Sunday, 30 June 2013

SCOTUS, or I Grow Dissatisfied with the Tone

Last week was a pretty big one for the US Supreme Court, with a bunch of big rulings handed down. On the positive side, they effectively invalidated California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and pretty much killed the Defense of Marriage Act. My congratulations to all those couples whose marriages will now be recognized in California (including my friend Larrison, who literally got married a couple weeks before the ruling).

On the negative side, though, the Supreme Court also struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - the part that was meant to prevent certain jurisdictions from using literacy tests or other means to keep certain groups (ie minorities, ie black people) from voting. Up until last week, any county or state or whatever that wanted to impose some test of some kind (like a citizenship test) had to get federal approval; now they can theoretically do what they want.

Obviously, I say "theoretically" because I don't actually believe every state in the South is going to start introducing diabolical literacy tests. It's been nearly 50 years, and in some ways all of America's come along since then - one good indicator is the current occupant of the White House (although he didn't actually win much of the South, did he?).

But it's hard to reconcile the two decisions, isn't it? This is a pretty conservative court, overall - the whole corporations as people and the super-PAC thing came out under this court (and also in the past week or so, they've kind of gutted our right to remain silent when we get arrested). So how does one fit the decision to enshrine gay people's right to marry with the decision to remove obstacles to taking away black people's right to vote?

Refocus: it's not straight vs gay or white vs black. It's rich vs poor.

I don't say this lightly, but I think it fits. Obviously not all gay people are rich, and not all black people are poor (nor are all poor people black). But taking the latter issue first, I don't believe the VRA decision was a conscious decision to screw black people, I just think it reflects Americans' attitude toward all poor people, regardless of race. Some places will target poor people of certain ethnicities, but a literacy test will be just as effective at barring some whites as it will be in barring some black voters.

As far as the gay marriage thing, I'm going to generalize a bit when I say that it's more likely to affect affluent urban and coastal gays and lesbians, rather than those who come from more modest socioeconomic backgrounds, or less tolerant corners of the country. Homosexuality is simply less accepted in certain groups, so the DOMA ruling doesn't really help the LGBTQ people who are part of those groups.

If I'm really cynical, I can even frame the DOMA ruling as what the Romans called "bread and circuses". Social media pretty much exploded (in a good way) when it was announced, way more than it did the day before for the VRA ruling. That's probably a selection bias, because of who I follow on Twitter, but I can't shake the feeling that Justices Roberts, Alito et al were less concerned with DOMA, because it's not about enfranchising or disenfranchising "undesirables"; the people who benefit are more affluent, so therefore the people who "should" be voting. Whereas the VRA thing makes it easier to stop the people who "shouldn't" be voting.

But I'm not that cynical, right?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Jeet Kune Do and the Art of Productivity

Kind of a quick one this week, since I'll be heading out to Amsterdam for work tomorrow (so no red light district and no coffee shops, presumably). But I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the productivity books and/or systems I've been reading about for the last 18 months or so, with some thoughts about the key things I've learned from them.

Productivity and time management are two things dear to my heart these days, as I feel they've helped me a lot, mainly at work but also in keeping myself broadly organized at home. I will admit, as well, to sometimes talking of nothing else, so I suppose it was a matter of time before I wrote this post.

Another quick point about the title: Jeet Kune Do was a system, or philosophy, or whatever you want to call it, coined by Bruce Lee to reflect his approach to martial arts. After having spent years studying wing chun kung fu with Yip Man in Hong Kong, Lee spent some time looking at the effective parts of other styles, and at last settled on a non-style, or jeet kune do, where he took the best things from each discipline and discarded the rest.

