Tuesday, 27 November 2012

David Allen tells Google how to Get Things Done

Here's a neat video I found the other day, while I was avoiding doing all the things I feel I ought to be doing:

This is one of the books I've been using this year to prioritize and organize, and at some point I'd like to write a blog about all that stuff, but for now, here's the man himself.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

This weekend, I completed the Luton Marathon. It took me nearly five hours, because I may not have trained as well as I could have, or carb-loaded as well as I could have; but I finished it, and thereby crossed off one of my goals for the year.

I can definitely call it an interesting experience. Up until now I've generally participated in larger-scale (if distinctly shorter) runs - I believe there were about 2800 places or so, in comparison with the tens of thousands who run the Reading Half-Marathon or the London Marathon. On the positive side, this meant there weren't the gigantic throngs that characterize those other events; on the negative side, it also meant that the organizers weren't able to get the roads closed throughout the course, so as the day wore on I found myself increasingly in the company of motor vehicles.

And it was a day-long affair - as I said, I took nearly five hours, which means I started running at about 10am and finally dragged myself across the finish line at almost 3pm. It's difficult to express the time it took, although for the sake of comparison I'll note that when I took the train to Edinburgh earlier this year that trip took less time than my run. As the shadows lengthened, I found myself worrying that I might still be running after dark.

That wouldn't have happened, as it turned out, because there was a strict time limit of five hours, but I'll admit I wasn't at my most rational after around 4 hours of constant motion.

My fellow runners presented an interesting case study too. On shorter runs I've felt a nice vibe, of a bunch of people all working toward the same goal, with a refreshing lack of aggro (refreshing in the context of how much aggro you get on a daily basis in London, that is). But I sense that marathon runners are a breed apart; whereas my various half-marathons have featured the odd nod or encouraging shoulder-tap, I actually got chatting with people during the run.

One guy was doing it for the first time (like me), though he lived right on the course and had participated in the relay in previous years. Another gentleman, who'd hurt his knee somewhere in Lap 3, told me he'd participated the previous year; for the rest of the day we passed each other here and there, always with a word of encouragement, and we greeted each other like veterans after we finished.

My favorite, though, has to be the Slovakian guy I was running alongside for the last mile or so, whose stop-start tactic was even more dramatic than mine. Whereas I was reduced, by that time, to walking for one minute and running for five, he'd take off at top speed for about thirty seconds at a stretch, stop and stretch his hamstrings (giving me enough time to catch up), then dash off again. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that he couldn't run slowly. In any case, he eventually outpaced me and disappeared around a corner, not to be seen again until we were retrieving our backpacks after the race.

Most impressive were the folks bearing T-shirts with the insignia of the 100 Marathon Club, none of whom were younger than about 60. Somewhere in the first half of the race I overheard someone asking one of these 100-marathon guys how many he'd participated in, and the old fellow answered something on the order of 470 marathons.

On the train home another runner (who'd clocked up her 60th) said that she'd been chatting to them as well, and one of these folks had participated in 37 marathons this year alone. My interlocutor shrugged and pointed out that if you're running a marathon every week, you don't need to do anymore training. Fair point.

Incidentally, I also got passed by one of these grey panthers as I was struggling through the third lap. A little old lady trundled past me and blared something cheerful and encouraging at me, thereby fulfilling what appears to be a rule of marathon running - that you must get overtaken at least once by an old person.

So two days later, I'm still sore from my calves to my shoulders, I have a twinge in my right knee that leaves me alternately gasping and cursing, and I'm secretly afraid that the nails on both big toes are getting ready to fall off. But I certainly feel proud of myself, for having signed up, trained and kept going until the end - I was tempted at so many points to give up and ask to go home, but the only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I'd have to do it again.

Of course, if I do sign up for another, it'll now be with the knowledge that I can complete a full marathon without dropping dead three hours in. But, unlike those old folks from the 100 Marathon Club, I won't be doing it next weekend.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Future of the Left

I've had a week to digest the results of the election, so I thought it was time to look at some of the implications of the result, and think about where Barack Obama should go next. Obviously, this is influenced by my own political preferences, so the below may not play well in Alabama or Texas.

