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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vicarious Travel with Rick Steves

I've recently discovered the travel shows of Rick Steves, which are usually carried on PBS here in the States, but are also available officially on YouTube (i.e., Rick Steves himself has published them on his channel). There are over 90 of them on YouTube so far, with some episodes going back as far as 1995, and I've been going through them, in geographical rather than chronological order.

As best I can tell, the reason I started was due to my interest in Dutch (the language I'm currently learning on Duolingo), and the fact that I was looking for YouTube videos on Amsterdam. Rick Steves's shows are all in English, of course, so there wasn't going to be any language-learning boost, but he made the city look so great that I quickly snapped up his episode on the rest of the Netherlands (which I'd actually watched once before) and from there on to the rest of Europe.

It's hard to explain the allure, beyond the fact that I'm in the midst of a big bout of wanderlust/itchy feet/whatever you want to call it. Yet he and his team make every country look great, and I've been happy to devour episodes on places I know fairly well, like London or Paris, alongside the ones I don't know as well. It helps that even in the places I know, he unearths sights and activities beyond what I've already seen.

To put it another way, in contrast with Michael Palin's travel shows, Rick Steves goes much further in-depth on each country he's visiting. This is because Michael Palin's shows are based on strict schedules imposed by the "stunt" nature of his programs - like Around the World in 80 Days or Full Circle - meaning that most countries get only a few scenes, depending on how much ground Palin's team has to cover. Which isn't to slight them, because I do love Michael Palin's shows.

The other thing that I love about Rick Steves's show is the way his interests, particularly in art and music, shine through. An episode I was watching just this evening, on Vienna, had him putting his piano skills to use in explaining the differences in sound between piano, harpsichord and clavichord (apparently at the start of his career Rick supported himself by giving piano lessons). He also has a clear background in art history, as each episode features detailed explanations of the meaning and context of various works of art or architecture - in short, he's the ideal tour guide for making sense of what you're seeing.

What's funny to me is that even just a few years ago I'd have probably scoffed at his show. I may have more fully embraced my American-ness since college, but I've long maintained a certain snobbiness when it comes to American tourists in Europe. It was a running joke between my (American) friends in Germany about avoiding American tour groups, and even now I tend to be a bit dismissive of Americans talking about Europe, as I suspect a lot of them barely go beneath the surface of the place.

It's easy for me to be snobby, of course, because I actually speak some of the local languages and spent a lot of years living in Europe - but I'm willing to accept I may be judging my fellow citizens harshly. More than that, it's likely that I take traveling through Europe for granted, which is probably unfair to people who don't have such a natural "in" to the continent as I do. But the stereotype of American tourists remains.

I won't say the Rick Steves shows are making me want to take a tour, but I can't deny that in presenting each city or region or country the way he has, Rick's making me really want to spend more time back there. Since moving back here to the US, my European visits have been limited to London and Turin, for family and friends, while my leisure travel has focused more on the rest of the world (or even on other parts of the US). The one exception was in 2014, when I finally fulfilled my dream of traveling from London to Turin by train.

If I have a criticism of Rick's shows, it's that he goes hard on the traditional tourist destinations, but has done less on Germany, despite its size and excellent infrastructure. Of the 96 episodes available on YouTube, only four are devoted to Germany, while France has 11 and Italy has a whopping 17. To put it another way, Rome and Paris were the subject of three episodes each, while Berlin has only one.

That said, the preview for season 9 (which appears to be available on PBS's site, but hasn't been uploaded to YouTube yet) shows that he's rectifying that imbalance to a certain extent, with three or four episodes on Germany. I'm also pleased that the new season has a pair of episodes on Romania and Bulgaria, which are surely on few tourists' itineraries (American or not) but deserve to be better-known.

At this point I've watched most of his episodes on Western Europe, with the German-speaking and Nordic countries still to go before I get to Eastern Europe, but I'm looking forward to all of it. Some will be to revisit places I know, while the rest will be to get acquainted with new spots, and to get ideas for places to visit. All I'd like is for Rick (or someone else) to do a similar travel show for other parts of the world - Asia, Australia, South America, even Africa, would benefit from this kind of in-depth travel TV. Here's hoping...

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Two phrases we need to abandon

Can we please stop using these two phrases in our political discourse:

"A rising tide lifts all boats" and

"Wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail"

I feel like I've been hearing them a lot recently (especially the second one, especially from the right), and to be honest, it needs to stop. The one about rising tides has bothered me since graduate school, when some douche who worked in PR used it, and while I see the logic in it, the political environment we're in shows that it is absolutely not true.