It's applicable here because I've tried to take the most useful points from each book or system, rather than slavishly sticking to only one thing. Credit for the idea has to go to Chris Hardwick in the first instance for connecting time management/productivity with jeet kune do in The Nerdist Way, and to Tim Ferriss in his books in the second instance. Anyway, without further ado:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

This is kind of the grand-daddy, and also the latest of all the ones I've read. It's not entirely a productivity book, but the first three habits are crucial to managing your time effectively, and Covey spends a lot of time defining what he calls "Quadrant II" work, or tasks that are important but not urgent - as opposed to the perpetual firefighting that comes from doing urgent + important tasks, or the time wasting that comes from doing tasks that are neither.

In any case, the first three habits are as follows:
1. Be proactive
2. Begin with the end in mind
3. Put first things first

They're pretty straightforward: if you want to accomplish stuff, get off your ass and do it. Once you've decided to take action, think about what you actually want to achieve (Covey was fond of saying something to the effect of, when making your way up the ladder, make sure it's leaning against the right wall). And when you know what your goal is, focus on the first tasks, rather than trying to accomplish everything at once.

They've been particularly useful for me when I have a lot of stuff to accomplish in the course of a day; I stop and ask myself what the desired end-state is, and then ensure that I know what the first things to accomplish are. Just stopping and spending a moment thinking about these points is enough to set my mind at ease (what David Allen calls "mind like water") and allow me to get through my tasks without freaking out about them and potentially forgetting important ones.

It's also worth mentioning Covey's seventh habit, "sharpening the saw", which is essentially sharpening your skills, through learning, relaxing, and detaching yourself from your work. It's an important one, but oddly enough, not one that I feel I've completely mastered.

The Four-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss

From the grand-daddy to the rebellious son. 4HWW is probably the most fun of all of the books I've read, simply for the manic ideas behind it (outsource everything to India! Check email twice a week! Drop everything and go!). Ferriss comes off as kind of a snake-oil salesman at times, but it's all part of his charm - and since I've bought his two subsequent books, it's clearly not that off-putting for me, right?

Ferriss's four principles are as follows: Defining, Eliminating, Automating and Liberating, or DEAL. In common with the Seven Habits, you start by defining, or figuring out what you want (eg, to quit your job and go travelling), then increase your personal productivity through eliminating time-wasting activities. Automating is a bit more advanced, as that's where the outsourcing stuff comes in, and liberating talks about the actual implications of jumping ship.

For my purposes, eliminating has been the most influential concept, specifically what Ferriss calls "batching"; he advocates taking certain repetitive tasks and performing them less often. For instance, I've found it useful to turn off the auto-alerts on my Outlook at work, so that I don't get distracted every time an email comes in, and to check my email only every 30 minutes or so (I couldn't get away with checking it only twice a week).

The other big concept he advocates is focusing on the most important task you have to accomplish each day, and getting that done first of all, even before checking your email. It's a concept we'll look at again below, but it's worth repeating (prepeating?) here: focus is a big part of getting things done. In my case, I spend my first 30 minutes of each day looking for and writing news items (on weekends I go for a run and/or throw my laundry in the washer before checking email).

Getting Things Done, by David Allen

This brings us nicely to David Allen's GTD, which is meant to be a full-blown productivity system. Allen talks a lot about defining "next actions" on specific "projects", instead of filling out a to-do list. The difference between the two is that a to-do list is what he calls amorphous - "get the car fixed", for example, is so vague that your brain immediately wants to ignore it whenever it sees it on a list. Instead he advocates breaking each to-do item into its constituent steps: check Yelp/the yellow pages for mechanics, set up an appointment, take the car in.

More to the point, he recommends taking stock of everything in your office and/or home, deciding what needs to be done with it (if anything) and building your list of projects, goals, areas of focus and so forth from there. This is as opposed to figuring out your goals first, and then determining what you need to do to achieve them; once you know what all your "open loops" are, you can decide whether or not they fit in with what you actually want to do in life. If not, dump or delegate them.

