@lootcrate January 2015 review

loot crate rewind

Theme: Rewind

What do you get?
T-shirt, notebook, figure, tie, comic, sunglasses, mag, badge.

Voltron T-shirt

I love this! The blueprint design really stands out with its bright blue lines and black background. Plus, I used to watch Voltron and have fond memories of a massive Voltron toy that got lots of usage in elaborate lounge room battles. I wore this to work (student free day) the day after I received my crate. A+

Comic Notebook

I can’t draw but that only detracts slightly from this awesome notebook. Each page has a series of panels for you to create your own comic and there’s even a tear-out sheet that has a variety of speech bubbles you can trace around like a stencil. I’ll probably ‘publish’ a poem in this format. Another A grade item.

Space Invaders Tie

This design on this skinny black tie is pretty cool BUT I don’t wear ties to work. If not for the fact I have some weddings coming up, this wouldn’t get any use at all. I’m guessing I’m not the only person in this boat so I’ll only award a C grade here.

Retro Game Inspired Figure

I’ve just started buying Funko Pop vinyl figures after finally selling all of my old action figures at some point last year. As such, I’m not really interested in starting a new collection. That said, I think these figures are pretty cool. I love the concept and I got the ‘cartridge’ I wanted – one with a Mars Attacks inspired design. This isn’t something I would buy but it’s a cool gift. Grade: B

Marvel Star Wars #01 Comic

If I get a comic in something like this I always hope it’s a one-shot or a first issue; I’m not overly interested in chasing up the rest of a series if it’s not something I have already been following. So, I’m really happy with this item. The cover is awesome as Han and Chewy pose by some interplanetary Loot Crates. Grade: A

8bit Retro Sunglasses

These glasses might be okay for a fancy dress party or something like that but no person in their right mind is going to wear them as their normal sunnies. It’s a D grade for this one.

Loot Crate Magazine and Badge

If I’m being honest, I’m not impressed by these things. The magazine is just a physical copy of the electronic zine that appears in your inbox and that seems like a waste of paper. The badge, while I like the cassette tape design, is not something I’m going to wear and I don’t have a satchel or anything else that I use to store/display badges. Grade: D

All up, the Rewind themed box was pretty great; the unique items are all really cool. I still don’t known if the reward is greater than the risk, especially when paying for the international postage, but this box might be enough to keep my subscription going.

Self Portrait

Take your pencil –

HB, 2B, red, yellow –

it doesn’t matter,

it’s a metaphor.

Put the point on the first dot,

here,

on my crotch.

It’s awkward I know

but it gets worse;

it’s not my crotch but a symbolic representation of my father’s.

This is my starting point,

I am the product of my parents’ genes.

Follow from this dot to the next,

down the leg;

these first steps reflect my own

and these legs carried me through my late teens

as I hitch-hiked darkened streets.

Appropriate that I refer to my teens

as these lines we draw

return to my crotch.

Trace upwards from here to my heart

as a 21 year old me

found my future wife

and it’s fitting that the following dot is on my head

as I was forging my way through university at the time.

Draw from here down my arm,

pausing on my hand.

Of all the things that make me who I am,

this is possibly the most important –

I work and play with words.

These final dots work down my torso

and complete me at my crotch

just as I am completed by my children.

Remove your pencil and see me for who I am,

see me whole.

All right stop, collaborate, and listen

For a long time I didn’t like Superman. He was just too powerful, too perfect. Then I saw him alongside the rest of the Justice League and thought, ‘what issues could possibly require the combined might of Superman, Wonder Woman and a bunch of other heroes?’ I’ve read a bit more DC now. Their characters are a lot more fallible, more troubled, than they were in the early 90s. Regardless, if Superman needs help from time to time, I’m guessing so do the rest of us.

