July 25, 2009

I’m pretty sure I just saw a ghost.

Saturday night, 10:30 pm. I’m walking down a dark street in the middle of the city, in search of an evening coffee to fuel some writing work. It’s a busy street, but a stretch of it that’s kind of pedestrian unfriendly, all big hulking buildings with no storefronts or people, and it feels weirdly dark even though there are streetlights. But I’m a city girl and that kind of stuff never bugs me, this is Toronto and I’m a fast runner, so I don’t sweat it.

I’m walking fast, in a good mood, enjoying the warm humidity since the rain stopped a few hours ago. Ahead of me is what I take to be a goth/raver girl- maybe 5’3″, slumped shoulders and wide hips with very wide-leg shoe-eater crimson pants, black hoodie tied around her waist, and a rickety black umbrella.

I’m not paying her any attention, gaining on her fairly fast, and am about a yard behind her when she takes a sharp, screamy, gasping breath and suddenly spins on me in an unbelievably creepy, uncannily smooth and graceful move that makes her clothes kind of flare out around her like a spectre. The move is so weirdly fluid, so intense, and so totally unexpected that I actually yelp. And then she’s standing stock still, close enough to touch, staring me dead in the face with piercing, totally blank, glittering blue eyes. Not breathing. Barring my path. Not moving at all.

She’s in her mid 40s. Her face is kind of shiny and her eyes are very clear and pale. She has a bright red bindi dot drawn between her brows. She’s not moving, but her stare is unbelievably intense, and I’m caught in it like a rabbit hypnotized by a snake. She is definitely close enough to lunge for my neck, which I’m utterly certain she’s about to do. Her mouth is closed but I’m pretty sure it’s full of needle-sharp teeth and maybe a jaw that can unhinge when she pounces.

She’s clutching her black umbrella close on this rainless night, and a bundle of newspapers. She’s blocking the narrow sidewalk and hasn’t blinked yet, standing so still she’s like a statue. My heart is racing. And she’s still not moving. I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been so scared.

I gradually unfreeze and look at the papers- I can’t read the title but judging from the size, it’s either the Epoch Times or the Outreach, both of which are publications I tend to associate with people who are strange but usually harmless. Ok. She’s not a vampire or a werewolf, she’s just a strange lady and maybe my approaching footfalls scared her. Poor thing. I can normalize this situation.

ME: Hi.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: You startled me a little!
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: You ok?
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: Let’s just keep walking, ok? You first.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: We’re ok. Let’s go.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: Come on. OK. Time to move.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: (slightly authoritaitve) Hey. Let’s go. Come on, let’s walk.

She pauses so long I shake my head and look past her with the intent of passing her on the narrow sidewalk when suddenly she shrieks in another hissing breath and lunges towards me. She moves like a character in a horror movie, all sweeping grace and sharp sudden freezes. I yelp again. She opens a mouth with no teeth and slurs, “Buy a paper?”

I’m really annoyed now, partly at her for her aggressive posture and hugely at myself for actually being scared of a middle-aged woman three inches shorter than me, so I shake it off and walk briskly past her into the donut shop. My hands are actually shaking, and I’m not very easy to scare. She follows me in, of course, and makes a beeline for an empty table in the corner beside four laughing Korean teenagers. She takes another hissing breath and lunges at the table really dramatically, drops her newspaper bundle, and straightens up again to stand stock still. I marvel at the economy and grace of her creepy movements- I’ve never even seen a dancer move so precisely.

She sits and stares at the teenagers, who are about four feet away from her. None of them are facing her, but they should all be able to either see her in their periphery, or her reflection moving in the dark plate-glass window they’re facing. But they don’t seem to see her. She notices me looking at her and holds her umbrella out towards me like a shield for a sec, then points it at the teens. Again they ignore her. She puts down the umbrella and holds out a newspaper to the teens. I still can’t tell if they even see her- the rhythm of their conversation hasn’t seemed to change and they’re all laughing quite naturally.

I notice she’s wearing a Toronto Film Festival baseball cap from 2007. This kind of absurd detail makes me positive I’m not imagining the occurrence.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a tiny stuffed cat. The kind made of rabbit fur, the size of a bagel. She holds it out to the teens.


This is hard to describe, but the four teenagers kind of act the way people act in a movie, in the scene when the lead character is discovering he’s really a ghost. Like they don’t see her there but they register something slightly unpleasant in the spot where she’s standing, so they slightly avoid that spot.

She holds her ratty little hair-cat out towards one of the teens, should be in his peripheral vision, but he doesn’t move at all. She pokes him in the shoulder and he leans away from the poke slightly, but still chatting and laughing. I mean, they must be aware of her, but I’ve never seen teenagers play it so cool. Then she stands up and holds the mangy little toy beside his ear. NONE OF THE TEENAGERS REACT. I begin to think she must be invisible.