To be honest, I've found it a little too time-consuming (ironically) to keep an updated list of 50+ next actions, as he advocates. But it is worthwhile keeping an eye on my overall projects, and figuring out the next action attached to each. He also uses a good decision tree for actions - dump, delegate, defer or do now. If an action will take 2 minutes or less, Allen says, just do it and get it out of the way. This is very powerful.

On an even dorkier note, one of his best pieces of advice was emptying out my email inbox. It fits in with the dump/defer/do thing, because I've created folders for reference stuff, things that I still need to take action on or read (two separate folders) and thrown a lot of crap away once I don't have to do anything with it. I can attest to a warm glow of satisfaction when I open my email in the morning and see everything that needs to be addressed on one screen (but only after I've accomplished a task as per Tim Ferriss's instructions).

Goals, by Brian Tracy

Goals isn't so much of a time management book, but it has a couple of good insights that apply. One of the best, which is probably well in line with Tim Ferriss's principles, is to determine what your most valuable tasks are at work and focusing on those. More globally (and in keeping with Covey's book), Tracy says to figure out what your most important goal is - the one that would have the greatest effect on your life if you accomplished it - and focus on that.

Tracy's also worth mentioning for another book he wrote (which I haven't read) called "Eat That Frog!" That title is taken from a quote by Mark Twain suggesting that if you start each day by eating a live frog, everything else you have to accomplish for the rest of the day doesn't seem too bad. For Tracy, eating a frog is tackling your most unpleasant task of the day first (ideally, as Tim Ferriss would say, finishing it before lunch).

The Nerdist Way, by Chris Hardwick

So yeah, honorable mention goes to the Nerdist Way, for starting me off on using my time more productively. His own approach is similarly catholic (note the small C), taking ideas from each as long as they're useful. For a good example, have a look at his Wired article from a few years ago, "Diary of a Self-Help Dropout", which was kind of an inspiration for this post.

BTW, another honorable mention goes to Lifehacker, although I have to qualify this a little bit. You'll find a lot of time-saving advice (my favorite's the Ian Knot, for tying my shoes), but it's so full of good stuff you'll blow a lot of time reading it all. Which just drives forward the vicious circle of forcing you to manage your time ever better.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Yeah, But You Haven't Read the Comics

I'm writing about the new Superman movie this week, because I liked last week's Major Spoiler picture so much, so getting the warning out early:

"That's right, I'm back."

Well, that and the fact that I just watched Man of Steel last night. So it's even topical!

The movie itself is not amazing, although I'll admit I liked it. The effects were mostly pretty good, and I enjoyed Michael Shannon chewing the scenery as General Zod. The fight scenes, on the other hand, were kind of a pain to watch, not just because I didn't have my glasses on, but because Zack Snyder's directing style is clearly a product of the Peter Jackson School of Frenetic Pacing. I was also kind of put off by the ridiculous amount of carnage, which seems a little funny for a movie where they're portraying Superman as some kind of space-Jesus.

Intriguingly, the Kryptonian symbol for "hope" is very similar to the Earth-letter "S". Go figure.

Now, I watched it with my little sister, who hated it. She had the same objections as me, but also didn't like Michael Shannon's performance, which I can agree was hamstrung by a pretty dodgy script. But I do kind of wonder if my appreciation of the movie was also partly informed by the fact that I had the weight of decades of comics history in mind while watching it.

I've never been a huge Superman fan, but I like the idea of the character, and really loved the Bruce Timm-designed Superman cartoon from the 90s. Just like Batman, he's an archetype (I don't like the word "iconic"), and you always know that a Superman story will have crazy things like aliens and giant gorillas and a rainbow of kryptonite.

Just FYI, this is the idea I'm pitching to Christopher Nolan for the second film, so hands off.

I also appreciate the idea of Zod, which is basically the question, what would happen if there was an evil Superman running around? In the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC continuity that I grew up reading, Zod and his minions were so dangerous that Superman was eventually forced to kill them, in order to defend humanity; that act was always presented as haunting Superman, because it was such a betrayal of his ideals that he swore he'd never do it again.

So naturally, in the movie, that's the outcome when he's going hand-to-hand with Zod in the climax. Zod's just discovered that Earth's sun gives him heat vision, and he's preparing to use it to incinerate some hapless family, so Superman is forced to break Zod's neck to save them. It was a satisfying conclusion when it happened, in part because Henry Cavill really sold what a struggle it was for his character to do that. Or at least, that was my first impression.

When my fore-brain took over again, it occurred to me that this movie-Superman doesn't really have that weight of refusing to kill, because we haven't really seen him in action. According to the movie it's his first outing in the cape and tights, so to be honest, for all we know he'll spend the next two movies (I presume it'll be a trilogy) cheerfully slaughtering his way through an endless succession of Lex Luthors, Parasites, Brainiacs and giant radioactive gorillas.

That is to say, it's a powerful moment, but it relies on our cultural understanding of Superman, and how he's the ultimate Boy Scout. I liked it at first, but then a second later I realized that we hadn't really earned it, and that was kind of frustrating. And it must have been even more frustrating for my sister, because she doesn't have the same knowledge of Superman's history as I do.

I kind of wonder how many of these book-to-movie or comic-to-movie transitions rely on the same thing. Obviously, the Red Wedding in the third season of Game of Thrones works regardless of whether you've read the books. But things like Batman, Superman or Star Trek have been around for decades, so they're even more imprinted on the cultural consciousness; everybody knows that Batman brings the Joker in at the end, and that Captain Kirk's going to get his shirt ripped open gratuitously at some point.

This is clearly the fine line that filmmakers have to keep in mind when rebooting a well-known property. You don't want to mess around with it too much, because then it's not Superman or whatever anymore, but you also don't necessarily have time to fully get your character to the point that everybody  recognizes. In this case, I think Zack Snyder probably got the balance wrong.

But then, I hated Skyfall, which loads of other people seemed to like, so maybe my problem is that I can't turn my brain off for these sorts of things.

In any case, I'm hoping the next movie introduces the whole Superman family, ranging from Krypto the Super-Dog to Comet the Super-Horse, fighting against Mr Mxyzptlk. And then the third movie can be Mxyzptlk teaming up with Bat-Mite for a World's Greatest Heroes-style crossover...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Star Trek and the Death of Expertise

Just a quick head's up, there are spoilers in this blog for Star Trek Into Darkness, so if you haven't seen it yet... well, you've been warned.

Not what I originally wanted for this graphic, but how could I not use it?

I think I've already been kind of vocal (on Twitter) about how disappointing I found Star Trek Into Darkness, the second film in JJ Abrams's rebooted Trek franchise. A lot of it didn't make sense (like why the hell were Kirk and Bones stealing that scroll from the aliens in the beginning?), it messed with old Trek pretty clumsily (the whole Khan thing, the way Kirk saves the ship at cost of his own life and then gets resurrected by that tribble), and it just dragged on.

For the record, there were things I liked about it: the rebooted Klingons were pretty cool, it was big and loud and 'splodey, and the civilian costumes didn't look quite as stupid as they did on the TV shows from the 90s. Although I couldn't help thinking that the grey Starfleet uniforms made Kirk and Spock look like they were Imperial officers from Star Wars.

"It's true, Jim, I'm being assigned to the Death Star."

"I don't recall authorizing that."

But one of the things that lost me early on was how Kirk keeps getting reassigned to command of the Enterprise, despite being clearly unqualified; all he seems to have to do is hang around on the bridge long enough for his commanding officer to get killed. It was kind of silly in the previous movie - Captain Pike goes off to be tortured by Nero, leaves Spock in command, Kirk makes Spock show emotion or something, and quickly deposes Spock as captain.

But if that was ridiculous, then how much more ridiculous is the whole business in STID where Kirk gets reassigned to be Pike's executive officer, and five minutes later Khan slaughters Pike and Kirk is once again in the big chair? It begs the question of whether Kirk's been slipping backhanders to all these bad guys, just to get the ever-unfortunate Captain Pike out of the way.

I understand that the scriptwriters needed to get all of the characters in place for the good stuff. In the TV shows, every single one of the captains is smart, competent, with all kinds of experience that led them to the bridge of their respective ships (or space station, in Captain Sisko's case), but that doesn't necessarily make for a good movie. On the other hand, all I could think here was, what exactly makes Kirk (in these two movies) qualified to command the Starfleet flagship, when he hasn't even graduated from the academy or paid his dues through the chain of command? If Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof are to be believed, it's that he's decisive and not hamstrung by logic or procedure.

Sound familiar?
No! Stop asking!

I doubt the rebooted Star Trek movies had any kind of clever thing to say about the state of world affairs. And that's okay, y'know. I still maintain that Christopher Nolan got it so, so right in the Dark Knight - despite the fact that I never once thought George W Bush did a good job handling the War on Terror. But it feels like part of an undercurrent in the media where we don't trust experts to be good at their jobs.

A lot of economists and authors have made a lot of money in the last decade suggesting that even the smartest experts can't predict big, unexpected events. I haven't read Nassim Nicholas Taleb (but I plan to), but based on what I've heard, I kind of take issue with the idea that nobody in charge could have predicted the massive crash we experienced in 2008 - experts could (and should) have predicted that the massive bubble was coming. That's why they're experts: they're meant to understand what the trends in their respective fields mean.

You might say that hindsight is always 20/20, and you'd be right. The real issue is that these things happen, and so normal people come away with the idea that no expert anywhere can be trusted, in any field. I remember talks with a former work friend, years and years ago, who couldn't be proved wrong; it didn't matter whether you'd studied a subject, or wrote about it for a living, he always knew better. He as much as said on one or two occasions that he never believed what "experts" had to say about anything.

In practice, you see this with how people think and talk about politicians. I read somewhere that the prevailing opinion among the electorate is currently that you only go into politics if there's something kind of wrong with you (like, Asperger's syndrome or something, that being the new vogue diagnosis). Those jerks in Washington are out of touch? Let's toss the bums out every couple of years and get someone new in.

The problem is that you start to run out of people who know how to craft legislation, who know how to build consensus, or work with others of differing opinions to get things done. These aren't skills that people are born with, so the less time elected officials have in office, the less time they have to learn these skills. I'm not saying unequivocally that there shouldn't be term limits, but someone needs to think through, for example, how to avoid lame duck syndrome setting in when a representative or senator or MP is on their last term.

Because you know what the real effect of sowing mistrust of "experts" among the electorate or the wider public is? An unengaged public that doesn't pay attention when actors with bad intentions - such as the Koch Brothers or these think-tanks that run around writing the same legislation for multiple states to use in disenfranchising minorities and the poor or in eroding civil liberties.

And that, to bring things back around, really isn't in the spirit of Star Trek. Just like these two most recent movies.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Gender Theory and the Zombie Apocalypse

It seems like lately all everyone is talking about is the end of the world.

Now, I'm aware that's not the most groundbreaking statement, but it's kind of struck me lately. When everybody was talking about the Mayan apocalypse last December, I kind of tuned it out, because that's what you do when people are talking poppycock all over the place. But even though nothing happened with that Mayan business, it's still on people's minds, judging by what's happening in popular culture just at the moment. Exhibit A being two separate comedies (This Is The End, by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and The World's End, from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg) that are getting ready to hit theaters.

Hitting theaters like this! Just like this!

Now, the immediate trigger for me was Joe Rogan's podcast. I downloaded a couple of episodes to listen to while doing data entry at work, because they featured Tim Ferriss talking about his books, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Chef. The latter book, in particular, also falls into the scope of this week's blog, because Ferriss has a section on living off the land, complete with dire predictions of what would happen if the lights or the water went out for extended periods of time. That discussion, on the podcast, prompted reflections by Joe Rogan about how he'd like to band together with his friends and their families to buy a farm and, I presume, be ready for anything.

I don't know what Rogan's podcast is usually like, since those are the only episodes I've listened to, but it sounds like it's on his mind, much like it's clearly on Tim Ferriss's. Although I'd like to take this opportunity to say that, if society really does collapse, his advice on catching and killing pigeons for food is probably not the most helpful - zombies or no zombies, I wouldn't like to sit around on park benches waiting for pigeons to come near enough to fall into my grasp.

However, mention of zombies brings me to Exhibit B, namely the Walking Dead, and all the other zombie or rage-virus-related media out there (just pointing out, 28 Days Later isn't a zombie movie, because the infected aren't undead). These shows or whatever clearly posit that a zombie outbreak would be an extinction-level event; the Walking Dead goes one step further and asks what happens to our weak and coddled society when - similar to the above - we can't just press a button and have a pizza appear magically 30 minutes or so later at our front door.

"You said 30 minutes or less. That was an hour ago."

I'd say that this is the aspect that sets the current strain of apocalyptic thinking from previous ones. After all, apparently everyone in the 1950's was convinced they'd be incinerated by nuclear war, and by the 90's that had turned into fears about pandemics, whether natural or man-made; well, that or giant asteroids - planetary impacts were big in the late 90's, clearly. In all of those stories, the idea was that the event - nuclear war, pandemic, asteroid strike - would wipe us all out.

Now the stories all seem to start after the event, and focus on how the survivors cope (or don't). The main idea driving a lot of these things is clearly that, since we've swapped chasing antelope on the plains of the Serengeti for sitting in offices and writing about telecoms (to pick an example out of the air at complete random), we're clearly making ourselves prey for anything bigger, faster or meaner that's on its way toward us.

I guess that means that we've all become really insecure, all of a sudden. And by we, it occurs to me that I'm referring to men; these stories are all about bad-ass dudes figurin' out how to hunt an' skin a deer before the zombies get us. Apart from the Resident Evil movies, of course, since their main character is an ever-more-badass Milla Jovovich.

I'm being flippant, but I don't really want to mock dudes' insecurities; though I do think it's important to point out that this rise in survivalist horror is probably linked to the rise of men's rights advocacy groups (although these strains are very different from one another).

We do see a lot of news stories talking about how badly men appear to be doing: grades are down, college graduation rates are down, jobs aren't as plentiful as before (depending on who you talk to, at any rate). Some of the more excitable and maladjusted have started blaming women for these problems, as if allowing half the population to enter the workforce and (maybe one day) paying them an equal wage means that men automatically get screwed.

Other guys, in questioning what exactly a man is good for now that he's not the de facto breadwinner and paterfamilias, have started wondering why they can't do things with their hands the way their dads could. I'm one example, I'll freely admit, and was rather pathetically pleased with myself last summer for figuring out on my own how to replace a light switch and a light fixture; but it's in pop culture, too, with Tim Ferriss, for example, saying at the start of 4-Hour Chef that he took up cooking because he wanted to learn to do something with his hands. And there are other books out there talking about how to do things the way your dad used to - you know, like stripping wires and putting up barns and all of that.

Nabbed off Amazon; clearly a man who knows what he's doing.

So, in some way, this worrying of ours turns into daydreams about grabbing your gun and your wife, hopping in the Winnebago, and carving out a life of safety with your own two hands. The American Dream, except that guys in the UK (and the rest of Europe, for all I know) are also thinking about it.

I won't link these threads any tighter than I've done so far, or imply any further causality; my understanding of men's rights groups is (thankfully) not so deep, and I wouldn't like to ruin my enjoyment of Tim Ferriss's books or the Walking Dead by finding out that creepy survivalist woman-haters are using them as holy texts. But it makes you wonder, doesn't it?