Saturday, 23 June 2018

Review: Lost Horizon

I'm about to write another variation on that familiar statement; "having recently read the book, I decided to give the film a try".

Lost Horizon is a very evocative film for me. As is often the case with my back catalogue, I likely first watched it at that impressionable period between the ages of seven and twelve where its themes of immortality, kindness and universalism together with action made a big impact.

They were also gentler and slower pre-VHS times - where a film might be shown on the BBC once in your childhood and you'd have to carry the half memory of watching in your head with no expectation of being to revisit again.  For our family too, all TV watching was on a 14 inch b/w portable which had the benefit of rendering black and white and colour films just the same (despite my Dad's half joking experiments with covering the screen with multi-coloured acetate film).

This time I got to watch it on the projector in our living room. Despite the best efforts of Sony's restorers, it's a bit of a patchwork quilt of various sources of footage and of a varying quality which even the blu-ray format can't do much for in terms of improving presentation. A few very short sequences are represented by stills and audio only.

The first hour or so of the film is still gold as the action sequences are suitably thrilling, the unfolding mystery tautly told and the unveiling of Shangri-La is a wonderfully 1930s in its design. Then it does begin to get a bit ponderous. The High Lama scenes, once so profound, feel quite drawn out and obvious in their insights.  Everyday life in Shangri-La itself is earnestly twee (although I'd still consider moving to the Shangri-La of the book).  Lastly, in a post Indiana Jones world - the fate of one of the characters now feels like the book under-dramatised. It was utterly gut-wrenching on my first watch as a child.   The central performances, particularly of Colman are superb and went a long way to keeping my interest.

Verdict: Sometimes a memory of Shangri-La is better than reality. 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Review: Lost Horizon

Hilton's remote mountain utopia of Shangri-La is a good counterpoint to Huxley's Brave New World. They were both written in the early 1930s, but in many ways could not be more different.

For most, Shangri-La - particularly those of a nostalgic, wistful bent - may be a more appealing utopia in many respects as it offers a longer more contemplative rural life away from the stresses and strains of fast paced urban living. This even extends to the prose - which has a dream like quality at times.

I was fascinated to read afterwards that an earlier name for Camp David was Shangri-La.

The protagonist, Conway, is rather more likeable than anyone in Brave New World too.  He's a thoughtful, well educated, courageous selfless everyman who's character - even across the passage of nearly ninety years - shines through with hardly a dated blemish.

"Laziness in doing stupid things can be a a great virtue".
Lost Horizon 

Both books, however, have a benign authoritarianism - honed over many years - at their core, the rule of an elite and there is no escaping it. They also both have elements of prescience. In Hilton's case, he correctly anticipates another war.

Weaknesses with Lost Horizon? It ends very abruptly almost as if the author suddenly got bored with it.  Conway aside, the characters aren't very well drawn, making the hinted at fate of one of them less impactful than it might have been.  I'd need to watch the film adaptation of Lost Horizon again - but I think it may have made a couple of useful improvements on the book.

Verdict: Engaging utopia masquerading as an adventure mystery.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Review: Batman: Master of the Future

This sequel to Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is set roughly a year after the events of that graphic novel.  The art in this is richer and more modern looking, but that isn't much compensation for a rather slighter story with a villain who seems to have no real backstory or motivation beyond a massive ego.

Also this is more a story about Bruce Wayne and once again he is prevaricating over his role as the Batman.

Verdict: Interesting, but not wholly satisfying follow up.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

A Guardian reader writes...

The Guardian has a question apparently from one of its readers.  Essentially, the protagonist has a good secure job as a middle manager in a public sector organisation but feels their career has stalled - and that they may become an obstacle to change or new management.  One additional difficulty is that they have a family (and presumably a mortgage) to support in London.

As someone who has been through something of the same in recent years, I'd suggest they have a few options:

Get some some side interests. People either work to live or live to work and it sounds like they are reaching the point where living to work is no longer doing it for them.

One idea is to simply think back on what you enjoyed doing as a child or young adult. Is there anything you'd like to have tried, but didn't get around to?  For me, I always quite liked the idea of gymnastics - but lacked the upper body strength as a kid and had discouraging teachers.  So I did a circus tryout class, found I enjoyed trapeze and aerial hoop - and booked some follow up classes.  Similarly, I used to enjoy reading and so I joined a book reading group.

Consider a side-business. Despite all of the hype about twenty somethings and tech startups, it turns out that being in your mid forties is an ideal time to get going on your own business. I suspect this is partly because we've been around for a bit and learned a few life lessons along the way which are transferrable to other avenues.

The problem I suggest most potential business people have is that they think it's all or nothing with regards to running a business and that it requires lots of traditional crap like a business loan, business plan etc.

It doesn't.

Simply do a skills/stuff audit and figure out what you can/would like to sell.  Can any of your skills be packaged up into a product or service?

Getting started could be as easy as listing a few things or services you might offer on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, Cafepress, Elance, People per hour, YouTube etc and then marketing initially to friends or relevant Facebook or other listings.  That will tell you a lot of potential size of market, pricing etc.

Potentially, you can rope in the rest of the family to help with fulfilment, book keeping etc.

If it doesn't work, no real harm done and you can try another idea. It took me around five years of part-time experimentation before I hit on something that made a significant difference to my income.

Keep developing your skills.  This could involve finding a mentor (probably outside of the organisation you work for), or a coach to identify gaps in terms of what you need to progress or maintain your current position, preferred learning styles etc.

How to learn effectively is a field which has come on in leaps and bounds since we were at school and university. Today, you can take your pick of speed reading, memory palace skills development etc which will make skills and knowledge acquisition much easier than previously.