Divided by a common language

I think the first point is the rash of petitions to secede from the Union, which apparently are an inevitable consequence of presidential elections. Obviously none of these petitions is serious, but it kind of points up how certain people feel there's a gulf between themselves and their fellow Americans. More than reaching across the aisle to congressional Republicans, the Obama administration should be finding some way to show the electorate that it's a government representing the interests of all 50 states. I'd like to suggest breaking up the banks, to avoid another instance of "too big to fail", but I know that would be greeted by shrieks of socialism.

Sit down, shut up, and hold on

That said, it would be nice if the administration didn't worry unduly about the complaints of right-wing crackpots. I'm perhaps overly fond of quoting the West Wing, but a paraphrasing of what Leo McGarry said once is apposite here: They need to understand that they lost the election, so it's time to sit down and shut up for a couple of years.

I'm aware things aren't quite so simple. However, a great many Republican politicians are simply not serious (by contrast, the only non-serious Democrat I can name is Dennis Kucinich, and he's not that bad); this hasn't changed since President Obama's first term, when he perhaps attempted too hard to reach across the aisle. If only one thing marks the president's second term, it should be reform of the Senate filibuster, so that a lawmaker who wants to derail a piece of legislation actually has to stand up and talk for as long as he or she can. This will cut across party lines, so let's get it done.

Is this rash getting bigger?

A second term for President Obama means an extra four years or so for the healthcare reform to settle and for Americans to see the benefits. The most important thing the President can do in this regard is take to the road and explain to the electorate how exactly it benefits them. I've been saying for years that he should have presented it as a bailout for regular people by making sure that they won't go broke paying for medical care; this is his chance to do so.

On a more philosophical note, why are certain parts of the healthcare law so controversial? I understand conservative unease over provisions requiring people to have health insurance, but why are they in such a hurry to let insurance companies get away with dropping customers - who've been paying for their insurance - the minute these customers get sick? Frankly, that should have been illegal from the start.

Here be socialists

Speaking of things that right-wingers deem socialistic, it'd be nice for American foreign policy to improve, and maybe become a little more European. Not much, though - I think that NATO serves a valuable role, and that Europe needs to take a more active role in combat operations, where they're needed. I support the idea of America policing the world insofar as it's policing things that can lead to international instability; however, that means the rest of the world should be helping with the policing. Whoever heads up the State Department for the next few years should be sent out to ensure that allies in Europe and elsewhere are pulling their weight.

That said, we need to be pushing our own weight around a lot less, notably in Afghanistan. Some on the right claim that we'd lose face if we pulled out of Afghanistan now, but the way I see it, the longer we stay there the worse we look. Hamid Karzai is already making the Western powers look like fools, corruption is rampant and the Taliban always seem to be on the rise again. Pulling out now might scare Karzai straight; if not, we really shouldn't be trying to impose government on Afghanistan without knowing anything about the place. The British tried it, the Soviets tried it, and we really ought to be learning from their mistakes.

And the last point I want to make on foreign policy is this: we need to stop with the drone strikes in sovereign nations. It's nice to think that we can take out the "bad guys" with the push of a button, like in a videogame, but in reality I don't believe this can be squared with international law or ethical conduct. And not to be alarmist, but where does it end? With drone strikes on US soil? No thanks.

Will blog for food

I read a story a few months ago in which President Obama apparently asked Steve Jobs what it would take to build the iPhone in America. Jobs's response was that those jobs weren't coming back.

With all due respect, that's not good enough, and it's pretty short-sighted. If there are actually ways to build iPhones or other electronics at a reasonable cost in the US, we should be looking at them. The age of low-skill, high-wage jobs may be over, but there is still demand for machinists and other assembly-line jobs; and more to the point, we can't all be either investment bankers or retail clerks. And maybe entitlements like Medicare or Social Security wouldn't be in such trouble if more people were earning enough to pay into them. Just a thought.