She puts the friggin cat ON THE KID’S SHOULDER and he doesn’t move, just keeps chatting. Even she’s amazed. I can see her body language change- now she and I are both wondering if she’s imaginary. This poor woman can’t get a normal reaction from anyone, even a teen with a mangy bagel fur cat (model # C97W, it appears) on his shoulder. Of course her grip on reality is loose- I can feel my own grip loosening and I’ve only known her for four minutes.

I look around the restaurant and nobody else seems to have noticed her. The cat is still perfectly balanced on the teenaged boy’s shoulder like a little dead hamster, and he takes a bite of his doughnut. She’s staring at him like, “But didn’t I just put a fur cat on this kid?” I realize that I may be the sole living person in this movie that can see the ghosts wandering around, and maybe I should leave before an army of them start following me, demanding favours and using me as a medium to make out with their wives while spinning pottery.

I order my coffee. I see a movement out of the corner of my eye: the teenager, without turning his head or pausing the conversation, casually takes the little cat off his shoulder, looking as nonchalant as though he’s just straightening his shirt, and places it in front of him on the table. Still none of them have reacted to the woman’s lurking presence directly beside them, and none of them look at the scruffy little scrap of rabbit fur on the table now. They don’t even look unnaturally stiff like they’re ignoring her, they just look like they’re having a nice night.

The woman is now in a predicament. She didn’t get any reaction from her creepy offering, but now she can’t get it back. She looks sort of confused and a little crestfallen, making small hissing noises while moving back and forth behind one of the boys with small, quick, precise steps, looking for a way to get her ragged kitty back but also not wanting to blow her Gothic mystique by speaking to the teens, who are still engaged in calm, happy chatter.

I wish wish wish I’d brought my camera, but since she’s clearly a ghost I’m pretty sure she’s not capturable in pixel format anyway. My heart hasn’t quite stopped pounding yet, but I brush out of the Tim Horton’s, licking the icing off my donut and kind of proud that I’ve just survived my first face-to-face with a poltergeist.

Scrabble tips from teh internets and me

September 14, 2008
28 points.  Not bad, but what a waste of an S.

28 points. Not bad, but what a waste of an S.

I love Scrabble. I’m a so-so player by competitive standards- when I succumb to my online addiction, I can’t seem to keep my TWL rating over 1600 for more than a few games at a time. But I love the game and nobody was sadder than me when Facebook Scrabble dissolved. (Don’t talk to me about that Wordscraper crap, either. It’s just not the same. Round tiles, PAH.)

Anyway, hot and fresh from the internet, here is a great compendium of Scrabble tips. What’s good about this page is that the tips come from many players at many different skill levels, and many are specifically geared to a method of playing the game that will impress a new girlfriend- in other words, play flirtily, not nerdily.

To play for real, here are my personal top 5 Scrabble tips:

Remember that Scrabble is a math game masquerading as a word game. Don’t look at the letters in your rack to try to make an impressive word: instead look at the available spaces on the board and try to create ways to get your highest-valued consonants on the colourful squares.

Never play a word with an S unless using the S adds at least 12 points.

Aim for 20 points per play. Keep looking until you find that 20+ point word.

Play parallel to a word already on the board, not intersecting it. Parallel plays mean many more points.


Playing the word ED in the above example gives you points for ED, ME, and ID– more than triple the points the letters are worth.

If you do choose to play your word at right-angles to an existing word, try to “hook” onto it to get more points. So if the word RAIN is on the board, and you want to play a word like AYE, don’t play it like this:


instead, use the Y to “hook” onto the end of RAIN, and play it like this:


Hooking the Y onto the end of RAIN gives you points for AYE as well as points for RAINY, and will more than double your play. This is why you save your S tiles- they can hook onto the end of almost any word. When your opponent plays ZIGGURAT, you whip out that S and hook it right on there with a new word, and watch the points pour in. It’s the Scrabble equivalent of that Price Is Right strategy where you guess a price just $1 above the sucker who had to guess first.

And oh hey, did you know you can play Scrabble online in real-time with other obsessives people online? At Scrabulous. Some of us would rather do that than write our screenplays, but that’s totally okay and it’s a personal life choice so stop judging me those people.

Passion, by Grumblebee.

September 8, 2008

This is a fantastic and thoughtful answer to the question, “How do you find your passion?” The question was asked on Metafilter, and this answer was written by a user named Grumblebee:

Is there a difference between “discover your passion” and “discover what you want to do”?

I ask because I hear people talk about their Passion (with a capital P), as if everyone has one whether they know it or not. As it it’s a special glowing ball inside each of us. Yet I see no evidence that this ball necessarily exists.

