the actions. Once Joseph’s wife was rescued by neighbors to calm her and give emotional support, Qasim had to deal with Joseph’s destructive nature. Qasim ignored Joseph’s immediate need for water. Instead, he instructed people to give Joseph more liquor. Joseph was delirious, but still able to ignore his responsibility. Qasim was close enough to know Joseph’s tolerance. He administered more liquor until Joseph became sick. In the ensuing half a day, Joseph was routinely beaten with the same stick he used to beat his wife. A number of key neighbors took turns beating the wife beater.

However, eventually, Joseph’s behavior shifted, and met a different reaction from Qasim. Once Joseph realized he was becoming sicker and might have killed his wife, he became repentant. Suddenly, the same neighbors who punished Joseph, cleaned him up and soothed him with warm tea — the first he was able to sip despite suffering from dehydration.

The healing and punishment were linked together. Qasim realized that a society could not succeed in changing behavior without the two working together. Qasim acted very differently from many Western leaders. Any community requires a behavioral modification to deal with acts that hurt members. Yet, the usual concept is to divide the punishment from the healing. Keep the punishment going until some designated time way down the road occurs and then maybe think about how the member of society would be reintegrated with other members. Rehab is not in the picture in our perspective. Rehab is so spotty that very few real examples exist of how it works tied together with punishment in a cohesive systematic approach.

Joseph was not separated from society during or after the event. Our American prisons take the person away from society. The person becomes more of a hardened criminal and then the rest of society wonders why rehab doesn’t work. Joseph was forced to see the reactions by neighbors, not jailers. Qasim even planted the stick used to beat Joseph’s wife on Joseph’s hut so the man could see that instrument each day after the event.

Joseph was shown a practical way to remedy his crime. He was told that he would work extra hours for two months and save the money. Joseph would also be separated from his wife for that time so she could heal. Should his wife wish after that time that she wanted to leave Joseph, she would obtain that money he made. Joseph was drawn into the way he could make amends for his crime.

Qasim’s philosophy, part of the Indian slum necessity to share a communal struggle for life, brings the idea of healing right into the concept of punishment. They are not separate and if they are designed in a separate way, then neither works — that was the message from Qasim and Shantaram. Dare we ask whether we could bring part of that into the American way of life where courts, prisons and plea bargaining seem to ignore the role of healing?

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of notamystery.com

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Follow The Bouncing Brawl


Play Ball!

Of all the championships out there, the World Cup is the one tournament that can truly be called a “world” event. It is a tournament that can unite countries and fans of the game together in the spirit of competition. But with teams representing all seven continents, the World Cup over the years has also served as an extension of real world politics and real world strife. The Cup has helped spur nationalistic feelings to unprecedented and, in some cases, dangerous levels. I dare to ask, if this year will be any different.

Throughout its history, the magnificence and spectacle of the World Cup has been marred by ugly incidents between competing countries and has also borne witness to violent fans taking their aggressions out on their own players. Back in 1994, Columbian defender Andres Escobar was murdered ten days after his goal into his own net against the United States helped propel the U.S. to the next round. In 1962, the Italian and hosting Chilean team fought after Italian journalists wrote less-than-kind articles about their hosts. Both teams are back in the 2010 tournament. Numerous countries over the years have either boycotted the tournament due to war-time activity or because they were dissatisfied with the political or social views of some of its participants.

This year, a potentially volatile late round matchup with competitive and political implications could pit North Korea against South Korea. Although they are on opposite ends of the World Cup bracket, if both teams were to make it deep into the tournament, given the current military posturing that both have been exhibiting lately, a North/South matchup could cause an already tense situation to become explosive. Greece goes into the tournament hoping that a good showing might lift its country’s spirits during an economic crisis that has its citizen’s fighting in the streets and wondering if they will be bailed out by the European Union.

The tournament has yet to begin, and already there is some controversy and concern about security. During a friendly between Nigeria and North Korea, soccer fans stampeded outside of the stadium. The stampede caused fifteen people to be injured and is hopefully not an omen of things to come.

Will politics upstage the friendly spirit of competition this year? Will we lose focus of the fact that a record six nations from Africa made it into the tournament this year or that South Africa is trying not to become the only host nation to avoid not making it through to the next round. Will Italy become the first nation to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil won back in 1958 and 1962? Which nation will surprise all others and be the dark horse of the tournament?

These are the questions that I want to see make headlines. Let’s hope the participants in the Cup as well as their fans can check any other unnecessary baggage at the door.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of footballbits.co.uk

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy


TV Series Fight Fate

As the current TV season surges to its climax, in just one week we’ve seen Fringe’s Walter try to save a different version of his son from an alternative universe, Flash Forward’s Agent Noh hear that his path to avoid dying could not be changed, and The Legend of the Seeker’s Zed worry that his action to change the forces of evil would still lead to the prophecy of doom.

