Contemporary dance: are they just dicking about?

Posted by: James on: Sunday, 9th October, 2011

It’s one of those things you have to do as an open-minded art-lover. I’ve enjoyed musicals and opera and installations where you tread barefoot through talcum powder in a darkened room, so I figured it was about time I saw some contemporary dance.

Now what is going to become increasingly apparent in this little post is that I have absolutely no frame of reference for dance – comtemporary or otherwise. I know what people dancing in a club look like. Scary, mainly. Ialso know what latin dance is roughly supposed to look like, having paddled at the shallow end of salsa and tango, but beyond that I’m clueless.

I chose a show called ‘Shameless Crowd Pleaser’. This was supposed to be audio-visual – lots of fun and props and music. Put differently: if we didn’t go for the dance, there was going to be other stuff to focus on.

Now it doesn’t have to be well-choreographed and balletic to be dance and I’ve got a fairly broad mind concerning what constitutes art. Clearly these were talented people who knew what they were doing and the semi-structured movements walked an enjoyable tightrope between beautiful and bizarre. It reminded me of a more fluid version of Meyerhold’s biomechanics (no apologies for wanky reference).

Meyerhold-style nutter

Genius or nutter?

There were several clues to indicate that this was a ‘deconstructed’ show, such as little comic asides where the performers would for example, mention that they rather fancied a small snack – like a jelly baby or something. And of course, one of the performers then walked on with a packet of jelly babies. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to pull this kind of japery off, but it was fairly crowd-pleasing – so I suppose they didn’t deviate from the script.

The musicians, on the other hand, might have been taking the piss – I couldn’t tell. They certainly weren’t playing their instruments correctly – apart from the bedpan, for which there is no accepted playing method (as far as I’m aware).

Crowd Pleaser was definitely shameless. Question is: were they shamelessly pushing the boundaries of music and movement or were they shamelessly exploiting the fact that anyone watching a show of any kind will try to ‘get it’ and if they don’t they’ll give the performers the benefit of the doubt.

The shamelessness was also fuelled in part by the fact that the audience was fairly saturated with friends and family of the performers – so much so that our friend Ilai felt he had to put a good few hundred yards’ distance between us and the crowd before saying a bad word about the show. It felt at times like we’d come to a bizarre private function and the show we’d meant to see was happening in a room just upstairs.

My reaction? I was glued to the thing. The whole hour I was entranced. Why? I’d never seen anything like it. It’s the same reason I loved watching some Chinese kids doing the lion dance the other weekend at the moon festival. In the history of lion dances, there have probably been much more impressive performances, but I haven’t seen them: this was my first. I had no frame of reference. And without that frame of reference, I had a really good time.

The reason I feel rather differently about the musicians is because I know one or two things about music – even the weird and wacky stuff, as anyone who’s listened to my music collection on random will attest. I know it doesn’t take a lot of talent to play instruments badly and wheras in visual art I can see the point of using your brush in a different way, I don’t see the point of blowing raspberries down a trumpet.

I’ve learned one important lesson from this outing though: maybe I would do best go to the really bizarre shows alone. I know Ash really didn’t go for the Shameless Crowd Pleaser and I suspect that our new firends asked themselves a few questions during the performance too.

Thinking about it, one of the first things I wanted to take Ash to – this would have been one of our first dates – was an opera with body parts constructed macro-scale as bits of set. In the trailer, people would emerge from a massive arse onstage. Ash politely declined my invitation, suggesting something a lot more sane instead. Things could’ve gone so differently in our relationship if she’d said yes.

Life according to the Settlers

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

Did you ever get the urge to just build? It’s one of the most satisfying things to do in a game world – so satisfying that even action-heavy games like Assassin’s Creed II and GTA sometimes feel (mistakenly) that they need to include a section where you can pimp out a settlement or set up multi-million dollar businesses.

Settlers II is a game from my childhood that once swallowed up every waking moment I wasn’t at school – and even when I was at school I played it in my head. Thanks to gog.com it gets to take a second sizeable chunk out of my life.

