Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: 16,643 emails

In the tradition of doing a year end tally, I thought I'd open the hood of my email In Box and give you some insight on how I cope with our modern world's increasing information overload.

In 2007, I received 16,643 emails, an average of 1,357 email per month, or about 44 per day. My annual average is 16,294 emails. Here is the month by month breakdown:

(Last year I had no email in January through March—I must have accidentally reset my stats program.)

Of those 16,643 messages, 6,799 were junk email, which is 40% of all my received email. Here is the month by month breakdown of that:

Last year, my junk email ratio was 46%, so things are improving. I cracked down on junk email in late July and you can actually see the drop on the chart—my received emails and junk emails were cut in half.

How do I manage to process over 16 thousand emails? If there are 8,760 hours in a year, I've spent only 201 hours processing emails, at least on Eudora (I'm sure I've spent much more since I got my laptop in July of last year). 201 hours is 2.29% of my entire year. If you include time on my laptop remote checking email, and tack on Myspace and Facebook emails, let's assume 5% of the year was spent checking emails. Even so, that's not too bad. If it were in the double digits, I might be worried.

Now let's have some more fun with numbers:

201 hours / 9,846 legitimate emails = 1.22 minutes/email

Still, not too bad.

But how do I sift through so many emails? I have a few tricks...

  1. Eudrora, not Mail, Yahoo Mail, or Gmail.

    1. I've always debated whether I should switch to an internet email service like Gmail, but so far the local email programs like Eudora are still superior, as you'll soon see with my custom filters for spam and other mail. Plus, I still use my Yahoo! mail account to collect email from my home account. And when I send email from my Yahoo account, I set my "Reply to:" to my home email account so all mail still gets funneled through my home account.

  2. I am vigilent about spam.

    1. I don't post my email address on any web site. If I do, it's a web site I trust and my email is written out, e.g., myfirstnameATrossprudenDOTcom. This keeps naughty spam spiders from finding my email.
    2. I ask my friends not to tack my email on their mass emails. Emails can be forwarded endlessly and it's only a matter of time before some spammer grabs my email. If they must add me to their mass email, I ask that they put me in the BCC: field.
    3. I use email aliases. I own my own domain ( and can create and delete new users on the fly. In my case, rather than have 10 different email accounts, I have aliases which all point to my main email. If an alias gets siphoned off by a spammer, I can delete that alias and create a new one in minutes. It's like a condom for emails.
    4. I installed an awesome local spam filter. I'm a Mac user, so I use Spamsieve with Eudora. Spamsieve lets you teach it how to filter your spam so it gets better over time. Last year, it caught 96% of all spam. This year, it caught 98%.

  3. I use filters to self-sort all incoming mail.

    1. I eliminate all emails I CC: myself on. I set those emails to go directly to the trash (which I never empty, but I know those emails are there if I need to search for them). I also belong to a number of mailing lists, and all emails sent by me to those lists are sometimes sent right back to me. Don't need to see those emails. They go directly to the trash.
    2. I filter certain emails directly into folders. For instance, all my blog posts are emailed to me for archive purposes. But I don't need to waste time looking at those. They go right to where they will live forever. I never see them.
    3. I divide my email into direct and general emails. Many of my incoming emails are not sent specifically to me: my email may in the CC: field, or the email might be from a mailing list. While I do need to read those emails, they usually aren't high priority so I filter them into a folder called "Once/day" which I check only—wait for it—once per day. I also turn off any sound or visual alerts so I don't even know when I get those emails. That helps me not get distracted with low-priority stuff.
    4. What's left are emails sent directly to me, and that's a considerably smaller percentage than 9,846 emails. On those emails, I have a sound alert set so I know—if I'm at my computer—when I've got incoming mail.

  4. Brevity.

    1. (These groups of tips are more subtle—I had to think hard about them because they aren't things I consciously decided to do, but things which I've evolved into doing.) With every email, I try to be as succinct as I can in one or two sentences. Bereft of facial expressions and vocal inflections, email is often a medium where misunderstandings happen without effort or intent. Knowing when to be brief saves time. But knowing when brevity does not reflect the correct nuance, and which will lead to trouble later on, is equally important.
    2. I don't use signatures anymore. At the end of every email message, I used to tack on my email address and all my contact info, but that 10 line block of text just ends up being "junk text" I need to sift through whenever I review a thread of discussions. Distill as needed.

I hope these tips make your 2008 more productive! If you have any tips you use which I haven't listed here, please share them with me.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

What if Microsoft sold an iPhone?

I came across this brilliant video and had to share. The strange thing is, I could actually see it happening... which is why it's so funny.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot

One of the funniest parodies I've seen in a looooong time. Oh, how the world has changed in 13 years...

Social Networks

This month and last, I've been researching social networks to lay the groundwork for a massive social networking idea. (In fact, this idea is so massive that it has the potential to eclipse Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, and LinkedIn combined. And yeah, I'm freaking out, too.)

Anyway, I thought I'd experiment with Twitter a little... problem is, I don't have too many people on Twitter to follow. But Twitter looks very fun, so if any of you out there Twitter, you can find me by clicking on the link at right, "Watch me blather constantly".

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Not giving, but living

Today was my best Christmas Day ever. I have to say it aloud, for perfect moments do not last long, and are thus so easily forgotten.

Had I the option to go back in time a day and tell past self how great this day will go, my past self would have thought the main reason was about presents. Yet in hindsight, I can't immediately remember what gifts I received, or even what gifts I gave. Today a harmonious confluence hung in the air like errant beads brought together to create a once-thought-lost necklace:

  • The brined (22.73 pound) turkey I made this year was exquisite. In fact, it was so moist and succulent that it actually fell apart as I carved it.
  • The mashed potatoes (the first I had ever made from scratch) were superb. We'll be making more of those!
  • The microwaved sweet potatoes (sprinkled with Equal and cinnamon—how much easier can you make it?) were remarkably delicious.
  • My 9 month old daughter's sleep schedule was ideal... she crashed at exactly the right time and stayed asleep for longer than expected. Critically, she did not cry once, or even got cranky at all.
  • My wife took care of our daughter for most of the day, letting me do the bulk of the cooking. And she even did the dishes when I passed out after dinner.
  • Our new holiday-appropriate plateware, a gift from the in-laws, was simply gorgeous to look at, a definite step up from our casual plateware, or even our formal china.
  • Our tablecloth, a crimson fleur-du-lit pattern, was positively regal.
  • I was surrounded only by people I care about, of whom I shared a close bond with three—my daughter, my mother, and my wife. And I got to see them all interact with each other... and get along.
  • Our house did not seem cramped with too many guests.
  • My mother finally got to play the Pirates of the Caribbean Monopoly game she gave us this year, which she'd been hounding me about all week—so I knew she'd be shutting up about it. Also, during gameplay, I realized it was the first time I'd played Monopoly with a largish group since I did my stint in real estate and its high-stakes negotiating, meaning the possibility to do creative deals was much more possible; the end result was leveraging my initially disparate properties into 4 monopolies, a personal best.
  • While playing Monopoly, typically an impossible game to play in my family without some sort of fight breaking out, everyone was laughing consistently for at least an hour. In fact, I'm still giddy from it.
  • I finally crawled into bed to watch the endlessly charming movie Stardust with my wife. I feel like a kid again.
  • I drank 2 Newcastles while watching a movie. I feel like a teenager again.

At the end of this wonderful day, I'm left with a feeling that Christmas is not really about giving gifts to each other at all. Not physical gifts, anyways. It's really more about sharing your time with friends and family. It's about laughing as deeply as you can with those who really matter to you, and holding that memory as close as you can to your heart for as long as possible. It's not about giving, it's about living.

Do that well enough and everything that you think matters drops away. Spend time with your friends and family. Find the way to interact that you all enjoy the best. Spin it out as long as you can. People come and go, but those memories will live as long as you do.

Merry Mithrasmas!