Fiction has viewers always clamoring for an alternative chance to redo a past act, but the philosophy in us asks whether any chance to relive a moment would only bring the same result.

Why have so many examples of speculative fiction this year decided to explore this theme? Fiction has reveled in the question. The remake of The Time Machine in 2002 showed that despite the protagonist’s best efforts, he was unable to prevent his love from being killed despite trying to change key events. Orson Scott Card’s novel Pastwatch included a scene where characters from the future attempted to delay Columbus’ ships from arriving at Hispaniola at a key time. They changed an event, but the ships still arrived as though the pull of fate was gravity.

Yet years after the passing of the Star Trek’s three series, questions about changing time erupt again. In this year, we have seen the concern that fate’s decisions cannot be countered by our best intentions. Fringe’s Walter rescued an alternative son when his boy died of a rare disease. But the events of the theft of the alternative son set in motion a war between the two universes. As the agents in Flash Forward try to avoid the destruction many have seen in a vision of the future, they are told that all the possible paths will lead to the same concluding event. Despite the Seeker’s faith in his abilities to make his own fate, he sees his friends always hurt by attempts to change a path that is foretold.

Fiction reflects the present world, the past and future too. In our world of tech advancements that require updates every micro-second, certainty is evasive. Since 9/11 the shock value of fear can drive people to think individual action would fail when it faces the inevitable. Individuals who worked in the Ground Zero cleanup thought the government protected their health. Yet many still are denied health coverage for sicknesses related to the cleanup. The public expected a quick victory against the forces of terrorism, yet the problems have increased. So the fiction verbalizes the fears, casting a father in Fringe, a protector of society in Flash Forward, and a fantasy knight in The Legend of the Seeker. Yet the question that plagues them gnaws at our being — we dare ask if we can find an alternative path to upset a seemingly powerful destiny.

- Tom Pope

Images courtesy of sesionvip.com

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words Come Alive


An Interview With Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams, American author who writes mostly in the world of science fiction, usually takes readers into a hard SF area, but always brings the vast scope of social interactions into his work.

Of his many series, the examples of Metropolitan and Dread Empire’s Fall show such an ability. While the protagonist in Metropolitan faces a source of plasm that operates as an energy supply for multitudes, the story hinges on how people vie for power to distribute the resource and how people can be corrupted by such power.

In the Dread series, Williams hard SF is on display as starship personnel need to use blood meds to cope with the force of gravity during deacceleration. He presents stable wormholes because power stations exist that distribute energy in the opposite direction of the incoming ship so the hole remains stable. Yet the course of a revolt occurs because of personal and social forces that divide interests or look down on certain castes.

This interview dealing with the novel, The Rift, asks Williams to comment on such social forces. While The Rift fits into the present world as a disaster novel, the scope unveils the various factions and forces at work in a society that can either hold that society together or threaten its survival.

Williams prompt to write The Rift began when he discovered the New Madrid faultline, a time bomb of a tectonic plate waiting to erupt into an 8.9 seismic quake. That fault stretches below New Madrid, Missouri, and crosses into parts of Tennessee and Arkansas. The New Madrid fault system was responsible for a major quake in 1811–1812 and may have the potential to disrupt the flow of the Mississippi River.

The Rift focuses on Jason, a white teenager and an African-American man on their journey down the Mississippi. Yet the canvas shows readers how fragile society’s parts connect to protect people. With communication cut, the restoration becomes an engineering problem while others crave a chance to profit from the misfortune. Some, like the Reverend Frankland, think that the end has come and souls are more important to save than lives. Sheriff Omar Paxton sees a chance to wipe out people who look different from the norm. Williams shows the obstacles in putting the pieces of society back together again.

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Daring To Ask: Walter Jon Williams, thanks for taking the time to answer questions about the techniques and concepts within the craft of writing about society. I’m sure your input will be appreciated by fans of fiction and those who see its application in the real world.

Before turning to specific areas, does the breakdown of society in The Rift strike you as being similar to the possible breakdown that could have arrived with 9/11?

WJW: More like Katrina, a ongoing systemic tragedy that goes on for weeks and months and possibly years. 9/11 was a horrible tragedy, but it was over within a few hours, the damage was confined to a small area, and society was disrupted but did not break down. New York is very much intact. But after the double-punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana was changed forever.

Daring To Ask: Even though the situation was different in the TV series Jericho, do you find the attempts at reconstruction of society as facing similar social obstacles?

WJW: I haven't seen Jericho, so I can't comment.