To me, it’s more likely that we have things we like and things we dislike. A like becomes a passion when it repeats with regularity. For instance, I like peaches, but I don’t constantly crave them. So I wouldn’t call peaches a passion. On the other hand, whenever I see a book, I want to read it. I like reading… I like reading… I like reading… So I’d call reading a passion.

Is there anything like this for you, even if it’s something “stupid” (e.g. watching TV or eating poptarts)? If so, that a passion for you. If it repeats with great rapidity (and if the urge is very strong), then it’s an obsession. (I can’t keep my hands off my iPod. I think about it all the time. If I lose it, I panic.)

You don’t get to chose your passions. Since passions are just intense likings, choosing a passion would be like choosing to like eating eggplant. You either like eating eggplant or you don’t. Perhaps, if you don’t like it, you can learn to like it. But RIGHT NOW, you either like it or you don’t.

I’ve met some people who don’t seem to have any strong passions. Some admit to this. They certainly have likes and dislikes, but nothing specific crops up over and over. In fact, some people dislike anything that repeats too often (you could say such people have a passion for novelty). Other people DO have passions (defined as I’ve done so, above), but they don’t think of them as such. For many people, their passion is other people: passion for their kids, passion for their families, passion for helping others in need, etc….

Many people THINK they’ve discovered a passion when if fact they’ve only found a surface activity that lays atop their real passion. For instance, I love working in the theatre. At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I believe my passion is pretty “pure.” In other words, my passion for theatre doesn’t hide a deeper passion. I love theatre because I’m fascinated by the specific mechanics of telling stories on stage. When I’m not rehearsing a play, I will choose to read a book about theatre mechanics just for fun (for another dose of my obsession).

I’ve met others like me, but I meet far more theatre people who seem to be USING theatre to feed some deeper passion. (Please note that I’m NOT saying that there’s anything wrong with this or that I’m better than these people. I believe neither of those things. And there are plenty of other activities — just not theatre — that I use as tools to feed deeper passions.) Such people may be into theatre because they love attention and praise; they may love belonging to an open-minded group (many “misfits” find their way into theatre in high school and stay because they love belonging to such an accepting culture); they may even be operating on autopilot, doing theatre because for whatever reason, they got into it when they were younger and it never occurs to them to quit. (They probably enjoy having mastered something.)

I think it’s useful to delve into your psychology and ask yourself WHY you like what you like. Sometimes (as with me and theatre), the answer might be “because I simply love the activity.” (How do you know if this is true? Try mentally removing orbiting aspects of the activity: would I still want to direct plays if no one saw them? would I still want to direct plays if I could only work with bad actors? Would I still want to direct plays if I hated the results? Would I still want to direct plays if I always got bad reviews? etc. For me, though I wouldn’t enjoy the activity as much in these cases, I’d still want to do it.)

This is useful because if you learn what your TRUE passion is (the underlying one, if there is one), you may be able to change your life for the better. You may be able to say, “Wow! It’s not theatre I like, it’s collaboration! Maybe I instead of continuing in theatre, I should look into all sorts of collaborative activities and get into the one that’s the MOST collaborative.”

Such psychological delving may also help you deal with a crisis: “Oh no! I’ve lost my voice. I can’t act anymore. Wait a minute: it’s not specifically theatre that I like, it’s storytelling! I could write a novel.”

There’s also nothing wrong (and a lot right) with realizing, “I love attention and praise, so theatre is a great activity for me.” In all of these cases, you’ll have learned something about yourself.

Once you know your passion, you will be tempted to ask — as you did — “How can I turn this into a career?” I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think it’s totally wrong. I just think it’s too specific. Instead, I recommend you ask yourself this: “How can I best arrange my life so that I can spend the most time engaging in my passion IN ITS PUREST POSSIBLE FORM and derive the least amount of pain doing non-passion activities?”

I am a director, but I’m not a working (as in paid) director. To pay my rent, I have a “day job.” I COULD work as a director, but I’d have to direct plays that I don’t want to direct. For some people, that would be fine. For me, it’s not a good trade off. I’ll be more happy with the day job and the ability to direct whatever I want — forgoing pay. It took me a while to come up with that “formula,” and it’s a personal one. Mine won’t necessarily work for you.

(If you realize you’re like me, find the least painful day job you can, getting yourself training if you have to. I actually like my day job. And I continually work to make it better and more interesting. The cliche of waiting tables to support your passion isn’t a necessity. If you commit to the idea of having a day job — I’ll likely have one for the rest of my life — it behooves you to make it a good one. Or at least the least painful one you can find.)

