31 January 2012

Executive Bonus Charity Challenge

RBS executives recently decided to award themselves gobs of bonus cash. Or it was always in their contracts. Or whatever. However, as they've:
  • recently laid off tonnes of employees
  • are 83% owned by UK taxpayers
  • have seen share prices dropping like rented plates at a Greek wedding
the plan to award themselves big bonuses caused major public outrage. Especially considering that the average chief executive earns 40 times more than the average employee.

So RBS chief exec  Stephen Hester waived his bonus cheque. But having dithered too long now Hester doesn't get the money nor does he get any credit for forgoing it. And who knows where that forgone bonus cash goes?

I have a plan to solve the whole sticky situation. It's simple and incredibly getbehindable, so why don't you get behind: the Executive Bonus Charity Challenge?

BACKGROUND When beautiful and hyper-rich celebrities (or even plain-looking regular-rich ones) go on game shows they always play for charity. That way no matter who ends up winning, everybody wins. Or at the very least, the RSPCA, or Save the Children (or some other worthy cause) gets a novelty-sized cheque. Oh, and the celebrity not only gets to continue collecting absurdly gross-sized paycheques (in number of zeroes, not just size) - they also get major plaudits for being magnanimous and civic-minded. Unfortunately, banking execs make misery instead of light entertainment, so the stakes for Executive Bonus Charity Challenge would be slightly different.

THE PROPOSAL I suggest executives (let's start with the top three tiers of management) continue to receive their bonuses (which, let's be honest, they will probably continue to do anyway), and then risk them on Executive Bonus Charity Challenge in a series of head-to-head contests. Including feats of:
  • Mild athleticism. Like walking up a few flights of stairs or doing a handful of star jumps.
  • Mental agility. Like identifying oil-rich countries on a world map, or naming all the chambers of a human heart.
  • Creativity. Draw a tree. Audience votes for the one they deem 'most tree-ish'. Or a karaoke battle. That kind of thing.
  • Business. Each contestant has to explain the causes and response to the financial meltdown to a co-contestant: a six-year old child. The exec with the last co-contestant to start playing Nintendo DS is the winner.
And so on.

The point is: whoever wins gets to donate their bonus to a worthy cause of their choice. The loser gets to keep their bonus. The winner leaves the studio in a limo, to rapturous applause.

Then loser gets their bonus handed to them, in cash. Then they kill the lights in the studio and invite him to try to leave through the audience.

Job creation, (potential) bonus retention, wealth distribution, goodwill bridge-building for the vilified bankers and vigilante justice. It's time we gave the Executive Bonus Charity Challenge a try.


27 January 2012

Get: Psychemagik - Sunrise (mix)

If you're looking for some new (old) music, you can do much much worse than Psychemagik's Sunrise mix.

According to Test Pressing , the website hosting their mixes, they are "two producer/DJs who cover all bases from balearic to folk, electro synth jams to heavy funk, lush orchestral soul through to psychedelic hip hop and beyond."

According to me, they put together an incredibly solid hour of rare, classic feel-good tunes. An atmospheric mix of old soul and mellow grooves and well, other stuff that's been doing wonders for my mid-commute mood.

Download Psychemagik's Sunrise here.

It was brought to my attention by the consistently excellent Very Short List.

(Lots of Psychemgik's other stuff gets a bit too clubby for my tastes, but if you're into it check out their Soundcloud.)


The end of an automotive era

When we woke up this morning our car was parked on the street out front. It's usually not there, because we don't have a resident's parking pass for the little lady, so we have to park it a seven minute walk away. Now we no longer park it anywhere.

It's gone.

Our white 1998 Citroen Saxo, eight-year strong member of our family and veteran of three transnational moves has been set free. It's a vehicle that's acquired 150,000 kilometres, but still looks not a day over 80,000. Actually, that's not true, it's a crappy old car, but it was our crappy old car. More than the miles it's got on it, it's been loaded with memories.

And now it's gone. We've never been real car people - we're bus people. Cyclists when we can be. I'd even prefer my old skateboard over the car. But having a car always afforded us the opportunity to drive places if we needed to. Sure, it was usually just IKEA every fifteen months or so, to pick up some candles and a houseplant. But still, there's something about the promise of freedom that a car offers, even if I don't like driving, or parking, or maintenance, or the political statement a car makes.

Well, now it's no more. Rather, it can only be speculation, memories revelled in while looking in the rearview mirror of Once Were Car Owners. Our adorable car has been taken off to get sold. We hope.

The bad news is that for all the car was worth to us, it was worth a mere £175 to the dealer who purchased it. And that was the best offer we had, after many many phone calls. But the fact is that sentimental value matters little on the vehicular marketplace, which is ill-equipped to adequately compensate for continental roadtrips, airport pickups of old friends, or even that one time the car was towed.

In fact the only thing the market can pay for is the ability of the vehicle to get to IKEA and back. Here's hoping she's still worth more than the sum total of her parts.


18 January 2012

Blackout on SOPA and PIPA


The names Sopa and Pipa may sound like protagonists from a Scandanavian children's story. But they are far from harmless fictions.