Specifically, if it were true that a rising tide lifts all boats, there wouldn't have been a class of pissed-off working-class whites in the Rust Belt who were so annoyed at both parties (but especially the Democrats) that they voted for the Orange Toddler. On the other side of the Atlantic, working class people in northern English cities - former strongholds of Labour - wouldn't have voted to cut themselves off from the EU single market.

These are people - to torture the metaphor further - who don't even have boats. It's fine for people with jobs (particularly with well-paying jobs) to say that everyone benefits from a certain level of overall prosperity. And to a certain extent, it's true - the poor here are probably a little better off than they are in truly poor countries. Though given that the rural American poor can't geoarbitrage their income and commute from Zimbabwe, I can't agree with some idiot economist who critiqued Paul Theroux's Deep South on the grounds that "poverty doesn't exist in America" because it isn't poverty on the same degree as in Africa, Southeast Asia, etc.

But the way the "rising tide lifts all boats" bromide is usually deployed is code for, "what's good for the banks is good for America" (or whichever country). What we've discovered since 2007 is that this is the worst kind of bullshit - as can be seen by the increasingly obscene salaries and bonuses they get in the financial industry, while the rest of the economy starts talking about how some communities are just never going to work again.

I could go on about rising tides all day long, but I want to turn to the other phrase that needs to be banished immediately. I saw a Facebook post from Arrow star Stephen Amell (who's Canadian), dating from after the election, where he talked about people disagreeing with one another. It was all fair enough, but then he pulled out the line about "wanting the President to fail means wanting America to fail", and he just lost me.

This is just sanctimonious horse-shit, designed to stifle criticism, much the same way that assholes who support Brexit (redundant, I know) tell those who supported remaining that they need to deal with reality and stop moaning. It's made worse by the knowledge that most of the people bleating about how we all need to support the President were hoping for Obama's agenda to fail for the previous eight years... and if they themselves weren't actively hoping for that, they sure as hell voted for people who did, and articulated that wish at every opportunity. Where were these people when Mitch McConnell said his goal was for President Obama's agenda to fail?

Look, if the whoever's in the White House has an agenda that's going to roll back civil rights protections, environmental protections, labor protections and make our borders and soldiers serving overseas less safe, then we need to vigorously oppose that agenda. If that specific agenda succeeds, America fails - if that agenda fails, America succeeds. Just because someone's in the White House doesn't mean that everything they do is sanctified.

You (a notional You) may think that Obama's agenda presented an existential threat to the United States, and that's, y'know, fine, I guess. You're an asshole, but as far as I know being an asshole isn't a crime. You don't even have to keep your opinions about how poor people don't deserve healthcare or the vote or whatever to yourself. Just don't tell me I'm rooting for America to fail.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

In Defense of Not Watching Bad Movies

I was perusing my timeline on Facebook not long ago, when I found a discussion between a friend of mine and some of his social network on the merits of the new Iron Fist TV show on Netflix. It had been panned by some critics recently, but my friend's reaction was that he was going to be watching it anyway, because he didn't really trust critics.

This is a fair comment, but the the reason it struck me was because I heard him defending his desire to see Batman vs Superman last year, in the face of critics talking about how bad it was (this was before my own review of it, but around the time I was talking about how unappealing it looked).

Quick digression: isn't it scary how I devoted two blog posts to a movie I loathe?

When BvS came out I talked about what it portended in the realm of politics and how America sees itself. Because we're through the looking glass on that score, I thought for this post I'd narrow the focus back down to the question of why nerds still support the shit that studios shovel at us.

In my review of BvS, I note that Suicide Squad was "a work of art" in comparison. That might be a little overblown, and Suicide Squad was pretty unmemorable on many fronts, but not the complete disaster some reviewers painted it to be. Yet Suicide Squad was also the cause of a bunch of nerds going all "alternative facts" on Rotten Tomatoes in response to the reviews it had aggregated (I'm serious).

Reading through that USA Today story, it's unclear what the creator of the petition was up to - either he's a troll, or un-balanced, or some combination of the two (beyond the redundant nature of that statement). But it's also clear that people who are into SF and fantasy and all that jazz are still operating on a scarcity mentality, even though there's a glut of movies and TV based on our favorite properties.

The conventional wisdom is that such stuff wasn't so common until recently, in part because it was usually so bad, and us poor geeks and nerds had to ferociously defend our stuff against people who scoffed at the likes of X-Men or Blade adaptations. And it's true that, Superman and Batman aside, there really weren't that many good comics adaptations around.