Daring To Ask: How would you characterize the breakdown of society in The Rift — mainly from which of the following —
a) local authority doesn’t have to be responsible to regional or national authority
b) social norms disappear
c) resources disappear, forcing people to think in survival mode

WSW: All three, plus shock, plus mental inflexibility. Shock prevents people from thinking clearly or understanding the scope of their problem. Mental inflexibility means that people are inclined to fall into old ways of thinking without considering whether those ways are relevant to the new situation.

Daring To Ask: Your cast of characters arises so you can describe the breath of the world you paint in the novel. What is the starting point to decide on where you want to have the characters? The geographic implications, ie Memphis, the social setting, ie Louisiana, the turf professionalism, ie military vs engineering?

WSW: I wanted to cover as much of the disaster as possible, and to do that I needed a lot of eyes. I chose my characters mainly for what their situation could bring to the story. I wanted engineers who could comprehend the scope of the catastrophe and act rationally, and I wanted people whose experience and preconceptions would produce different reactions. I wanted people who were right in the middle of it, forced to react to what was happening around them, not people detached and dispassionate.

Daring To Ask: Your protagonist represented a coming of age youth rather than a professional whose task was to reconstruct the destruction. What made you pick that type of person for the protagonist?

WSW: Well, I was looking for Huckleberry Finn. I wanted a reasonably normal, somewhat mischievous character who was young enough to react to the situation without very many preconceptions. I wanted a character who, through his own naivete, would recognize the madness that was springing up around him, and know to react against it.

Daring To Ask: Does that selection determine the focus of the novel?

WSW: I knew from the start that I wanted to do a modern Huckleberry Finn. Twain sent his character down the river to examine the follies and madness of his age, and I sent my character down the river for much the same reason.

Daring To Ask: By showing the whole canvas of the disaster, you could face the problem of moving into tangents far afield from the protagonist. How do you avoid that?

WSW: Actually there were some characters I wanted to write about who were cut for reasons of length. I wanted to do a character trapped in a hospital bed during the earthquake, and I wanted to do another from the point of a man trapped in the rubble of a hotel, slowly developing a relationship with the female rescue worker he can only here as a voice on the telephone.

I have to say that the best way to keep the narrative from wandering away into parts unknown is to exceed your word budget by 100,000. All the extraneous material will just vanish as you sweat to write about the important stuff.


Daring To Ask: Your canvas touched the lives of people to show how energy, food and supplies were affected by the disaster. That canvas showed multiple social groups and political factions. What advice do you give writers when they design a worldbuilding plan for such an event so they don’t ignore a key aspect of that canvas? Is there a checklist of factors to consider in the storyboarding plan?

WSW: You can start with simple items and trace the links required to bring that item to you and to keep it useful. With table grapes, you can think of the chain from the grower to the wholesaler, from the wholesaler to the market, from the market to you, and the electricity necessary to power the refrigeration that keeps the grapes wholesome. If any link in the chain is broken, you won't get grapes.

For "grapes," you can substitute any other item your character possesses. Food, furniture, clean water, appliances, vehicles.

I was also aided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan for next New Madrid Earthquake, which the Corps of Engineers kindly shared with me. They thought of all sorts of scary things that I didn't.


Daring To Ask: How does the level of social tension prior to the disaster affect the degree of social breakdown after the disaster? For example, the level of tension in the South has risen post healthcare passage and in part due to the rise of Tea Parties. Would a higher level of tension from that mean that the degree of breakdown in a disaster like The Rift would encounter even more of a breakdown?

WSW: Yes, very much. People are inclined to distrust their government until a catastrophe occurs, and the government then becomes their sole resource and they very much want a strong government with unlimited resources.

Currently we have people seriously talking secession and the forming of a second Confederacy. It's a daffy idea bound to lead to hideous tragedy, but if things were sufficiently disrupted, they'd try to do it.


Daring To Ask: What is the level of importance in restoring communication to aid restoration? What tools would have been necessary to help the protagonist, Jessica, or people in the camps to learn about their isolated situation compared to the entire picture?

WSW: Communication is good, but the communication has to involve useful information. If the information that gets out is wrong--- as happened in New Orleans, when people were told to go to the Convention Center, where there was no help for them--- then tragedy could result.

The best thing in an emergency is a functioning cell phone network. In Katrina, thousands of people called for help on their cell phones, but received no help because the cell towers had been blown down by high winds. What is necessary is for the government to mandate cell phones that will network together in the event of a catastrophe, so that messages can be passed along the chain until they reach a functioning tower.

Countless lives could be saved if this were instituted worldwide.


Daring To Ask: Your book came out pre-Katrina and the Iraqi reconstruction. Would responders who studied the book have been able to avoid some problems that New Orleans or Iraq faced in restoring the flow of life?

WJW: Katrina, certainly. The Iraqi reconstruction dealt with a issues that weren't a part of the novel.

