Friday, September 29, 2006


No Island, No Pirates

posted by barsoomcore

I'll be posting Film Fest notes over the next few days as Steph and begin our yearly descent into cinematic overload, but for now I thought you should know this:

Of course, once you know that, well, you immediately realise that's only part of the story. Sure, that's easy enough to understand, but if you saw that on, say, a T-shirt, you might only scratch your head in confusion. Which is where this comes in handy:

What do mean, what do I mean? What? I'm just saying. If you saw that on a T-shirt, well, then you'd know, right? You'd just know. Nobody would have to explain it to you. Nobody would have to draw you a picture. You're clever that way.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006


More Groove

posted by barsoomcore

I seem to be in the midst of creating a bunch of sort of "movie-related" music. One reason is that since I can't sing worth piss, and don't have any useful way of recording voices anyhow, I use vocals I can get ahold of, like movie dialogue.

Also some of my favourite music is movie music (like the Kong theme) so what are you going to do?

Now, if you were to grant points based on awesomeness of theme song AND crappiness of movie, I think you might have to rate Diamonds Are Forever as the highest of the high. Song: awesome Shirley Bassey ass-kicking. Movie: Well, uh, no. It sucks a lot. I can't think of another Bond film that quite combines those two qualities so well.

So here we have:

Only Diamonds Never

Steph helped a lot with this one so if you like it you should thank her. You wouldn't like it so much without her.

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Life Is An Action Movie

posted by barsoomcore

Okay, okay. Yes, we've seen The Protector (No, there's no sign that Tony Jaa is a flash in the pan). Before the show we saw the trailer for Jet Li's new picture, Fearless, and that plus The Protector plus watching Police Story 2 immediately afterwards got me thinking.

Because honestly, the trailer for Fearless doesn't thrill me. And while The Protector's a solid fight film, it doesn't have the sort of thrill to it that Police Story 2 does. And I think I know what the missing component in both is.

Screwing up.

A subject near and dear to my heart. One of the things Jackie gets right in Police Story 2 (and in many of his best films) is failure. His character screws up, makes bad decisions, and has to pay for it. Right at the beginning of PS2 we see Jackie lose his temper over an attempted assault on his girlfriend, and storm across a busy street (and it's one of those only-in-Hong-Kong moments, as just watching Jackie dodge what looks like REAL traffic is enough to cause pulses to rise) to trash the thugs responsible, which he does. It's not the smartest decision ever, but we understand. Guy's gotta look after his girl, right?

It's that willingness to look wrong, to look weak, that really puts great fight films into the realm of great cinema. Jet Li's My Father is a Hero and Jackie's great films all allow that -- the heroes make mistakes. They don't just get hit really hard (which happens to Jaa in The Protector, sure enough); they make bad decisions.

When I see the trailer for Fearless I see shot after shot of Jet Li kicking ass. Which is great, as far as it goes, but if there were a few shots in there of Li getting HIS ass kicked, I'd be a lot more excited about the movie. And it's the same with The Protector. Never mind that Prinkaew hasn't figured out how to shoot a boat chase, or that Jaa relies a little too heavily on the old standy of having bad guys charge just past him so he can slap them a little as they go by, or that when he squares off against twenty guys somehow they all attack him one at a time -- the real problem in this film is that Jaa never ever screws up. He's never wrong, and that makes the whole film just an exercise in physical performance. Without a failure for our hero to overcome, without his own inner demons tearing him apart, there's nothing to the story. And all the fight scenes are nothing more than high-speed dance numbers.

Whasisname who write How To Save The World was talking about this recently when he talked about being a model:
Very few proponents and 'leaders' of successful organizations and movements have the humility to admit that successes and failures are invariably collective and mostly a matter of fortune, not skill or knowledge. Even fewer will tell you what's (still and newly) wrong with what they're doing, what keeps them awake at night -- though those few are the most likely to evolve and continue succeeding.

If I want my life to be a great story, I don't have to do anything very difficult, really. I just have to look at the failures in my life, acknowledge them and humbly set about trying overcome them. I have to give up the notion of always looking like I know what I'm doing, and keep in mind that it's in the moments when Jackie Chan screws up that I love him most.

I admit that it's possible I think more about kung-fu movies than anyone else I've ever encountered. So what?

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Sunday, September 17, 2006



posted by barsoomcore

Little update on the world of DINO-PIRATE goodness:

Our first DINO-PIRATE product, THE SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY, is into its third and hopefully final round of playtesting with games running this week. Release of this puppy may be a while as we haven't yet worked up any useful art for it and who knows how that'll work out?