I see a lot of people working REALLY hard to make their passion into a job, and — tragically — when they finally make it happen, they don’t enjoy the passion any more. (E.g. a lot of working actors, who got into the business to play Shakespeare or Chekhov, spend most of their time acting in commercials.) If this happens, it’s really worthwhile to do some soul searching. Would I be happier with a day job? Am I happy doing a compromised version of my passion? If I AM happy doing a compromised version of my passion, does that (perhaps) mean that what I thought was my passion wasn’t really my passion? (“Hmm. I thought I wanted to act, but in order to do theatre for a living, I’ve had to become a producer. And — hey — I like it. Maybe acting isn’t my real passion. Maybe my real passion is being a key part of a big project.”)

I am NOT saying there’s anything wrong with figuring out a way to do your passion for pay. Often, that’s a great way to spend most of your time doing your passion. Just make sure that if you’re doing your passion as a job, it’s really your passion that you’re doing and not a perverted version of it that will fail to make you happy.

So, go through this thought process:

1. I’ve identified my passion as X. I am now going to define X as fully as possible. For X to be X, it MUST include A and B. C is optional. It can’t include D.

2. I’ve realized that I won’t be happy unless I’m doing X for a living.

3. Are there any jobs that will allow me to do X as I’ve defined it? (Or that will let me gradually work towards a pure version of X?)

4. If not, then I need to either brainstorm other ways I could be happy (compromised X? doing X as a hobby?) or resign myself to unhappiness.

5. If so, then I need to make sure that I can live with non-X aspects of the job. (Wow! I can do full time, paid theatre, but I’d have to work with the dreaded Mr. Y!)

Finally: I’ve noticed that people (myself included) have a strong urge to classify themselves. People REALLY want to be able to say, “I’m a director!” “I’m an engineer!” “My passion is gourmet cooking!”

There’s nothing wrong with that drive, but putting yourself in a category is not the same thing as actually being in that category. In fact, categorizing yourself — since it’s so final — is a good way to thwart any attempt to discover your actual passions. Once you say, “I’m a director,” it’s hard to think, “Wait a minute: is it actually directing that I like or some other activity that directing helps me achieve?” Which is why, at the start of this long post, I suggested you de-romanticize the whole thing and, instead, think about what you like and dislike, rather than trying to pin down your Passion.

Maybe you don’t have a Passion. Maybe you have many likes — you like playing in the sun; you like watching movies; you like hanging out with friends… If so, you’ll be much happier if you arrange your life to maximize your chances to do these activities than if you expend a ton of energy categorizing yourself.

Via Metafilter.

Like looking in a mirror, it was.

August 22, 2008

The other day, I hustled my way into a subway train, sat down, looked up, and saw myself.

By which I mean that there was a girl sitting in the seat adjacent to mine who looked so exactly, weirdly, like me, that I blurted (because sometimes I blurt), “Oh my god, we’re twins.”

She turned her head slowly, with that dread-filled expression people have when other people blurt things at them in trains, but when she saw me her eyes widened, and then she burst out laughing. And everyone else within earshot was grinning. I’m not kidding, me and this girl look like curly-topped clones.

Then we were stuck in an awkward situation because we were sitting Really Close Together with our Identical Faces, but what else is there to say about that? “Wow, we both have totally slanty eyes!” Awkward. So, in the interest of having something, anything, to do, she dug around in her bag and had a stick of gum, and I dug around in my bag and applied some lip balm. But while applying said lip balm, of course I used the opportunity to sneak some more super-sneaky glances at her. Only they weren’t that sneaky, because our eyes kept meeting, because she was sneaking the exact same non-sneaky glances at me, we are so alike in that way!

So then we started talking, and we realized that people have actually mistaken us for one another in the past. I’ve been called by her name on the street by strangers, and strangers have occasionally congratulated her for the show I work on.

While exchanging these pleasantries, we’re interrupting ourselves every nineteen seconds to start laughing again at how absolutely weird it is to meet someone who looks like us. I mean, there are lots of girls of our same general “type” out there, but this chick and I share, it seems, a “genotype”.

And sometimes when I meet my long lost clone out of the blue on public transit, I take a photo of her on my cel phone to show my friends later. And this girl? Y’all, it turns out that sometimes she does the same thing, we are so alike in that way! And then sometimes I realize later, like when blogging about it, that I can’t get photos off my celphone without “learning how to use a new form of techmology” and “setting up an account” and “paying exhorbitant data rates” and y’all, my momma taught me better than that. So that photo is staying on the phone, ask to see it some time and I will tell you this whole story again, in person! It will take even longer to tell because I will mime the part about the lip balm!

Anyway, as you’d expect, this girl and I of course traded names and became Facebook friends, and so now I can use Facebook to its full potential, which is to poach through her pics & then use Photoshop to prove my point about how we look alike. So, y’all, let me introduce you to my new twinfriend, the lovely Chantelle. And our hybrid photoshop daughter, Chancole.