What occurred to me after Katrina was that I had been far too optimistic in writing the novel. In my book, the atrocities were deliberate actions by evil men. When Katrina happened, the default response by those in authority was to kill a large number of black people and then blame the victims. This was a decision made by everyone from the President on down, and included the city's black mayor and his staff. This reaction was such a part of the culture that they didn't even have to think about it.


Daring To Ask: Your Rev. Frankland or Omar Paxton symbolize fundamentalists who drive on the fears of others and set up barriers. Would these characters have found similar ones in the breakdown of Iraqi life as the country struggled to reform? How would the Iraqi form of fundamentalism show a different face from that of Frankland?

WJW: If Frankland had armed his followers and told them to kill anyone who didn't belong to their church, I think this would approximate the situation in Iraq. Fortunately for the characters in the novel, Frankland was a little more ecumenical than that--- although, of course, he was still crazy.

Daring To Ask: What concepts did The Rift allow you to explore that differs from the worlds of The Praxis or City on Fire?

WSW: The big difference was that I was writing about real places, and the characters I put in those places had to be plausible. When people traveled from one place to another, they had to travel over a real map.

When I write SF or fantasy, I get to make a lot of it up.

Reality is harder!


Daring To Ask: You have played role games. In a way, your worldbuilding for The Rift allowed you to set up scenarios that went beyond usual research. What developments in the scenarios surprised you in how a character would act, or a situation would complicate reconstruction efforts?

WJW: As part of the research for the novel, I drove the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis. I visited the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station near Port Gibson, and I asked my guide how the station remained moored in the Delta where there was no bedrock for it to sit on.

The answer resulted in the sections of the book featuring Larry, the nuclear engineer.


Daring To Ask: The role playing games on videos offer users a different perspective — they are in control of the action rather than read from an author’s presentation. Does this mean that authors should try to develop some aspect of interactivity in novels, or are we speaking about two entirely separate audiences?

WJW: I deal with this very issue in my new novel, THIS IS NOT A GAME (Orbit, 2009), written about a game that begins to cross dangerously into reality. I can't really sum up my thoughts in such a short space, so I can only urge you to read my novel!

Daring To Ask: Can authors from novels devise more complex role games with three dimensional characters or would that change the control issue that users enjoy?

WJW: I like to think of my RPG characters as reasonably three-dimensional, whether player-characters or NPCs, so the answer would seem to be yes.


Image courtesy of walterjonwilliams.net

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Response Meter


The State Of The Audit

As publishing and media companies continue to shift their focus from print to online, they are also trying to find new and innovative ways to get their brands noticed. Audit companies like ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) and BPA Worldwide are also trying to find new techniques to keep themselves relevant in this ever-changing landscape. With the focus now on a company’s brand rather than their magazine(s), I dare to ask what auditing firms need to do to make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

When print advertising was king, the audit statement was a vital tool to measure the quality of a publication’s audience. Parts of the audit statement such as Paragraph 3a (Business/Occupation Breakout of Qualified Circulation) and Paragraph 3b (Qualification Source Breakout of Qualified Circulation) were especially important for advertisers. It allowed them to see the ages and sources of a magazine’s circulation and determine whether or not they wanted to spend money. Now with the shift to online, the name of the game is quantity and the different ways publishing and media companies are getting their brand’s products out to their target audiences.

While many media and publishing companies employ a variety of web tracking and analytic tools to track traffic and gather demographic information about their digital magazines, websites, online products, enewsletters, the social media sites that they are a part of, webinars, etc., there is still the problem of how to report and measure all the information based on all the different tracking tools out there. Audit companies need to be at the forefront to set and determine these guidelines.

This leads into another sticky topic for both business publishers and audit firms…integration. While there are still some publishing companies that rely on the print product and the traditional audit statement to entice advertisers to spend money with them, most companies are working on ways of integrating and reporting their data across a variety of products. Part of the problem is that this data comes from a variety of sources.

From an audit standpoint questions abound not only about the validity of the information, but how to list and report this data in order to sway advertisers to advertise or continue to advertise. It’s not enough to just show the number of visitors, page views, hits and unique visitors. Advertisers want and need to know as much demographic information about the people visiting these sites as possible.

The companies that can find a way to present this information in one dashboard will definitely have a leg up on their competition. The way that the information is ultimately stored and presented could also pave the way for a uniform integrated audit statement.

In the meanwhile, audit bureaus need to continue to work diligently with their clients to come up with these solutions as well as create new audit rules and guidelines in this new and integrated world order. With the economy still struggling to right itself, failure to do so could result in the few audit firms out there going the way of the do-do.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of bpaww.com

Monday, May 10, 2010

Worlds Meet


Know Your Enemy

The lines from Peter O’Toole, at the closing of the 1981 mini-series Masada from the world of fiction, could be used in today’s world of reality. As the Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva, O’Toole leaned over the fallen body of Peter Strauss’ character Elazar ben Yair, the Jewish leader. Silva bemoaned the suicide of all the Jewish defenders, but most of the tragedy struck from two sides only superficially knowing the other. Silva called the suicide a “waste” because he never intended to kill or torture the defenders. After a “public demonstration” a system could have been set up that pleased Elazar.