What’s interesting this time around, though, is noticing a few of the ideas implicit in the game. The premise is that you’re shipwrecked on an island. You don’t know if this island is inhabited and you don’t expect help any time soon – so it’s time to settle! The goal is to build a functioning community and at the same time tool up to deal with the foes that you’re bound to encounter along the way.

So you start off by building woodcutters and sawmills so you can make planks to construct huts from. The builders from the wreck will obligingly start work on the buildings and anyone with no particular skill will simply help carry stuff. In many ways this starts out as the perfect socialist society – anybody with a talent is stepping forward and offering their services for free, often just moving from job to job without any rest at all – they love it that much.

Settlers II shipyard scene

A lovingly animated game. Lots of green, lots of blue.

One of The Settlers’ charms is that each little fellow is lovingly animated. Seeing the miller sleeping outside his mill, the brewer sampling his beer by the tankard and the hunter prowling in the wilderness after a deer – it all makes for quite a beautiful experience: it all seems so Utopian, until we bring in the military.

In order to recruit soldiers to defend your kingdom and conquer your enemies, you will obviously need a sword and shield per new recruit – fair enough. What probably doesn’t make it into the US Army training manual, but is perhaps nonetheless true to life is that you also need to give them a whole keg of beer apiece. What was once a peaceful Utopia now has drunks running around with swords.

So now your rookies are hanging out in their guardhouses making a dent in their kegs – you need to get them trained up. At no point in the game so far has anyone needed money – of course most of the population haven’t explicitly needed food, water or sleep either, but bear with me.

In order to train your troops, you need to give them enormous gold coins. What do the soldiers do with coins in a society that doesn’t use them? It’s never adequately explained – maybe they hope to cash them in when they get back to capitalist society – who knows? Capitalism in The Settlers seems to be a rather clever device created by the govenment (you) to attract and manipulate its footsoldiers. Get a guy drunk so he can’t think straight, then promise him riches that you know full well have no value – you might as well be offering him mountains of tree bark for all the good gold will do him here – and you have your perfect soldier.

Gold + Beer = Soldier

Gold + Beer = Soldier - The Settlers equation

Settlers II is still fun after several years, but it has some annoying quirks. Resource management options are all handled at a high level – you dictate for instance, the percentage of axes your metalworker will make: rather than specifying a number of axes to be made, you create a general policy on axes – e.g. that they should be equal in importance to scythes or hammers.

It’s a fun demonstration of how a real centralised system can fail to cope with local issues – whether that be not enough grain going to a slightly out-of-the-way the pig farm or the need for speed bumps on Great Barrier Island.

~/~

Settlers II Gold (GOG version 2011) – a little help for fellow gamers

If you want to manipulate the game, I suggest you look at Settlers2.net/modding. This has some helpful hints about replacing missions and using custom missions.

I looked all over the place for user-generated maps, but didn’t manage to find many until I came across a forum that suggested I search in German – the game’s original language. If you’re in the same straits, try searching “siedler 2 welten”. I found this page had some good links off it. Martin J’s maps are fun if you like huge sprawling empires and ship building.

Big caveat: Ship building was disabled in Settlers II Gold apart from in the main campaign. You can play a user generated map and get completely stuck because you can make a harbour, but you can’t tell your ship builder to build anything but tiny boats.

The workaround: If you want to play a user-generated map with ships, you’ll need to go to the directory where Settlers II is installed – then go to data -> maps. The maps folder contains the central mission maps. You’re going to overwrite one of these, so don’t forget to take copies before you alter things.

Now take the map you want to play (if it’s user generated it’ll be a .swd file, which is essentially identical to a .wld file so rename the extension with impunity!) Rename your map to  ‘miss208.wld’ and save it in the above folder (settlersII\data\maps).

Depending on your  map source you might also have a .rtx file, which goes in settlersII\data\missions and should be named MIS_0008.RTX.

You’re all set – start Settlers II and select ‘Roman Campaign’. Select the mission ‘The Grey Island’ and you’ll find yourself playing your custom map with the ability to build shipyards and sail the seas!