This post is for Richard, whose epiphany has stayed with me: day I read an essay by Isaac Asimov in which he made reference to the "Christian myths." It was like someone turned on a light in my brain. Why, I wondered, did we study Greek and Roman mythology in school, but treat Christianity like it was the truth? I didn't cast aside my beliefs overnight, but I did start to wonder why we accept some things without question and not others.

This video, then, is for Richard.

And, appropriately, here's the new trailer for Hellboy II: The Golden Army, starring Luke Goss as the baddie! I worked with Luke two years ago on Something In The Clearing and Luke is a class act. I'd love to work with him again!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

CLOVERFIELD: Marketing the American Godzilla

Last week, I spent 2 hours of my life learning about Slusho drinks and Tagruato's deep sea drilling. If you don't know what I'm talking about, first go watch the trailers for Cloverfield (first the teaser, then the full trailer).

Now, in one sense, Cloverfield isn't unique at all—it looks like a retelling of a tired genre, the Japanese monster movie. In another sense, however, it's innovative because it tells that story from the point of view of a small group of people. Unlike Godzilla, a monster which also attacks New York (why New York? Why not Charleston, West Virginia [thanks for the correction, Joe!] or Flagstaff, Arizona?), the viewer will probably have more invested in what happens to the main characters. It's like Blair Witch meets 9/11 and Godzilla. It's not surprising J. J. Abrams is behind this project—Cloverfield is a close cousin of Lost: put people you care about in an insane situation and see how they react.

Lost's popularity lays in the "peeling of the onion"—the more layers you peel back, the more layers you find. Each answer only gives you more questions. Of course, foreplay only lasts so long and some viewers have become frustrated with Lost's serpentine plotlines, while others are drawn to the story's emotional core: its characters. As in real life, Lost's story comes to you in scattered pieces of information. Like Ian Fassburg used to say, "A woman who's almost naked is far sexier than a woman who's totally naked." Viewers like to be given a challenge, a puzzle to figure out.

This is why Cloverfield looks to be such a great film. By framing the story from the point of view of strangers, without the benefit of any omniscient "meanwhile..." cutaways, the viewer is immediately handicapped and must struggle along with the characters to make sense of the impossible. A monster attack? What monster? How big is it? Where did it come from? What damage is it doing? What does it look like? Can it even be beaten? What will happen to us? What will happen to the city? What will happen to the world? These questions are visceral, emotional, atavistic. The trailer exploits that by piggybacking on the fears of another cataclysmic attack like 9/11... it's not by coincidence the characters witness a huge explosion from a Manhattan rooftop.

Some other simple tricks to hook the viewer into the story—the release date synchs up to the story's time, so photos taken in the film (and posted on the official web site, pictured at left) are datestamped to when the film is set for release... so the viewer will be able to easily imagine they're watching a live telecast. The first trailers didn't even list a movie title, just 1-18-08, the release date of the film. Even after the title was released, Abrams said the only official web site for the movie is, but as of today there's nothing much on that site except for a few photographs. Flipping the photographs on (it's a Flash site) gives you more information about the characters, which leads—with some detective work—to their Myspace profiles:

Look at each profile carefully—each person has each other person's profile in their top 8 friends list. Clever!

Rumors were also circulated that the film's title was to be called Slusho. Slusho? What the hell is that? A Google search for "Slusho" yields as the top result, which appears to have nothing to do with Cloverfield... at first glance.

But look closer: the site has a commercial contest where the public can submit their own commercial for Slusho. The address for contest submission is Bold Futura, LLC, 1223 Wilshire Boulevard, No. 1422, Santa Monica, CA 90403. Huh? What's a Japanese company doing with a Santa Monica address?

Researching Bold Futura, LLC took me to, which was live when I saw it, but is now defunct. From that site, I first heard about their affiliate company, Tagruato, a deep sea drilling company. A glance at Tagruato's web site,, shows an interactive map of deep sea drilling; their most recent, and biggest, drilling rig is in the Atlantic Ocean, not far from New York City... Googling Tagruato led me to an intriguing blog at, which appears to be run by a Greenpeace-like group blaming Tagruato for destroying our oceans. On that blog, they claim to have received notes from whistle-blowers inside the deep sea drilling company that "bad things are happening."

ALL these sites have been created to promote Cloverfield and, without realizing it, you can easily get pulled into this alternate reality and start to care about the characters listed on Myspace. This kind of marketing isn't new—it's called "immersive entertainment" and it's been used for films before. The goal is to create a world where easter eggs are sprinkled across multiple web sites for those curious enough to seek them out. When someone finds a new piece of the puzzle, they discuss its meaning and import with others and the end result is a phenomenal word of mouth about the movie. I mean, look at me... I'm practically a walking advertisement for a movie I haven't even seen yet.

I had so much fun learning about this marketing campaign that I just had to buy my own Slusho T-shirt and baseball hat... I'm told the box it arrives in includes newspaper stuffing offering even more clues about the movie!

If you want to know the complete lowdown about the ad campagin, here's a real site which lays out everything currently known about each of the sites listed above:

And don't forget to see Cloverfield on January 18th!

Monday, December 10, 2007

54 points on his first letters????

I'm playing a Scrabble game on Its Your Turn. My opponent just played INSISTS, which I'm sure he gets a bonus for because he used all his letters and he played it on the opening bonus tile (that's right, isn't it?). For this feat of supreme wordsmithing, he racked in a whopping 54 points. I laid down WRITER and got only 14 points.

I feel like crying.

There's something to be said for demoralizing one's opponent in the very first move. You certainly can't do that in Chess, Backgammon, Go, or any other sensible game.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Residuals aren't just for writers

More insight as to why the Producers are leaning on writers so hard. Courtesy of Stephen Susco:

Is the AMPTP colluding?

This piece poses an excellent question: why are producers legally allowed as a single body (the AMPTP) to negotiate with each labor segment separately... when producers are actually competitors? As Elisberg puts it so plainly: "The AMPTP is like if General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all got together, decided the terms they would offer employees, and then negotiated as a single body against one isolated division of U.S. auto workers at a time. Divide and conquer. Take it or leave it."

Hmmmm, divide and conquer. Sound familiar? It should.

I wonder how long it will take for Big Government to realize that the AMPTP is acting like a monopoly...

Writers Guild Strike Primer: Part 8, The Big Question
Posted December 6, 2007 | 11:00 AM (EST)

Negotiations between the Writers Guild and AMPTP have started again, and there is a fascinating situation at play, yet it has gotten little attention.

Look at that sentence again. Actually, I'll make it easy for you, just re-read the first seven words.

"Negotiations between the Writers Guild and AMPTP..."

It certainly looks normal. No one gives it a second thought. But the entire entertainment industry should. In fact, everyone should.

There is a hugely-important question here.

The AMPTP, you see, is a group of about 350 member film companies. Nine companies at the top, however, drive the whole train.

"Nine companies" is a polite term. Megathorpian multinational corporations is the accurate term. You know, General Electric, Time-Warner, Sony Electronics, News Corp. -- otherworldly behemoths, like that. The kind of gargantuan institutional leviathans who, when you refer to "they" (as in "You know what they say" or "How could they do this to us?") are the "they."

Here's the question.

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

In fact, why is the AMPTP negotiating with anyone? The Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, any of the 80 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements it handles.

The issue is not that these AMPTP companies are part of multinational's that they are competitors with one another.

Let's repeat that: the AMPTP is comprised of competitors. And they are negotiating together against labor?? In heaven's name -- why?

Before anyone tries to answer the question, hold off a moment as this is put into a larger perspective.

Imagine the auto industry for a moment.

The AMPTP is like if General Motors, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all got together, decided the terms they would offer employees, and then negotiated as a single body against one isolated division of U.S. auto workers at a time. Divide and conquer. Take it or leave it.

It's not that it would be massively illegal. It's that it would be unconscionable. No one in the aghast free world would stand for it. Even Luddites who wished it wasn't illegal understand why it's unacceptable.

Or imagine if all the tobacco companies got together. What if they hid research about nicotine, and then...oh, wait, they did. And they all got hauled before Congress.