Our sports reflect this. Beyond the court or the pitch there are huge off-field teams now. Take Australian Rules Football, where there was once a single Senior Coach there are now coaches for every section of the oval as well as some with specific responsibilities. It’s now a professional business too so each team has its board and a number of departments that work together to make a whole.
Most important to both of these situations is the team dynamic. Whether you’re reading Marvel, DC or another distributor, your superhero teams feature characters with different skill sets and abilities. Each hero offers something unique that compliments the abilities of the others. This is probably most obvious in the way Marvel talks about The Avengers, often presenting them not by name but according to their role: “The Soldier, the God, the Knight, the Spy, the Giant, the King, the Pixie, the Ghost, and the Archer.” When read like this it sounds like a roll call (or role call in this instance) for a Tolkein quest. Likewise, sporting teams recruit people to fill positions. When Hawthorn defeated Geelong in the 2008 Grand Final they’d done so on the back of a recruiting drive that favoured player type over any other factor. Plainly stated, they built a champion team rather than a team of champions.
Where am I going with this?
In 2013 I was approached by Paul Papalia (member for Warnbro) at the launch of my first book. He wanted to know if I was interested in running a writers’ festival. He said politicians have a budget for community groups and he’s always aiding sporting teams. He was concerned that a number of youth in the area where not supported in their interests because they were not sporty. He wanted something for the creative types.
I’ve run two festivals so far. Both times they ran during school hours and then continued on for at least an hour and a half. I won’t lie, I’m disappointed in the numbers we’ve had after 3pm. But… this is when the magic happens. Once the students start dispersing the participating authors begin mingling, often sitting in on the others’ workshops. This is what I think The Arts needs; a sense of community and collaboration, people working together to improve each other.
Perth poet, Jackson, runs a workshop called ‘Poetry Kitchen’. She provides the snacks, the poets in attendance bring some verse to share. Jackson ensures that the atmosphere stays positive and the criticism stays constructive. Each poet leaves with a page full of notes or a brain full of ideas on how they might tweak their piece to make it better. But it’s more than that. I am at my most inspired when I’ve been exposed to the creativity of others. The last time I saw Perth band, The Woods, I went home and wrote two poems. There was no connection between their lyrics and my verse, I just wanted to write. Furthermore, I recently participated in two of the Australian Writers’ Centre‘s online courses. What I loved about this was the engagement between writers, people reading each other’s posts and adding feedback.
This is what I want more of, creative communities of writers helping writers. Make it happen.

My first time with @lootcrate

My mum went oversees when I was a little kid and left me with my grandparents. While she was away she would send me letters and cards covered in hand drawn (or traced, I never asked) pictures of my favourite characters. Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Grover and company would use speech bubbles to keep me informed of Mum’s whereabouts and respond to whatever Nanna had told Mum in her last letter.

I loved it but it raise my expectation of what letters should be. Nothing delivered in the mail has been as cool. Until now.
I recently had my first Loot Crate experience.
For the uninitiated among us, Loot Crate is a geeky gift delivery service. There are heaps of companies doing this now but many of them don’t deliver to Australia; Loot Crate does.
So I signed up and waited. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d done a bit of research and checked out past crates but it doesn’t matter, you can’t really predict what you’re going to get. You get clues but you can’t know for certain until you open the box.
Or at least that’s the idea.
Living in Australia and getting the December crate, possibly the busiest postal period of the year, meant that while many Americans received theirs in 2014 mine didn’t arrive until the 8th of January. In the meantime, Loot Crate had emailed me an electronic copy of the magazine that comes in the box and I’d ignored the spoiler warnings and proceeded to read it.
Nevertheless, when my crate finally came, I was still giddy with anticipation as I opened it. And here’s what I got: an exclusive Funko Pop vinyl figure, a Simpsons wallet, Tetris stickers, a Batman comic with an exclusive cover, a Captain America air freshener, a badge, Groot socks, a Ghostbusters door hanger and the magazine mentioned above.
I love the Pop vinyl and the Groot socks. The Simpsons wallet is pretty cool and the air freshener was put straight in the car. Admittedly I’ve put the Tetris stickers and Batman comic on eBay but I wouldn’t have if they were magnets instead of stickers and if the comic was a one-shot and not part of a series.
January’s crate has the theme Rewind and promises to “give you EXCLUSIVE items from Star Wars & Voltron! That’s not all, we are also bringing you some epic geek apparel, including an exclusive & licensed shirt, so you can kick off the new year in style! Finally get ready to decorate your desk with an awesome retro gaming-inspired mashup figure!”
I’ll do a proper review when mine arrives. If you want to get on board, here’s the link.

The Writers’ Workout

What do you get when you add a diet of pastry and iced coffee to an aging body? Fat. You get fat.