Masada shows the conflict between the Romans and Jewish fighters who positioned themselves on the cliffs of Masada, Israel, during 73 CE. When the Romans breached the walls, the defenders committed suicide because they feared imprisonment.

Silva regretted not knowing his enemy beyond the surface. He said his timing was off. He had pushed Elazar into a corner and forced the Jewish leader to convince his people that the Romans would kill them. He said Elazar failed to know Silva — that Silva was not the same enemy as a former Roman leader. Silva had failed to know Elazar would react by opting for suicide. Silva pointed to the need to placate the Roman Senate with a semblance of a victory that would have aided the peace talks in the future. But, the Jewish people believed they could not trust that situation. Neither side fully knew the enemy.

Silva failed to gain support from the Emperor for a peace deal that could have worked with Elazar. He failed to realize local commanders would incite the frail truce. And he miscalculated the way Elazar needed to control his people.

Such a scene opens up on today’s world of disputes between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders or the factional leaders in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Examples of only knowing the enemy superficially abound. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needs to strengthen his position against reformers. He blasts the United States. U.S. Hawks fear Ahmadinejad. Those Hawks then threaten to corner him with restrictions. The reality of the situation? Iran fears being surrounded by foreign powers and needs to flex muscles. Note that U.S. troops lie on Iran’s Western border in Iraq and on the East in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another example? Israeli leaders hear Palestinian threats. They set up more settlements. Palestinian leaders lose more support within their factions. Palestinian leaders become more vocal to gain support. Israeli leaders hear the language and increase the settlements. Whether as a sense of entitlement or a wedge in bargaining, the increase mushrooms as a result of the perception that the other side has been gaining ground.

Messages are meant for various audiences. When leaders speak, they address some issues at times because of a propaganda need. At other times, they might reach out to enemies. To misinterpret the driving force for the message means that the enemy will not be understood. Despite the background of being in a former war, people like Sen. McCain only see the surface. People who speak about negotiation or understanding a culture have often been called weak and naive. But like the Roman Silva, they fail to go deeper in seeing why conflicts arise. They have to dare to ask why the language of a message is made. Otherwise, like Elazar, they are committing suicide and wasting their efforts.

- Tom Pope

Masada image courtesy of tvshowsondvd.com

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Behind The Mask


The Next Wave of Comic Book Viewing?

I recently had enjoyed the opportunity to revisit a story-arc from Astonishing X-Men that I had loved reading back in 2004. The arc by Joss Whedon and John Cassadey was entitled Gifted and covered Astonishing X-Men issues 1-6. But instead of picking up those issues like I did back in the old days, I wound up seeing the arc as a motion comic courtesy of Hulu.com. While most comic book fans prefer a newly printed comic that they can hold in their hands, digital comics are also growing in popularity. I dare to ask if the motion comic might be the next big thing beyond digital.

For those who are not familiar with the motion comic, it incorporates the dialogue and art of a comic or comic book story arc along with elements of animation, a musical score, voiceovers and camera angles. Right now, there are only a handful of motion comics out there. The first motion comic was based on an independent comic called Broken Saints. DC Comics put out both Dark Knight and Watchmen motion comics to coincide with the releases of their movies. Along with Astonishing X-Men, Marvel also produced a Spider Woman motion comic and just released Extremis Iron Man (just in time for the release of Iron Man 2).

The reviews for motion comics right now are mixed. Some claim that the motion comic in its current form is just a cheap version of a full feature animated movie. Others claim that the voices, music and overall production value are just not up-to-par.

Another question that many ask is if the money that comic book companies invest in these motion comics will be seen in other ways. For example, will someone who sees a motion comic like Astonishing X-Men Gifted, go out and buy the Gifted trade paperback? Will they start becoming a new, steady reader of the comic? Right now, it’s way too early to know.

I know that my interest was definitely piqued while seeing the Gifted motion comic. It was a new and different way to re-discover a story arc that I had thoroughly enjoyed many years ago. And while I thought Marvel did an admirable job with the voices of the characters and with the musical score, there was definitely something stilted and lacking with the overall product. The addition of animation which should have heightened the viewing experience was at times not very fluid causing character’s expressions to be creepy and their movements jerky and awkward.

