Sunday, July 25, 2010

New Blog

Hello! I've just started a new blog using WordPress.

The link is here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Armageddon, or how I spent Easter Saturday

Yesterday, I went with my friend Morgan (Morgue) (or even to Armageddon, to a touring Australasian expo devoted to comic books, sci-fi and fantasy, gaming and gaming technology, and other genres of interest to the young, disaffected intellectual.There's also a big pillow fight.

I've never been to anything like this before. It was interesting as a phenomenon, even though most of the products on display weren't created with me in mind. (What does somebody do with a 2-metre long pounded steel battle axe anyway?)

My experience of the event was divided into two roughly equal parts. The first had been, for us, the major draw card: the appearance of Paul McGann, the actor who'd played the Dr Who (the 8th Doctor, for any you who might be counting). I'm a fan of Dr Who (though not a Fan), and it was fun to see one of them in person, especially knowing him from "Withnail and I" way back in 1987.

Here he is back in the day...

Having just seen one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman speaking as part of the Wellington Writers and Readers Festival, I was expecting the kind of thoughtful feedback provided to Neil by a compere (in his case Kate De Goldi, one of New Zealand's leading authors). Unfortunately, poor Paul was left up there by himself, to sink or swim as his fortunes dictated. For somebody who confesses to be shy, it seemed a little ungraceous of the organisers. As a result, he launched right into a protracted question and answer session.

Yesterday's session...

McGann's career as the Doctor was cut short almost as soon as it began. The series, intended for the American market, was never made. While a huge hit in the UK it, like so much of British cultural product, was completely lost on Americans. I never heard why they didn't go ahead with in the UK, but never mind.

The main point I got from the talk was that McGann is pretty bitter about the lack of follow-through. Stories that  he was coming back were at odds with his saying he'd never got a single phone call from Russel T. Davies (the man behind the series relaunch), or even the invitation to a beer since the failure of the TV pilot. The whole thing must have been really upsetting for him. He would have thought in 1999 that his place as a major film star was confrimed; instead he's spent the last ten going to conferences talking about six weeks of his 25 year acting career. A good compere (or possibly even an indifferent one) might have spared the audience the discomfort of sharing the pain of his rejection.

Having arrived just as the McGann's talk began, when we staggered out an hour later the rest of the expo was something of a suprise. An ocean of of people, many of them under ten years old (they don't show up so well in the photos) milling around buying, reading, talking about what to the unitiatied was a hugely improbable array of stuff: dire 90's comic books, Iron Man masks, action figures from nearly forgotten TV shows. I was reminded of the space port at Mos Eisley. The guys walking around in storm trooper uniforms might have contributed to that.

The highlight of the day was becoming reacquainted with Dylan Horrocks, author of the highly acclaimed Hicksvile Comics.

Looking around at the seething masses, and knowing that this representsthe tiniest microcosm within the whole phenomenon, I couldn't help wondering why this genre (if I can be forgiven for lumping it all together) is such a draw to people. Avatar was 2009's biggest grossing movie. More people play Dungeons and Dragons than go to football games.The most obvious answer to me, is that people are looking to depart from the mundanity of normal life and be, at least vicariously, heroic, invicible, to reach perfection. Identification by the audience is critical to the success of stories.

Is that desire to identify with something grander innate? While the Tudors were busy finding innovative ways to use the Arthurian mythos to substantiate their titles to the throne, in Italy, Ariosto was weaving the characters into amusing, bawdy and highly fantastical stories. Are the Canterbury Tales the Babylon 5 of the 13th Century?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rugby World Cup 2011

Okay, so it's a bit off colour - definitely not something you'd see in in New Zealand. When the French Tourism Department tried to attract London rugby fans to Paris, they used an image of a scrum with the front liners pashing each other. The caption read "Enjoy rubgy in the capital of love". Against what you might think, it was a huge hit with the Brits. Fans thought it was funny, French government officials loved the increase in tourism, and it didn't even upset the gay community. A win all the way round really.

I like that they were prepared to take a risk and it paid off.

In September and October 2011 New Zealand will host the Rugby World Cup. It will be be an important event, first for tourism. Sixty-thousand devoted fans are predicted to pour into our shores, viewing the games and, along the way staying in hotels, seeing the sites, drinking beer and generally enjoying themselves.

Another facto that makes these games so important is that rugby is one of those things that defines New Zealand. It's far more than just a game here. It's one of the main cultural institions of the country (speaking as I do from the perspective of an ex-pat). Most kids are encouraged (or made) to play as tots. Traditions such as being served oranges by your parents at half-time during Saturday morning matches have become embedded in the kiwi psyche. It's like tulips or clogs in Holland.

Many people outside New Zealand don't realise that rugby was only made a professional sport in 1995. For most of the time, it was an amature game here, and its grass-roots beginnings have embedded the 'local hero' aspect firmly in the hearts of the country. In fact, professional rugby here is frequently labmasted for forgetting its humble orgins.

What does this mean for the game, the institution, and the people charged with creating an event that is relevant both in the eyes of the world, and the those of the local supporters? A nationwide festival will be held over this period, although few details have yet been made public. It presents us with an amazing opportunity to move beyond loose agglomeration of events and work together combining culture and sport in a way that reflects New Zealand in all its unique and wonderful facets.

Why the French ad works is that it instantly, and humorously, captures the essence of France as both the land of love and a centre for the sport.This is an opportunity for New Zealanders to develop a message that represents our own unique qualities. It's an opportunity to reflect on our values and how we'd like New Zealand to be percieved - and what we want it to be - as the 21st Century comes into full swing.