That said, I recently compiled my own list of my favorite movies from each year I've been alive, and found that it wasn't until Die Hard (1988) that I listed a film that wasn't even loosely in the SFF canon. I had the likes of Alien, The Terminator and Back to the Future - all classics - which means in terms of nerd-stuff there was plenty going on.

And anyway, we really are in a glut now, and have been since 2008, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Of the two, it's clear that Iron Man's the movie that really kicked off the current run on big-name Marvel movies, and that led to DC also trying to build an inter-connected cinematic universe. Not only is Marvel's Cinematic Universe intricately connected, to the point that the films become gibberish, but they're linked to Netflix's shows and Agents of SHIELD as well.

The point I'm making, in my usual roundabout way, is that we're no longer in a position where we have to go ballistic on critics for shitting on our movies. There's so much out there that Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, and instead of complaining when a review aggregator scores Suicide Squad poorly, we should be boycotting Warners and demanding that they make better movies.

OK, that's a little simplistic too, because no one sets out to make a bad movie (except, of course, for the guys who made Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). But I don't really agree that I have to experience every shitty comic book adaptation before I can complain about it - as cool as a Batman and Superman movie sounded, nothing appealed about the damn thing as I found out more, and I'm glad I saved the ten bucks or so I'd have spent in theaters.

By the way, this isn't a slight on my friend, mentioned up at the top. It's also not a slight on Iron Fist, which I expect I'll have a look at once I wrap up Deep Space Nine and Luke Cage. I do, however, see this as a time to remind my fellow nerds that we don't have to love everything that's served to us. Whether America (and the world) likes it or not, everyone else is watching what we want to watch, so we can afford to be picky about which movies we support.

Like Logan. Holy crap, what a well-done movie. Go see that.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Environmentalism is more than climate change

Of the many things I'm concerned about with this administration, its opposition to a clean environment has to rank at the top, right up there with its lack of understanding of how democratic norms function. The nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency has to be acknowledged as a massive troll job, done to piss off opponents and presumably to distract some of them from taking the president to task on other deeply worrying topics (e.g. blanket bans on specific religious groups or on its murky links with the Russian deep state).

And while I think it's slightly more important that we keep our democracy functioning, and not beholden to corporate interests, I find it interesting (read: distressing) how environmentalism is an issue that's become so partisan. Some people will take it as read that it should be, but clean air and water is truly something that everyone benefits from, whether or not they ever get within a hundred miles of Yosemite or Yellowstone.

After all, it was a Republican president who formed the EPA (Nixon, whom no one could ever accuse of being at all left-wing), and another who established the National Parks System before him (Teddy Roosevelt).

My sense is that a lot of opposition to the EPA and environmentalism among conservatives stems from discussions about climate change. Some don't believe in the science (as if science were a thing that one "believes in"), others think limits on carbon emissions will destroy the economy (or slow economic growth, which to some in this group is the same thing). Still others think companies shouldn't have to pay for the externalities created by use of their products (predominantly in the fossil fuel industry).

While I disagree with all of these points, it's hard not to sympathize with Arnold Schwarzenegger's contention that climate change and CO2 emissions are a difficult subject to get people excited about. I first heard him talk about this issue on his second appearance on Tim Ferriss's podcast, where he said that the focus for talking about the environment should be on reducing pollution, and I can't help but agree.

To a certain extent it feels as if the environmental discussion has turned primarily into one about emissions, and talk of actual pollution is relatively rare (except in cases like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I admit this charge is a little simplistic, and any number of organizations, from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace to the National Resources Defense Council, would justifiably point to all the anti-pollution work that they do.

But my impression is that corporations have hijacked the emissions argument, because saying they're reducing emissions is a good way to get folks like me to buy their products (even if that talk completely turns off people of other political persuasions; but the likes of Coke and GE have different marketing campaigns in different regions to address that problem). At the same time media outlets end up prioritizing climate change rather than other forms of environmentalism - reading the Guardian a couple of years ago it felt like all the environmental stories (and thinkpieces) were about how we needed to curb emissions, and not about how we needed to clean up the air in London. I don't know about you, but I don't miss the black snot I used to get from walking around that diesel-infested city.