Marvel, DC and other comic book companies need to decide whether they want to invest more into the overall animation and production value of these comics and at the same time determine if the motion comic is a viable way of getting their brand and product out to the masses. In the meanwhile, I’m more than happy to read about the continuing adventures of my favorite characters by going to my local comic shop or catching up with them digitally.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of Screenrant.com

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Words Come Alive


The Ole Bait and Switch

How could the famous bait and switch help you write fiction? That’s the principle behind building suspense for the conflict. Conflict drives everything. We need character development and plot lines, but without the real conflict, the story is a yawn. When writing, bait with hope of overcoming the obstacle, but take away the momentary success by switching the protagonist’s immediate goals.

To fully use the bait and switch, we have to see how it fits into the entire scheme of conflict. Conflict hits throughout the work. It strikes as any obstacle to the desires of the protagonist. That means we can have the hero face a conflict against others, nature or even against his or her self.

But we also have to build mini conflicts thought the story that are linked to the big obstacle. For example, the big obstacle is the barrier of politics that separates two lovers — she’s a liberal, he’s a conservative. We need the protagonist to find a way to keep the love going despite the barrier. So we segment the plot with several scenes based on mini conflicts. Like his conservatism backs the real estate interest that threatens his lover’s legal work. Or, he has to break into her soup kitchen client’s office to get papers to show her he’s right. Or he has to break down his real estate agent’s denial that the soup kitchen’s director is blackmailing the agent.

That’s where the bait and switch comes in. We have just divided the main conflict into mini ones that carry us through the story. At the climax of each mini event, we stage a bait and switch. That means we provide the reader with a hope of the protagonist reaching his goal, but only in part. We also switch the obstacle so the hero has to face another version of the conflict — bait and switch.

Let’s put this in play. In the first segment, the desire of the protagonist is to break into the office, then find papers. That means the focus in this segment has to impede his efforts in both areas. But he gradually succeeds in finding the files in a cabinet. Hope is fulfilled. But the papers reveal he was wrong in his support of the real estate agent. We have a switch. He now has a new hope or bait because those papers reveal he might be right about his agent friend in a different way — the agent was being blackmailed by the kitchen’s director. Then we are carried to the next segment.

The model goes like this: Break the major conflict into segments. Each segment needs the protagonist to achieve some glimmer of hope or success in reaching the final goal. But he is thwarted in a big way. Some new hope is given that propels him into the following scene. Bait and switch. That delay in total gratification is like the famous gun, sitting on the table, that Hitchcock said drove suspense. Suspense comes from worrying who will use the weapon. Conflict comes from the bait and switch that leads to that suspense.

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of reitips.com

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Worlds Meet


Can’t We All Just Get Along?

After a long drawn out battle to pass health care reform, the battle has been won, but at what cost? Already fourteen states have threatened to sue the U.S. Government claiming that they don’t have the funds to pay for additional healthcare costs as mandated by President Obama’s plan within their states. Rhetoric on both the Democratic and Republican sides has reached a fever pitch so much so that shots have been fired into House Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s window and a suspicious package was delivered to Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner. I dare to ask who’s to blame for the increased hostilities and the divisiveness that we’ve been seeing over the past couple of months.

Oh, where to begin. First off, the Republicans have been doing their best to spread fear and dissension whenever they’ve chosen to speak. Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Steele or Mitch McConnell, these speakers have inundated the American public with the same mantras over and over. Health care reform means more government control and government control is bad. Health care reform will mean higher taxes for everyone. Health care reform will drain funds from Medicare. Health care reform is just another example of Democrats spending and spending (hmmm, anyone remember the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under the Bush administration which plunged the nation into the largest budget deficit in history?). Sadly, the Republicans have done little to expound upon these statements. These are the facts, so just deal with them, OK? That’s all you need to know, say the Republicans.

This has lead to the formation of the infamous Tea Party and similar groups. Now, I’m all for having other groups expressing their opinions, and I think the country needs more than just a Democratic and Republican voice. Unfortunately, while the Tea Party claims that they embrace both Democratic and Republican voices, it seems that they’re a group that has taken the Republican fear mongering ball and run with it. I have yet to hear them bring anything constructive to the table outside of attacking the current administration, or anything else they don’t like. In fact, many Tea Party rallies seem more like Klan or Brown Shirt meetings than anything else.

I also blame President Obama and his cabinet. Much of the venom that is currently being spewed could have been avoided if the President took more time out of his schedule to educate the American public and detractors of the plan. There were too few town hall meetings that were set up and none of them were televised to the entire nation. The President could have quelled the ire of many by presenting the benefits of his health care plan and rebutting his dissenters on prime time television and on social networking sites. It seems that President Obama was more concerned with getting health care legislation passed rather than educating the American public.

But there’s an even more insidious problem going on here and that problem involves the all-mighty dollar, lobbyists and the control that many corporations exert upon the political machine. Many Senators and House members have a vested interest in the numerous corporations that work with and are connected to the U.S. government. These corporations could be health care related, military contractors, engineering firms, you name it. If something happens to rock these corporation’s boats, like say health care reform, and changes the way they operate or make money, or if a particular Senator sees that his or her investments in said corporation might be jeopardized, then those same Senators will kick, claw and scratch to make sure their investments and lobbyists are happy.