That’s where I feel I’m headed at the moment. I’m not actually fat but I’m certainly not as skinny or as fit as I could be. So, I jumped onto the App Store and downloaded a workout app. I don’t want to be an iron man (or at least not the sort that doesn’t come with a weaponised suit of armour and a drinking problem) so I was looking for something low key when I noticed a pattern.

7. Seven. VII.

There are heaps of fitness apps that offer 7 minute workouts, obviously targeting people who think of themselves as too busy to go to a gym or to slack to do anything longer than that – perfect for me.

Now, imagine a motorised contraption that you stand up on as you ride into the next topic.

I’m a writer but I procrastinate more than I write so I’m not really a writer after all. But… if I wrote for 7 mins each day then I could still call myself a writer, right? So, I’m developing a list of activities that should only take around 7 minutes each. I’m doing this so I can work out the kinks in my current slump, so I can get back into some form of mental/creative fitness. I’m sharing it so you can try it to.

1. Draw up a table that has four columns and eleven rows (including one for headings). Your headings are In This Book, These Characters, Do Stuff, And It Ends Like This. You might end up shortening these in later attempts. Likewise, these headings should only act as guides – play around with how you address them.

Now pick 10 of your favourite books or 10 random books from your shelf and fill out the rest of the boxes. You’ll end up with stuff like:

*Spoilers ahead

The Fault in our Stars, 2 teens with cancer, fall in love, but one of them dies.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 3 young wizards, go to school, and come face to face with true evil.
The Princess Bride, a farm boy, teams up with a gifted swordsman and a giant, to save a princess from a tyrannical prince.
The New Testament, the son of God, tries to help out a lot of people, but is betrayed by one of his friends.
Where The Wild Things Are, a naughty boy, rules over monsters in a fantasy land, until he gets homesick.
The Shining, a telepathic child, is trapped in a haunted hotel, and survives an encounter with his insane father.
Lord of the Flies, a group of children, turn psychotic on a deserted island, but are rescued at the last minute.
Ricky Rouse has a Gun, an unemployed father, gets a job as a mascot at a theme park, and saves everyone from terrorists.
Brave New World, an outsider, enters a world built on sex and drugs, and it drives him to suicide.
The Last Continent, an incompetent wizard, has a series of misadventures in a parody of the Australian outback, before saving the day by making it rain.

Here comes the fun part. Grab a pair of scissors and cut off the left column. You can throw that in the trash, you won’t be needing it anymore. Now cut out each individual box but keep them grouped in with the other boxes from their column. Once you’ve done that, grab a random slip of paper from each pile. Congratulations, you have a story! Sort of. What you really have is a story idea. Write it down for later use.

FYI – I’ll know you got the idea from me if you write a story about the son of God teaming up with a swordsman and a giant to save people from terrorists. Or an incompetent wizard who survives an encounter with his insane father after entering a world built on sex and drugs.

2. Question time. Most stories are built on ‘what ifs’. What if people were turned into zombies by a signal sent through their mobile phone? (Cell, Stephen King) What if teenagers had to compete in a televised battle to the death? (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins) What if the prostitutes Jack the Ripper killed were actually vampires? (Anno Dracula, Kim Newman)

But, ‘what if’ is not the only question you need to ask. Rather, it is only the first.

Now, how you approach this task is up to you. You can set it up as a table or a flow chart or a mind map – however you like.

To come up with your ‘what if’ you might take a story premise from the activity above, open a newspaper to any random page and question or modify its contents, swap the gender of an existing character or person from history, or come up with your own sliding doors moment by imagining what would have happened if you made a different choice at some point in your life.

Your 7 minutes should now be spent ASKING the questions that stem from your ‘what if’. These new questions will come not just from the initial premise but from the things you ask yourself beyond that point.

What if the son of God teamed up with a swordsman and a giant to defeat some terrorists?
Why does the son of God need help? What happened to his ‘powers’?
Who are the terrorists? What is their motivation?
Don’t terrorists have guns and bombs? What use is a swordsman going to be?
And so on…

To paraphrase Chuck Wendig, you now have your story map. The plot is the journey you plan through this terrain.

3. Picture this. No, seriously, picture this. Go online and Google image search for a man/woman template – your choice should be guided by the sex of your potential protagonist. I like to use Lego bodies because then I’m not distracted by the body shape nor am I wasting a lot of time Googling trying to find the perfect body for my character.