Competitors are not allowed to negotiate together, to even confer together. It's called collusion. When baseball owners merely created an "information bank" for offers being made to free agent players, they were fined $280 million. Two competitors cannot talk with one another if there's just a hint of agreement. Imagine ALL competitors in an industry getting together to set ALL wages and ALL labor conditions.

It doesn't happen. Anywhere. Not "anywhere in the U.S." Anywhere in the free world.

Except Hollywood.

Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., NBC, Disney, CBS, Universal, Sony, MGM...and 341 of their signatory pals all unite to set the pay scale and working conditions for writers. And then for actors. And then directors. And then for all employees in the entertainment industry.

Say what?

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

Everyone grasps that it's wrong for competitors to gang up. Little children understand it's wrong. ("Mom! Billy and Janey are teaming up against me!" "Now, you kids leave your brother alone. You know it's not nice.") Everyone knows it. Embryos know it. Paramecium. Rocks.

And even the AMPTP knows it

On November 14, WGA president Patric Verrone and SAG president Alan Rosenberg went to Washington, D.C. and met with congressional leaders and the FCC to inform them about the difficulties of negotiating with "seven multi-national conglomerates, all supposedly competitors but they all come together to negotiate."

Two days later, the AMPTP announced it was finally willing to go back to the negotiating table.

This was not a coincidence. There were many reasons the AMPTP went back to the table -- but this was not a coincidence.

Two days. There were terrified.

It's not just the terror of Congress looking into monopoly collusion, but Congressional hearing and lawsuits over the media monopoly stranglehold. Americans have a long-held abhorrence for illegal monopolies.

Why is it the AMPTP who is negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???

In any other world, in any other industry, the writers -- and then actors, directors and others -- would each negotiate separately with their employer, one at a time: You get a fair contract with one studio, and everyone else either agrees to the same basic deal or falls behind their competitors. It's the way business works. It's the way the law works.

Up to now, the entertainment industry has accepted this arrangement. Up to now, they've long-become used to heavy-handedness, but they expect fairness, as well. However, when rampant, monopolistic corporate greed passes all decency, at some point they might have to give the arrangement another look.

"They" - this time - is the United States government.

And so it's up to the AMPTP to decide what's truly in their best interest. Greed or fairness. What's at stake for them is arguably their worst nightmare. Because someone in a position to do something may eventually ask a very big question.

Why is the AMPTP negotiating with the Writers Guild of America???


One semi-caveat here, just to be fair. Because Fair R Us. I've subsequently been told that there might be some law that allows for certain collective bargaining by companies. But regardless if that's the case, the larger perspective and question that's posed remains -- even if there is some law, it's obviously not something that's used much, if at all, in other industries. Why Hollywood stands for competitor companies uniting to negotiate is something that should be addressed -- not only by the creative community, but the companies themselves, since it's becoming apparent daily that they have such divergent interests among one another.

And to be clear, it's not just that competing companies unite to negotiate, but that they do so against each individual segment of labor one by one. If the companies really do want to unite to negotiate, make it a fair fight and negotiate against all the unions of their industry together, as well. Then, you might see quite a different result. (It would be a mess, but hey...)

The bottom line is that there certainly appears to be some major unfair balance here, whether there's a law or not, that should be addressed. Laws are supposed to correct wrongs, not bring them about. If a law does exist, then it appears its being abused as not intended, and should be redressed. In the end, law or not, the question remains -- why is it the AMPTP who each union negotiates with, not individual companies?Link.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Divide & Conquer

Finally, some insight! The email below was just emailed to WGA writers and provides exactly the insight I've been looking for to explain why the producers seem to be shooting themselves in the foot. Basically, they're trying to wear down the writers in the hopes they break rank:

The Playbook of the AMPTP
Fellow Members,
A few years ago, I was on the WGA Negotiating Committee. As negotiations with the AMPTP were drawing to a close, I went to a dinner party where I happened to be seated next to a gentleman who until recently had been for decades the chief negotiator for the Companies in another segment of the entertainment industry. He was a wiry guy, and he had a sense of humor. When I asked him if he was the Nick Counter of that particular part of the industry, he smiled and said wryly that he thought he was better than Nick but, yes, that was a fair comparison. He said he knew Nick and admired him. For an hour and a half, sprinkled in with the small talk, he told me about his negotiating strategy. After the party, I went to my car and jotted down as much of it as I could remember. I thought it might be useful to share it with you now:
Strategy for Hardball Negotiations:
Piss off the leaders and spokespersons for the other side. A leader who loses his temper loses something in negotiations. Why?
1) Anger clouds judgment.
2) It’s human nature to want to be liked, even in a tough-as-nails negotiator. A person who loses his temper is embarrassed, usually comes and apologizes, and always gives something away to get back into the good graces of the other side.
The end game is the money, but hardball negotiations aren't about money, until the end. The real game is dividing and conquering.
* Lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
* Raise and lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
* Do everything possible to destroy the credibility of the other side’s leadership, divide and conquer.
* Use confidants and back channels to go over the heads of the stronger leaders to the softer targets. Divide and conquer.
* When you figure out the other side’s bottom line, offer a fraction. It’s surprising how many times that stands.
Sound familiar? If you examine the recent "leaks," comments, and press releases from the other side, you'll realize this is exactly the strategy the Companies are employing against us today. And why not? It's worked for them for the last 20 years! They are putting us on an emotional roller coaster by raising and lowering our expectations, attacking our leaders, trying to pit the town against us, refusing to move on the issues that matter to us, bragging about their generosity when the opposite is true, fear mongering and claiming we're going to ruin this industry – hoping we'll splinter, lose faith in and attack each other, negotiate against ourselves, and cave.
As events unfold in the next several days and weeks, we should have no doubt about what the Companies are really up to and what to expect from them. But this time, in every way possible, we must let them know we're on to them and their strategy won't work. We understand their game, our solidarity and resolve are greater than ever, and we're going to stay strong – and reasonable – until we get a fair deal.
Let's return to the picket lines every day with a powerful show of force. As Patric says, we're all in this together.
Tom Schulman
WGAW Board of Directors

Auto salesmen use a similar tactic. They hook you by various means—e.g., to prolong your wait time so you think, "Well, I've spent a lot of time here... I might as well buy something."—until they can find something which really sticks (the right car, the right price, the right dealer) and then reel you in. This tactic, however, is a two way street. I knew a customer who went to a car lot early in the day and purposefully hemmed and hawed until 10 hours later he hadn't made a final decision. His tactic was simple: "they think they're getting me to waste my time, but I'm also getting them to waste their time." Imagine you're an auto salesman spending 10 hours with a customer only to see him walk off the lot undecided. Finally, after 11 hours, he was ready to sign a check and looked up a the salesman and said, "Knock of $1,000 or I walk." They were shocked at first, but so impressed with his by-the-book 11th hour negotiating, that they offered him a job.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A cause worth dying for

A man without a cause worth dying for is not fit to live.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've been trying to put into words, succinctly, exactly why the WGA strike is a battle worth fighting. It becomes especially difficult to justify when you see people losing their jobs because of the strike. Worse, they're usually not even writers, just innocent victims caught in a crossfire.

And then I read this bit by John August and I felt he had reached into my body and strummed a perfect harmonic (boldface and italics are mine):
I got an email yesterday from a friend (and USC classmate) who works as an editor on a TV show. He was upset that in my blogging about the strike, I hadn’t talked about the many below-the-line crew members who have lost (or will soon be losing) their jobs as a result of production stopping.... many of the non-writing, non-acting folks who are integral to making movies and television feel that the WGA was cavalier in calling the strike.

The thing is, we’ll never know.... The better question — the question I asked my friend the editor — is whether there’s anything he’d strike for, even knowing that it would (at least in the short term) hurt him, his colleagues and others inside and outside of his industry. If the answer is “no,” that a strike is never an option, then he should be prepared to lose his health, pension, and other benefits. Because that’s how they were won.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back on Track

Thanks to weeks of backchannel phone calls by some big name Hollywood agents, it looks like the WGA and AMPTP are going to meet up after this Thanksgiving holiday. This is great news, but... everything else in this business, one's expectations can be summed up in two words: "We'll see."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Meditations on French words

The word for "working" in English is "to run".
The word for "working" in French is "marcher"... which also means "to walk".