Schwarzenegger's suggestion was that environmental groups and media should be focusing on the health effects of pollution and I tend to agree. It's hard to get people to care about rising sea levels in places that they've never heard of, like Kiribati or Palau, or to persuade people living in the northern Midwest that temperatures are rising when they've had ridiculously cold winters the last few years. But I suspect it's easy to get people interested if you can directly link polluted water or air to deaths, and I believe all but the most committed Libertarians would miss the National Parks if they were to disappear.

I believe that the current administration's environmental policy is misguided and is poised to set our country back decades; moreover, I believe that it will take decades to undo the actions it takes to roll back even environmental regulations, both in terms of replenishing our natural resources and in dealing with the health effects of this anti-environmental strategy.

If you believe in clean air and clean water, regardless of how you vote, get in touch with your representative and senators and tell them so.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Does a game have to be fun?

Here's a thing I've discovered about mobile games: they aren't any fun at all.

Here's another thing I've discovered, though: I can't seem to stop playing the damn things.

I recently exerted an impressive amount of willpower and, in a short sequence of time, deleted no less than three games from my iPad. Total War: Kingdoms was the first to go, because it was a complete time- and mind-suck. I'd build a house here, fight off a Viking army there, and pretty soon I'd realize it was 10pm on Sunday night and I hadn't accomplished anything.

Next to go was Kingdom Rush, a tower-defense game that I've had dalliances with in the past. I downloaded last Saturday, played through the entire campaign, and then deleted it that same night, for the same reason as before - my brain had been there, and not on the actual issues occupying my life (for instance writing the proverbial great vampire/fantasy novel, earning enough money to survive in Trump's America, and attempting to find a woman willing to find my dead body 60 years from now and thereby ensure my corpse isn't eaten by a pet or something).

Yesterday, I took the final step, and deleted Star Trek: Timelines. As I was explaining to my dad a couple minutes ago, Timelines isn't what you'd call conventionally fun - you can have space battles, for instance, but you don't actually control the ships, and if your ship is strong enough, you don't actually have to do anything.

And yet I'm now kind of regretting deleting it. I'd built up a pretty strong and eclectic crew (I had Evil Goatee Spock from the classic Mirror Mirror episode of TOS, for example!), and had sunk enough time and effort into leveling them up. And I'd done all this without spending a dime, as Timelines is one of those annoying freemium games where you can pay for a certain type of currency, but can't win that currency in other ways.

As I said, it isn't conventionally fun. But somehow, it triggers some kind of endorphin rush that keeps me clicking on the next mission to win that piece of basic loot that I can use to build the piece of gear that will let my character unlock the next tier of rewards and perhaps, someday, actually win the episode. It's probably the most insidious version of the addictiveness of mobile games I've ever seen, precisely because it's so not fun (reading that last paragraph seems to indicate a number of reasons for my inability to attract a mate, for instance).

I've got a fair amount of experience with this stuff - I've messed about with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade and all three Kingdom Rush games, for instance. I've lost who knows how many productive hours and days on stupid flash games that I found on newgrounds.com. And back in college, I blew a lot of time on a naval battles game that let you set some conditions but didn't actually give you control in battle - someone once asked me if it was fun, and I remember trying to explain that no, it wasn't conventionally fun, but that wasn't the point.

That conversation was at the back of my mind over the past five or six weeks every time I played Timelines, which is what led me to delete the damn thing (that and a Tim Ferriss blog post suggesting I get rid of domino triggers that cause me to ruin all my productive work - for some people it's cookies, but for me it's Star Trek-licensed iPad games). It also got me thinking about why mobile games are like that - engaging but not fun.

The simple answer is that they provide a steady drip of pleasure drugs into your brain from accomplishing stuff. Total War: Kingdoms had this obnoxious thing where everything was on a timer - building a house took ten seconds, building a castle took ten hours, and so forth. But it was all staggered, so as soon as I collected money from one building, my farms were ready to harvest, and then I had to collect stone from my quarries, someone was attacking, and suddenly I'm two hours closer to my cat chomping on my face (this is a notional cat, by the way, as I haven't yet yielded to becoming whatever the male equivalent of lonely cat lady is).

But why's that steady drip of tricking your brain into thinking it's accomplished stuff so important? I'd argue that it's because they can't compete with console or PC games on graphics or gameplay. I'm told Super Mario Run has been super popular since launching on iOS, but I think it's because, by being a lot simpler than the original Super Mario Bros, they've unlocked a thing where you're constantly trying to improve on your performance. Just think Flappy Bird: it's some shitty web game where you're traveling through the same course endlessly, giving the occasional tap to keep from crashing into a pipe or something, but it unaccountably became the biggest gaming phenomenon outside of Pokemon Go, for that precise reason.