Freelancers and money: don’t get too excited.

August 17, 2008

I’m writing this post in response to a couple of recent conversations I had with friends who, like me, work freelance.

From experience, I know that when you have a corporate job, your earnings are on a pretty predictable ladder. You negotiate your salary on entry and thereafter come the delightful wee annual raises. After exemplary displays of workplace acumen, you can of course get merit raises, but even they tend to be based on a ladder- you might get a raise that pays you like an employee of four years, for instance, even though you’ve only been at the company for two years. It’s all scaled, and it’s pretty easy to make sense of where you should fit in the pecking order.

Plus, in an office environment, it’s easy to guess what your coworkers make (or snoop it out, you naughty naughty admin assistant). Besides, you know what to ask for because you can actually observe others on the job and gauge your value to the team relative to theirs. Once I worked with a team member who, during a workday, updated his Facebook status to “….is drunk at work!” At any rate, in a structured workplace, because you know the raises are coming, it’s easy to relax and wait for the ten-year Timex to come ticking your way.

Freelance work is not like that at all. Sure, there are union scale rates, but outside of that, a lot of freelancers make money from teaching, consulting, and guest appearances, and it’s really hard to know what to charge. I do a lot of gigs like this. Because there’s nobody else to compare myself to, I never really know how I measure up. What is my contribution as a consultant or guest artist worth? How on earth do I quantify it? And am I supposed to raise it 3.5% every year? Or add 10% to my invoices forever after I do a show that kills? It’s a blobby little jellyfish, the freelance salary, and not easy to grab a hold of.

I know what some of my friends charge for their freelance creative services, and I think they tragically lowball themselves. They provide entertainment or insight in exchange for what amounts to a sparkly pebble or two, even though wouldn’t lose clientele by asking more. Yet they agonize over raising their rates, gazing into the distance over dinner and worrying that they just aren’t worth it, after all, they only have Grade 12 piano, 10 years’ teaching experience, two university degrees, a sparkling personality, and good hygiene. (I know that sounded really specific, but that specific list of qualifications actually applies to SIX of my acquaintances.) And off goes the hoodie-clad freelance army, hustling all over town to make gigs and rustle up contracts, working harder than most to bank inconsistent amounts of cash. Why?

I thought this article by personal development writer Steve Pavlina had some interesting insights into what causes people to lowball themselves, and how to address the problem. Here’s an excerpt:

…. I watched a poker tournament on TV where Daniel Negreanu (one of the “winningest” players on earth) got knocked out of the final table. His prize money was $60,000. The top prize for first place was probably around $1 million. In the exit interview, he was asked what he was going to do with all the money he won. He chuckled with surprise, as if to say, “Money? What money? I lost the tournament.” Then he said something like, “I dunno. $60,000? What can I do with that? Buy a car maybe? [sigh].” He clearly had the attitude that $60,000 was a small, almost negligible amount of money. It wasn’t a serious sum.

It was as if the interviewer had said, “Daniel, you just won a dollar! What are you going to do with it?” And Daniel replied jokingly, “I dunno… buy a soda maybe? [sigh].”

While some people might see Negreanu’s attitude as haughty, arrogant, or elitist, I think it’s a reflection of a wealthy mindset. This may help explain why his tournament poker winnings exceed $10 million to date. Since $60K represents a small amount to him, he’s a vibrational match for earning and holding much larger sums. If $60K was a lot of money to him, he probably wouldn’t be able to win even that much, and even if he did win it, he’d have a hard time holding onto it.

Worth a read if you’re wondering whether or not you should raise your rates.

New Facebook: *click* not *click* a *click* fan *click*

August 13, 2008

New Facebook is the opposite of internet awesome. Basically the redesign splits each user’s profile into 4 or more separate pages: “Wall”, “Info”, “Photos”, and more pages for other applications. This means that in order to see the salient points of a person’s profile (the most interesting are probably their wall, their photos, who they’re dating, and maybe what pop culture they’re into), the user now has to click and open several separate pages. This quadruples the number of pages you need to view in order to stalk learn about a person, which means it quadruples New Facebook’s revenue from its (horribly-misspelled) banner ads. Also, why are mine always about weight-loss products? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY, NEW FACEBOOK?

