Sunday, 30 April 2017

Let's All Do a Little Less

As anyone who knows me might be aware, I'm into Tim Ferriss's books. I read the Four-Hour Workweek every year, and have the Four-Hour Body, Four-Hour Chef and Tools of Titans on my Kindle app on my iPad. I listen to his podcast regularly, though not religiously, and like catching him on other podcasts - his chats with Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist and Marc Maron on WTF are particularly good.

I also listen (sporadically) to a podcast called the Side Hustle Show. It's hosted by Nick Loper, and features people who have turned their hobbies or whatever into paying side businesses. He references Tim Ferriss from time to time, though to my knowledge hasn't had Tim on his own show.

The reason I mention both here is that there was an interesting confluence of ideas between them, which I've been thinking about ever since. Because Nick Loper expressed it in the most digestible form, I'll call it by the name he uses, though with the understanding that Tim Ferriss also advocates it. Specifically, it's in the Side Hustle episode called "Too Small to Fail", and Nick Loper refers to it as micro-habits.

Micro-habits are too small to fail because, ideally, they are binary - you either accomplish them or you don't. The time investment is small, which means the attention investment is also small, and therefore the habit is easy to create. It can be drawing a single line of a picture per day, writing a single line of your novel, or doing a single pushup per day.

That last one comes from Tim Ferriss, via his chapter on Matt Mullenweg (Wordpress founder) in Tools of Titans. Mullenweg apparently does a single pushup before bed every night, which has helped him get in shape. It is, in fact, so easy to stick with that I've been doing it for a few months, and have seen a great improvement in my pushup form (though on occasions where I've tried to work out my max number of reps, the best I can do with good form is eleven).

Tim Ferriss mentions other micro-habits and ice-breakers in his books, including the fact that IBM sales people used to have a target of one call per day. He notes that keeping the habit small is intentional, because it means it's easy to say you've accomplished what you wanted to do, and because surmounting that initial hurdle makes it easier to pick up the phone again, or finish your picture, or whatever. It's not necessarily better for your pushups, but let's leave that aside for a moment.

Any big endeavor requires a significant investment of time, energy, attention, or whatever you want to call it. Breaking it down into its smallest component parts reduces the complexity and makes it less daunting to just begin, and when you begin you find that momentum carries you on over a long time.

I've made reference before to methodical ways of writing, so this is probably not a surprise to any readers out there. But I suspect it's not obvious to everybody - even Tim Ferriss sometimes blabs about how you need blocks of hours and hours for creative endeavors. Three hour blocks of productivity are probably great, but at least with micro-habits I've been able to check off the box of writing and doing pushups almost every day for several months, and if I don't always write for a full hour, or have the ability to do more than eleven pushups with good form (yet), at least I know I'm getting things done.

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.