N.B. if you don’t have all of the missions available (i.e. you haven’t got to The Grey Island yet, don’t fret – there’s another workaround):

Go to your install directory and find the mission.dat file in the ‘save’ folder. It can be opened in a regular text editor. The contents will look something like this: 1100000000. There is a number for each of the ten missions. 0 = mission is not playable, 1 = mission is playable. Rename as you like and save.

Good luck!

Beer Enlightenment in NZ

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 9th August, 2011

There are three flavours of ale in NZ: the dark, the medium and the light – or as our friend Drew puts it, the black one, the brown one and the yellow one. These are the three standard flavours and whether you go for Macs, Monteiths or even a microbrew version like Sawmill from the Northland, you’ll not find much deviation from this set served at your average bar.

All three are served the same: cold and fizzy. Like a lager, but not a lager – in fact ‘the yellow one’ is so close to being a lager that I feel it should whip off it’s mask and declare “okay, you got me!”

Me and beer.

Practising my faith - around the world.

This was in an nutshell what I thought of the NZ beer scene before this weekend. I am a pretty faithful real ale drinker and I was hoping that I might find amongst the cultural elements so successfully retained from the old empire a love of proper beer and proper venues for the consumption thereof. How disappointed I was to find these three beers everywhere – and everywhere served at a temperature that rendered impossible the tastebuds’ distinction between them.

As I say, that was before this weekend, which we spent in Wellington, home to the ‘beervana’ beer festial. Beervana features about 80 different beers from up and down NZ – beers that go far beyond the strict tripartite boundaries of the national flavour. There were even a couple of brews that reminded me of home (I ended up haunting the beautifully lukewarm and carbonation-free Real Ale bar) – the Cassels best bitter actually sent me back to the Sussex countryside in the sun enjoying a blissful pint of Harveys.

In all I think we tried around 15 different brews each – the tasters were only 100ml each, so actually fairly well paced. Of course, there were a couple of duds, but the take-home message is that there is range here: not only is it possible to find a decent pint; it’s also possible to give it a sniff, swill it around a bit and claim to your mates that you’re enyoying the ‘heathery overtones’. Now the only question I have is “Where do I go to buy these things?” assuming that beervana is only on two days per year and doesn’t roadshow up to Auckland. Apart from brewing our own beer, we’re kinda stuck there.

There is one bastion of hope – Galbraiths Alehouse, which is just up the road and has a good range of artisan brews, which you can get in four half-pint taster format, complete with tasting notes. Galbraiths also brews its own beers onsite, so it’s got an added authenticity that comes with being able to see the process. If you don’t mind the spacious high ceilings and lack of pub-style dark corners, Galbraiths is pretty good (although expensive – did I mention that you pay about 8NZD (£4.25) for a pint in NZ, which at time of writing is about £1 above central London prices?). If you don’t like them apples – or hops – just go for wine, which is reasonably priced at the bar; dirt cheap at the supermarket.

Bottom line: for anyone asking “Will there be a decent brew on ex-pat island?”, yes there will, but you might have to go out of your way to find it.

The Antithesis of Cosy

Posted by: James on: Sunday, 31st July, 2011

It is customary in our flat to stand only on the edges of your feet – in this way you minimise contact with the floor, which registers only just above freezing. It is also cusomary to wear at least two pairs of socks, and to sleep almost fully clothed. With a hot water bottle.

NZ Winters aren’t that cold – I think I’ve seen frost only once and everyone was very excited by the prospect of snow in Auckland, which seems less likely than a nearby volcano errupting. No – the problem is not that the winters are cold; rather it’s that the houses are completely unequipped to deal with anything other than moderate warmth.

Insulation apparently wasn’t a consideration when our unit was built. We have wood floors, a shallow roof and windows which we’ve discovered have a gap of a whole centimetre at the top to let in the cold, wet air. They’re what’s called ‘Jalousie windows‘, constructed of a few horizontal slats of glass with a metal frame. No matter how tightly you close them, they never quite seal.