A challenge will be how the disparate relevant sectors work together to form a synergy that transcends a loose agglomeration of offerings and creates a phenomenon worthy of a country that fostered the Lord of the Rings films, discovery of the atom and the invention of jogging.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Hunt for Creativity, Pt. 2

Virtual me, writing a virutal novel: art recreates nature recreating art...

In 2008 EA Games announced that it had sold 100 million copies of the Sims, making it the most popular computer game ever created. For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomoenon, The Sims (and its predacessors Sims 2 and Sims 3) is a game in which you create virtual people and their dwelllings in neighbourhoods and then guide them in interacting throughout their long lives. They can do everything that real people can do, even procreate (within the bounds of a PG 13 environment).

It has well and truly surpassed the second most popular game ever, Myst. In this game you find yourself on a beautiful but deserted island, (produced with heart arresting beauty reminiscent of Avatar) filled with puzzles and clues. Solving them is the only way to get away. There are very few instructions - you start the game knowing virtually nothing, and progress through logic and guesswork.

Why did the Sims so spectacularly beat Myst?

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong was asked what makes a good computer game. Part of his response was "...the game allows the player to experience something they’ve never felt before, whether it’s some kind of new experience in the game or new emotion."

I disagree. If that were the case, Myst would have been a sure winner for first place. To me, the answer lies in the Sims' ability to allow the player complete creativity to control the environment, the protagonists and their relationships. There is almost no circumscription, no end and no winning. It can be as true to life as you like (as an exercise, I've recreated our real house - it actually looks scarily real), or as fantastical.

The game is also successful (to my mind) because it allows for great emotional identification with the subject of the game. There's enough flexibility in the avatar creator that you can make yourself - in that case the emotional identification is complete. Interstingly, Maxis attributes one of the game's great strengths to capturing the female audience, typically not devotees of the genre.

Borrowing from Wikipedia, "creativity is a mental and social process involving the discovery of new ideas or concepts, or new associations of the creative mind between existing ideas or concepts." The key is that it's new. We love to do that, to build something new, and we reward opportunities for doing that with our loyalty. Those who can tap into that, and better still create an emotional connection, have had enormous success in their endeavours.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Hunt for Creativity, Pt. 1

 The Nine Muses do a Jazz Improvisation for Apollo

They say when you write once a day everything's important, but when you write once a year, nothing's important. When I started this blog, I was sure that I'd be attacking it at least weekly, but that has so far not turned out to be the case. There's the temptation to want to be witty erudite, creative and/or inspirational in one of these blogs. I often wonder where people derive their inspiration. The author Neil Gaiman, one of my heroes, did a tongue-in-cheek interview at the back of the DVD "Coraline", where it's mentioned that he gets his inspiration from the black leather jacket he always wears. Well, why not? It has to come from somewhere.

However, I'm not talking about the inspiration to do a particular piece of work. That could come from anywhere. A bit of flotsam on the beach, the causual remark from a stranger, some boiling oatmeal. I'm more talking about the general creativity that cant' stop turning these events into something amazing. I've got no idea where my creativity comes from.

In Greek mythology it was the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who inspired the creation of literature and the arts. They were considered the source of knowledge, as well as the inspiration for turning into an artistic output.

For a more scientific approach Peter Carruthers (2002) wrote a paper "Human creativity: its evolution, its cognitive basis, and its connection with childhood pretense." where he argued that the same cognitive resources are shared by adult creatve thinking and probelm-solving as children when they pretend play. He suggests that it's what got our species over the gap from our first appearance 100,000 years ago in Southern Africa to the "creative explosion" that endabled cultures to form about 60,000 years ago. So if that's the case, we're creative as a survival strategy.

Sounds plausible. Ironically, it's obliquely similar to the Muse story. An external force comes - devine or evolutionary - down and makes us creative. (I could acually use Callipoe now to help out with some writing...) When we are creating, say improvising jazz (this has been the subject of study), we use the same brain circuitry as when we dream, switching off inhibitions. After that, self-expression kicks in(the same place in the brain we make autobiographical stories) and our senses are heightened.

But all of this doesn't actually explain the impetus to create. We're down out of the trees, in comfortable lives, yet broadly speaking, we're still fixated on making things. From my own experience, I can't not create. It's something that bubbles out of me (artesian spring or overflowing beer - take your pick) I don't think I've cracked it yet, but I'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, maybe Calliope will buy me a leather jacket - I've got work to do!

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Posting

Hello and welcome to my blog.

I've set this up principally for the entertainment of my friends, with musings, thoughts, descriptions of things that seem important (at least at the time).

Of course, anybody is welcome to read it, contribute to it, comment, express ideas.

I could have titled this first post "How I spent my summer holiday", which though short, was productive. I spent it writing, mostly. A couple of months ago, my base for this activity became Plimmerton, which (for those of you unfamiliar with New Zealand's lower North Island) is about 20 minutes north of Wellington (the nation's caplital).

It's a cottage (for the romantic) or a shack (for the rest of you), with one of the most spectacular views imaginable. Looking out from the window (on a straight line trajectory South-West) you can see 1. Foliage of native plants 2. The Pacific Ocean (today dead flat and very blue) 3. A bit of a peninsua of the North Island (I think it's a golf course) 4. Queen Charlotte Sound, the NE tip of the South Island. Did I mention it's spectacular?

I think it's important to have an inspiring setting in which to think and write. Maybe the passion to do it can turn any setting into an inspiring one. (Look at Oscare Wilde, after all.)

This is the spot from which I'll be blogging and from which my next book (Intangible Natural Heritage will be edited, assembled, and otherwise beaten into submission.

Look forward to communicating with you...