A good cover is critical in this business -- nothing attracts the eye more than a shiny cover.

The preceding playtest rounds have been instructive -- it's always interesting to see the things that other people pick up on your work. My blindness to my own errors is pretty spectacular -- I'm not at all sure how exactly I came up with some of the numbers on the PCs but they were broken all over the place.

And I discovered that nowhere had I actually DESCRIBED the situation in the adventure -- the whole thing takes place underground but since I'd never mentioned that, some of my playtesters naturally had no idea and so their games ran quite a bit differently than I'd imagined.

Revisions made and newest version sent out. Slowly but surely DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is becoming a reality...

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Factory Software

posted by barsoomcore

I came across the idea of "Software Factories" on the MSDN site. A Software Factory is an immensely complicated, um, thing, that makes application development easier. Basically, it seems to be a movement to create large frameworks at numerous domain levels, that can then be combined to deliver specific application systems.

Is this whole notion misguided? There's certainly a fair amount of work going on over Microsoft way in building Software Factories -- which appear to be mostly installable plug-ins for IDE's to make it easy to build components. My feeling is that this makes it easier for bad developers to build complicated things.

I'm not sure that's a good feeling I have.

In a mature software factory, application development consists primarily of component selection, customization, adaptation, extension and assembly. Instead of writing large amounts of new code, application developers obtain most of the required functionality from existing components.

I think this means in much the same way developers make use of existing components like the Swing or Struts frameworks, Hibernate or EJB. Of course, those are all Java technologies, so I guess it behooves Microsoft to pretend they don't exist.

But Microsoft seems to want to go deeper than that, with business-domain-specific frameworks that application developers can draw on.

Looking around the industry today, however, we see only a few cases of systematic family based product development, most notably packaged enterprise applications. Why don't we see more? One reason may be lack of knowledge. Product line practices are not well understood in the software industry. Another reason may be inertia. Established practices are often hard to replace, especially when not only technical, but business and organizational changes are required. Perhaps the most significant reason, however, is the high cost of developing the reusable assets, especially the tools.

The cost, however, decreases as your available time increases. This is the secret of open-source development -- as the number of people contributing to your product increases, so does your available time, and therefore your development costs decrease. Obviously there's all sorts of other conditions and issues that arise, so it's not just a straightforward growth line, but in essence one open-source project after another has proven that this model works great.

It IS very expensive. Domain-specific frameworks are only financially viable for groups that can expect to implement them again and again -- huge companies (like, um, Microsoft) or large open-source movements. So far, the evidence suggests that open-source movements are better at it. Firefox, Apache, Linux/Unix: all these systems consistently outperform their closed-source counterparts.

As product developers increasingly depend on external suppliers, supply chains will emerge, as they have in other industries.

The difference being that there's zero cost to acquiring these supplies, and storing/creating them (again assuming you have infinite time, which you essentially do).

Philosophically, I pretty much agree with Microsoft here that this is the direction software development is going. Ever-more sophisticated and interoperable frameworks and component libraries that application developers can assemble to build their systems. But I don't see how we get away from developers needing to know HUGE amounts of stuff. You're still going to need people who know this shit inside and out, if you want high-performance systems, because each system needs tuning to its own conditions.

Or I guess a better way to put it is you're still going to get what you pay for, relatively. Joel Splosky's always going on about how the very best software developers are TEN TIMES more productive than average software developers. I agree with that. I just wonder if maybe the best cobblers were equally more productive than their average shoe-making folk. Didn't make it impossible for people to get pretty darn good shoes from an assembly line.

Where I differ from Microsoft's stated position is predictable given my investment compared to theirs in maintaining an immense software company. Microsoft seems to be making a pitch to non-technical corporate decision-makers, reassuring them that only the big boys can really supply what they need, which will generate the financial investment that these ginormous frameworks and tool sets will require.

Because otherwise it seems clear to me the open-source community will continue motoring on ahead, doing exactly what Microsoft says only they can do. Because this IS a way in which software development is different from other crafts: the only thing you need to work on it is a PC. You don't need leather, you don't need steel, you don't need a workshop, you don't need to pay your workers, even. And that makes it pretty difficult to argue that only those with massive financial resources will be able to make this happen. It's already happening, more effectively and more creatively than Microsoft is going to be able to accomplish.

Says me. Big thinker.


Friday, September 08, 2006


Don't Mistrust My Peeps

posted by barsoomcore

I'm heading into "performance review time" -- where I spend some time trying to help each of my people and at the same time try to provide corporate management with security that my department doesn't represent an unacceptable risk to the company. The legal folks need to know that problem people are being identified up front and having their "problemness" communicated to them so that if we have to let them go they aren't able to claim we made no effort to correct things.

It's funny -- I've always railed against this aspect of reviews, feeling like it expressed a lack of trust on the company's part towards my employees. But for whatever reason I see it differently now. It's not that the company doesn't trust THEM; it's that they don't trust ME. They need these forms filled out in order to be reassured that I am doing my job -- correcting unhealthy behaviour and helping people be more valuable to the company.

Which is much easier for me to take. I don't mind so much that they don't trust me; I'm forgetful and not super-skilled so that's perfectly understandable. I don't trust myself all that much. But my team is wonderfully composed of super-heroes who can out-think and out-work anyone you'd care to pit them against. So you don't mistrust them.

Nobody mistrusts my team.


Monday, September 04, 2006


Right Here In River City

posted by barsoomcore

The Fifth Discipline has turned out to be one of those books that comes along at just the right moment and helps to structure all the chaotic, unstructured feelings and thoughts you have about a topic, gives you a language to talk about them and helps you see that these things DO make sense, if you have the right context in which to approach them.

The book provides a bunch of practices you can implement on your own:
  • Using system archetypes

  • Clarifying personal vision

  • Test assumptions

  • Acknowledging current reality

But I find myself full of doubt -- can I really implement not only these smaller practices but the more "big-ticket" items like world cafes, workshops, the "U" process and Open Space meetings at a company like mine? How can the drive to make a better world prosper in a company that makes software for a GAMBLING operation, for heaven's sake? Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here. How can I make happen the sorts of transformations I want to make next to a sportsbook/poker/casino company?

But maybe these are lessons I need to learn. How could they be otherwise, really? I've often quoted at other people the glib little comment: "You find the teachers you need." Maybe it's truer than I knew. When I was living in Japan I needed Sugino sensei. Here at Riptown I need... maybe Riptown. Maybe I need to face the challenge of finding and fostering the strong, dedicated community that truly wants to achieve "mighty things" (to steal a phrase from Shaw, via The Fifth Discipline) right here, amidst server farms and hold percentages and slick advertising.

At any rate, I have to try. I can begin with the little things -- which is best. I often get seduced by the big things, probably because they afford me a more dramatic role, fattening up my self-importance, when I what I really WANT to do is to just be a part (even a wee tiny little part) of facilitating change.

I don't know where it will go. I don't know what it will lead to. I don't have any answers -- only faith that there is a better way to do things, a way that is based on respect and love for others, and generates community and trust and wisdom. If there isn't, well, I'd rather find out now.



Art != Guitar

posted by barsoomcore

Overheard conversation at the Vancouver International Airport:

A couple come out of the smoking room and drift past me, halting at the tall glass case displaying a steel cello that has gaps in its body through which gears can be seen.

They consider it carefully.

"That took some time, " says the guy.

He repeats himself.

"That took some time."

They squat to try and read the name on the artist's plate.

"Cory... Fenwick?"

"It's hard to read."

A little kid comes running over and points at the cello.

"What's that?"

The guy grins.

"It's art."

"No, it's not!" shouts the kid.

His parents call for him to return: "Marcus! Marcus!"

"Yeah," says the guy, "That's art."

"No, it's not! It's a guitar!"

The couple are momentarily stymied. The woman recovers first and tries another tack.

"No, no. It's a bass."

"A bass? What's a bass?"

"A stand-up bass."

"What's a bass?"

"Marcus! Come here!"

"It's a big guitar."

The kid nods, his suspicions confirmed, and he goes back to his folks.


"I was looking at the guitar!

I love how the kid completely resisted all efforts to introduce new information into his world, and forced the grownups to talk to him on his terms. A great lesson on how all of us need new information presented to us in the context of what we already understand, or else we just keep forcing the conversation back into our context, and how good we are at doing that. It's not art. It's not a bass. It's just a guitar.



I Wish I Was In Sherbrooke Now...

posted by barsoomcore

"Corey, no, no, no! No, no, Corey!"

The familiar ring of Sensei's voice carries all across the gymnasium and I know I'm doing something wrong.

I don't know what, so I just stop where I am in the sequence of moves forming the first of the omote tachi kata and wait for Sensei to explain what it is I'm screwing up. There never seems to be a shortage of mistakes and misapprehensions on my part, that's for sure.

But one thing I learned studying martial arts -- or at least studying with teachers like Sugino Sensei in Japan (and now Sherbrooke) and Skoyles Sensei in Calgary -- is that correction is a gift, a gift that must be treasured and embraced and deeply considered. When Sugino Sensei comes running over and grabs my arm to pull it into the correct posture (usually laughing at my awkwardness as he does so), he is gifting me with his attention. And the attention and consideration of a man like Sensei is nothing to be treated casually. He has spent decades learning this craft, learning from his father and the piled-up ages of experience within him, which now reside in the son. It is a rare and precious thing to be granted even a small portion of that experience.

Not only does Sensei know swordfighting (at least the form swordfighting takes within the Katori Shinto Ryu curricullum) inside-out, he also a gifted instructor, who knows just what change to make to a student's stance so that they will understand a particular move better. With one adjustment of my right wrist Sensei completely changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the basic overhead cut of Katori -- the very first thing I ever learned at his dojo fourteen years ago.

Watching Sensei at the class at Sherbrooke was wonderful. He would wander between the rows of practicing students, seemingly aimlessly, and then something would catch his eye and his whole body would electrify, and he would rush over to one pair or another, stop their activity and offer correction and guidance. Usually he would laugh his good-humoured booming laugh and then be on his way again, wandering without apparent direction until something else caught his eye. If I'm paying attention, I can learn nearly as much watching him correct others as I can having him correct me.

The parallels with writing are, perhaps instructive -- as much for the similarities as the differences.

When someone reads my work and offers comments, I find that if I can treat their comments as a gift, and accept them humbly and with gratitude, they are far more valuable to me than if I get defensive -- thereby denying the validity of my reader's feelings. I have learned to avoid trying to explain myself, even when it seems that someone has misunderstood my intent. I might ask a question to establish that the reader did in fact read the words that I wrote, but I try never to challenge my reader's impressions.

I try. I'm not actually very good at behaving this way -- the urge to explain and to try and demonstrate my own cleverness is strong and I often give in to it, but I recognize that this is empty, pride-fueled behaviour.

You can't reason with Sensei. Asking questions serves little purpose when receiving correction -- typically when I do ask questions I'm simply trying to make Sensei realise that I REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. That I'm wise and clever and skilled. It's the same in writing.

The only required response to ANY feedback is "Thank you." Whenever someone takes the time to consider what I'm doing and offer their input, I am required to thank them for their efforts. I don't have to say anything else. I don't have to agree with them or demonstrate my acceptance of their correction, but I do have to thank them for the effort.

"Arigato, sensei."

But in writing it's rare to have access to a Sensei. Writing stories doesn't have the kind of rigid standards that Katori Shinto Ryu has. In Katori, if my foot isn't turned out, that's just wrong. It isn't "my style" or an interesting challenge to overcome; it's wrong. Turn the foot out. In writing stories, ANYTHING can work okay if I can make it work okay. Experience is valuable, to be sure, but anyone's point of view has something to offer me as a writer.

Erin mentioned the notion of "Beginner's Mind" at dinner the other night -- the idea that if you can approach your life from the point of view of a beginner, and lose your attachment to your own self-image as an expert, you learn more and are happier thereby. This idea is coming up a lot in The Fifth Discipline -- that living with humility and a willingness to learn from others provides a life of richness and constant learning.

In life, even more than in writing, a Sensei never really shows up. Nobody can show me how to live my life -- because nobody else is living MY life. Who then can I learn from? Well, from everybody. If I'm willing to accept correction and feedback as the precious gift it is, and if I can remember not to react defensively or pridefully when people offer me the benefit and aid of their experience, everyone can be a Sensei to me. I'm certainly not qualified to be an expert on any subject whatsoever, so it ought to be easy enough for me to find teachers wherever I go.

Which does seem to be the case. Certainly everyone I met in Sherbrooke had much to offer lonely little Anglophone me. Folks were tremendously hospitable and welcoming -- Patrick who took me to lunch, Michel who graciously lent me one of his hand-made bokken, Izad (I'm almost certainly spelling that wrong) who helped me with re-learning yoko-men, and of course Martin Sensei and Tong Sensei who were responsible for my being there in the first place. I learned an immense amount.

Now (and this is just as true in writing as in swordsmanship) the challenge is for me to take all the feedback and correction I've received and try to turn it into action. It's one thing to hear and accept that information -- it's quite another to use it to transform myself.

Ah, well, that's what makes it fun, I guess.

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