Twenty years ago today I was in the long-departed Ottakar’s Bookshop, in Edinburgh, wondering if anyone would come and play games with me.
It was not the best time for tabletop roleplaying games. They had fallen off the cultural radar completely during the 1990s, with an aging player base and no signs of transformation ahead. But I still loved them, more than ever in fact given the exciting experimentation of the indie scenes in the UK and the US, and when I found a high street retailer who wanted to make space for the games, I saw an opportunity.
Only a handful of people turned up to those first meetings of what became the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club, but they kept coming back, and slowly the numbers grew. Soon my Saturdays had a reliable date: we’d meet at the bookshop, wander over the road to a giant internet cafe with lots of empty tables, and then play games all afternoon.
In time, the Ottakar’s Roleplaying Club morphed into the Open Roleplaying Community, and other people stepped up to steer it as I departed to the other side of the planet. (Dave! Bill!) And it’s still around today! Although it is very different in form these days, it still does the same job: it’s a welcoming hub for all people who want to come together and play these wonderful, ridiculous games together.
And of course, in that same time, tabletop roleplaying games have become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, attaining a level of cultural presence that would have shocked me that day in Ottakars!
I’m really proud of ORC (the acronym was entirely accidental!), and grateful for the wonderful friends I made there, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. I learned a lot. Some of those lessons are top of mind right now in fact, as I’m busy community-building in the TTRPG space again, this time for the glorious KiwiRPG. Just can’t help myself!
Introduced the School Beastie to Jurassic Park. (Long overdue because she loves the Dinosaur Island board game which is exactly the same idea. Yes she still mostly beats me when we play.)
When I watched JP on its opening weekend in ‘93 I walked out thinking that it felt like it was a fantastic movie that was missing its final reel. Watching it again for the first time in decades, I still feel the same. The T-Rex taking out the velociraptors is a great resolution to that threat but it’s not a great ending for the movie.
I want some final beat that…
…turns the T-Rex back towards the main characters as a final challenge (the first half of the movie sets it up as the main monster, and you get two great confrontations, but that’s it! The two further appearances where it wanders onscreen and eats another dinosaur don’t satisfy the rule of three!
…gives Ellie a final hero moment – after being an absolute badass the whole film, she becomes kind of invisible once she and Alan are reunited. She’s got nothing more to prove of course, but letting her sit in the background is a bit disrespectful to everything the film’s done with her so far. This could also rhyme with the earlier bit where Ellie and Hammond argue over who should go fix the power, which sets up Hammond –
…sees Hammond taking responsibility in a serious way – i.e. by moving to sacrifice his own life to save the others, showing the effect Ellie’s call-out had on him. His lines of dialogue in the current film just don’t carry much weight and underline the theme which is all about the arrogance of humanity (i.e. specifically his).
…has Malcolm somehow saving Hammond’s life. Malcolm is ridiculously brave in the first T-Rex attack and then does nothing apart from look sexy. What he does can’t be a physical action – he has to save the day through the application of chaos. He takes a big chance, and it works out, the audience will forgive the contrivance – in fact they’ll embrace it because he talked about the butterfly effect at the start of the film. (And he’s gotta save Hammond, can’t traumatise his grandkids any further by letting him actually die!)
…and Grant doesn’t need to do anything, nor do the kids, they’ve finished their arcs. Grant just comes face to face with the final threat, and instinctively reaches out and takes Lex’s hand to reassure her, rhyming with the bit early on where Lex takes his hand and he is uncomfortable about it.
(My own contribution to the theme of the arrogance of humanity is that I think I can give notes to a beloved Steven Spielberg film. )
I was riveted by this Ockham-nominated history of the counterculture in Aotearoa NZ. It’s a chunky, sweeping account on an era of social and cultural history when the young Boomer generation started unbuttoning the starchy shirt of NZ rugby-and-church conformity to make room for sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Nick Bollinger is a great writer, mustering a huge amount of research, interviews, first-hand recollections and reflective analysis into a very layered story without every losing hold of the narrative. I knew some of the major beats, but there were revelations for me on almost every page. There’s a Goldilocks effect here from the size of this country, large enough to chart its own complex journey through the broadening of culture underway around the world, but also small enough that its path can be mapped in a book like this. The same names recur across multiple chapters, and different kinds of influence can be readily tracked.
It’s also assembled in a crafty way. A notable example is that only as the book goes on does it expand its focus to the collective experiences of women, Māori, and Pasifika, who were all in different ways alienated from the main course of the counterculture’s flow, and ultimately implicating this failure of diversity in the counterculture’s demise and its mixed legacy.
It’s a great read. Don’t miss the discography/playlist tucked away at the end.
Where are the good conversations at? That was the core currency of the internet: newsgroups and bulletin boards, then blogs and forums, then social media and comment sections. And now it’s all gone.
Facebook is an unworkable mess, burying the things your friends say beneath piles of engagement-bait posts from groups you don’t follow or care about. Twitter is a collapsing building full of grifters and fascists. TikTok is linear TV for the algorithmic era. Comment sections are feral or gone because moderation cost too much (not to mention most of the good sites that hosted them have been stripped for parts, pour one out for the AVClub). Blogs are dead because outbound links are buried by every algorithm and RSS has been systematically strangled. There are a few dark-forest forums on discord and slack, and of course group chats, hidden spaces that only work well if participants are limited, and that’s about it.
Substack isn’t going to do it, either. We spent ten years getting all that stuff out of our email inbox, that pendulum isn’t going to swing back that far.
It didn’t have to be like this. But at least some awful people got very rich along the way.
On Saturday night I was lucky enough to see West Side Story (1961) with all the music performed live by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Tremendous! The NZSO sounded amazing, unsurprisingly, although there were some slight issues with the film sound (the singing was great – quite a technical feat to get it all lined up with the music! – but for some reason the dialogue sound was sometimes a bit hollowed out and occasionally even a beat out of sync. Never mind, it didn’t spoil the fun!)
West Side Story is still as grand and affecting as ever, deservedly iconic. On this viewing I particularly appreciated how the whole plot tumbles out of the setup with such beautiful momentum, building speed as it closes in on the tragic inevitability of the rumble and then the conclusion.
Not sure how much of a hot take this is, but I think this 1961 film’s two big changes from the stage version are both solid improvements. First up, putting Bernardo in the ‘America’ song is fantastic – giving Bernardo some clear focus, foregrounding his relationship with Anita, and rewriting the lyrics to make the satire and critique of attitudes to Latino immigration even more pointed. Second, swapping the positions of the goofy ‘Officer Krupke’ number and the intense ‘Cool’ makes a huge amount of sense. You can kind of get away with ‘Krupke’ where it is on stage because disbelief is suspended just a shade further than screen, but tonally it makes so much more sense early on before shit goes down. Same with ‘Cool’ but in reverse.
There are lots of other minor changes for screen that also work well – beefing up Anybodys so they have more to do, creating a new character Ice (basically as an anchor for the Cool number) who gives Riff the stable support he was missing on stage, and giving the Jet girls a few crucial extra bits.
Unchanged from the stage: the dress shop pretend-marriage song, ‘One Hand One Heart’, remains a low-energy dull point that hurts the show. It’s slow and contemplative when the connection between the lovers should be running hot, and it’s a song without any dramatic mission – there’s no thrill or discovery in it, just a confirmation that, yup, they love each other now. It’s trying to sell the depth of their relationship but there’s not enough going on to do so, even though the song itself is lovely.
As Tony, Richard Beymer is a loveable lunk with a killer smile, but (like pretty much every other performer I’ve ever seen try this role) he doesn’t find a way to really make convincing the crucial turning point when Tony responds to Riff’s death by stabbing Bernardo. On this watch at least I could see some hints at rough edges I hadn’t noticed before, but that murder by our romantic leading man still takes some swallowing, especially as it commits even harder to the heightened reality of choreography fighting rather than breaking tone for a more realist note. (Compare for example the way the Jets abusing Anita underplays the choreographed style for most of that interaction, with much more satisfying results.) Still, you accept it because Shakespeare sold it in Romeo & Juliet.
It’s been cool to be mean about Natalie Wood for longer than I’ve been alive but I thought she was great in this, even though she didn’t sing and even though her accent was all over the place and even though she was playing out of her ethnicity. Crucially, she sells ‘love at first sight’, which is Maria’s narrative duty much more than Tony’s. (Tony mostly just has to turn up at her door smiling that smile.) Wood acts the hell out of the final moments too.
Anyway. Amazing flick. Looks great, wonderful stylised lighting, absolute control over each scene, dancing just delightful. Would watch again, even without a symphony orchestra.
David Tennant’s encore in the TARDIS, as the opening salvo from returning showrunner Russell T Davies, is going to be entertaining TV for sure, but also interesting as storytelling.
(I’ve been chatting about this with various people for months, thought I might as well chuck it on the blog so my expectations can be tested against reality!)
RTD has always invited viewers to take a perspective on his writing – the wonderful book The Writer’s Tale, about his process in the later seasons of his last Doctor Who run, offer plenty of insight into his style. To put it simply, he’s a vibes guy, assembling story as a means to hit emotional beats and payoffs, and worrying about coherence and structure as very much secondary concerns.
In the years since he left DW he’s developed his craft further, hitting a peak with the simply marvellous It’s A Sin, which was aimed at emotional turning points but also had an extremely well-crafted narrative form, one that did not follow any standard structure but almost built out its plot from the needs of character. A remarkable piece of work by any measure, worthy of the acclaim that has been heaped on it.
So it’s interesting to speculate about what we will see in RTD’s second era of Who: what will be the well-crafted vibes this time out?
It’s known that the seed of the Tennant return, with Catherine Tate along as Donna, came from one of the lockdown Doctor Who rewatches where all three speculated about doing a return.
My guess is that this became a plan when RTD, having cast Ncuti Gatwa as his new Doctor, found he was staring down a full year of waiting before Gatwa could get out of other contracts and start in the role. With time to fill, a return to Tennant & Tate was right there on the table as an option.
But the idea of a fun reunion wouldn’t be enough for an RTD who had just achieved the highest highs of his chosen artform, and whose skill and reputation had never been higher. I think the motivation for RTD, in making this his opening statement back in the head office, is actually to speak back to his first run on the show, and return to certain decisions of the past, which is to say, certain vibes of the past.
One decision in particular is already featured in the trailer: Tate’s character Donna was left in the show with all memory of her adventures wiped away. This was an extremely controversial move, because the journey of her character had been greater than that of any other companion in the history of the show, and reverting her to a comedic bumbler did not honour her.
(Personally I had no problem with her sad ending, sometimes things just end badly, as RTD was pointing out. But I can understand why many viewers felt protective of Donna and were gutted by her final situation.)
It is clear that RTD is going to give Donna a happier ending this time out, where she can be fully herself again, living up to her potential. Not quite saying “I was wrong about that, sorry folks” – but definitely taking an opportunity to add some joy to the grand story of the show by undoing the sorrow he had once added.
I think that’s not all we’ll see along these lines. Tennant’s Doctor was always deeply flawed, and his final scenes saw him frustrated and angry at the circumstances of his demise, which came he thought too soon. Again, this left a bad taste in the mouths of many viewers, although it was very in keeping with the character RTD had steered for several years.
It is my expectation that this return to the role of Doctor is explicitly intended as a continuation of this thread: RTD will frame this as the Doctor’s own psyche giving himself a chance to resolve his resentment and frustration, come to terms with the end of his time as Doctor, and to accept his final regeneration with positivity (just as the 13th Doctor managed to do).
So I think we will see the marvellous Bernard Cribbins (RIP) again, as it was his life Tennant’s Doctor died to save beforehand. And I think his Doctor’s final line will be a satisfying rejoinder to the words that ended his previous incumbency:
“I’m ready to go.”
EDITED TO ADD: a relevant excerpt from Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook. As noted above, he’s not saying he was wrong about any of this, but he’s taking an opportunity to offer a new emotional experience by revisiting this.
Here is my warmest recommendation to you all this December: gather your family and sit down to enjoy classic piece of seasonal Kiwiana, the long-neglected monsterpiece The Monster’s Christmas (1981).
One hour of wildly imaginative hijinks shot through with kindness and humour, suitable for young and old, and free to watch online!
The Monster’s Christmas is a live-action fairy tale, about a thoughtful little girl on a fearsome quest to help a friendly monster. It’s kinda like Labyrinth without all that pubescent horny angst, just Ludo and Sir Dydimus and lots of kid’s theatre earnestness.
There is so much to recommend this crowd-pleasing show! Most memorably it’s a visual feast, with incredible monster costumes co-designed by legendary NZ cartoonist/impish humourist Burton Silver (Bogor).
It’s also a journey film, turning the diverse landscapes of Aotearoa New Zealand into a vivid and extensive fantasy world, two decades before Lord of the Rings pulled the same trick.
And it’s funny! The troublemaking witch gets most of the laughs, with beloved theatre/radio personality Lee Hatherley relishing being almost the only character with dialogue. The aerobics gags are very of their time but still work 40 years on!
And the whole thing is pulled together beautifully by director Yvonne Mackay (who would go on to be the first Kiwi woman to direct a feature film, The Silent One).
If I had my way, The Monster’s Christmas would go out on broadcast TV every Christmas Eve, and up and down the country we would gather in the living room and watch it together. A new tradition. I think we deserve this film that is silly and fun and sweet and so, so so weird.
Twitter is entering its end phase. Probably. It might make it through the early messy stages of the Elon Musk era and find some new stability, anything is possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. Life-integrated services like Twitter exist most importantly in the perceptions of users, as an idea we hold on to; that idea has curdled. I think it’s slowly making the journey to the elephant’s graveyard, like G Plus and Livejournal and MySpace and Bebo did before it. And it makes me sad.
Twitter is special. Yes, everyone regularly calls it a hellsite, and not in an affectionate way; it has damaged important things. But it also offers some wonders that can’t really be replicated anywhere else. I think they’ll be just gone. And yes, that’s okay, because nothing should last forever, but it makes me sad.
The core of twitter is the feed, an endless scroll of snackable comments. It’s a bit like one of those cutaway drawings of a huge building or an enormous ship; as I scroll I see glimpses into dozens of ongoing conversations, lots of different moments happening all at once. I always love those cutaway drawings!
(An aside: throughout twitter’s history the feed has been a battleground. Twitter has tried various ways to make the feed serve their engagement metrics, which ends up with the service sticking random provocative stuff in front of you, showing stuff wildly out of order based on its guesses about what will be most exciting, and hiding content from people you indicated you want to follow because the algorithm reckons it’s boring. Only recently did Twitter finally concede and allow a simple chronological feed, which is by far my preference. But most people don’t jump through the hoop of figuring out the chronological feed; Twitter’s algorithm retains huge power over what gets seen and what doesn’t.
A frustrating example: Twitter has always downgraded or buried outbound links. It doesn’t want users leaving the site, so the algorithm hides them. It’s honestly an embarrassing and cowardly strategy, one shared by Facebook, which does exactly the same thing. The internet is made of links!)
The fundamental conflict in Twitter exists between the feed, friends and interesting accounts I have curated into an ongoing scroll of things I care about, and the swarming fools and villains who want to disrupt it and devour my attention. Call them locusts. They have been out of control since 2016. The dismal chaos of that year didn’t just depress everyone, it also marked a huge and continuing surge in locust behaviour, from Trump fans, Russian-operated false accounts, and ordinary everyday dickheads.
After 2016, it seemed like Twitter was always agitated. There was a lot of heat everywhere in the system, and things boiled over quickly. This continues to this day, as anti-democratic forces and those aforementioned dickheads eagerly increase friction and stoke rage wherever they can, using a playbook first honed in the horrible Gamergate mess, such as overloading replies and weaponising context collapse. This also makes non-locust users less tolerable, as tempers run hot, the attention economy contracts, and people chase engagement with self-aggrandizing performative rage that gives the algorithm exactly what it wants.
Even as Twitter became a constant warzone, with the feed eternally besieged by the locusts, and clout-chasers amassing large followings for truly annoying behaviour, I stayed. Twitter offered things I loved, even then. Its enormous reach and its pulsing concern with the moment remained undimmed. Its borderless interconnectivity brings the network effect to brilliant life, as ideas surge at incredible speeds across the frictionless flat plain of users. It is the channel of choice for information: journalists and scientists and pundits all make their home there. It was, and probably still is, the best way to take a sounding on what matters out there in the world. When there is a new development in climate science or politics, the climate people in my feed are busy with thoughts and responses; when domestic politics takes a surprising turn, my local political people are all over it; when major news unfolds anywhere, everyone takes note, and good resources quickly filter through the feed.
Twitter’s enormous scale also allowed rich subcultures and subcommunities to thrive, and the flat plain of connectivity allows that richness to surface into my feed regularly in countless unpredictable ways. Feminist Twitter, Black Twitter, Irish Twitter, Indigenous Twitter, Native American Twitter, Trans Twitter, African Twitter, and of course Māori Twitter and Pasifika Twitter are all thick networks full of human interaction, and I quickly understood when encountering them that the best thing to do was shut the hell up and pay attention. To say that my decade-plus on the bird site has been life-changing is to undersell it; I have been profoundly transformed by the privilege of witnessing up-close the conversations, concerns, arguments, jokes, celebrations and fury of communities of which I am not part. I’ve learned a huge amount, and I can honestly say I don’t know how else I could have learned so much.
Still, it’s undeniable that the public square of Twitter has become generally unpleasant. As a general trend for some time, users have been moving into “dark forest” spaces, away from public view, where “depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments“. Discords and Slacks are where many people spend their online energy these days, in an echo of the old internet forum days. (And some of the old big forums are still standing, hey big purple!) The current Musk crisis has led to crowds trying out Mastodon, which is similar to Twitter but instead of being an endless flat plain, it’s more like an enormous collection of community valleys separated by hills. The flow between and across them is slowed. This is intentional! For one thing, that open plain of Twitter suited the locusts beautifully, and Mastodon doesn’t want them. It is not a one-to-one replacement for Twitter, but a reimagined experience, intended as a more considerate, thoughtful, friendly, and local space. I am enjoying the energy among Kiwi Twitter migrants, and it seems there’s enough momentum for Mastodon to become an established community. Find me at @email@example.com
(I recall that I originally joined Mastodon in 2017, on an instance that is long gone, and whose domain name now redirects to, er, adult content. It didn’t have that critical mass of users then. It sure seems to now!)
In any case, I’m not walking out on Twitter yet. I have connections there that don’t exist in any other medium, and probably can’t. I value the good aspects of this enormous, vexing, variable service. I’ll be there as it copes with these new challenges, and I do expect it’s a death watch. Already it feels different; locusts everywhere, and the main topic of conversation how it’s all coming to an end.
I hope Musk loses interest soon, and I hope Twitter survives. If it doesn’t, I’ll miss it. At the very least I’ll post about it on Facebook.
(Also, there was that time pre-fame Brett Goldstein said to me, “hope you’re well”, so. Twitter was good sometimes.)
Twenty years ago today, I hopped on a plane with my best bud Leon and we flew from Wellington to London. It was exciting. I’d never been overseas before.
I came back several years later, after exploring Europe and the Middle East and North America, and living long enough in Edinburgh that I still think of it as my other home.
I wanted to feel the size of the world. The more I travelled, the bigger it all felt, because every place I reached also revealed countless more places in between. But it also ended up feeling not quite so big as all that, because it turns out the world is made of people, and now I have friends scattered all over the globe, and the shape of my life was powerfully changed by these friendships.
The other important thing I learned is that the right place for me to be in that world is here, home again in Aotearoa New Zealand, on the banks of Te Awa Kairangi.
I hope to go see other places again, and visit all my friends out there. I am so glad I met all of you. You make the world feel just the right size.
(Asterisks included above for the sake of content filters on work computers. Is that still a thing? It used to be a thing.)
The sun is out, the buds are on the trees, and every main road is suddenly lined with signs showing unfamiliar faces saying VOTE FOR ME! You know what that means: it’s local election time!
Soon an envelope will arrive and you will put it on the stack of things you will definitely get to, and then SMASH CUT to like two months later and you find the envelope again and you never even opened it, and you have a little chuckle at yourself because, hey! It’s only local government, right?
Well I have something to say: NOT THIS YEAR, BUDDY-O! Heck no! This year you’re gonna open that envelope and vote! Because this year your local government elections are the front line of a crucial fight!
Your local elections vote has never had as much riding on it!
You will of course have noticed that things have gone a bit… weird in the last few years. Like, David Bowie died in January 2016 and it all kind of went wrong from there? Of course things were quietly going wrong a long time before that, but in 2016 the wrongness got hold of a vuvuzela and now it’s Blaring Loud Wrongness, Keeping You Up At Night.
And all that wrongness is going to smash right into your local government. Unless you stop it.
Here are two urgent, crucial problems that show why voting matters extra bigly this time.
Problem 1: The allies of fascism are infiltrating government
That description reads like hyperbole, the kind of overheated claims you’d find in the weird corners of Indymedia in 2001. It is honestly a bit hard to accept that this is where we are now.
But we are. If you haven’t already, take the time to review the Stuff Circuit investigation by Paula Penfold & colleagues, Fire and Fury: Disinformation in New Zealand. The hourlong documentary is an intense and sobering watch.
A very active set of agitators are busy every day spreading disinformation, fomenting hatred, putting violence on the table. They are chewing on the table legs of our society.
Standing for local election was an idea that circulated widely through these networks, with the explicit aim of making the country ungovernable. As a result, many candidates aligned with conspiratorial views, or worse, have entered local election races. Most of these have kept their affiliations secret.
If elected, they will haul water for this country’s rising ring of fascist agitators. They will disrupt government and provide a platform for fascist recruitment and organising.
We have to vote to keep them out.
(Again, I can hardly believe that I am typing this as a fair description of what is taking place in this country, but that’s where we are. The long 2016 is a deeply weird time to be alive.)
Problem 2: Climate change is local now
Climate change has been a challenge for a long time (I’ve been writing about it on this blog since it was an email newsletter, way back when email newsletters were a thing, oh hey they are a thing again) but we are in a new phase now. Unprecedented weather disasters are finally dragging top-level political actors to the table – heck, even the USA has successfully passed a major climate action bill!
The new urgency is this: dealing with climate change at street level. All those slips around the Hutt and Wellington are a portent of things to come, unexpected trouble all over. We need to build resilience! Our councils need people who are prepared to be prepared.
But that’s just a side issue compared to the real challenge ahead: massive community transformation!
We need to redesign our towns and cities into new forms. For example, we need a completely new approach to transport. Public transport and active transport have to become the easiest and best ways to get around our communities!
Local and regional government will be forced to make some very big calls, soon. (In fact they are already doing this!) Over the next five years, decisions made by your local body will decide the future shape of your community.
These will be some of the most consequential and far-reaching decisions ever made by local government! Your council needs people who are prepared to be brave.
We have to vote for them.
Heck yeah I’m gonna do the thing, except how??
You’re gonna do the thing! You’re going to vote! So… what now?
START ATEAM-UP! You probably have a few trusted friends who live in the same electoral area as you? Ask if they want to team up on figuring out who to vote for. Many hands make light the work, and more fun the work too. Small group action: this is the way.
IDENTIFY THE ROCKING GOOD CANDIDATES! You can’t downvote the infiltrators, so you have to help the super-sweet candidates to out-compete them! This election guide covering all candidates is essential: plug in your address and it tells you who is standing for what in your area.
TELL YOUR NETWORKS! Personal recommendations are THE most powerful thing in local body elections. People will generally pay attention to what they hear from friends and neighbours, much more than from any other source. So don’t do the hard work of figuring out who to vote for, only to keep it all to yourself! Instead, get the word out!
HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF TELLING YOUR NETWORKS
Here’s who I am backing in the Hutt City Council elections: Karen Yung, a.k.a. Kaz.
Kaz is standing for council in the city-wide field, not tied to any specific ward. So she’s going to be on the ballot paper for everyone here, all across Hutt City.
I’m going to give her a tick because I am impressed by her commitment to ground-level community engagement, and because I like her focus on addressing the challenges of climate change.
I voted for her last elections too. She almost got into council then and I am confident her reputation has only increased since. I have followed her on Facebook over the last few years, while she has continued to be very active in the community and has served on the Petone Community Board. She’s just a really good candidate and will be an exciting new voice on council.