Delegate or automate to free up time. As a middle manager, you are in a great position to delegate some of your work to others and it will (sometimes) even be appreciated as a career development opportunity.  Also give some thought to what can be eliminated or automated.

For me, regular report writing was often time-consuming and lacked reward so I simply templated as much as a I could (including having a list of stock phrases to hand to cover most situations) and automated or delegated the data gathering.

Work on plan B. If you feel at some point your face will no longer fit then, it's time to consider what you can do to mitigate the risk of redundancy.  Do you jump ship ahead of time, wait for a redundancy payoff, etc?

Other options are building a fund which is big enough to you to survive for a few months, and then once that is achieved consider keep going. Can you pay down or pay off the mortgage early? Or even build enough of a fund to retire early?

You can also simply make it known that you are up for a change in focus and see if a sideways shift to another department is possible.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist is another book I'm revisiting thanks to my local book club.

At its heart its a gentle mystical adventure quest about someone pursuing their dreams. The fable structure is pretty much a beat for beat example of Joseph Campbell's mythic structure which is probably one of the reasons it is so popular.

I enjoyed re-reading it, but probably not as much as my first read in my twenties when its few simple truths felt rather more profound.  It remains a good illustration of the value of perseverance and also of the various obstacles in quests.

Verdict: Good modern day fairytale.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Artificial intelligence and Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Last week I officially moved team and job (and went part-time to boot), and it saw us taking a break from the office to consider the implications of artificial intelligence on society and the environment as well as start to think about useful interventions or experiments we could run.  Tony Benn's quote on power feels as relevant as ever (and can equally apply to AIs and their corporations):
In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person--Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates--ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
Tony Benn 

I've always been fascinated by Maslow's hierarchy of needs and I wondered whether they were more or less likely to be enabled by artificial intelligence. In a nutshell, what would our new search for meaning in an AI world look like (especially one which might be increasingly work-less).

It struck me that most of where AI is currently being applied is in the bottom couple of layers of the pyramid and that maybe we could be a little more ambitious than that.

So using these characteristics of a self-actualised person I had a go at dreaming up a few AI applications which might help:

Efficient perceptions of reality
This refers to the notion that self-actualised people are better at seeing the world as it really is. Here I had visions of using AI to detect fake news, to augment media stories with overlays that show the world-really-not-so-bad-after-all as well as providing opportunities for empowerment.

Task centering
I felt AI could help a lot both in identifying a mission that each individual could directly contribute to, but also help them stay the course through coaching and helping with goal setting and tracking.

Continued fresh appreciation
This refers to the ability to re-experience and enjoy everyday experiences like seeing a flower.  Here AI combined with augmented reality apps might highlight moments and pull you back to the now. I envisaged glancing at a poppy and  the etymology of its name, scientific information, or a cultural history could pop up causing you to take another look and appreciate it.

Comfort with solitude
Here an AI might train you to become increasingly comfortable with longer periods of alone time, but creating space to do so by removing non-essential distractions and providing reassurance.

Peak experiences
Again an AI might help monitor whether you are in a flow state and tweak the environment to allow you to stay in one longer. It might also help you better predict whether an activity will sufficiently (4%) stretch you and help design activities accordingly.

Profound interpersonal relationships
I have often read that you are the sum of your five closest relationships. Well, what if one of them was an AI who was modelled on a renowned person in a field of interest such as Einstein for aspiring physicists, or Picasso for artists?

Non-hostile sense of humour
This refers to our ability to laugh at ourselves.  An AI could definitely help with coaching that!

I'm sure there are many other applications of AI to the self-actualisation section of Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid. Have you thought of any?

Further reading

A blueprint for coexistence with artificial intelligence - Lee's take on what do humans do now?

The AI hierarchy of needs - because machines need stuff too.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Pay no attention to the man behind the gong

I visited a local music and arts festival this last weekend as I was interested in trying out a few things via the workshops on offer.

In the end I tried out:

  • Gong bath
  • African drumming
  • Belly dancing

which probably tells you all you need to know about the type of influences on the festival and there were indeed a number of achingly conspicuous hippy types.

Gong bath

A gong bath invites you to lay down, close your eyes and listen while a chap (in this case, called Bear) bangs and tinkles various gongs while wandering around you using a huge variety of instruments.  Afterwards, he asked us to stand directly behind the biggest gong and at times you could feel your body resonate and sink into the instrument itself.

For the prior piece, the overall effect is akin to being in at times a highly immersive horror or science fiction soundtrack (I "recognised" sounds from Alien and was reminded of Interstellar a few times too) - but without the scares.

African drumming

The instructor for this workshop was an immensely charismatic and encouraging - creating rhythms that felt thrillingly tribal yet accessible.  It may be a bit woo-woo, but there is something immensely primal about hammering out a seemingly complex beat with a dozen strangers as it gets faster and faster. I totally get the appeal.

Having never played an African drum before - it was fantastic to learn a few of the basics. Hand always flat, edge of the drum for high notes, middle for bass etc.

Belly dancing

The missus had given me a mission to find out more about belly dancing classes in the local area so I thought I might as well sample the wares.  Again led by another talented instructor (who was welcoming when I tentatively asked if anyone could have a go).  Encouraged, I tied the biggest and most jangly belt around my waist.

It turned out to be a huge amount of fun. By the end of the session, I'd learned to do a pleasant sounding shimmy, as well as the basics of circling and a figure of eight.

Sadly, this will likely be my last belly dancing for a while as the missus is rather firmer about gender norms than I am - and has forbidden me to go to any classes.