Apparently there’s some kind of sealing material you can put over them, but that would mean that we could never open the windows. If we don’t open the windows, there will be no air flow through the flat and without a bit of air flow, the humidity built up in our bedroom while we sleep has nowhere to go and so manifests itself as a hearty layer of mould on the ceiling and walls. It’s a constant battle of open the windows and let in the cold vs. keep them closed and invite back the mould. Our landlord did get someone round to spray the ceiling, but without actually getting insulation, only bathing the whole place in chemicals is going to completely solve the problem.

Not to be down on the whole experience, but Winter in NZ is pretty shit – unless you’re in one of the newly built properties that have a minimum legal level of insulation. The majority of houses though, are just cold and damp.

And to all those who say “just turn the heating on” I ask “what heating?” – we bought a tiny 500watt radiator that just about keeps us alive when we huddle around it of an evening. There is no central heating, and if there was, it would be like heating an open field – there’s no point in heating without insulation. Back in Autumn I laughed about finding electric blankets in every hostel we stayed in – now I’ve started looking forward to getting into work just because the office has heating!

A rather negative post? Yes – I suppose so. But it wasn’t always like this – before the Winter were days I felt happy to get out of bed in the morning. There’s only a few more weeks to go until those days are back. Roll on Spring!

Garden of Strife. Hehe.

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 26th July, 2011

Digging our garden is like doing a jigsaw: you look for the straight edges and distinctive colours first. If there’s a straight edge, it’s either a submerged sheet of steel or a shard of manky glass – the muddy splotches of bright colour are clothes pegs, bottle caps and plastic bags.

There’s a pretty reliable weekly rubbish pickup service, but it seems that wasn’t convenient enough for the previous tenant or someone who lived over the fence. Add to the junk a collapsed brick wall that we’ve partially reconstituted to create a compost area and a Nasturtium plant so virulent that it’s reappeared in the same area it was dug out of a mere fortnight earlier – and you’ve got some idea of our garden.

Our garden before - nastirtium prevails

What lies beneath? No, seriously.

Up until a couple of weeks ago we had grand plans for this garden. Underneath all of the above obstacles is actually a patch of beautiful dark loam (I’ve been rolling the word around my mouth like a good whisky ever since turning over the first forkload – although I’m pretty sure it’s not the correct term). It’s good volcanic New-Zealand soil, in which you can reputedly grow practically anything – and that was the plan, but now we’ve decided to leave.

The reason can’t be simply stated – it’s the kind of thing I’d have several different answers for depending on what kind of day I was having. The reason I’m giving today is this: we came to NZ because we couldn’t stay in London – personally I’ve felt more pushed than pulled to NZ. There’s plenty I like here – nice people, the great outdoors and all that, but it’s also just a bit too much like a sandwich of England and America with oriental seasoning. I’m starting to think it would be nice to have a proper culture shock – and so we’ll move on.

What we’ll take away is important though: this garden might be riddled with Nasturtium by the time we leave, but its successor hopefully won’t. We’ve got an idea of how we’re going to manage a garden and Ash has been researching the kinds of things we want to grow in it. And, gardening aside, we’ve stayed largely true to our ideas of how we wanted to live – our flat has been cheaply furnished with items from Freecycle and TradeMe (ebay for kiwis) and we’ve even made a couple of bits – we have a rather good table that was once a door but has now been painted a beautiful shade of grey called something like ‘Baltic Sea’ (I think there was once called ‘Zeus’ too!) – it sits proudly atop four stacks of second-hand hard-backed childrens’ books with illustrations of derring-do and exploration on the spines. We rejuvenated a crummy old desk from the shed that once looked like a kindergarten project, but is now a clean bright white, with sunny yellow drawers. I bake bread, which mostly turns out ok, but sometimes goes soggy in the middle. We make up our own muesli and home brew beer. We go to farmers markets in preference to supermarkets and we zealously horde and recycle pots and containers.

These are all pieces of the life we want to live: part of a jigsaw – and we’re only just working out the edges at the moment.

The Joy of Negative Job Searching

Posted by: James on: Thursday, 23rd June, 2011

As an arts graduate I have learned to be creative with my skillset.

The problem – and the advantage – with ‘soft’ skills like ‘communications’ or ‘relationship management’ is that you’re not tied to a particular career; there’s no nice easy job path in front of you, but at the same time you could do anything – in theory.

