Friday, April 29, 2005

Review: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Like many fans of British comedy and/or sci-fi, I was concerned when I found the movie was made by Disney. Visions of unspeakably awful American adaptations of British comedy flashed before my eyes ... like Three's Company ... um, and that's about it.

But I was unduly worried, after all, the late Douglas Adams co-wrote the screenplay for this 20-odd years ago.

So why am I reviewing this outrageously funny movie on a blog about leadership? Because it's an example of how one man created a powerful meme that has attracted an astonishingly loyal fan base.

I've consumed the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in all its forms: the radio show (which will always be my favourite), the TV show (even though it was on too late for me when I was 8 years old), the book series (a five-part trilogy, as I remember), the record (similar but still substantially different from the radio show), and now the movie.

Each one is magnificent on its own; together they're just as good. Adams' gags are just so intellectually satisfying that it feels like tasting a favourite meal each time.

And another thing. As a child the ridiculousness of the humour appealed to me for its own sake; as an adult I appreciated the biting satire on bureaucracy and other things that make life crazy sometimes.

Full credit to the movie makers. They kept enough from the book (etc.) to satisfy the hardcore fans (the same ones who are concerned that the Daleks look the same in the new-look Dr. Who, and are reaching the heights of ecstacy and consternation mingled as Star Wars III approaches) and enough new, surprising and frankly breathtaking stuff to surprise everyone in the theatre.

It's interesting. What's up with my generation? We've got Dr. Who coming back on TV, we've got Star Wars just wrapping up after 26 years, and we've got Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. My friend who works at Weta Workshops helps make Lord of the Rings souvenirs worth hundreds. This is a generation of kids who haven't grown up - or more likely, we grew up for a bit and didn't like it.

Mira Nair and her Monsoon Wedding

I suffered through a faulty copy of Monsoon Wedding -- it would constantly go into self-destruct mode at minute marker: 1:03 or thereabouts. Probably from overuse.

Happened to me twice, actually! First time I was taking in the film as a totality, second time I was listening to Mira Nair's wonderful commentary. Doh!

Yet I still managed to glean a few golden morsels from the watch, pained as t'was.

Drumroll please...

Nair's the sort of person I'd like to invite for coffee one of these fine days. As a director, her ability to draw richly from a vast store of literary expertise to simply is staggering. I was riveted to my DVD player (a definite must see activity) waiting for her next delectable intellectualism to cascade from her lips -- if only my expression could have been recorded for posterity.

But that's not my point.

Here it is. The challenges Monsoon crew faced on the shoot were legendary. Nair told of a situation where nearly 300 minutes (!!!) of raw footage were damaged by the x-ray machines on the return to New York as the key crew returned from their New Delhi shoot. This was a huge problem because they'd only been scheduled for 30 days, plus on a limited low budget.

Nair had to return to Delhi 6 MONTHS LATER with a scaled-down crew and some of the actors to reshoot several scenes, yet it this ended up working in their favour for the following reasons:

** they already had a near-assembled film, and laying everything out in the editing process, they realized they desperately required more punch in spots (they wouldn't have known it if they didn't lose the footage they were depending on).

** they realized they had too much footage that made the overall look and feel more "low budget" than she initially wanted, and so on the redo Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan rewrote scenes to avoid this.

A challenge became a blessing.

Therein lies the lesson for future leaders -- can you scramble and not dwell on the negatives?

A good leader knows that life is precisely so --> one moment in the doldrums, next laughing uncontrollably. All with the full realization that dwelling on the bad results in many missed opportunities.

And yes, I'm going to get myself a decent working copy so I can watch it again! You should see it too.

Thoughts about the big world powers

I'm nearing the end of my whirlwind tour of the history of the "west" (currently in the middle of World War II), and thinking about what makes a country powerful.

The British Empire lasted nearly 300 years (if you count it as starting with Elizabeth I) but only really took off after the Civil War in the 1640s and 50s.

The American Empire, the USA, had what is called "The American Century" in the 20th century, after experiencing a devastating Civil War in the 1860s.

Now we hear, "Last century was the American dream. This century is the Chinese dream" from people who are very likely to know, like Jean-Christophe Iseux.

Funny, China had a Civil War in 1949!

It seems to be a trend, but what it means I have no idea. It was also interesting to note in Watts Wacker's latest newsletter that the fastest growing economies in the world were mostly in Africa. Countries that have suffered through civil war and poverty for years. Here's a quote:

The fastest growing economies in the world? ... #1 - Equatorial Guinea +16%, #2 - Azerbaijan and Chad +14%, #4 - Angola +11.9%, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, China and Kazakistan round out the top nine ... is Africa making a comeback?
It's all so fascinating, but I don't have a clue what it all means. Any thoughts from the geopolitical thinkers out there?

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Blog this", he says! So here I am...

Got a fax the other day from Adam - yes, a fax. Remember those? It's an excerpt from a book called "The Last Guardians". Adam had underlined a paragraph and scribbled excitedly "blog this!"

So I will:

"I haven't seen a management theory that six months later is not refuted, discredited, or highly criticized," the well-read Thivierge says. "Virtually every theory the RCMP is using today to manage itself is based on business, the making of widgets and turning a profit. There are no management theories that I am aware of that deal with organizations in the public-security field, organizations that hold a public trust. You can't run the police like a business; they're not there to make a profit. In the end, the force just keeps building on past mistakes."

Sounds good, huh? And it brings up a good question - where are the leadership models for organisations that aren't profit-making businesses? I know Peter Drucker has written a book on managing the non-profit organisation, but that's about all I know of.

Being a People Whisperer

Marie and I watched The Horse Whisperer on Saturday. Such a gentle yet moving flick was just what we needed after a diet of near-constant war movies, interrupted only by Ali and The Incredibles!

But it also resonated with issues Marie is facing in the workplace. She's on the cusp of a promotion, getting to put into practice the leadership skills she's been learning over the years and, of course, by listening to my endless monologues about the leadership books I've read.

But the most outstanding capacity Marie will bring to any leadership position is her compassion. She sees people as people, perhaps more so than many others I know. And that's precisely what' seems to be missing from her workplace at the moment (here's hoping they don't read this blog!).

I don't think it's an isolated thing, either. Managers in all sorts of companies give lip service to the idea of being "people-friendly" but sometimes their actions say the bottom line is all that matters. If the job could be done by machines, all the better.

And because of this mindset, employees get treated to a demotivating combination of suspicion and indifference. Suspicion when you're off sick, late or have to leave early, and indifference when you're meeting targets. And of course they make you feel personally responsible when targets aren't met, even if it's an issue of resourcing or company structure.

Why? Because accountants are running the show in countless companies. I don't have anything against accountants per se, and skill with a balance sheet is definitely needed if a company is to know where they are at any given moment.But accountants aren't the best communicators, nor the best understanders of human beings.

An example. Names have been changed to protect - well, to protect me, actually! On the weekend Marie was given on-call duties because her supervisor Kristen was away. It was a hugely busy weekend, with a sudden hailstorm in Christchurch sending a hail of phonecalls in to the call centre.

Early Sunday morning Mandy, who is often late, rang in saying she'd missed her bus but would hopefully be in after 9. Instead of the usual accountant treatment - asking why she was late, making her feel bad for being late - Marie said that's cool, we look forward to seeing you whenever you get here. Marie's been in that situation - let's face it, we all have - and understood that added stress doesn't get you there any faster.

But compassion does. Mandy organised her brother to give her a lift into work, so she arrived there before 8:30. Why? Because Marie had trusted her, and not made her feel guilty for making a mistake.

So ... what does this have to do with Horse Whisperer? Simply this: both the Horse Whisperer and the traditional horse trainer have the same goal in mind - get the horse used to being ridden. It's just that one uses force to achieve his goal, the other uses compassion and mutual respect.

As the original horse whisperer (I forget his name) said on the special featurette (alas, way too short), "I'm telling the horse that I'm the leader and he's the follower, but that doesn't make me any better than him."

Video Book Review: Get Rommel and Dare to be Free

Simon gesticulates from the shadows

Posted by Hello
1941 was a busy year. I review two exciting true stories from that year and learn about success, failure, courage and culture. And they're damned exciting stories too!

Apologies for the lighting - or lack thereof - in this review. Hopefully my mellow tones will make up for the facial expressions you can't see. Next time I'll be super-aware of lighting. Learning is great, innit?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

One-dimensional? No, just badly expressed...

Just got an interesting phone call from Justin Herald, author of It's all a matter of attitude, which I didn't seem to think much of back in November.

Surprised (he was)
He was surprised, because mine was the only negative coverage his book had had. "Don't you think it's a bit one-dimensional?" he asked me.

No. It's not that I hadn't read or understood where Justin was coming from - at least, from what was there in the book.

Irresponsible (I may have been)
But I will concede I expressed myself a bit irresponsibly. It's easy - and reads well - to say stuff like "This guy is really, really arrogant." I can't know that about someone by reading a book they wrote in four days! But I can say he comes across really arrogant from a read through the book - both the slogans and the explanations for them.

Clear (I am trying to be)
So what's my problem with books like "It's a Matter of Attitude"? Let me try again:

  • They offer black-and-white solutions in a very grey world.

  • They seem to overlook the value of brokenness, instead emphasising the power of the will to 'get the job done'. Sometimes failure - absolute disaster - is the best thing that can happen to us. That doesn't seem to be in the worldview of this book.

  • Read one way, the book seems to have a dismissive attitude towards people who are down and out. However, read another way, it's simply saying don't let negative people influence you, and don't be a negative person yourself. That, I'm into. But not dissing people just because they're 'losers'.
Oversimplified (the book was)
I guess the major problem I had with "It's all a matter of attitude" was that it oversimplified things. But what was I to expect for a book of "slogans to live your life by"? Perhaps I was expecting too much from what is really a feel-good book. Maybe I was gettin' too philosophical.

Professional (I am) (and opinionated)
Another thing that kinda came up in the conversation was professional reviewer vs. personal opinion. I don't think any professional reviewer can honestly say their personal opinion doesn't affect their reviews.

I'm a professional writer who reviews books. This is a blog, so it conforms to the blog format, which is usually highly personal and highly opinionated. If I was equivocating all the time on this site, it'd be a bore to read. Or maybe not... ;)

Funny (the book is)
Having said all that, I've missed the main point of many of these slogans which is, they're supposed to be funny! And they are that.

So get the book, and enjoy it, and read it with a smile on your face.

Impressed (I was)
Anyway, I was impressed that Justin actually picked up the phone and called me. It's one thing to be upset about a negative review; it's another to actually ask the reviewer why they were thinking.

While I can tell that at first Justin wanted to tell me why I was wrong (which would be easy) he did manage to hear me out as I tried to remember my thoughts last November.

One of the things he mentioned was that we'll be held accountable for our words. I agree. It's interesting that it goes both ways - he put his words out in the form of a book, and got one negative review (mine). I put my negative review out, and get one questioning call (his).

Right. I think I've said enough about all that. Comments welcome!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Handicaps made him redouble his effort

Enjoy Every Day : Robert Kennedy - a couple great quotes about Bobby Kennedy. I particularly like the last one:

"He was neither a natural athlete nor a natural student nor a natural success with girls and had no natural gift for popularity. Nothing came easily for him. What he had was a set of handicaps and a fantastic determination to overcome them. The handicaps made him redouble his effort." David Hackett, a school friend, talking about Robert Kennedy.

Ain't that the truth about life. It's about character and determination; talent alone will never do.

I can't believe I forgot to mention the Pope!

Sandra didn't forget to mention the pontiff's passing; and seeing her post reminded me to post.

But what to say that hasn't already been said? Stuff like:

* It's only really when someone dies you get to learn of their impact on history.

* John Paul did the most for the Vatican's foreign relations - I mean, when was the last time the Economist's cover story was about the future of the Catholic church?

* John Paul was a bridge-builder as well as a line-drawer. He made the most contact with Jews and Muslims, as well as continuing the work of ecumenism, while still retaining his strong stances on other issues. That takes guts and a sure knowledge of where you stand on something. What little I've read of him shows he studied to arrive at a position, didn't just decide that was what he believed. I may be wrong there, but that's the impression I get.

* Other media commentators have also noted how the coverage has been almost entirely positive. It's like everyone's a closet Catholic. I can't remember who it was but they were saying when George Bush or Queen Elizabeth die they won't get this sort of media attention.

* Because John Paul paid so much attention to foreign relations, the bar is raised for his successor. Who will be the right person to walk that tightrope between religion and politics?

Should be interesting to watch...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Movie Review: To End All Wars

On Sunday we saw "To End All Wars", which I heartily recommend you see.

At first Marie was down because it was yet another war movie (I've been watching a fair few lately). But as the plot developed she put aside her plans to sleep through the film; it was getting too interesting.

Without giving too much away, it's about a group of Scotsmen (and one American, played by Kiefer Sutherland) captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942 and interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

All of their preconceived ideas of how they will be treated as POWs under the Geneva and Haig conventions soon disappear, as they are forced to submit to the Bushido philosophy. This philosophy values honour above just about everything, and looked on non-Japanese races as barbaric, sub-human.

In the face of this attitude from their captors, the prisoners face a decision. Act out the expectations of the Japanese, or show them that they're different. A group of the prisoners decide to go the harder path - they submit willingly to the hard labour they're subjected to, they treat their captors with courtesy and genuine respect, and they are enabled to hold their own university, learning about that crucial subject that comes to mind in wartime: justice.

It's very easy for me to watch a film like this and passively approve of what these brave guys did, and frown on the selfishness and wild vengeance of characters like Sutherland's and the one played by Robert Carlyle. It would be another thing to live out these beliefs in real life - to have hope when there is no visible hope.

"For hope that is seen is no hope at all" - the Bible. True visionaries go against the grain. When the time and place is right, they give others hope when it's in shortest supply. Because the invisible vision is so big to them, they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And this film - based on a true story - is about that kind of hope, that kind of sacrifice.

Ali: Use what you've got

At some angles, it's uncanny how much Will Smith looked like Muhammad Ali. Having seen a documentary about the movie (an Oprah special, even!) I knew that Smith had spent some time with Ali in preparing for the film beforehand. It was good to finally see the movie last night.

It was well-made, but didn't leave me stunned like the best movies do. Maybe it's me. I'm not a fan of sports movies, I dislike boasting - and Ali is all about boasting - and I didn't find much personally about Ali to inspire me.

But hey, movies aren't always meant to inspire. This one seemed to be trying to tell as truthfully as possible Muhammad Ali's journey from 1964 to 1976. And it told that story exceptionally well - particularly the early scenes where, without a word, we understand his frustration and disappointment with the lot of his people at that time, and how that drove him towards success.

Using what you've got
What really stood out to me was how Ali used his environment to improve his performance. If people were against him or dismissive of him, as they were at first, he used that to create determination: "I'm going to prove them wrong."

If they loved him, as nearly everyone did in his match with Foreman, he used every tiny piece of admiration and affection to spur him on. He should have lost that fight, after the massive George Foreman pounded him against the ropes, but instead he took in the admiration and belief around him, and turned it into a victory.

I'm yet to see the special features, but I hope they have something about Ali's life since the period portrayed in the movie. From being a strong, immensely capable man to being someone ill, someone who has to rely on the help of others - that's a journey that really reveals the strength or weakness within.

I read an interview with Ali some years ago, and it sounded like he'd used the environment to create victory again. Only this time it wasn't a Liston, Frazier or Foreman in the ring - it was his own failing health. And I think he's winning.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

HELLO is too complicated...

Simon and Sandra,

I'm going to need some oral (read: phone) help with the Hello service -- jeez, I want to just get up and go -- but seems I have to be a photography expert before I even begin.

P.S. Trying out a new technique for our blog which entails less formal posts -- otherwise, I'll never get anything posted, and we all know that's rife with tragedy.

-- Graf von Groovy

Sunday, April 10, 2005

NZ Herald: Woman defrauded lawyer of $1.2m

"A personable, 65-year-old conwoman dubbed "the queen of greed" duped 10 people out of more than $2 million before losing the money to a classic Nigerian scam."

Fully story

I can't believe that someone smart enough to get $2m out of people is then dumb enough to fall for a Nigerian scam. Incredible.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The New Auroras -- the saga continues...Charles and Sagan

Charles is the quintessential baddie. He has lived on Earth for longer than even he can recall. Having been witness to humanity's ravages this has bred in him a certain degree of understandable cynicism.

Few things surprise him these days.

As such, his exploits have become increasingly malevolent with the passage of the centuries, but of the evil-genius variety, naturally. There are few human reactions with which Charles is not familiar. Few body cues he cannot discern. Moreover, one may be hard-pressed to find another who commands similar authority amongst his charges. Especially his staff.

Loyalty fierce. Cross him, and his antagonism will be legendary.

Let's join him mid-conversation....

The boy must learn to bear the yoke of responsibility. He must wean fear entirely out of his bloodstream, and when interacting with these infamous brutes (whose daily occupation is in the illicit trades), Christian must learn to gaze upon them without as much as batting eyelids.

Yea, I may still place him in certain danger. But that which the lad saw on the Sierra Leonean killing field rivals any potential ‘roughhousing’ he may witness in the Canadian North. (I chuckle at the prospect of what constitutes ‘roughhousing’ in Yellowknife). The greater we potentially broadcast hesitation, wavering, or indecision, the likelier the outcome Christian shall absorb such vices into his thinking (for they are nothing more but manifestations of core human weakness).

This, in turn, becomes poisonous. If permitted to spread unchecked, it shall shift rapidly into the manner in which Christian processes information. I cannot have this. Doubt will simply not do. Christian, as I have conceived it, is precisely his namesake. A balm for the masses. The portent of a rising, the rumbling of radicalism, when, once afoot, imbues its new adherents with a verve most inspirational. One beyond the wildest dreams of possibility once envisioned - even in the masses’ most lucid of states.

That is why I have named him Christian. He will lead his unsuspecting followers into the glory books of majestic achievement. Yellowknife will be one of many niches, but our most pivotal. The keystone of our grandiose ruse, the spout of the funnel, the chief conduit through which everything will be channelled.

And the brains of this inexorable new movement must not be dissuaded by acceptable risks. Such reasonable harm may even be beneficial for the lad. In fact, I cannot recall when certain forceful behaviour did not go an instructively long way in milking out my own ancient hesitations. Christian cannot permit his instinctual ‘animalistic humanity’ to be liquidated by a conditioned doubt.

For I have seen this rawness of human character siphoned tragically out of the sharp thrust of human action. I have been alive for far too long.

Along with battle-hardened Picts and Celts, and I in the background, blue-painted dervishes were like gnats in the marauding Saxons’ sides. How delightful it was, I recall, perched on the high ground keeping a close watch on the battle’s progress! Not a member amongst the Picts’ battalion was not of one mind with fellow peers-at-arms: to defeat the Saxon hordes, to stymie them at every glen, every bluff, and safely cloaked in the enveloping foliage, the forest like family. Fear manifested itself not in the progress of their battle.

Once upon a time so unbridled, action is now meek, perpetually questioning. How society has evolved over my long stewardship. How it has transmogrified into something so utterly unlike its primal antecedent it is astonishing nations still mobilize to make war.

Christian’s early tutelage, with steps laid out in a continuous chain, will culminate in lordship over his faculties like no other task assortment should. His only actions will be of the decisive kind.

There are many who wish to infiltrate our close circle. I shall cast them bland scraps with full awareness they will dive mindlessly towards them, tearing them to shreds, scraping them bereft of flesh. For example, whomever shall be watching our meanderings at the aerodrôme -- oh la la, rather airport -- will observe Christian, not I, handing off our exchanges’ proceeds. They may attempt to process what they witness, but will find no suitable explanation. For Christian is beneath their age of majority and beyond the reach of their Justice System’s tentacles. For now, Christian, as my protégé, remains guiltless. How laughable it shall be to see the same territorial authorities attempt to intervene. Like swatting at flies. Just precious.

On the other hand, we have Thaddeus Sagan. He's made it his mission to take down Charles. This is Yellowknife, in the middle of the winter. And, oh yeah, Charles is a man of colour.

That Charles was upping the ante was clearly obvious. Sending in the kid to do his gruntwork...master stroke. Fucking brilliant. But if he thinks we’re checkmated, the freak’s got another thing coming.

I don’t think I can hold off any longer. Might even be time to send in Conjure’s ‘girls’ for a little look-see.

I need to know what Charles’ up to.