The queen of the bloggers, Dooce, quadrupled her ad revenue last year with a similar trick. She now posts 3 new photos a day- one of her dogs, one random photo (often of her daughter, or a plant in her backyard, or something similarly adorable), and one unpaid feature of a product she likes (Perfume! A shoe! A cute print she bought on Etsy! A chair made by, and of, Scandinavian designers!). This means that for each visit, I read the main entry and then click 3 more times on her blog, once for each photo- giving her 3 more page impressions that day, and generating 3 times more income from the many banner ads on her site. Ka-ching for Dooce. Seriously. I estimate she’s banking $400K off the blog, and that’s not counting the 2+ book deals, or the movie deal that I rather suspect is in the works. (Please, Hollywood, do me a solid and get Night Court‘s John Larroquette on the phone to play her husband).

Lookit that mug.

John Larroquette: Lookit that mug.

So on the surface, what Dooce is doing and what Facebook did are the same. But from a user perspective, Dooce is on a different, much better planet. Sure, it takes a few more clicks to read her site, but the extra clicks lead to new, added content, which has value for the reader and which wasn’t available before the redesign: she’s a great photographer, and by putting each on its own page, she’s able to post larger pics. Plus, there’s written content: she writes a short, amusing paragraph to caption each photo. For the user, each click has a cost, however slight, of effort and loading time. But in exchange for her extra content, I’m pretty happy to give Dooce those extra clicks. It feels like she thought hard about the redesign, balancing her desire for ad revenue against her readers’ desire for content. Her model is user friendly, hurray. New Facebook sucks because it attempts to generate more income without supplying more content- I’m “paying” more clicks to view the exact same stuff. It’s like how my celphone costs way more than my landline even though the infrastructure of a wireless network is much cheaper to maintain. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Bell Canada. I’m gonna blog negatively about you so hard.)

How could New Facebook improve? Not exactly sure. Some way of giving me extra value for the extra clicks, I guess. The game applications do this pretty well- I click to a new page to start a new game, which gives them a new page view. I guess maybe the problem isn’t so much the inefficient interface, it’s the fact that I got used to having an efficient interface to browse, and they’ve made it worse. The new design is a noticeable downturn for me that gives them a financial bonus, and I kind of resent that. If I give you clicks I want something back. Shiny beads, maybe, or a cheese sandwich.

Probably the best solution then, would be simple prevention: make every attempt to optimize the design and revenue model right from the beginning. Alternately, when considering changes in the site’s design, just wait a while, until there are so many addicts that nobody’s gonna leave anyway, no matter what you do to degrade the user experience. Uh, wait, that strategy sounds familiar.

Obama’s speech in Berlin: an actor’s perspective

July 28, 2008

I just watched a 25-minute video of Barack Obama delivering a stunning speech to a massive crowd in Berlin. Watching this guy give a speech is like watching an Olympic diver enter the pool facefirst without a splash.

In general, I like Obama’s platform and philosophy- but beyond his politics or even content, I can’t help going meta on his incredible skill as a speaker. The actor in me would like to point out that he speaks powerfully and assuredly for almost a solid half-hour, completely off-book [correction: barely seeming to read off teleprompter], without a single sip of water and barely a slip of the tongue. His gaze is steady, direct and yet nonconfrontational. And without sounding theatrical or contrived, he subtly varies his tone and rhythm- hear how his voice booms when he says “this is the moment”? And how it softens, drawing you in, when he talks about his father?

Most professional performers can’t pull off this level of finesse- witness the terror in the eyes of all those pasty-mouthed actors awkwardly trying to present Academy Awards; those are career entertainers struggling to read 40-second pitches from teleprompters. Obama’s a lawyer, not an actor. He’s not looking down at his script, I don’t see an earpiece, and his cadence is too natural for someone to be feeding him lines, this is no GWB State-of-the-Union. He stands there, looking 200,000 people in the eye and speaking as beautifully as anyone I’ve ever heard. I would love to know how he prepares. This is wildly impressive.

It sure helps that the speech is well-written, smoothly jumping between the micro and macro spheres (from personal anecdotes about his father’s decision to seek a US education, to a venue-specific section about the fall of Communism in Germany, and out to huge global stuff like climate change). These vastly different levels of resolution are woven into something that feels interconnected, which itself ties into Obama’s personal philosophy of equality and a promise to take all things into fair consideration.

His delivery is not without minor flaws; he does have a couple slips of the tongue. About 20 minutes in, he stumbles very slightly over a word, and it happens again a few minutes later. I really noticed the slips because up ’til then, there hadn’t been any. So I rewound to watch him more closely at that moment- and he was totally unfazed. His face betrayed no nervousness or distraction- he just allowed himself a very slight, controlled pause to give the crowd a chance to figure out what he meant- and then he went on.

When I do any kind of public speaking I usually deal with moments like that by kind of acknowledging the mistake, grinning my way around it or even doing some kind of gibberish rewind moment to get a quick laugh- but I’m not a Presidential candidate giving a foriegn policy speech. When I speak somewhere, I’m usually expected to deliver energy first, information second- so making that moment goofy is appropriate.

Obama’s reactions when he flubs, or, even more tellingly, when he’s interrupted by long, impassioned cheers, suggest that he’s invested in the information, not the reaction. He’s not self-indulgently flagellating himself for slipping on a word, nor is his ego basking in the applause. It makes me suspect that after a speech, he’s more likely to feel good because “they were receptive to the ideas” than because he “had them in the palm of his hand”. He’s focussed on the message, not on himself as the medium. For me, this is the root of his charisma.

Ah yes, the famous Obama charisma. It’s more than good looks and a nice voice. Notice that he is at once fiercely proud and appealingly humble: you can probably count on one hand the number of times he says “I”; and yet he leaves the listener with a rock-solid sense of who he is as a person. There’s something epic about this man. It’s easy for me to imagine him in a leather doublet, riding an armoured horse, leading a Tolkien-esque army into battle. Yeah, sometimes I think about stuff like that. Don’t pretend you don’t.

For some reason msnbc won’t let me embed the video (which they’ve helpfully titled, “On foreign soil, Obama acknowledges US flaws”- thanks for trying, guys!) But lucky for you, Dr. Shadowfax was able to put it up.

Mug cake: the follow-up

July 26, 2008

In the name of journalism, Scooter and I made mug-cakes the other night at 2am. Rating: yes.

Success tastes chocolatey.

Success tastes chocolatey.

We used the recipe I posted previously, although we substituted melted salted butter for the oil, a recipe mod I endorse because (a), salted butter is a much more useful thing to buy than weird baking oil, and (b) the slight saltiness adds complexity to the flavour of the 5-minute microwaved mug cake. And snacks you make at 2am can always use more complexity, eh? Sometimes I take all the vowels out of the Alpha-Getti just for a challenge.

Another recipe mod I would endorse is using a wee bit more cocoa and a wee bit less flour- maybe altering the original recipe’s ratio by a tablespoon in each direction. That would make the cake denser and more chocolatety, both of which are good words in the dessert arena. A not-as-good word in the dessert arena is “obesity”, which can be “caused” by “late-night” “gluttony”.

Also: use a large mug.

Mixing batter in a mug is challenging, so use a fork (even though the sound of the fork-tines scraping the mug upsets some very primal part of my brain). And stir the dry ingredients well before adding the egg & butter, or else you end up with a layer of dry, unmixed flour at the bottom of your mug cake, like one of us did, and then the other of us (the one whose mom is a professional pastry chef) laughed at me and I hid in the bathroom.

I don’t know from baking but I did pick up some cake & pastry flour for the mug cake, and my cake rose pretty well. I suspect that using all-purpose flour might have a detrimental effect- the mug is so small that it’s hard to get bubbles into the batter by stirring- whereas cake flour is more encouraging, promoting better self-esteem in batter applications.

It will look like the mug can’t possibly hold all that mug-cake, but it probably will. Mine only overflowed by a couple drips, even though the uncooked batter reached right to the top. Yay uncritical optimism, I bet this means everything else will work out fine, too!

Also: don’t forget to buy some milk to wash down your epicurean genius.

And there we have it, folks: Mug-cake. Dee-licious.

10 tips for doing cartoon voices

July 21, 2008
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Cartoon me; Illustration by Scott Hepburn.

Today I took a voiceover workshop. I’ve done a bit of voice work before, but recently, I recorded scenes opposite two really experienced animation performers, and observed this thing they both had, which I’ve chosen to call “technique”. I thought I’d try riding that-there bus myownself.

So, in no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve learned about voice work- some from the workshop today and others just from using my looking.

1. If you observe yourself, you’ll fix most of your problems yourself.
I always say this to anyone who will listen (seriously, like on busses and stuff, it confuses people). But it bears saying again: it’s really useful to record yourself. I put myself on tape at home to prep most on-camera auditions, and I’m gonna start putting myself on cassette for voice auditions, too. Common sense and observation are highly underrated teachers. This also applies to many types of dating faux pas, and also to unzipped jeans.

2. I verb, you verb, it verbs, we verb.
That thing we learned in theatre school, about verbing everything? I never do that. Too bad, because today I learned that it really helps. This afternoon I was rehearsing my scene in front of the mirror in a warm washroom that someone had just made warmer (such is my dedication to my craft), coffee on the floor outside so it wouldn’t get poo-taminated, and I figured out a couple good line reads that I wanted to keep.