The word for "female spouse" in English is "wife".
The word for "female spouse" in French is "femme"... which also means "woman".

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Creative Interviewees

I nearly hit my teeth on the desk this morning while laughing and reading Yahoo's article today about Use Cleverness with Caution in the Interview.

The group of 150 senior executives offered several other examples of candidates going too far in their attempts to stand out:

* "One candidate said that we should hire him because he would be a great addition to our softball team."
* "A candidate sang all her responses to interview questions."
* "One individual said we had nice benefits, which was good because he going to need to take a lot of leave in the next year."
* "An applicant once told me she wanted the position because she wanted to get away from dealing with people."

Monday, November 12, 2007

P.O.V. I.S.P.

This chant heard today at NBC's picket line:
"On an Internet download where if a writer doesn't get paid, it's called PROMOTIONAL.
"On an Internet download where the studio doesn't get paid, it's called PIRACY."

From the Horses' Mouths*

* no WGA writers were used to script the following interviews.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Scabs are Writers, too

I think this shovel belongs to you.
—"Few Clothes" Johnson, Matewan

One of the reasons I hate strikes is the peer pressure to keep scabs from crossing picket lines. People cross picket lines because they see opportunity to work, they need the money, and probably because they think it's madness to walk out on an employer.

The thing is, scabs are potential union members. Thus, as contradictory as it might seem, a union is best served if they can convince scabs to join the union, too. In the words of Matewan's Joe Kenehan, "You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker. Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddamn club."

How do you convince a scab not to be a scab? They usually have their reasons, and from their perspective, they're good reasons. Perhaps they risk severe litigation for breach of contract. Perhaps their career is on the line. Perhaps they're teetering on the brink of personal bankruptcy. All good reasons. How can a picketer reasonably ask someone to set those considerations aside, and let them be superceded by a strike's uncertain future?

Yesterday, I posted that the WGA suggests their members, "report to the Guild the name of any non-member whom you believe has performed any writing services for a struck company and as much information as possible about the non-member's services."


So that "the Guild can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership. This policy has been strictly enforced in the past and has resulted in convincing many would-be strike breakers to refrain from seriously harming the Guild and its members during a strike."

Okay... that's the stick, but where's the carrot? What incentive would a scab have to join a union other than this brutish iron gauntlet? What can they take home with them as comfort that they actually did the right thing because they chose to, not because they were forced to?

If I were running the WGA, I'd delete that "or else" clause from the strike rules. If people want to cross the picket line, let them—it's their choice. But if they did cross the picket line, I'd immediately dispatch my hand-selected PR rep (probably a nice old lady whom everyone would immediately respect and want to agree with) to gently convince them—one at a time—that the Guild will never sanction a scab for crossing a picket line and that the WGA will still fight for their rights as writers. And that the union is stronger as a group. And that they can continue working if they want and the WGA won't ever judge them. Finally, most importantly, the door will always be open to them.

Remember Aesop's Fable of The Wind and The Sun?
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin." So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

Kindness effects more than severity.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Which pencil goes down?

Writers can write spec scripts, but they have to be truly spec scripts—outside of any contractual relationship, expressed or implied, with a producer. —WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell

In the midst of this writers' strike, many writers are still unclear what they can and can't write.

Take this L.A. Times article:
"Surely, we can write a spec, right?" asked Tim Fall, another WGA screenwriter and actor....

A few minutes later, Fall [had] resolved the spec issue, sort of. "My lawyer e-mailed me," he said, holding up his BlackBerry. The verdict, he said, was that writers "are not enjoined" from writing spec scripts, but that it was nonetheless "potentially a gray zone."

Great. Big help.

What are the guidelines in this new war zone? For starters, the WGA has drawn up its own Strike Rules:
  1. Stop writing for all struck companies immediately.
  2. Do not deliver or submit any literary material or any documents to a struck company.
  3. Do not negotiate with a struck company.
  4. Notify struck companies to return your literary material.
  5. Do not discuss future employment, sales or options with a struck company.
  6. Do not negotiate with a struck company to obtain financing for development or production of a project.
  7. Honor all Guild picket lines and do not enter the premises of any struck company.
  8. File with the Guild copies of all unproduced literary material written for a struck company ("script validation program").
  9. Inform the Guild of the name of any writer you have reason to believe is engaged in any strike breaking activity or scab writing.
  10. You have the obligation to picket and/or perform other strike support duties.
  11. Do not attempt to negotiate a settlement of the strike with any struck company.

That sounds to me like WGA writers are still free to write whatever they want as long as it isn't intended to be for pay. You can write a spec screenplay for yourself, but—for the duration of the strike—not with the intent to sell that spec to anyone in particular. Obviously, that's cold comfort to serial TV writers, but feature writers can dig out their wildest script ideas and go crazy. These scripts might get sold one day, but they're not being written to be sold. A hazy difference, perhaps, but an important one. Writers have writing in their veins... telling a writer not to write at all is like telling the sun not to rise.

The WGA also has this to say about non-members:
The Guild does not have the authority to discipline non-members for strike breaking and/or scab writing. However, the Guild can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership. This policy has been strictly enforced in the past and has resulted in convincing many would-be strike breakers to refrain from seriously harming the Guild and its members during a strike. Therefore, it is important for you to report to the Guild the name of any non-member whom you believe has performed any writing services for a struck company and as much information as possible about the non-member's services.

In a union-happy town like L.A., having your WGA membership barred is pretty bad news. Some writers are cavalier about crossing the picket line, which is highly risky, because if the WGA doesn't unconditionally and indefinitely welcome them into the picket line (as wise strikers would do), it's career suicide.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Spin That Promotional

I was once watching late night TV and saw two men sitting at a table, the one on the left interviewing the other on the right. The man on the left had a nice shirt and tie, and suspenders. In the background, an outline of a world map was composed of many light blue lights against a dark backdrop. Sound familiar? It looked like Larry King Live.

In fact, I thought, "Okay, this interviewer must be a stand-in for Larry King. So who's being interviewed?" The setting and dress lended the authenticity of Larry King... but it wasn't Larry King. And so I listened to this dude being "interviewed" about an amazing memory system he had devised. They spent many minutes touting the usefulness of the system and they had done such a great job of it that near the end of the program, I wanted to buy their memory system. Until the words flashed on the screen "PAID ADVERTISEMENT". It had been a sham. All the legitimacy I'd lent it because it looked like Larry King had been completely false. The interviewer was not a fact-finding journalist, but a paid actor.

Some years later, I heard a telemarketer talk about this approach as "framing our product in an environment familiar to the viewer". As he said that, I smiled as I heard in my mind comedian Bill Hicks:

I suppose the telemarketers who made that Larry-King doppelgänger can live with themselves by "framing" truth so they can better sleep at night, but all I see is a deception, an un-truth, a lie. In common parlance, it's referred to as a bait-and-switch.

And one such deception is "framing" web-based entertainment as "promotional". If you call a show a "promotional", the logic must go, it suddenly becomes something used to sell a larger product, so the writers and actors and crew members get paid nothing. If you you point a camera at Matthew Fox and broadcast that recording on TV with commercials, or sell it on DVD, writers get paid money. But if you broadcast the same thing online—and show advertising(!!!)—writers get paid nothing because it's "promotional".

Yeah. Sure. Sounds totally fair to me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Writers Must Strike

WGA member Harold Gould explains, without hyperbole or venom, why writers must strike:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Red Shirts & Picket Signs

Well, it's official—the 11th hour talks with the AMPTP broke down and the WGA is walking the picket line.

That means I'm officially closed for business; let's all hope the negotiations continue and the strike has a swift resolution so we can all get back to work.

Monday, 12:01 AM: Closed For Business

As I type this, negotiators for the Writers Guild of America sit opposite negotiators for the American Motion Picture and Television Producers. Their meeting will hopefully avert a crippling industry-wide strike. We'll see how that plays out.