Print it off and grab some colours pencils or textas. Don’t worry, no one’s judging. You’re a writer not a drawer. Add clothes and props to your person. Do this at your leisure, it doesn’t count towards your 7 minutes of writing.

What does count towards your writing is what you do after this. That is, you now need to annotate it. Why is your character dressed that way? What is the significance of the props you’ve given them? These questions will help you get your head around your character. If you find that there’s no particular reason for them having a certain prop or wearing a specific colour or style of shirt then perhaps you don’t know your character after all.

Anyway, that’ll do. Grab a towel and wipe of your literary sweat. Sit back and have a cool drink. Or, if those exercises have got your creative blood pumping, use that energy and write away.

Why do we still have exams?

We live in the Information Age where the most common answer to any question is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you Google it?” What was once science fiction is vastly becoming fact, the ideas presented in Star Trek and the like are a part of our reality or they soon will be. Our world is fast evolving. Or is it?

One look at our education system and it’s easy to think that we’re still stuck in the past. We’re trumpeting innovation and collaboration but we have a significant ball and chain that is anchoring us in a seemingly outdated way of thinking: exams.

Many people now question the validity of this process, the necessity of these tests. Exams, to many, seem as torturous and barbaric as the Rack or the Iron Maiden. So why do we have them?

Some argue that they are the most reliable way of measuring a person’s knowledge. Many schools now allow students to process and present information in a great variety of ways so comparability becomes difficult. Likewise, the Internet grants people access to seemingly infinite information which makes plagiarism easier so it is difficult to determine what a student knows and what a student has found. Exams level the playing field.

Playing field.

Let’s draw some parallels. School is a sport – It’s interesting that the word ‘code’ is used in both an educational (course codes) and sporting (football codes) context. Exams are the finals series and your ATAR (the University entrance score in Western Australia) is the championship/premiership.

So, why do sports have a finals series that culminates in a Grand Final? Why not simply judge teams based on their finish in the home and away series?

There the answer is easier. The fans enjoy the spectacle and the knowledge that their team has beaten the best teams of that season, not just the also rans. The teams that win enjoy the increased revenue that comes from rewards from the league and from the increase in sales of merchandise and memberships. The league also enjoys the financial benefits as thousands of people flock to the game expecting a great contest. Finally, the media make bucketloads of money too as advertisers pay through the nose to reach the massive audience.

So why do we have exams?

There is no enjoyment here.

Students hate them. We protect our kids so much these days: we shield them from failure as we remove scoring from junior sports and hand out certificates of participation to all competitors, we fret about the hidden nasties online and on the street, we alter our grading systems to remove F grades and we avoid marking in red to limit the negative impact it has on their self-esteem. We do all of this and then we make them suffer the stress of examinations.

Many teachers hate them too. Where is the exam that measures the social and emotional growth of a student? Exams test the depth of knowledge but where is the exam than measures the increase in knowledge from point A to point B? Worst of all, exams beget exams. Schools try to build an exam culture by testing students at every possible turn. NAPLAN (a national literacy and numeracy test in Australia) began as a diagnostic test now schools do tests to prepare kids for the test. It’s ridiculous. If you hire me as a teacher, trust that I will do the job well. Quality educators will get results, teaching to the test is unnecessary. Plus, the marking load already sucks!

Some schools hate exams too. So, why do we force students to sit them?

Simple. The universities don’t trust our judgement (see the comments above about seeking a level playing field). The exam is a common assessment. Moderated. Standardised. Seemingly free from the foils of humanity. Then there’s the government. These tests and exams are the easiest way to get quantitative data that reflect a school’s ability to impart knowledge on its students. As such, attaching funding to these results appears logical and, once that’s happened, it’s a brave school that chooses not to focus on them.

Where does that leave us? Look around. The reason the water is murky is because we’re up fecal creek and we’ve lost all of our rowing instruments.

Why do we have exams? The simple answer is that they are the simple answer. They are the most simplistic and cost effective way of determining a person’s ability to remember and process information. Is that still a skill that’s necessary in today’s world? Damn straight. Any chump can Google. I want my high profile people in high pressure professions to really know what they are doing.

So, we’re stuck with exams until something better comes along. I don’t have the solution. I’m not a genius. But I do teach a few. Maybe one of them will come up with the answer.