All of this is key to understanding why the mobile gaming business has eaten up so much of the traditional gaming business. Nintendo got a lot of praise when it launched the Wii for making gaming accessible to casual gamers, but then promptly lost that entire demographic to smartphones and tablets. Stuff like Angry Birds or Candy Crush provides a lot more endorphin per minute for the fifteen minutes you spend on the bus than cranking FIFA 17 or Dragon Age Inquisition does - in the time it takes to load up your first actual game in a season in FIFA, you could win three stars on the first ten levels of Angry Birds.

Paradoxically, I think it's the increasing sophistication and cinema-aping of console games that's turned casual gamers off the medium (that and shit like GamerGate, of course). You have to purposely sit down and play Skyrim, but Angry Birds can be played for five minutes and then abandoned. And that's why people get sucked into it for hours at a time.

What it all comes down to is understanding how your brain works, and planning accordingly. I'm not an alcoholic, but now that I've deleted Star Trek: Timelines I understand Chris Hardwick's analogy of a million baby birds chirping at you to take a drink. Despite the cellular noise saying that I really should have seen what happened when I leveled my one-star Desert Ezri Dax to level 100, intellectually I understand I'm better off.

And I restarted my campaign on Dragon Age Inquisition yesterday, so at least I don't have to decide on whether to eventually be eaten by my dog or my cat until I finish that, at the bare minimum.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ex Machina vs. Westworld

I just finished watching Ex Machina last night, and while I thought it was an interesting exploration of themes like free will and the ethics of artificial intelligence, I found myself a bit underwhelmed by the ending.

Oh, but first, let's trot out our old friend:
To be honest, today I'm spoiling not just Ex Machina but also Westworld, so consider yourselves lucky!

Now, jokes aside, the first thing to say is that both Ex Machina and Westworld deal with humans encountering artificial intelligence. While the Turing Test is explicitly mentioned in Ex Machina, there are scenes in Westworld that also play into it - for instance, when William appears in the second episode and asks the woman who greets him whether she's one of the robots or not. Her response is along the lines of, "If you can't tell, does it matter?"

Both works also ask the question of who owns the artificial life, or if it has the same right to self-determination that a human intelligence does. In Westworld the question comes down to the power struggle between Anthony Hopkins's character and the Evil Corporation who funds the park, whereas in Ex Machina it ends up being slightly more subtle, as the AI, Ava, appears to make common cause with Domhnall Gleeson's character, Caleb, in order to escape the Evil Corporation.

I think the problem I have with Ex Machina is that it ends up being a lot more straightforward than it could have been. Caleb wins a week at the estate of his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac (who really seems to be everywhere these days); when he gets there, he has to sign an NDA and then meets Ava, for whom he's supposed to be the interlocutor in a set of Turing Tests. Caleb discovers some unpleasant stuff about Nathan, plots to break Ava out, and then when he does so she locks him and Nathan in the compound and escapes.

I'm not going to go into all of the stuff to unpack about the movie (but you can read the AV Club's review to get an idea). But that ending...

I think the problem with the movie is that as soon as you meet Ava you know she's going to escape. Or more accurately, as soon as you see the glass enclosure where she lives, which has impact fractures. The minute you meet Nathan, you know he's going to be evil and sociopathic. Both assumptions are accurate, and while they don't have to be proven wrong for the movie to work, the road there is disappointingly straightforward.

But there's no indication of why it had to be Caleb - there's some business about him not having a family or girlfriend to miss him, but while it works in Ava's favor, there doesn't seem any reason for Nathan to care about that - unless he was planning on killing Caleb, but we never find that out.

Ava's escape is also overly simple - she stabs Nathan, wraps herself in other the other fembots' skin and clothes, and leaves via convenient helicopter. The pilot takes her away without asking why some woman he's never seen before is leaving the place, or without asking what happened to Nathan or Caleb. From interviews and comments I heard, I'd assumed more twists and reveals.

It all felt rushed, which is why I'm hanging this post off a comparison with Westworld. That's another kind of flawed work, in a lot of ways, but it has the advantage of teasing its ideas out over ten hours, rather than just two. I suspect Ex Machina could have worked better with more time to explain Caleb, Nathan and Ava - to say nothing of all the other fembots that Nathan built over the years.

Instead the viewer is left feeling a lot like Caleb, trapped in that compound and not knowing why things played out the way they did.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

5 Things I've Learned About Writing

Writing is such a personal thing that it's hard to come up with a list that'll work for everyone, or for every type of writing. Some people plot things out exhaustively, for example, and others have to feel their way through a story.