In the end, it’s the average American that suffers, caught in a battle between two rich, spoiled adversaries. Both adversaries claim that they are fighting the good fight, but I dare to ask, are they really? Both sides need to stop catering to themselves, to special interest groups and to the big bad corporations out there. Honestly, what’s a couple of million or billion in the grand scheme of things? Until that time comes (if it ever does), we’ll continue to be treated to more games of “he said, she said”.

Image courtesy of jasonmartinmft.com

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action


Fiction to Make NonFiction

A swashbuckling pirate leaps onto a ship, and the high tech images of rocks make you think the people involved are designing a tale of fiction. Dare we ask how those skills can be used in reality? The team that put together the documentary, The Cove, found that the usual skills of film making required knowledge about pirating and stunt camouflage simply to make the movie.

The Cove takes viewers into the hidden area of Taiji, Wakajama, Japan, where the fishing industry regularly kills and captures dolphins. The 2009 Sundance award winning documentary showed how migrating dolphins were trapped in the secret cove by nets and were then slaughtered with knives and spears. Yet the trappers usually gloated when they could send live dolphins to the sea world entertainment industry as they pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from the buyers of live dolphins who perform before cheering people.

To make the movie, the movie crew led by producer Fisher Stevens and director Louie Psihoyos had to find clever ways to find the culprits so they resorted to the world of subterfuge that we usually see in fiction. Set design traditionally aids the movie director to thrill the viewer because the special effects take people into the world of the story. But camouflaged rocks were not used for the benefit of the viewer. Experts from KernerFX, once part of Industrial Light & Magic had to use special effects to hide cameras. The fishermen would not simply allow the documentary people to film them, so the dolphin killing had to be photographed by cameras without the documentary staff being around the area. The cameras were high definition and looked so much like rocks of the terrain that the film people had a hard time relocating the cameras.

How could the consulting use of pirate tactics help in making a movie? Stevens and Psihoyos had to place the cameras and evade the fishing fleet. What better skills could be found than those of pirates such as when they slip around a vine-tangled bay to hide their ships when the Royal Navy threatens to appear. The movie makers had to plot the speed of their ships and distance the way the pirates navigated. Swimmers used underwater microphones to pick up some of the sounds from the fishermen. Their swimming would have made Long John Silver envious.

The usual strengths of knowing how to shoot the camera and how to stage the ships for a presentation were not enough to make The Cove a success. Stealth and special effects came to the fore with The Cove’s planning. Dare we ask if fiction’s great pirates came to mind as the crew with Stevens and Psihoyos mounted a modern day crow’s nest?

The Cove image courtesy of movie-list.com

Laughs Abound


Senate Charges Public Extra

Washington DC —

New laws allowing utility companies to charge residents for wind turbine use has passed the Senate because of the newest corporate senators selected last week.

Senator Con Public (R-NV), the corporation that operates a regional utility power grid in the midwest, became a senator when the laws allowed corporations to be considered individuals. The change meant that corporations could run for office.

Slick Fleece, the corporate attorney representing, Senator Con Public, proposed the wind turbine law because the corporation worried that the public would be generating too much power on their own and would not need as much from the utility.

“We’re too big to fail,” he said. “So we have the right to take the power the people generate and then charge them for it.”

Senator Sierra (D-Calif), the new senator representing the Sierra Club, argued that people should be paid for the energy they create from the wind turbine use.

However, the new block of senators includes Sen. Hess (R-NJ), Sen. Exxon (R-TX) and Sen. American Express (R-CN). That block threatened other non-corporate senators so the move to help the common people failed.

Roman E. Gal, the attorney for Sen. American Express said that the finance sector had to help out old friends in the energy area because, “they’s just good ole boys.”

When asked if the power of American Express’ handling of money threatened the fair discussion of policy in the senate, E. Gal answered, “this is the free market at work — if people wanted to avoid how we throw money around, they can vote us out.”

Yet Moss Greenfield, the attorney for Sierra pointed out that the senate block of his friends, Senator Save the Children (D-Mass), Senator Johns Hopkins (D-MD) and Senator United Way (D-IL), lack money to explain their positions to the public.

“Every time we start to show our side, those other guys buy ruffians to shout at meetings,” Greenfield said. “The ruffians tried to stop the windmill production by saying that the wind was free for everyone and must be Communistic.”

The public was confused because they could not understand how the wind could be a Communistic ploy. The public was also confused in the recent senatorial elections that allowed the corporations entry into the Senate. One long time Democratic senator from New Jersey was ousted by Sen. Hess when the corporation ran continuous car ads and threatened the public with the fear that gas stations would close if Hess lost the seat.