For the arts graduate, going to a job website is like an audition for a one-handed play with a dozen different characters. Really, there are only a few jobs in that ‘arts, advertising, media, marketing, communications, editorial’ mix that we couldn’t turn a hand to and wouldn’t be tempted by – anything is possible once you look at your cv, draw out the relevant patterns of experience and get into character. Through sheer protean effort, you could be a project manager, an administrator, a content writer; you could put together a report on the psychological balance of the office; you could research dog handling techniques for Pedigree Chum’s newsletter; you could stuff envelopes quickly and with attention to detail.

The problem is – it takes a bloody long time to go through all of these jobs, filtering out the possibilities from the impossibilities – given that there are so many possibilities and in the current market you need to be open to them all – whether they be posted under ‘administration’ or ‘IT’ or ‘arts management’.

My suggestion is that you use an almost entirely negative search. My current search with seek.com is this:

project OR marketing OR theatre NOT (doctor OR nurse OR largest OR consultant or logistics OR .NET OR migration OR tester OR accountant OR analyst OR multinational OR consultant OR insurance OR senior OR construction OR engineer OR technician)

notes:

  • ‘project’ and ‘marketing’ are loose enough to act as useful positive searches – the general idea being not to close doors.
  • I would love to be involved in theatre. Unfortunately, however, when a job site sees the word ‘theatre’ it thinks ‘operating theatre’, so omit medical professions!
  • I’ve omitted ‘largest’ from my searches – purely because I don’t want to work in a big company – my generalist skillset and variety of interests is best suited to a small company position where you’ll most likely have a range of things to do as opposed to a single area of resposibility. The risk is that I cut out “largest pocket watch retailer in South-East Auckland”. Maybe I need to put ‘largest’ back in…
  • The rest of these negatives simply describe things I’m not or just can’t do. There’s always a risk that you’ll miss a good role that happens to include “answering to our senior manager” or “full insurance offered for loss of life and limb”, but I reckon it’s worth taking the chance.
  • Including the same negative term twice shouldn’t make a difference, but somehow on seek.co.nz it actually raises the returned results by one. Go figure.

That’s the long and short of it. Always check how the website works before doing a search like this – some use ‘-word’ negatives rather than ‘NOT word’ – some probably won’t let you put in the (parentheses).

Oh, and one further note – as I found out to my dismay as I was writing this post, the negative search method often doesn’t work. I was trying to omit ‘sports’ from my search yesterday and those sports retail jobs just wouldn’t disappear. If this is happening to you, try only using one positive term e.g. ‘sales NOT(data OR retail)’ – I think the engine gets confused with (x OR y NOT(z OR j).

The long and short is: this method can open up a wide range of options in industries you might not have thought of, but the results you return will still need filtering – but less so than just looking through the whole site. It’s also a good idea to also do a positive search in a couple of areas you’re explicitly interested in.

Cover all bases – especially if you’re a ‘creative’. Good luck!

Life and Debt in Virtual Reality

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 18th June, 2011

One of the most shamefully addictive games I ever played was Animal Crossing: a game that was clearly meant for children.

There are so many bad things to say about Animal Crossing I’m not sure where to begin: the gameplay was horrible; the graphics were too colourful, too rounded and simple to be any good; the characters were annoying and the game clock was frustratingly synched up to real-world time, so that you *needed* to play once a day, otherwise your snooty in-game neighbours would start to say things about you behind your back.

I couldn’t tell you what the point was, except that you were always in debt (and this is where if I had advertising on this site, you’d see a flurry of underlinings and excalmation marks – “Debt you say? We can help you!!! We really can – we’re not dodgy flash-banner-wielding loan-sharks and fraudsters, honest. Look at all these highly authentic-looking people holding highly authentic-looking two-foot cheques”).

From the first time you arrive in your Animal Crossing town and move into your little cottage, you are in debt. You pay off the debt by being helpful to neighbours, delivering things and so on. “Phew,” you say to yourself once your debt is paid, “The Man is off my back – I’ll just go back home, stick the kettle on and – oh no, wait – this isn’t my house” – your cottage has been automatically replaced by a larger house: you are once again in debt to the capitalist overlord shopkeeper Tom Nook (a raccoon, in case you were wondering) and the cycle continues.