In fact the SOPA and PIPA legislations have more in common with the vicious ogre from those fairy tales - the one who, due to a lack of understanding of modern ways of life, lashes out in a blind fury, causing massive amounts of damage to the villagers' livelihoods and homes.
As Tim O'Reilly explains:

"These legislative attacks are not motivated by clear thinking about the future of the Internet or the global economy, but instead seek to protect entrenched companies with outdated business models. Rather than adapting and competing with new and better services, these organizations are asking Congress for cover." There are just a few ways to mount a counter-defense: make an awesome .gif like The Oatmeal:

Come out of pencil-sharpening semi-retirement and make a whole bunch of clip-art comics like David Rees with Get Your Censor On:

Or, if you're the biggest open source online information source, you could blackout your service, like Wikipedia:

Or, if you're none of those things, and let's face it, you're not, you should go to Public Knowledge and read up on the proposed legislation, and then register your opposition at American Censorship (even if you're not in the U.S.


14 January 2012

Competitive non-starter, stand-up edition

I am not experienced as a stand-up comedian - but I have been performing improv comedy for about a dozen years, have a solo comedy show under my belt, and am (let's never, ever forget) an award-winning playwright.

With all of these theoretically transferable skills, I fancy my chances that stand-up comedy is something I could get good at. Plus I enjoy (and fear and respect) it.

So, even though stand-up still scares the hell out of me and I haven't managed to get out on the 'circuit' as often as I'd have liked (and when I have made it out, the results have been decidedly mixed, I made a move which I felt was both bold and admirable.

I swallowed my terror, threw caution under the bus and registered for Laughing Horse New Act of the Year competition back in the autumn. The date for the final heat was January, Friday the 13th. That bold move was a long time ago.

For months now, I've known the date was looming, but I didn't bother doing much preparation. Because hey, it's easier to sit by idly, passively, and let these things approach. They do it anyway - it requires no effort on your part. Plus it's certainly easier than confronting the lack of polish (and experience) in your stand-up act. Although in my defense, in the intervening months I did come up with a little bit about being married that I thought I'd chuck in to my competitive set.

Soon, the date was drawing so near that I had no other choice than to start thinking seriously about what I was going to do. So I did. Unfortunately my preparation didn't stretch as far as actually getting out in front of an audience (according to everybody, just getting out and working your material in front of audiences is absolutely vital). Presumably if you're entered into a competition this also applies. But it just didn't happen. To be fair, I've been busy with pretty steady improv gigs, but still, my last stand-up set was in November.

But I managed I put together a five-minute set, including some killer (I hoped) bits on Charles Dickens, weighing pros and cons, and the aforementioned marriage bit. I timed it out, said it aloud, practicing my cadence, playing with the language, pacing the living room. I got a good handle on it, changed some parts to be cleaner. But there was no stage time. The day continued to approach, and I was getting more and more nervous.

I wrestled with the decision about whether to cancel, as it was clear I hadn't put the requisite amount of effort and energy into it. At the same time, I figured why the hell not? Five minutes of total embarrassment (worst-case scenario) would be character-building, and five minutes of stand-up in an amateur, but slightly more pressurized than an open mic, environment would make me fitter, faster, and stronger (best-case scenario).

On the day I made the incredibly brave decision to not run away like a chicken. Instead, dragging my wife along for much-needed support I showed up at The Goat Tavern behind Regent Street, ready to put my best foot forward, let my light shine, and fire some comedy missiles at some broad targets.

It was still 45 minutes until showtime when we arrived, but the tiny room was already packed and heavy with sweat. I surveyed the narrow room, clocked the tiny stage and walked with what I hoped was a confident gait to the back to check in.

The booker asked my name, then checked his list - my name wasn't there. He double-checked, still no. Then he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his breast pocket. It read 'Has not confirmed' in bold. There were four names printed underneath; mine was one.

"Sorry," he told me, "there's already 24 comics on the bill, there's no more room." He seemed genuinely apologetic.

Before he could change his mind I grabbed my wife and bolted out of there - but not before getting my wife's cover charge refunded.

Because there is no situation that I can't haphazardly back into, immediately overcomplicate, procrastinate and dither over for an extended period, and then, at the zero hour, realize that I had (probably not-so-inadvertently) sabotaged it all along. I guess it's a curse, but I've certainly got a flair for it.

The good news is this gives me some time to try out some of that material before signing up for the next competition.


10 January 2012

Principles for living: TED talks improv

A common audience comment after an improv show is "Oh, I couldn't do that." As if that person's life has a script which they follow. Of course it doesn't.

But people (all of us) hide behind self-censorship (our 'social filter'), and saying no to ideas. This protects us from embarrassment (especially the dreaded faux pas of revealing how we really feel). Unfortunately, these things also 'protect' us from freedom, creativity and cooperation. It is precisely these things that allows improv to flourish.

Improv trains people to say yes, have fun, make sure your partner is having a good time, accept, explore and add to other's ideas, etc. All things that coincidentally make people fun to be around. And allow individuals to be more expressive, authentic, and (theoretically) successful.

But despite these valuable improv teachings, and their practical applications in the real world, I've always felt that improv has a bit of a bad rep among the arts.

It's the thing:
  • That the drama teacher assigns when she runs out of 'real theatre' curriculum
  • That the stand-up comedian does between scripted bits, to pad out a set
  • That the googler finds when trying to source information about free jazz

In all cases, interesting - even useful - but primarily a diversionary tactic. So I'm glad to see improv (as an idea, as a process, as a set of principles) finally get some representation in the public sphere.

A year ago Charles Limb presented at TED on his findings of brain activity during freestyle rapping. And even more recently, upstanding human beings, friends and improv colleagues, in two separate TEDx events, have made the case for improv more directly.

First, at TEDx Munich, improv duo Crumbs (Stephen Sim and Lee White) synthesized the day's worth of talks into a freeform, process-driven improv exploration.

It wasn't so much a talk as a straight demonstration of improv. TEDx Munich inputted a whole bunch of ideas into their brains, and Crumbs outputted some entertainment and musings, via improv. No talk, all rock.

Then, even more recently, Victoria's Dave Morris took the stage at TEDx Victoria to espouse the joys of improvising, and encourage his audience to apply those principles to their lives - in his charming and impish way.

Here, Dave makes the case more directly; he extracts some principles from improv and encourages the audience to apply them to their lives. If you're not an improviser, watching these videos might make you realize that, in fact, you already are. And there are ways to get better - and it's fun.

Maybe I'll start getting a few less "Oh, I couldn't do that" comments after shows. And a few more "Oh, improv! It's so practical. I apply some of those principles you were using onstage in my own day-to-day life. It's been really helpful. Improv rules!"

But only time will tell.

EDIT: Here's another TEDx talk (this time at McGill University in Montreal) by improvisers Marc Rowland and Brent Skagford. It's called 'Yes and: an Improviser's Guide to Content Creation'. It's about providing tools for improv scenework. Check it out.


01 January 2012

Books for 2012; how bibliomantic!

On my holidays I acquired a really nice collection of books. I've decided to use them - not only as 'reading objects' - but also, in celebration of the calendar shift into 2012, as some sort of guidance and inspiration for the new year.

Turns out there is some precedence for telling the future through books. Bibliomancy being a long-standing form of divination. However, bibliomancy usually involves examining religious texts, not speculating on the significance of books from your holidays, but let's open a new chapter of bibliomancy right now.*

*I made a book pun!

The Books

Solar, by Ian McEwan - The pullquote on the cover calls it 'savagely funny', so that's a good sign for my new year. Also, it's about environmentalism and alternative energy (I think), which is kinda what I do for a living already. In 2012 I will combine humour writing with building a better tomorrow. (Christmas gift from my brother).

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss - According to Ferriss, if you're still stuck in your daily grind instead of riding tigers in Thailand or getting blowjobs on a yacht then you seriously need to get your shit together. In 2012 I will get my shit together, by working less and earning more money. All signs also point to me racing motorcycles in South America at some point in the next twelve months. (On loan from the personal library of Geordie Aitken).

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon - An instruction manual for writing crappy movies that can make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. It is funny and filled with insider tips (e.g. Billy Crystal is a dick, where to park at Paramount). In 2012 I will write a screenplay. It may not be good, but I will get carpal tunnel syndrome and some rejection letters. Possible trip to LA, too. (Christmas gift from my brother).

Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records, by Kaitlin Fontana - The story of Mint, Vancouver's legendary independent label. I've already read parts of it, and it gives a real insider's account of Vancouver's indie rock scene. Thoroughly engrossing, and weighty and pretty. In 2012, I will make some music and my breath will be fresh. (Gift from the author).

Troubles, JG Farrell - I brought this book, winner of the lost Booker, on holiday, but didn't read it too much (although I'm about halfway through). In 2012, I will start some projects, and no matter how much I enjoy them, I will not finish all of them. This will get me into some trouble. (Bought in Belfast, autumn 2011).

Ninja Attack!: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws, Hiroko Yoda - This isn't the fake ninja stuff of fiction; this is all real bad-ass ninja stuff, as well as weapons, anecdotes and profiles of some of the most dangerous assassins of the past. In 2012, I'll need to be watching my back, to avoid lurkers, prowlers, and practitioners of the dark arts. (Gift - possibly illicit - from Geordie Aitken and Magda Dominik).

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer - The old-timey story of Huck Finn and Jim, who fetch a raft and have episodic adventures on a river. In 2012, I will have adventures, and maybe live with a rich family for awhile, until a senseless feud shatters the peace. I will then hook up with some conmen. (Bought secondhand sometime between 2010-2011).

The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth (not pictured) - A book about the hidden connections between words. In 2012 I will use a lot of words, and use some hidden connections to my advantage (perhaps fighting ninjas?). (Received at our work Secret Santa).


It looks as though 2012 will be a year of promise and adventure. Good weather and fortune can be had, if one works diligently for short periods. Fresh creativity awaits, but the pitfalls (and potential ninja troubles) must be navigated with attention and wit. Be careful - and carefree. And remember, the gift of books is one that can be enjoyed, like life, one page at a time. Good luck.