Other confusion hit when the public couldn’t understand that using American Express cards meant voting for that senate seat. Sen. American Express was even accused by some human senators that restaurants were being used as voting booths for the senator. People were denied meals if they failed to vote.

The dissension in the senate has lead to the formation of a Human Caucus with the call to set up a minority bloc before the voices of the average person become totally drowned out.

“This is getting ridiculous,” said Human Sen. Shaken Mike Boots. “I even heard that one of these corporations is going to run for President — what happens on an overseas visit? Do we have to fund sending the entire corporate office overseas just to meet a head of state?”

Image courtesy of energyliteracy.org

Lights, Camera, Action!


Songs of Summer

After watching the Academy Awards and seeing The Weary Kind from the movie Crazy Heart win Best Song, it got me thinking about the significance of music, namely songs in movies. Whether it is to further convey an emotion, a narration or create a particular mood, the use of specific songs in movies, can either make or break a film. One film in particular, (500) Days of Summer, creatively uses an eclectic blend of songs that help to show what can happen when the very different expectations of two people do not meet the reality of their relationship. I dare to ask if more movies might take a cue from this type of storytelling.

Shown from the point of view of Tom, a lovesick and hopeless romantic who thinks he has finally found his soul mate in Summer, the movie reflects (in non-linear fashion), the highs and lows that Tom goes through in trying to woo the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately for Tom, Summer, is an independent woman who has a casual, carefree stance on relationships and dating. The songs in the movie show the ecstasy and agony that Tom experiences along the way.

In one particular scene, it is morning and Tom has just had his first “casual” encounter with Summer in his apartment. As he leaves for work, the Hall and Oates song, You Make My Dreams, starts playing. The song reflects Tom’s complete and utter bliss at making his first physical connection with Summer. Not only do we hear the song, but it seems that Tom does too. As he walks down the street smiling, the sun is out, the sky is blue, and everyone seems to be his friend congratulating and high fiving him as he walks along. As he continues walking, Tom breaks out into a dance routine with everyone else around him as a marching band comes trumpeting by. A little animated bird then comes fluttering down upon his shoulder whistling a sweet song. The music stops abruptly as we are fast forwarded toward day 303 in his relationship with Summer and a very different looking Tom comes out of the elevator to work. He’s tired, his clothes are disheveled and it’s obvious that things with Summer are anything but blissful.

One of the most effective and powerful scenes in the movie occurs when Tom meets up with Summer after they have been estranged for a period of time. Summer invites Tom to a party she is giving. Tom accepts thinking that the two of them will pick up right where they left off. As Tom approaches Summer’s apartment, the screen splits into two. On the bottom left of one screen, the word “Expectations” appears. On the bottom right of the other screen, the word “Reality” appears. On the “Expectations” side of the screen we see Tom’s image of how the party goes. At the party, he and Summer are inseparable and she greets him with a huge kiss and loves the gift he has brought for her. They are talking, giggling, snuggling and joking around like they did in the past. On the Reality side, we see, well we see the reality of the situation. Summer greets Tom with a hug and curtly thanks him for the gift he’s brought over for her. Tom basically hangs out by himself drinking while Summer carouses with the rest of her guests. Toward the end of the evening, he is also shell shocked to learn that Summer is engaged to be married. He staggers out of the party blindsided.

What makes this scene so innovative is not only the split screen, but the choice of the song, Hero of the Story by Regina Spektor. As the scenes at the party unfold, particular lyrics of the song really stand out. The first lines of the song, “He never, ever saw it coming at all” is a foreshadowing of what Tom is about to experience when he sees that his expectations are not aligning at all with the reality of the situation. Throughout both scenes, the words, “I’m the hero of the story, don’t need to be saved” and “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right”, reverberate over and over and serve as a reminder to Tom of what is and what he wished could have been. In one world he is indeed the hero and everything is all right. In the other, the words serve to mock him and falsely reassure him that everything will be OK despite Summer’s revelation. The use of animation to convey Tom’s hurt and loneliness as he staggers down the street is a fitting end to the scene.

Whether it’s a sappy song like She’s Like The Wind by the late Patrick Swayze, or a powerful, nostalgic song such as Old Friends (Bookends) by Simon and Garfunkel, Marc Webb, the director of (500) Days of Summer, utilizes music in innovative ways to keep you not only emotionally invested in the main characters of the film, but also to help move Tom and Summer’s story along.

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies. They’re too generic, overly sappy or melodramatic, or just plain dumb. But much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry, (500) Days of Summer offers a new and creative twist on an otherwise boring and lame genre through its use of music, animation and cinematography. I dare to ask if more directors of this genre could take a hint from both Webb and Gondry.

(500) Days of Summer image courtesy of movies.about.com