I was struck by this a little last night while out with a friend, and he was surprised that I make lists of 10 or 20 things that happen in each of my stories as a way to plot out where I want them to go. I've seen this mentioned in various places, although I haven't used it for every story I've worked on - but my friend was a little skeptical about the numbers.

So with that in mind, I thought nevertheless that it would be useful to list five important things I've learned about writing, or at least my own working habits over the years:

  • I need to plot, or at least have a general idea of where I want to end up.
    • As I mentioned above, I'm one of those writers that needs to plot stuff out. The extent to which I need to plot depends a little on the length of the story, of course - a novel's so much more complex than a short story, and a movie treatment is somewhere in between.
    • Oddly, I'm plotting the hell out of a short story right now, mainly because it's a pretty complex idea and because I'm adapting it from an idea I was turning into a movie script last year. The plotting has taken a number of forms, from the axiomatic list of 10 things that happen, to simply writing down a bunch of questions that I feel I ought to know the answers to, even if I don't resolve them in the story. 
  • Walking does help to jar ideas loose. 
    • While banging my head against that story last weekend, I went out for a quick walk around the block twice, and found that on both walks I resolved a question that had been bugging me. In doing so, I was able to move ahead with it, and get to the impasse I'm at as of this writing. Success!
    • More seriously, it's probably a cliche, but it's also true that letting your mind drift to some other topic, or at least changing your setting, can dislodge ideas. It's similar to when you have something on the tip of your tongue while talking to someone, but you don't remember the term you wanted until much later.
  • Stuff you learn writing one type of story does transfer to other types.
    • This relates mainly to how I've transferred ideas about three-act structure from my movie ideas to prose, but it's gone the other way too, in that my technique for proofing a novel has proven kind of helpful in proofing short stories and (perhaps to a lesser extent) movie scripts.
    • But it's also a deeper point, in that good writing is good writing, and practice in one type of writing helps in others. Writing poetry helps with word choice and concision, prose helps with visualizing a scene, and movie writing helps with dialogue.
  • It's helpful to know my own style of productivity.
    • By style of productivity, I mean how long I can devote to a task, and what kind of environment I need for it. When I'm writing prose, music is great but podcasts aren't, because the speech distracts me from what I'm writing, and vice versa. If I really need to focus, something instrumental, or even ambient is perfect. Or for a hit of perfect productivity I'll listen to a binaural beats video on YouTube.
    • Time-wise, I've found it helpful to devote an hour each night to writing, from 8 to 9, during which I aim to get something done. It has to be a concrete goal, like finishing a certain number of words or pages, and if I accomplish that in less than an hour, I have the option of taking the rest of the hour off, or forging ahead.
    • The one caveat is to not use this as an excuse not to be productive. Maybe I've messed around for twenty minutes and am sitting down later to write? Maybe I'm spending too much time looking for something to listen to? It's not very fashionable but at a certain point you need to sit in your chair, open whatever you're working on and do the work - your brain will rationalize why you shouldn't, but sometimes you need to shut your brain out.
  • Writing stuff by hand is helpful, except for when it isn't.
    • To be honest, any of these points could come with this caveat, but it feels most relevant to put here, because it really doesn't seem to work every time.
    • Specifically, I was listening to a podcast where Joe Hill talked about how he keeps a notebook to write in, by hand, which allows him to work out the story and then create a second draft automatically when he transfers it over to the computer. I tried it out a little with the story I'm working on now, and in this case I've found it pretty hard to make it work.
    • Of course, that's probably because I didn't plot the story out as well as I could have. Again, detailed plotting isn't always necessary for a short story, but it seems to be with this one, and writing by hand might be easier if I'd had a better sense of where I needed to end up.
This list isn't exhaustive, of course. I've learned a number of other things over the years (e.g., writing workshops are good in small doses, but if they become a commitment then they take away time from your own writing), but some of them have been covered elsewhere (get good beta readers, learn to revise a story) or are so axiomatic as to be unhelpful (do it every day, or keep a journal, or whatever). But these five are the big ones for me, which I've road tested over the years.

That said, they're always in flux, too. I've developed these habits over the years, and I expect them to evolve as I get more practice. But that's fine too - you can't expect to approach writing (or any endeavor) the same way you do at 37 as you did at 27 or at 17. What I look forward to is seeing how my habits change once I become a professional - here's to 47!