So I tried to notate what I’d done. On Line One, I used a cryptic series of wiggly lines and carefully-drawn emoticons; and on Line Two, I used a single, active and meaningful verb: “reassure”. When I got in the booth a scant three minutes later, the wiggly lines meant absolutely nothing, they might as well have been in Klingon (no, I do not speak Klingon, what you must think of me). So Line One was pretty much a lost cause. But Line Two? Let me reassure you that Line Two was exceptionally reassuring, and sounded just like it was supposed to, ie, reassuring. Moral of the story: Use verbs. Choose a nice, uncomplicated, active verb for each mini-beat, and write it in the left margin so you scan it naturally as you read the sides.

3. Gesticulate like a madwoman.
I’m talking, like, arms up, over your head. Wave those suckers. This is really hard to do, because all voice work is recorded in a glass-walled booth- and on the other side of the glass wall sits a sound engineer. Invariably, he is a cool, salt-of-the-earth hockey guy, and you just know he would NEVER humiliate himself like you’re about to do. But he also doesn’t get to play a talking cheese wheel in a cartoon that takes place in a refrigerator, so who’s laughing now? He is. Arms up.

4. Bring room-temperature water.
Because cold water freezes your voice, and the astringency of tea or coffee makes your mouth sound pasty. I like to bring a lollypop, too- I’m very neurotic about spit-smacks and mouth-noise (because I believe they make you sound like Heath Ledger). And so sometimes you need to swish water to kind of wash away the pasty spit; and sometimes you need something tangy to encourage your poor nervous salivary glands to make more spit. It’s a delicate balance, but do you wanna be famous or not?

Okay, so you get the script. You pick your verbs. Your next burning question:

5. What happens in a session?

First of all, every line in the script is numbered. The director will break the script into little beats- generally trying to find tidy little self-contained chunks of the story. You’ll record all your lines within each chunk as a “pass”. The director will say, “This first pass we’ll do lines 1-6”– and out of that pass, you might have lines 1, 4, and 6 (with other characters owning lines 2, 3, and 5). Most likely the other actors won’t be there, so nobody reads with you. It’s lonely; be strong.

It's not like this.

Basically, you have to quickly scan the line before yours so you know what your character is responding to- you can even whisper it aloud to help yourself out. Then you take a little pause before cleanly delivering your line. Pause, quickly read ahead in the script, then deliver your next line. If you mess up, just take a quick pause and re-start the line. They can & will edit out your mistakes, it’s no big deal. So don’t even bother apologizing, because nobody cares and it just makes more edit work for them anyway.

And now some basic microphone technique tips, or MicTekTipz, as we* like to say in the biz.
* NOTE: by “we”, I mean “douchebags”.

6. Face the mic at all times.
Don’t turn your head to the side, even if you ‘re speaking to a different character.

7. Soften the harsh sounds.
Lean slightly back or dip your chin slightly on plosive consonants like Puh and Buh, so your air doesn’t make a popping sound on the mic. Duh. (You see what I did there?) Also, if you’re gonna get loud (yelling, squealing, etc), lean or step back in proportion to the loudness so you don’t overload the mic.

8. Avoid “dirty audio”
Dirty audio is any noise that interferes with, or overlaps, a scripted line: this means shuffly noise from your script pages or clothing, noisy gestures like clapping or slapping your thighs, and overlapping other actors’ lines if they’re in the booth with you. Don’t worry about pacing at all- deliver every line between a couple seconds of neutral silence. The secret to comedTIMING- but the secret to audio recording is


9. Project, and keep all sounds on-voice.
Even if you’re delivering a quiet line, always keep a solid stream of sound & energy moving forward out of your face. If laughing, it’s probably better to do it with a fully verbal noise rather than a wheeze, for instance. If you need to whisper, do a “voicey” whisper.

10. Don’t tinkle in the booth.
Don’t wear tinkly clothing- I always take off my earrings so they don’t hit the headphones. You might not wanna wear your chainmail vest.

11. Bonus tip: Look at your shoes.
Try to wear shoes that your character might wear. If you’re reading for a 5-year-old, don’t wear heels- they change your alignment and make it harder for you to act young. Likewise, auditioning to play a 50s housewife while wearing Chuck Taylors is just trashy, fellas. The right shoes- or at least the right height of shoes- will instantly make you feel more like the character.

I learned a lot of other cool stuff, but I don’t wanna give away all the teacher’s secrets, because she deserves to be paid for her expertise, yo. She’s a solid teacher, gave thoughtful & specific feedback to each person, and gives easy-to-understand, very practical notes. I noticed that she was especially good at helping people create character voices on the cute-and-energetic end of the spectrum, although that’s by no means all she does. She also had great tips for stuff like getting into character quickly, what kinds of questions to ask in auditions, how to create young characters, and how to develop a roster of characters. All in all, I’d say the class was a solid investment. And voice work pays really well, so you’ll be able to afford a lot of weiner cakes.

How is this relevant, you ask?  I'm not going to tell you.

How is this relevant, you ask? I'm not going to tell you.