I hate strikes. I do. I loathe them. In my experience, strikes usually incur an unreasonable degree of collateral damage to the faultless public. No matter how you slice that, strikes typically fuel a venomous word of mouth from which few participants ever totally recover. On top of that, strikes have always felt to me like a legal equivalent to bullying... and blackmail. And I'm not even a dues-paying WGA member, so this writer's strike doesn't really affect me. Or does it?

I do get offered film writing gigs of all sorts.

Thus, after having studied what writers are fighting to achieve with this strike, I can't, with a clear conscience, accept any writing contracts from producers for the entire duration of a WGA strike.

Writers are not asking for the moon, and it seems like they've taken every step to appeal to the AMPTP's common sense. However, when logic fails...

Pencils down means pencils down.

Respectfully, then, this is for all producers out there: for the duration of a WGA strike, I cannot accept any writing work for motion pictures, including: script & story consultation, feature script writing & rewriting, outlines, treatments, log lines, dialog polishes, character bios. Nothing. My writing factory will be closed for business until further notice, which is a polite way of saying, "Please don't ask me to do any writing work." It will just result in an awkward conversation as I offer a ham-fisted explanation why a non-WGA member is essentially joining a WGA picket line.

Perhaps my response would be this simple: one day I will be a WGA member and on that Day of Days, I couldn't proudly stand beside my WGA colleagues with the knowledge that, in their greatest hour of need, I was a scab undermining everything they risked their livelihoods to secure. Most important of all, one day, all the benefits the WGA are fighting for now, will benefit me, so accepting work during a writers' strike would be like shooting myself in the face.

If this morning's negotiations fail, the WGA's strike is scheduled to begin Monday, November 5, 2007 at 12:01 AM.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On Writers & Strikes—Mining gold?

In Jonathan Tasini's article, Greed Is Good: How Big Media Wants To Steal From Its Workers, he makes a point that rings true, even if not backed up by cold hard facts:

While the media titans like Murdoch and Iger run around crying poverty, out of one side of their mouths, and an inability to pay writers, they run to Wall Street, investors and media analysts and speak a different tone: they claim, individually, that their company is on the leading edge of new media and can be counted on to continue to capitalize on the explosion in new media uses...and, therefore, the Street, investors and analysts should have great faith in their leadership...and value their stocks accordingly. They sell advertising based on flogging their companies as the leaders in the business. So, in one place they cry "uncertainty"—when it comes to paying writers their fair share—and in another forum they cry, "we are future-looking geniuses cashing in on the Internet gold." Link.

I'd really like to see are the balance sheets of all the Big Media companies. If they're really keeping 99.7% of the the pie, where in the hell is it going? Into an ING savings account to weather this uncertain future they keeping talking about? Into the pockets of the CEOs? (Quoting a Forbes article, Tasini reveals the average 2006 annual income of CEOs at Time Warner, Disney, CBS, and New Corp. is $20 million. That's average.)

So which is it, AMPTP? Are you mining gold or not? I have yet to hear the AMPTP's side of the story. Somebody please help me out here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

On Writers & Strikes: Richard Cox reply

Over on Myspace, fellow novelist Richard Cox posted this response to last night's blog about the WGA strike. I had a lengthy reply I'd prefer to not get lost in the Myspace ether, so I'm reposting here for posterity.

Richard's reply:

Even after reading your blog I'm not sure I understand the situation well enough to comment.

However, as a novelist, I don't incur any risk when selling my novel to a publisher. The publisher shells out the money to print the book and market it (although in my case, they didn't shell out much for marketing, haha.)

And yet I am still paid for each book sold, assuming I earn out my advance.

It boggles my mind that you could write a brilliant screenplay or teleplay and be paid a flat fee no matter how well it performed.

From my uneducated position, writing suffers when you treat it as a commodity. I realize producers believe they can take any high-concept piece of junk screenplay and, with the right actors and director, turn it into a moneymaker.

But why don't they learn from the lessons of really awesome movies that are well written that become juggernauts? Why do they accept mediocrity?

And then there is the whole argument of how a brilliant screenplay becomes a lump of generic mashed potatoes after studio people muck it up with test screening results. In trying to minimize risk, they ruin the chance to make a mint. And the original writer probably doesn't want to claim those mashed potatoes, anyway.

Posted by Richard on Thursday, November 01, 2007 at 8:00 AM

And my reply:
I did gloss over a few points to make the issues more palatable, but the gist is there. Perhaps the most important point I did not make is that there isn't One True Way to offer financial remuneration from producers to writers—there is only precedent, and precedent is always rooted in historical and cultural contexts. In Europe or Asia, they may treat this issue in an entirely different way. Nevertheless, all that is really moot: what matter is what has been done in the past and how the present deals on the table relate to past precedent.

In the past, writers have been offered what's called "scale", or a salaried pay, which is agreed upon three years advance in a document called the Schedule of Minimums (which you can find online here). Much like an advance for novelists, it has to be done this way because what happens if the final product, for whatever reason, does not get produced? At least the creator's time has been appropriately reimbursed. Writers do get residuals from DVD sales (see the car/idea analogy above), but writers feel like they got screwed 20 years ago on that deal. Internet residuals are on the table and they're not making the same mistake twice.

However, producers paying scale mean they're shouldering the cost and that means financial risk until the product makes money. For novels, there is relatively low cost incurred compared to films because a publisher can issue multiple prints to gauge market interest whereas only one film or set of TV episodes is "published" at once. Movie producers have a lot at risk, financially speaking, and when money comes into the picture, people tend to get gunshy. (The solution here is obvious: make all writers producers by forcing them to invest their own money up front. That would change their toon pretty bloody quickly!)

Novels are also a low collaboration medium, compared to movies. As Orson Welles said, "A poet needs a pen, an artist, a brush, and a filmmaker—an army." So the payout structure for films calls for a lot of employees to make the product, whereas with a novel, you need three people: the novelist, the publisher, and the printer; in some cases, the novelist is even the publisher, too. It would be pretty cheeky for a publisher to pay a novelist $100,000 for a novel and then make $10,000,000 without any kind of royalties since the novelist is the TOTAL creator of his medium. Comparatively, a screenwriter is just a blueprint maker, since actors, directors, and even producers can add their 2 cents along the serpentine path to the movie theatre. Should the actors, directors and producers then receive a residual based on their input? It's a slippery slope.

The answer to your question about why producers don't learn from the lessons of well-written films is simple: it's about money. Producers want to make hits, so their initial intent is to make the next American Beauty, but along the way, producers (or more accurately, producers' employees) have second-thoughts—what if the script I'm gunning for doesn't do well?—and thus the truly original writing self-selects out. In this respect, literary writers will always hold a trump card over screenwriters. If a novelist or journalist fails, they wipe egg off their face, but if a screenwriter fails, their producer's very career is at stake.

Thanks for posting! It's good to have another writer's perspective. I neglected to mention that the National Writers Union ( recently supported the WGA strike; they are a "United nationwide local of the United Auto Workers representing (at this point) about 2000 freelance journalists, book authors, PR writers, etc."

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Writers & Strikes

After living in France, I really hate strikes. French workers seem like they'll strike if you look at them funny. Going on strike always felt like a form of blackmail, yet it can be an effective, and legal, tool to get things done. You can't talk from a position of power if you don't have a loaded gun readily visible... and the willpower to use it, even as a last resort after every attempt at amicable resolution has failed.

The Writers' Guild (WGA) is on the brink of a massive strike, so of course, I've got mixed feelings about it: if this strike goes ahead as planned, and continues until January, TV programs will start to get pushed around. After that, movies at the theatre will become affected. Basically, it's equal opportunity nastiness for everyone involved.

There's an old story about two children fighting over who should get the last slice of pizza. A parent overhears the argument and suggests they share the slice. But whoever cuts it, someone is probably going to get a larger slice... so the parent suggests that the first child cuts the pizza, and the second child selects which slice the first one gets. The result: both slices are exactly the same size.

This is the essence of any equitable negotiation—if each side can place themselves in the shoes of their adversary and design a solution preferable to their adversary, but solution which also seems fair for themselves, then the pizza has been cut exactly down the middle.

Thus, I've been following the WGA's conflicts with the AMPTP with great interest. Is one side asking for more of a pizza slice than the other? From what I've read, I don't think so, but then I haven't read what the AMPTP is saying about the negotiations. Obviously, as a writer, I'm biased towards the WGA's point of view, but if the WGA is only asking for what's fair and reasonable, why haven't they already gotten it? The AMPTP aren't villains with curly mustaches—they're people like anyone else and people always act to forward their own interests. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't always forward everyone else's interests. Why isn't the AMPTP agreeing to the WGA's demands?

I read this a half hour ago, from the WGA's Contract Captain Laeta Kalogridis:

I like the industry I work in. I have great respect for the men and women on both sides of the table—people I work with, and the people I work for. I get crazy with it, we all do, but at the end of the day I get to do what I love, and I’m grateful for that.

I’m also a working mother of two young boys, and the sole breadwinner for our family. I take my financial responsibilities very seriously, because they are serious.

This means, obviously, that I don’t want a strike.

But I also don’t want a terrible deal.

And for the last 27 years, here’s what’s happened to us as writers: slowly but steadily, we’ve lost, or had gutted, our rights on every new platform. VHS, DVD’s, cable, reality.

Now, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, we are refusing to back off of a new platform. We want to share in the new media and internet revenues that we are already helping create. They don’t want to share with us. It’s about that simple. Link.

I spoke to Hans about this a while back and he offered this insight on how a producer sees things: say you've spent 50% on overhead and you've promised 30% to residuals, and you keep 20% for yourself. What happens if your overhead rises to 70% or 80%? You go out of business. Obviously, producers want to make money in entertainment, but more importantly, they want to stay around long enough to do it. Residuals for a producer equal money out the door and that means less financial stability. I can't say I disagree with that perspective.

It got me thinking about the structure of financial remuneration in general. If you're a business owner, you put in sweat equity and your financial backers put in financial equity. You invest time, they invest money. Whatever profits are left over are usually split down the middle. But if your business requires employees, do they split that profit with you, too? After all, they worked for it as well. Right?

No. Employees are work-for-hires, and as such are given a static fee in exchange for their time. They work 40 hours per week, they go home, you pay them X amount, and they don't share the profits with you. But you work 100+ hours per week to make the business a success and split the profits of your hard work with your investors. It's like slicing that pizza.

The question is, are writers work-for-hire employees or business owners? They're acting as if they're business owners, but they're taking a salary check like work-for-hire employees.

Now, finally, we're at the core issue of this new world of distributing digital entertainment: ownership vs. licensing. If I bought a car from you, I would own the car and could do whatever I want with it and you can't say squat. Instead of a car, though, I'm buying your time, and when your time is up, you go home and you don't get to tell me what I do with the product you helped me create—that's the structure of a work-for-hire arrangement.

With licensing, everything changes. You retain ownership, but I control the car. I can't destroy the car without being accountable to you, but you can't tell me where I can and can't drive the car. Most importantly, if I make money with my new car, you are entitled to share in a small amount of those profits, otherwise known as residuals.

The clash of ideals is intrinsic when selling art. Is it still art after you sell it? Is art a commodity if you never sell it? Writers are artists, but the rules of commerce insist a price tag is put on their intellectual creations as if their property were a car.

So is the car bought outright? Or is it licensed?

Hollywood doesn't want business partners to split their profits... they want work-for-hires, even if a long tradition exists of offering back end points ("monkey points") on projects so bad that the producer can't get a proper budget to pay writers as work-for-hires. The movie business isn't like other businesses. How many other professions offer their employees back end points?

Furthermore, the car analogy breaks down when looking at the question of scale. For example, I can only buy a car from you once and sell it once, but I can buy an idea from you once—for $1—and then sell that idea a million times for a penny. If I sell it a million times and I own the idea, am I legally obligated to offer you a residual payment? I might be ethically obligated, but legally? Of course I wouldn't be legally obligated—because you had no obligation to sell me the idea at the price I was asking. But you did. And once you did, it became my idea, not yours.

And there's the issue.

The WGA is arguing (among other things) to be paid residuals for the reuse of their content... even though writers are work-for-hire employees. As Mark Kemp always used to say, "Perhaps I don't understand—you want to share the rewards, but you don't want to shoulder any of the risk? Can you please tell me how that's fair?"

Writers have the trump card, though. Their position is pretty reasonable: if a film they write makes no money, writers get paid no residuals. Yet if the film is wildly successful, writers should get a small slice of that pizza. They don't want the whole slice, but they would like something. This structure doesn't bankrupt producers, and it provides writers incentive to create wildly successful projects. Everyone wins.

Even so, producers will still grab whatever they can get, and they have a powerful reach. Case in point, Terry Rossio talks about his experience with Disney, and after reading this, it's really hard not to see the AMPTP as greedy zombies drinking the blood of newborn babies:
We are told, regarding royalties, that Disney's position on merchandising is that the characters, items, ships, locations, etc., are not described in enough detail in the screenplay in order to be considered anything other than generic. This allows them to sell a Jack Sparrow figure, dressed like the character from the movie, with scenes we created referenced on the packaging, and when you press a button Jack actually speaks six different lines of dialogue straight from the film—but that's really just a 'generic' pirate, and so you pay the writers nothing. (The way the legal definitions work, only the 'look' of the item matters, not what is spoken, and payments are made on the spoken words only if they are part of the separated rights agreement, such as a live performance.) My flight of fancy would be to manufacture the exact same figure saying the same lines and watch how fast Disney would sue for copyright infringement. Somehow they are able to hold the contradictory positions that the same figure that is indeed unique enough to be protected via copyright is somehow also not quite unique enough to qualify for merchandising payments to the writers.

To date, the WGA has a 90% strike authorization vote, and the Teamsters have decided to informally stand with the WGA (the Teamsters can't order their drivers not to cross picket lines, but their union can't punish anyone for individually deciding to cross the line). SAG has also voiced support for the WGA. That's bad news for the AMPTP.

I hate strikes, but in this case, it seems like the writers make a very good case, and AMPTP really hasn't been listening. Even if the AMPTP is right about the specifics of these negotiations, too many writers have been taken advantage of for way too long. Payback's going to hurt. Can you hear the world's smallest violins?

Further reading about the WGA, the AMPTP, and other entertainment news:
The Artful Writer
United Hollywood
Deadline Hollywood Daily

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Support Your Local Visionary

Dr. Gerald Bull wanted to build cannons his whole life. His lifelong dream was to build a cannon to launch satellites into space. His break came in the late 80's when he was commissioned to build the largest cannon ever... so large, in fact, that it had to be assembled in parts and laid at an angle on the side of a hill. Its length was 156 meters (about 500 feet), its bore would be 1 meter wide, its weight would be over 2,100 tons, and have a range of 750 kilometers (about 415 miles).

When Gerard Bull first presented the cannon project to his staff, and after he recited the long list of all its daunting engineering problems, they said, "That's impossible."

And he replied—excitedly—"Yeah, isn't it great?"

Bull was a visionary, and like so many other visionaries before and since, nobody else could see what he saw. Rather than open their eyes to new possibilities, his staff's gut response was extreme skepticism. But Bull didn't listen. He bullied them into tackling the so-called "impossible" problems. They labored for months. And he got his cannon built (click the picture to see it).

This is the problem with most human beings (myself included, I'm ashamed to admit), at least in the Western world—we resist change, even if the change is better for us. Anything radically new is intrinsically suspect. And the seed of an idea is killed before it even gets planted. The visionary sees the goal and finds a way to make it happen—the non-visionary sees what's available and so can't see a feasible way to reach the goal.

Regretfully, I am cursed with a visionary mind. I say cursed because having a visionary mind means you are condemned to a life of perpetual daydreaming, seeing possibilities which others don't, can't, or won't—that makes it a struggle to get others to open their minds wide enough to see what I see. It's exhausting. Many of my ideas are usually met with a polite nod, apathetic dismissal or, at worst, open derision. Thus, most of the time, simply because I'm so tired of being met with a lackluster attitude, I just shut up and keep all my new ideas to myself... but privately tinker with them until I can provide the non-visionaries with some meat to chew on. Since my ideas' early stages have no money to be developed into something ostensibly valuable, they are fueled only by my own enthusiasm and nothing kills enthusiasm faster than a simple non-visionary quip, "Nobody will ever use that. Why are you wasting your time?"

So here's a simple request to all you non-visionaries: if you ever hear someone come up with an idea which sounds crazy to you, stop yourself from saying, "That's impossible", or "That can't be done", or "You're mad! What if X or Y or Z?" Instead, try to reframe your reaction: "OK, I don't see how that could be done, but if it could, how could it be done?"

I'm developing a massive idea now—I've shared it with a few close friends and they love because it's useful and it has legs to stay around awhile. I feel it has the potential to be larger than Myspace if it catches on. But I'm careful about whom I talk to about it, and not just for legal reasons... most people don't see the possibility until it already exists.

There is another downside to being a visionary—you can be so thirsty to see your dreams realized that you lose touch with your ethics. For example, Dr. Bull's "supergun" was contracted by Saddam Hussein and not only were the canon's parts eventually confiscated by British customs officials, but Dr. Bull was assassinated outside his house in Belgium, probably by Israeli or Iranian secret police. Doomsday Gun was a TV movie made about Dr. Bull and his tragic ending.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More Evidence for a Fat Tax

The Brits have a social healthcare system, and a recent study has concluded that individuals can no longer be held completely responsible for the British obesity epidemic and the government must now take a more pro-active role.

Well, amen, brutha.

I can already hear how the ensuing conversations will play out:

You wouldn't let someone commit suicide, right? But overeating isn't suicide.

Obesity-related illnesses shorten your lifespan. But that's a personal choice.

Yes, but the poor have neither the money nor ideal living conditions to set themselves up to eat well—they are handicapped from the start. So they're just victims?

In part. But it's really the government which has a moral responsibility to protect to the public health, which means stopping a flu outbreak, monitoring cattle for mad cow disease, or curbing a national obesity epidemic. Sometimes that means standing in the way of massive corporations making a kajillion dollars. I know, I know—that's unpopular, uncapitalist, un... American? Maybe. Irresponsible? Definitely not.

Look, you misunderstand. I do not want fatty foods outlawed—that'll never be the answer. Just slap a fat tax on fatty foods, make them expensive enough to dissuade people from gorging on them too often (why not charge $8 for a whopper rather than $4?), and use the resulting tax revenues to exclusively subsidize healthy foods. (Or at least offer tax credits to healthy food restaurants.) The poor don't suffer, and the nation gets healthier. Yes, it impinges freedom of choice, but not all freedom of choice is good; if you think so, then don't cry to me when your grown child swallows a shotgun.

Don't take my word for it. Take the word of 250 experts:

Obesity 'not individuals' fault'

It is said we live in an 'obesogenic' environment
Individuals can no longer be held responsible for obesity so government must act to stop Britain "sleepwalking" into a crisis, a report has concluded.

The largest ever UK study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our "obesogenic" society.

Dramatic and comprehensive action was required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050, they said.

But the authors admitted proof that any anti-obesity policy works "was scant".

Nonetheless every level of society, from individual to the upper echelons of government, must become involved in the campaign against a condition which carries such great social and economic consequences, they said.

In 2002, those who were overweight or obese cost nearly £7bn in treatment and state benefits and in indirect costs such as loss of earnings and reduced productivity.

In 40 years time, that figure could reach nearly £46bn, as health services struggle to cope with the ill health such as diabetes, cancer and stroke which can be associated with excess weight.

"There is a danger that the moment to act radically and dramatically will be missed," said Sir David King, the government's chief scientific advisor and head of the Foresight Programme which drew up the report.

"It is a problem that is getting worse every year."

So hard

Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense, cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.

In this environment it was surprising that anyone was able to remain thin, Dr Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council said, and so the notion of obesity simply being a product of personal over-indulgence had to be abandoned for good.

"The stress has been on the individual choosing a healthier lifestyle, but that simply isn't enough," she said.

From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed - believed to slow down infant weight gain - the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

Industry was already working to put healthier products on the shelf, the report noted, while work was advanced in transforming the very make-up of food so it was digested more slowly and proved satisfying for longer.

But it was clear that government needed to involve itself, as on this occasion, the market was failing to do the job, Sir David said.

Shock tactics?

Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said the government would be holding further consultations to decide how to proceed.

She said it was too early to say whether the same "shock" approach seen in public health warnings against smoking would be adopted with obesity, or whether a tax on fatty foods, highlighted in the report but widely dismissed as unworkable, would be considered.

"The most important thing is there has to be public consent and understanding of the issues you're trying to challenge," she said.

"A mandate for change will be difficult because it has to be preceded by an understanding of the dangers of obesity."

The Royal College of Physicians said the report was "encouraging".

"The emphasis on cross-governmental initiatives is particularly welcome, as is the importance of addressing issues across society whilst avoiding blame," said its president, Professor Ian Gilmore.

The Food and Drink Federation said it understood its role in tackling the problem.

"Our industry is now widely recognised as leading the world when it comes to reformulating products; extending consumer choice; and introducing improved nutrition labelling," a spokesperson said.—Source

Monday, October 15, 2007

The ELE Series—Global Warming

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind—the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.

Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, "What were our parents thinking? Why didn't they wake up when they had a chance?" We have to hear that question from them, now. —Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth

The latest report on climate change to the United Nations says global warming is happening and that humans are "very likely" responsible for it. CO2 levels, already the highest they've been in over 600,000 years, are still going up, too. Because temperature fluctuations appear to have some correlation with CO2 levels, the earth seems to be much more fragile than we were all taught in grade school and at this rate, if temperatures continue to increase, the Greenland and polar ice caps will almost certainly melt.

In fact, it looks like the ice is already melting at an alarming rate:

Sir Richard Attenborough believes humans are responsible:

And in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore presented a graph charting data taken from polar ice samples spanning 600,000 years:

The bottom line on the chart above is the earth's temperature over 600,000 years, and the line above represents CO2 emissions. While there is no scientific proof per se that CO2 emissions are the cause of global temperatures (CO2 emissions might be the effect of a cause which also affects global temperatures), this data is compelling. The vertical red line after the dot is where CO2 emissions are predicted on rising to in the coming years; the line is completely vertical because its rate of increase is so high relative to the chart's timeline that it cannot be seen. Thus, if you accept the assumption that CO2 emissions are the central cause of global warming, you can imagine what impact that level of CO2 emissions would have on global warmth.

For those who thinks global warming is still fiction, consider this news clipping from January 31, 2007 (and pay special heed to the boldface):
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is due to release a report in Paris on Friday entitled Climate Change 2007 in which 2,500 scientists from 130 countries unequivocally state that the current trend towards potentially catastrophic global warming has been induced by human activity, which began with the dramatic increase in fossil fuel use during the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century....

The report is not without its critics in the scientific community. One senior British climate expert quoted in The Observer warned that the report’s predictions are relatively rosy, given its painstaking consensus process: “The really chilling thing about the IPCC report is that it is the work of several thousand climate experts who have widely differing views about how greenhouse gases will have their effect. Each paragraph of this report was therefore argued over and scrutinized intensely. Only points that were considered indisputable survived this process. This is a very conservative document—that's what makes it so scary.” —Source

Forget for a moment that Al Gore recently won the Nobel Peace Price for his work on raising awareness about climate change. Instead, picture 2,500 scientists across 130 countries co-authoring a document they can all agree on. They may disagree about many things in this document, but "only points that were considered indisputable survived this process." What brand of skeptic can comfortably refute that?

Even more evidence for the naysayers—on December 29, 2006, a Canadian ice shelf the size of 11,000 football fields was reported to have broken away from the mainland:
Ancient ice shelf breaks free from Canadian Arctic
POSTED: 11:31 a.m. EST, December 29, 2006

• Scientist: "Disturbing event" shows "we are crossing climate thresholds"
• Researchers using satellite images discovered 2005 event
• Collapse picked up by earthquake monitors 155 miles away

TORONTO, Ontario (AP)—A giant ice shelf the size of 11,000 football fields has snapped free from Canada's Arctic, scientists said.

The mass of ice broke clear 16 months ago from the coast of Ellesmere Island, about 800 kilometers (497 miles) south of the North Pole, but no one was present to see it in Canada's remote north.

Scientists using satellite images later noticed that it became a newly formed ice island in just an hour and left a trail of icy boulders floating in its wake. (Watch the satellite images that clued in ice watchers)

Warwick Vincent of Laval University, who studies Arctic conditions, traveled to the newly formed ice island and could not believe what he saw.

"This is a dramatic and disturbing event. It shows that we are losing remarkable features of the Canadian North that have been in place for many thousands of years. We are crossing climate thresholds, and these may signal the onset of accelerated change ahead," Vincent said Thursday.

In 10 years of working in the region he has never seen such a dramatic loss of sea ice, he said.

The collapse was so powerful that earthquake monitors 250 kilometers (155 miles) away picked up tremors from it.

The Ayles Ice Shelf, roughly 66 square kilometers (41 square miles) in area, was one of six major ice shelves remaining in Canada's Arctic.

Scientists say it is the largest event of its kind in Canada in 30 years and point their fingers at climate change as a major contributing factor.

"It is consistent with climate change," Vincent said, adding that the remaining ice shelves are 90 percent smaller than when they were first discovered in 1906.

"We aren't able to connect all of the dots... but unusually warm temperatures definitely played a major role."

Laurie Weir, who monitors ice conditions for the Canadian Ice Service, was poring over satellite images in 2005 when she noticed that the shelf had split and separated.

Weir notified Luke Copland, head of the new global ice lab at the University of Ottawa, who initiated an effort to find out what happened.

Using U.S. and Canadian satellite images, as well as data from seismic monitors, Copland discovered that the ice shelf collapsed in the early afternoon of August 13, 2005.

"What surprised us was how quickly it happened," Copland said. "It's pretty alarming.

"Even 10 years ago scientists assumed that when global warming changes occur that it would happen gradually so that perhaps we expected these ice shelves just to melt away quite slowly, but the big surprise is that for one they are going, but secondly that when they do go, they just go suddenly, it's all at once, in a span of an hour."

Within days, the floating ice shelf had drifted a few miles (kilometers) offshore. It traveled west for 50 kilometers (31 miles) until it finally froze into the sea ice in the early winter.

The Canadian ice shelves are packed with ancient ice that dates back over 3,000 years. They float on the sea but are connected to land.

Derek Mueller, a polar researcher with Vincent's team, said the ice shelves get weaker and weaker as the temperature rises. He visited Ellesmere's Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in 2002 and noticed it had cracked in half.

"We're losing our ice shelves, and this a feature of the landscape that is in danger of disappearing altogether from Canada," Mueller said. "In the global perspective Antarctica has many ice shelves bigger than this one, but then there is the idea that these are indicators of climate change."

The spring thaw may bring another concern as the warming temperatures could release the ice shelf from its Arctic grip. Prevailing winds could then send the ice island southwards, deep into the Beaufort Sea.

"Over the next few years this ice island could drift into populated shipping routes," Weir said. "There's significant oil and gas development in this region as well, so we'll have to keep monitoring its location over the next few years."

Here's what How Stuff Works says about it:
The main ice covered landmass is Antarctica at the South Pole, with about 90 percent of the world's ice (and 70 percent of its fresh water). Antarctica is covered with ice an average of 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) thick. If all of the Antarctic ice melted, sea levels around the world would rise about 61 meters (200 feet). But the average temperature in Antarctica is -37°C, so the ice there is in no danger of melting. In fact in most parts of the continent it never gets above freezing.

There is a significant amount of ice covering Greenland, which would add another 7 meters (20 feet) to the oceans if it melted. Because Greenland is closer to the equator than Antarctica, the temperatures there are higher, so the ice is more likely to melt.

But there might be a less dramatic reason than polar ice melting for the higher ocean level—the higher temperature of the water. Water is most dense at 4 degrees Celsius. Above and below this temperature, the density of water decreases (the same weight of water occupies a bigger space). So as the overall temperature of the water increases it naturally expands a little bit making the oceans rise.

In 1995, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a report which contained various projections of the sea level change by the year 2100. They estimate that the sea will rise 50 centimeters (20 inches) with the lowest estimates at 15 centimeters (6 inches) and the highest at 95 centimeters (37 inches). The rise will come from thermal expansion of the ocean and from melting glaciers and ice sheets. Twenty inches is no small amount—it could have a big effect on coastal cities, especially during storms. — Source.

If global warming accelerates to the worst-case scenario, i.e., if all the world's ice totally melts into the oceans, ocean levels will rise a maximum of 68 meters (220 feet), far less than portrayed in the film Waterworld, but much closer to A.I.. If you assume about 12.5 feet per building story, 220 feet is a little over 17.5 stories, which means my old 17th floor residence in the 20 floor New York City apartment building where I grew up would be completely underwater.

Technically speaking, global warming isn't a definitive extinction level event for humans, but it comes very close. If ocean levels rise too quickly—say over a century, rather then two centuries—mass migrations could spark a crippling economic implosion. Humans adapt, and while they're on the cusp of great technological discoveries, adjusting to an aquatic world by genetically splicing gills into our DNA will likely be overkill: if everything melts, there will still be land to live on. Thus, humans will still be able to to mine the necessary resources to colonize other planets and escape any comets coming from the Oort cloud.

Even so, you have to appreciate the cosmic irony that the accidental warming of our own planet—which could potentially bring about our own destruction here on Earth—may also be the most useful tool we learn to warm up and colonize Mars.

Further reading: An overview of information related to global warming compiled by Texas A&M University's Laboratory for Applied Biotelemetry & Biotechnology.

This is Part 5 of The ELE Series, a list of articles exploring the nature of extinction level events, or E.L.E's. You can read previous articles in the series by clicking on these links:
The ELE Series—An Overview
The ELE Series—Measuring Our Future
The ELE Series—Comets & The Oort Cloud
The ELE Series—Outbreak

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Kick Back

I've heard the complaint for years, and have often iterated it myself: letting everyone and their parrot have access to filmmaking equipment and software will only foster a wave of mediocre filmmaking. While true, there's also a pleasant upside—some people can actually make very entertaining films with almost no resources at all... a reminder to all filmmakers that cleverness often comes from the most unexpected places.

Apparently, this short started out as a simple film way to display a new haircut, but at some point, it became something else:

Thanks, Sara!

Friday, October 12, 2007

On Monday: Blog Action Day for the environment

Saw this on Oopsie Daisy today:

This Monday, October 15th is Blog Action Day. Blog Action Day is an initiative for bloggers to unite and put a single important issue out there in the "blogosphere" (worst word ever) and get people thinking and taking about the issue. This year's issue? You guessed it. The environment. Participating is simple. On Monday, blog as you normally would, but keep the environment in mind. You can read more about it on the Blog Action Day website. Go forth and do good things!

So watch this space on Monday for a blog post about the environment.

And it promises to be a good one.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Credits to The Kingdom

Today's shout out goes to the opening credits for Peter Berg's new film The Kingdom, thanks to John August.

Most filmmakers consider credits as an afterthought, which is a missed opportunity: opening credits set the mood, pace, and context of a story, as in The Kingdom, where the viewer is given over 70 years of Saudi history in under 4 minutes. Unlike films from the 1940s, no screen time is wasted from pimping ego—we are immediately thrown into the fray to review crucial, and visually sugar-coated, information. By the time our story has begun, the viewer already has a clear sense for what's at stake and whose interests are in play.

Design-wise, those credits remind me of What Barry Says, an animated short which turns a boring diatribe into an entertaining monologue:

And while we're talking about amazing credit design, check out my all-time favorite, from David Fincher's Se7en, done by Kyle Cooper's company, Imaginary Forces: