Monthly Archives: September 2016

Registering to Vote, 2016 Edition

One area where I am very partisan is that citizens should be able to vote and have their vote counted. Besides my general Capra-esque take on civic duty, I served as an election official for a number of years (i.e. one of the people who check you in and staff the voting machines).

In part because of those experiences, I was very happy to see today’s Google Doodle:


It takes you to a tool which lets you check when and how you need to register to vote — and what the requirements are (this speaks to all the different news reports you might have seen about required IDs, etc.).

In fact, you can simply type “register to vote” into Google and it’ll come up with this tool.

Every state is different in terms of what it takes to register, just as localities may have differing time as to when they try and “clean up” their voter rolls. So please, use this week to check your registration. Registration deadlines are looming.

Edward Albee, RIP

2016 really isn’t getting any new fans as our cultural icons continue to shuffle off this mortal coil in a manner that befits the most macabre dance number imaginable.

I'm going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

I’m going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

Playwright Edward Albee is dead, as reported by NPR, the New York Times, and others. I suppose he wouldn’t mind, what with his work exploring death, gloom, and despair. He was also 88, which I’m sure actuaries would assure me is “pretty old,” statistically speaking.

I don’t care. As a playwright, Albee had a voice. A beautiful, absurd, deeply disturbing voice to be sure, but a voice you don’t forget.

(You can actually hear his voice in this 8-minute interview on Fresh Air from 1984).

I first encountered this voice in high school with The Zoo Story. It wasn’t simply reading the play as a diversion in English class. My idle teenage hands had been repurposed to be a stage technician, so I was the chap responsible for the blood pack necessary at the end of the play. The blood pack didn’t always work to my liking –sometimes a bit more Sanjuro than desirable– but I went on to do blood effects for other productions. More importantly, my interest in this playwright, Edward Albee, began.

Watching the production, even in our inexpert high school hands, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Albee violates cultural comfort zones not unlike Pinter and other contemporary playwrights. But more than that, his characters are fascinating: intense, driven, and deeply, deeply flawed. Crafted with such specificity, you can’t help but try and understand the nature of what’s broken — even when you, yourself, might not have much in common with them.

Or so you think at first.

It could be, as Leo Tolstoy pointed out, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet among that specific unhappiness, there are some recurring themes. In fact, Albee summed it up thus:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity — who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.” -Edward Albee

How else could us countless college students tasked with studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — probably his best known work — relate to the struggles of George and Martha (and I suppose Nick and Honey)?

Amid the games like “getting the guests,” there are those questions of identity. How do you see yourself? How do you want to be seen? How much can you bear to see what you have done or have become? As you approach adulthood, you begin to see how many decisions you need to make involving how much you buy into socially constructed pretense and ritual. Where will you toe the line? Where will you stand out? Must you stand out? What do you lose by doing either?

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” -Edward Albee

That overarching theme is why I think Albee will resonate for decades to come: it’s timeless and –in the hands of Albee– well executed. His expert exploration of mortality and mistakes is also why he’ll be missed. Because it wasn’t simply The Zoo Story and Woolf. He had been steadily writing impactful plays for the better part of 50 years, Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? being some of his more recent celebrated works.

But at least we’re left with his works… which does also leave us with a question: at the end, was he visited by a young man doing calisthenics?

Gene Wilder, RIP

I meant to post this earlier, but life keeps on getting in the way. Or maybe it’s bills to pay, and I’m not as clever as Max Bialystock at how to pay them.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I'm going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I’m going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As has been reported in the Washington Post, AP, Variety, and elsewhere, Jerome Silberman aka Gene Wilder passed away last month, on Sunday, August 29th. He was 83.

2016 has proven to be lethal to the cultural icons many of my generation have grown up with — and Wilder was definitely someone we grew up with: perhaps first known as Willa Wonka and then, as we got older, as Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, and naturally Doctor Frankenstein -er- Fronkensteen.

Gene Wilder has an additional resonance for many of us who are performers and storytellers because he was a phenomenally sensitive actor. I mean, he seemed to sense what his characters needed to be to serve the story — as mentioned in this wonderful video. He also was a very generous performer in the same vein as Jack Benny as this Vox article details.

Actors and comics from across the industry have mentioned his influence. Writer and all-around pop culture historian Mark Evanier has a great anecdote about Wilder — and Tom Straw has a great story of working with the man himself late in Wilder’s career.

Finally, I came across this article about he met his wife, who I hope is being supported by friends and family in this difficult time.

Now I’m off to munch a Wonka bar for a bit.

RIP, Carl Balson

I did the math a couple years ago and realized he was in his 80s, so I knew it might happen sooner rather than later, but I am very sad to learn Carl Balson, theater professor and all-around audio-visual wizard, passed away on September 8th at the age of 84. An obituary appeared in the Beloit Daily News, but we learned of it a couple days earlier on social media. Here are some of the words I shared on social media a week or so ago:


Carl was a consummate craftsman, a trait I suspect he gained from being a magician. Long before my classmate Tom Kramer and I dubbed ourselves “tractors” or “technician-actors,” Carl was already showing anyone who cared to notice how you could be completely at home in a control room and on stage.

He took great love in the gear both at our radio station (WBCR) and TV station (BAT), and could get into engineering details as needed, but it was all in practical service to storytelling, something he was more than comfortable doing on stage as an actor. And I’m not kidding about the magic part either. A fact that he conveniently did not advertise was that he was a trained magician (or we college students were too obtuse), so on more than one occasion, when something was not working in the television studio, he would come in and tap the equipment while using sleight of hand to press the button that would solve the problem — a seemingly effortless action that implied we students needed to redouble our efforts in understanding how to use the gear.

Both the impishness and love of play he had were inspirational — and he would encourage us to take charge and make our own creations, whether it was producing a wacky skit-com/music video show or concocting morning radio routines. He even joined in on the fun in one episode of the aforementioned TV show, where he played the sinister “They” (who, like in the Far Side, was the “They” in “That’s what They say.”).

I got to study under Carl, work for Carl, and above all: learn from Carl. And I’m not the only Beloiter who’s thankful for that. He’ll always have a place in our hearts and memories. My thoughts and prayers go to his family.

Schedule Management: Exceptions to the 0-50-100 Method

I realized I hadn’t been posting much about producing and project management this year, so here’s a series of short posts going over some of the concepts I cover in the project management training I do.

Previously, I has talked about a method for managing your schedule: the 0-50-100 method of reporting and tracking completion percentage.

Again, for context, this is all about how to report completion percentage for a (presumably baselined) schedule. In other words, first you do your work breakdown and have all your tasks. Next, you use your personal experience, historical information, and knowledgeable people to figure out how long this is all going to take. In go all the durations for all the tasks. Painfully, you get sign-off and agreement that the tasks will take that long — and all of a sudden you’re off and running with the project.

Are you 0n track? How do you stay on track? If you’re using a tool like Microsoft Project, your tasks can be marked by percent complete. My recommendation is to use three –and only three– percentages:

  • 0% (Not Started)
  • 50% (In-Progress, whether it’s just started or almost complete)
  • 100% (Unequivocally complete)

I still believe this is one of the best ways to manage a schedule — especially for those of you using Microsoft Project. No project is ever so unique that it can’t benefit from any management (despite what some stakeholders may insist)… and the 0-50-100 method allows you to focus on pragmatically solving roadblocks rather than obsessing about reporting minutiae.

However, even though projects aren’t so insanely unique to preclude managing them, they also don’t all fit into one mold. The 0-50-100 method may not work for all tasks, so I wanted to share two other major ways to calculate ‘percent complete.’ Depending on your given project, you might use them a lot, a little, or not at all. In most cases when I use them, I use them in conjunction with 0-50-100 (in other words, my ‘percent complete’ reporting methods are task specific with 0-50-100 as the default).

Percent Complete by Unit
This method is where you mark the percent complete based on a number of units. For example, if you’re in the testing phase of a software development project and your testers need to complete 100 test scripts, that’s 100 units. If they’ve completed 15 test scripts of the 100, you’re 15% done. You have your overall duration of the task within which you estimated all 100 scripts will be completed, but for reporting purposes, you’re being more granular than 0-50-100.

The key variable to keep as unvaried as possible is the nature of your given units. As much as possible, you want your apples to correspond to apples, or at least similarly sized oranges (assuming size is the logical criterion for comparison). You don’t want to compare apples to watermelons in one task. If you do have a watermelon unit amidst a bunch of apple units, that’s where you’ll want to break down your schedule further. Have a separate watermelon task if you can (which will probably be tracked as 0-10-100) and you can have the remaining apples be tracked by unit.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s all about the level of granularity by which you want to manage the project… balanced with how much bandwidth you have to manage the project.

I’ve often tracked the workflow of change requests or articles by unit — knowing full well that some requests are more complicated than others or some articles are longer than others. However, collectively, tracking their completion by unit averages out and is easier to manage.

For example, back when I did project management for a publishing company, it was not uncommon to have tasks pertaining to proofreaders, copy editors, and so on. Tracking tasks per page was a natural fit for this kind of work. However, between dense scientific articles and annual reports replete with flashy graphics, any given pages were not going to take the same amount of time.

This goes back to your work in estimating the duration of your tasks. You always want to ask yourself and your team how long a given task will take, as it may vary from project to project. Maybe you can save time proofreading the pages for this particular repot because it’s an annual report with lots of graphics. But then, so you need to increase the per-page duration of the design and layout tasks? And bear in mind, after you’ve done a few annual reports or scientific journals, you should get some good per-page estimates or other estimated durations.

Likewise, for articles in the magazine realm, all articles are not created equal. Maybe I have a separate “per unit” task for feature articles and one for columns. OR, I might go ahead and have a task for each column, knowing that different columnists have different foibles and are best managed by the 0-50-100 method (“Okay, Frank: have you even started yet?”).

Remember, you should be dividing up the tasks to best be able to monitor and manage those pesky humans responsible for the tasks. Reporting on completion should be the same way.

Level of Effort (i.e. Percent Complete by Time Elapsed)
For purely schedule management, this may not come up as much, but this can be very important in overall project management as it makes it easier to tie the schedule to cost.

(Please note, several project managers who could never perceive a world where you didn’t tie schedule to cost to do nice, crunchy Estimated Time to Completion and Actual Cost just had their heads explode. That’s okay. Manager head explosions are a known risk.)

Because it’s good for overall project management, I like this method for tasks in two main instances: for executive reporting and where cost control is paramount.

As an overlay or executive view of the overall schedule, looking at the percent complete by time elapsed is a good way to judge progress from the “50,000 foot view.” In my experience, executives are most concerned about a project’s end date and what the project’s objective is more so than minutiae anyway. If you combine “percent complete by time elapsed” with the cost assigned to the task or overyou can get a good idea of what start-ups and contractors love to term “burn rate” (how fast you’re using up your funding).

For the financial managers among you, this can give you a diagnostic or monitoring tool. If a team has spent 60% of their budget, but only 30% of your schedule has elapsed, perhaps they ran into some complications they’re not reporting. Likewise, a team that has spent 20% of their budget, but 50% of their scheduled tasks are done, did they overestimate? Are they not reporting all their costs? When you are operating at the program or portfolio level, this can be very useful, because while you’re still concerned about making your schedule, you’re looking at a bigger picture (presumably, you have project managers for each project, working in the weeds).

For example, instead of knowing every task for requirements, design, build, testing, and deployment of several software projects, you, as a program manager, might know the start and end dates for those projects and have the percentage of budget assigned to each phase (e.g. 20% of budget for requirements, 40% for build, etc.). Now you can use the level-of-effort cross-matched with your financial reporting to see if any of your projects are under-burning or over-burning. In this way, you’re still using the project schedule as a way to learn if you’re going to make your date, but you have the cost tied to the schedule in such a way that it can be an early-warning tool of projects going off track. And at the program and portfolio level, you often need to deal with funding and supply issues more than an in-the-trenches project manager.

That cuts to the heart of this method. For me, tying the percent complete to the time elapsed works best at a phase or output level vs. a task level — because I’ll tie it to the cost and “burn rate.” Checking percentage this way at too low a level gets back into the silliness I described last time, where people quibble about 37% vs. 39%. Absent of whether you’ve spent 37% or 39% of your money and absent any other attempt at objective criteria, who cares? Nevertheless, this type of view is probably more useful to many managers and executives, so it’s worth figuring out how and where you’ll use it.

Overall, for project managers, I’d suggest looking into using the 0-50-100 percent complete method for your tasks except where doing percent complete by unit will allow for better management. Then, look at the overall project or program, and see how to apply percent complete by schedule elapsed tied to cost in order to give good reporting for the program and portfolio level.

Space Opera Tropes

Speculative fiction writer Charles Stross has written a blog post about space opera clichés which has been brought to my attention by one of the denizens of MOSF.

I haven’t read too much of Charles Stross, though I like his imaginative and subtly disturbing short story, “Rogue Farm.” It sounds like he enjoys being a bit harder with his sci-fi and space opera than some, which comes through in this list. For that reason, I can see how some writers might not be as concerned with some of entries on this list, but reading it in total, I think it’s a good reality-check/world-building check. Because frankly, if you ignore the majority of these points, your sci-fi world is going to seem incomplete and not well thought out. And any clever plots or characterizations will ring hollow as you haven’t successfully suspended disbelief.

This is very timely as I’m working on a short story involving a space elevator, something so geeky that, on one level, I must make the world-building believable — otherwise what’s the point? At the same time, the aspect of the story that’s really taken it out of mothballs has been the arc I’ve figured out for the main character. Ah, the joy of balance!

2016’s Summer Blockbuster Wasteland

Now that Labor Day has past, we’re officially out of Summer, those who are wont to assess how the film industry did during its summer blockbuster season don’t need to wait to write what many were already musing about in early August: this year has been terrible.

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff details this in the site’s Winners/Losers style in a method that’s very focused on the facts of what did well and what didn’t (many articles analyzing Hollywood’s fortunes at the box office tend to have some prescriptive scolding sneak in). I take solace in the fact that lower budgeted features have proven to have some great returns-on-investment. For filmmakers making films designed to be acquired (versus commissioned by the studios), this is hopeful news.

On the other hand is Peter Suderman’s assessment of Hollywoods’s woes, also in Vox. Suderman is a bit more scolding as he feels Hollywood is being lazy and formulaic (a common gripe). However, he does go further with the premise that, with the ballooning of “blockbuster” budgets from $100 million into the $200-$300 million realm, studios are, by necessity, so risk averse that their cinematic concoctions lack the idiosyncratic vitality that made their legendary predecessors shine. The idea is that by trying to please everyone on the planet, these decidedly average films –despite star power and impressive production values– lack some must-see quality that prevents them from being anything other than blockbusters-in-waiting.

Of course, he hedges on his premise noting that several of these films such as the latest installments of Captain America and Star Trek did a good job critically. That makes the abysmal box office all the more maddening. Equally maddening, at least to me, is the continued hollowing out of the mid-range film (as I talked about back in July).

The one bright spot seems to be –and this is not an original observation– is that the creative energy and financial backing that used to be going into the mid-range films is now going into TV shows. That may well be true — and in the Suderman article above, he mentions that TV shows seems to be haven for idiosyncratic –and successful– innovation these days. Stranger Things is cited as an example of summer success.

I still think there’d be a place to have a subsidiary studio or “imprint” that tried to make films in the $10 – 30 million range. You’re trying to have all those films earn $80 to $200 million at the box office. It’s not the same as the $500 to $700 million (to fanciful notions of over $1 billion) that they want the $180 – $250 million blockbusters, but the goal would be to have an overall better ROI.

In addition to the ROI, the “mid-range” budgeted movie provides something else to the studio ecosystem: a project that is neither as expensive and high-stakes as their current beloved blockbuster model, nor as protracted time-wise as a season of TV.

Maybe this is immaterial and studios feel that TV series offer more return on investment or more of a chance at franchises and longevity (what they now obsess with given the blockbuster model). This “mid-range” films also don’t currently appear to have a place in the ever-lengthening “summer blockbuster season.” However, underlying the love of franchises and IP that can be mined for Internet centuries is an overall aversion to risk. Why else would we be seeing movie versions of Battleship (and presumably, one day, Risk)?

There’s a saying that making a movie is a marathon, but making a TV show is running until you drop dead. Lower budgeted movies give you a chance to test writers, directors, cast, and crew in something where the stakes aren’t do-or-die like a blockbuster and isn’t at a pace like a TV show. My premise is that this is a valuable place in a studio’s ecosystem: a place where one might cultivate the cast and crew graduating from the indie darlings and on to the blockbusters and TV shows of the future. They also might provide counter-programming to all the blockbusters.

I will be interested to see how the rest of the year shakes out box office wise. In terms of production slates, I imagine the release schedule for Summer 2017 is already written by and large, but I wouldn’t be surprise if even now, some adjustments are in the works.

Update, 2016-09-09: Todd VanDerWerff follows up in Vox about some of the films that have done well this summer — mainly some of the smaller ones.

The article delves into how there are multiple audiences for films, and posits that studios may well succeed by targeting other audiences than just the purported blockbuster audience.

I tend to agree — and it seems like there’s always some counter-programming during the ever lengthening summer blockbuster season, but unfortunately it seems that it’s not a concerted effort much of the time. Perhaps they think of calculated counter-programming like Cinderella Man, a perfectly enjoyable period drama by Ron Howard & co. that underperformed at the box office. I wonder if this wouldn’t be where the $10 – 30 million budget studio films might do well (Cinderella Man came in at a weight of $88 million). The other part of counter-programming would be making even otherwise normal films part of an event, as Fathom has done (them and how movie theaters might re-invent themselves as 21st century movie palaces would be something for another post).