Meet Tom Nook: you're in his debt. Forever.

So the long and short is: a terrible, boring, artistically unsound, damn near unplayable, but very addictive game. For kids. So why is it so addictive? Simple: it’s capitalism in a nutshell. The entire game revolves around setting up your house, buying stuff, performing menial tasks under the guise of social goodwill in order to be rewarded and then buy more stuff. The buying is actually enforced – you can’t decide not to take out another loan – you will always owe Tom Nook, who, by the way has a complete monopoly, being the only store owner in town.

But for some reason you accept everything the game throws at you and carry on. Animal Crossing makes me think twice before slating Farmville players, because the capitalist urge to build something – no matter how microcosmic – is addictive. Seeing progress – whether it’s a virtual house extension or virtual crops growing – is something close to the human heart and it’s intensely satisfying and it’s not something we actually get to do very much in reality. Animal Crossing might be a horrific example of capitalist indoctrination, but it also taps into what I think is the best bit about virtual reality: the feeling of building something – whether it’s a virtual empire, a story, a character, a business or a cute cottage filled with virtual detritus.

There’s plenty of material out there about why games are addictive, but for every game I play there will always be a point at which I ask myself what I’ve just done. If I’ve built an empire onscreen, I’ll take a step back and realise that it will disappear as soon as I turn off the computer. All those minions I invested so much time and effort creating and parading around the screen were really just pixels and code – well, yeah – no shit.

Animal Crossing is different: when I turned  it off (finally), I realised how closely it mimics real-world behaviour. It lead me to some strange reflections such as the following: “I wonder if the super-rich also get trapped in the reality of their screens, creating mountains of virtual wealth that sadly doesn’t ever sink back into the society that created it.” “You’re reading too much into this James.” Well, maybe, but Tom Nook is firmly rooted in reality, as are all of the game’s concepts. He’s running the show and he’s written the rules so that you’ll always need him; always be in debt to him.

Look at those cold, unfeeling eyes – scary, eh?

Filling in for NZ’s Lost Generation

Posted by: James on: Wednesday, 15th June, 2011

It seems there’s no-one our age (mid-twenties) in Auckland. It’s very peculiar – so deprived are we of social contemporaries that if a shop assistant talks to us nicely, our first reaction is to invite them round for a bottle of home brew.

Why are we so rare? Where are all the Kiwi twenty-somethings? Well, most of them are off on their grand OE (Overseas Experience). If you’ve never noticed a Kiwi or an Aussie abroad, you must have had your eyes taped closed and ears sealed with filler: it’s an essential part of the cultre to leave.  The 2006 census looks like this:

Notice the bit between the ages of 20 & 35 where a sizeable chunk of the population seems to have buggered off? Well that’s the bit we’re filling in – and it feels like there’s quite a lot of empty space around us.

Now I’m starting to see things in context though – when we flew over I remember thinking that the flight attendants were old enough to be my parents – it’s the first time I’ve ever thought that on an aeroplane. It seems that Air New Zealand actually recruits people who are actually representative of the population – not just the young ‘uns who are naturally attracted by a job that lands you up all over the world. And I remember thinking that that was a pleasant thought – apart from anything else, they were rather lovely people.

Ash sees the positive side of it too: when we walk around the University district, we could easily be mistaken for students rather than the slightly-older-and-supposedly-slightly-wiser generation that we are. I don’t know how I feel about it – I suppose it’s partly because if you know a few people your age, you can get an idea for where you’re supposed to be: what youre prospects are; what kind of salary you can expect; is it time to be thinking about buying a house? Or buying island units for kitchens? Is it still okay to play video games and read comics? Should we be doing more or less DIY? It’s not as if Ash & I ever paid much heed to our peer group, but it was nice to know what everyone else was doing so you can either be a part of the crowd or apart from it. Here, we just don’t know.

QuaintJames

A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

What I’ve been on about: