Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Review: 168 hours: You have more time than you think

Vanderkam's chatty and case study driven book has the central thesis that we all have 168 hours in a week, but we are allowing those hours to bleed away on the unimportant. For example, even those who claim to work 60, 80 or even 90 hour weeks - are actually wasting many of those hours - even if we are accounting for them correctly.  And that's even before we consider time wasted in our home lives.

In short, we tend to overestimate how much time we spend on the "bad stuff" and underestimate how we spend on the "good stuff".

She has a point.

But this is more than another work/live productivity hacks book as she asks the reader to start from first principles so figure out:
  • What you are best at?
  • What are your dreams?
  • Where your time is currently going?
She then offers a few areas to target eg meal preparation, laundry, unnecessary meetings.  To be fair many of her solutions (outsourcing/setting different standards/focussing on what makes a difference/blocking out time),  aren't particularly new - but I suspect her target audience (affluent businesswomen/professionals) probably do need to be permissioned to let go of some of these tasks.

"You should do what you love, you should love what you do".

Teresa Amabile

"This obsession is the only way to stay on top, because you can trust that your competitors are thinking about their jobs in the shower. "

Laura Vanderkam, 168 hours: You have more time than you think

Why would you outsource the creation of your children's clothes, but not your own meals if you don't enjoy it and can afford it? she asks. Tellingly, traditionally male tasks like mowing the lawn are more likely to be outsourced. Hmm...

I probably enjoyed the earlier first principles chapters of this book more than the later tactical advice (the spreadsheet of 100 dreams and time log are simple but effective).   Interestingly, Vanderkam is rather critical of Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Work Week - but I think they are closer in philosophy than she imagines.

I also enjoyed the idea of multitasking through alignment ie meeting a friend for a meal (which allows you to catch up with a friend while eating). OK that example is an obvious one - but it's easy to think of others that let you maintain personal and professional relationships while ticking off other boxes like the need to exercise, pursue a hobby, etc.

Lastly, l loved the focus on doing projects that help you answer questions you are interested in.

"There are literally millions of stories a documentary filmmaker could tell; by choosing ones that gave her a great personal answer to the question of why she cared about the topic, Mazzio increased the odds that her films would stand out in a crowded market."
Laura Vanderkam, 168 hours: You have more time than you think

Verdict: Highly motivational, and also practical for the right audience.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

Pink's When is a concise review of the difference timing can make to outcomes - whether they be life or work related ones.  Although some ideas will be familiar to many readers eg circadian rhythm - what might be new is how to get best out them.

Unfortunately for you, reader of this blog, my review will be rather longer as I really got a lot out of this book.

Pink fondly imagines that this might be the beginning of a new genre - "when to" rather than "how to" and I think he may be onto something there.

Most chapters helpfully finish with a set of tools and tips quirkily labelled the Time Hacker's Handbook. Most of the tips were new to me, a few not so much.

To start with I skimmed the contents page - making notes on questions I wanted answered like:

Does everyone have the same circadian rhythm of a peak, a trough and a rebound?

It seems they do, but your chronotype affects when they occur and even which way around they occur. For example, most people who are larks or third birds then to rise to a peak of performance during the morning, hit a trough early afternoon and then rebound from late afternoon. Night owls are different as they spend the morning in recovery, have a trough in the afternoon and reach their peak late evening.

Our moods and happiness tracks these same rhythms. Apparently, the difference in performance between a peak and trough can be the equivalent of drinking up the legal limit of alcohol.

Can you control the length of them?

I may have missed it, but I couldn't see anything that suggested you could. Breaks and optimising the types of task you do may help maximise what you get from them though.

Can you optimise the tasks you do in each period?

For non-night owls, it may be better to do more analytical tasks in the morning and those requiring more insight (and less inhibitions) during our troughs. In short, innovation and creativity happens when we are not at our best.

Avoid important decisions in the afternoon. Negotiations and other critical decisions should probably happen earlier in the day.

How long should a break be for maximum return on investment?

A sleep break should be 10-20 minutes to avoid groggyness and can be enhanced with a strong dose of caffeine beforehand - a nappuccino. The theory is that it takes around 20 minutes for the caffeine to kick in and so you should awake feeling ready to go.

What does starting right look like?

We are all familiar with the idea of the new year's day resolution, but it turns out that lots of days of the year can act in a similar way - as a spur to starting afresh. Here are some of them (Pink identifies 86 of them):
  • First day of each week
  • First day of each month
  • First day of each new quarter
  • Birthdays
But you can also engineer them by choosing other milestones eg if you work at a company, the anniversary of a new product launch.

Other suggestions that Pink makes including the idea of a pre-mortem ie picture the project being a complete disaster in 18 months time. You now ask yourself (and your team if you have one) - What went wrong? and try to anticipate how you can avoid those mistakes.

When you should go first?

It turns out that anytime you are not the default choice, in a situation with few competitors or in an election, and in job interviews with strong candidates - you should go first.

In more uncertain situations eg when you or the person making the decision doesn't know what they want/expect - you should go later.

When we reach a midpoint, how can we activate the mental siren to motivate us earlier?

From experience, I know the mid-point of a project is often where there's a lull in motivation - and sometimes a rush of blind panic as you figure out have the time has been wasted and now it's time to buckle down and do this thing!
Midlife: When the universe grabs you by the shoulders and says, "I'm not fucking around, use the gifts you were given."
Brene Brown

Some of this seems to do with framing. For work in a motivated team, it can be helpful to describe progress as slightly behind where they need to be. For a less motivated team, then focussing on progress made to date can be more helpful.

I particularly liked the tips on how to get out of midpoint slump and re-energise yourself:

  • Set interim goals - and make a public commitment to them. 
  • Find a way of pausing an activity mid-way through eg in the middle of a sentence if you are writing. 
  • Create a way of recording a chain eg x on a calendar
  • Imagine one person who will be helped by what you are doing (love this!)
  • Mentally subtracting positive events from your life, It's a Wonderful Life style, and then being thankful for what did happen. 
  • Find a mid-career mentor

What does a good ending well look like?

Endings come in lots of different forms - an end of a project, an end of a job or an end of a life.

A sense of an ending tends to result in a focus on what's really important - meaning - and that can result in some ruthless pruning of relationships, tasks etc - as well as one last big push.

Often meaning comes with a tinge of sadness or poignancy.  As Pink says, "The best endings don't leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer - a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence".
“Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it is not what the protagonist needs. Typically, this leads the protagonist to let go of what he wants (a house, the Piston Cup, Andy) to get what he needs (a true yet unlikely companion; real friends; a lifetime together with friends)” 

What can activate team synchronisation?

Pink gives some useful, but likely familiar guidance on team formation (some of the activities are definitely worth checking out). He very much subscribes to Tuckman's model of Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing.

He also suggests that the following elements can help:

  • Chat & gossip
  • Touch
  • Shared language
  • Visible markers that set them apart eg clothing

Why does tense matter in language?

This was odd and fascinating but it turns out that how language deals with tense makes a difference to the behavioural habits of speakers.  Speakers of languages, like English, which make strong distinctions between past, present and future tend to be less likely to save, exercise more regularly than speakers of languages which are weaker like Mandarin.  It wasn't clear what the reason for this was.
"Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

Groucho Marx (maybe)

What I'm doing as a result of this book

As something of a lark, I've been trying to shift my more insightful work and reading to the mornings - and staying off social media/email. Meetings, creative stuff and brainstormings I try to do in the afternoon.

I drink very little caffeine anyhow, but have shifted my daily green tea to the early afternoon and I won't feel guilty if I have a 10 minute nap around that time or bum around in email/admin tasks either.

I'm also trying to build a late work day habit around:

  • Typing up what I've achieved (2 mins)
  • Planning next day (2 mins)
  • Sending someone a thank you (1 min)

I've been trying this for around a week so far and it feels pretty good.  

Verdict: A strong candidate for my non-fiction book of the year.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: Gotham by Gaslight

Like the recent animation, this graphic novel pits an alternative universe Victorian era Batman against Jack the Ripper. It's a lot more satisfying than the movie as it doesn't Scooby Doo the ending or go quite so heavy on the steam punk.

Instead the back story feels well rounded and Bruce Wayne is front and centre throughout. As reading it will become clear, the stakes are both higher, but the interventions more mundane.  Overall, it feels like it's eschewed showiness for a bit more character development.

Verdict: Quick enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Review: Ready Player One

Having recently read the book in a couple of sittings, I thought I'd give the film a go.

The film is a not entirely successful riot of blink and you'll miss 'em cameos from the last 30-40 years of pop culture. Key elements of the books have been changed and given the Hollywood gloss over.  For example, the Stacks - a grimly dystopian Bladerunneresque community in the book feels too brightly lit and tidy in the translation to the screen and various characters are just a bit too good looking compared to their book counterparts.

The central game elements have been changed near completely as have most of the pop culture elements around them. War Games has been ditched for The Shining, for example.  The actors do their best - but facial expressions and motivations are usually covered by VR headsets or in game avatars. A few things have been successfully tidied up and made more Spielberg. For example, the lone gamers of the book quickly become an informal clan without too much heart searching.

I don't know that I'd revisit this vision of the OASIS. The book would have certainly benefited from a tighter edit in places, but this version lost some of the magic for me.

Verdict: Not top tier Spielberg, but good enough.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Review: The Perfect Day Formula

Ballantyne's stoic inspired guide to winning each day is my latest read in what sometimes feels like a long line of slightly meta self-development books. Essentially, the authors write books and launch businesses by writing guides on how to do the same. Often the books are long form advertising brochures for other services like consultancy or courses.  But cynical though that sounds, it doesn't make them worthless.

The Perfect Day Formula follows the familiar pattern. Ballantyne has developed a formula that works well for him - as something of an extreme lark - and he thinks it will work for you too:

  • Control your mornings -
     ie reserve them for high quality creative work
  • Conquer your afternoons - run good meetings, plan your next day, express gratitude
  • Concentrate on what really matters in the evenings
    - put down your work tools and focus on family and friends

On mornings, it turns out that plenty of creative historical figures were in a similar mind to Ballantyne:

"Revived and strengthened by sleep and not yet harassed by the absurd trivialities of everyday life"

Goethe on mornings

But I suspect even Warren Buffet's famously regular routine looks indulgent next to Ballantyne's:

4 a.m. – Writing Session #1
6:30 a.m. – Meditation, Dog Walk, and Breakfast
8 a.m. – Writing Session #2
10:30 a.m. – Early to Rise Team Meeting
11 a.m. – Exercise (four days per week)
12 p.m. – Reading and Lunch
2 p.m. – Phone Calls and Email
4 p.m. – Dog Walk, Big Thinking, and Gratitude Journaling
5 p.m. – Reading, Dinner, and Family/Social Time
8 p.m. – Bedtime

All of this sounds like I wasn't that impressed by The Perfect Day Formula. That's not true as I did like how certain truisms common to these guides were framed in this book and I learned a few new things.

Slowly introducing new habits
He first created a habit of not checking email before 9am, and then slowly increased it to 10am, 10.30 am etc.   He suggests delaying checking your inbox by an extra five minutes each day.

Writing in your gratitude journal in the late afternoon
This period of reflection, and listing of accomplishments can add to your sense of achievement and so increase motivation. As an occasional gratitude diary keeper - I will be giving this one a go.

Using triggers to overcome bad habits
I've been unconsciously using this minimum effective use of willpower for some time - but was good to see it crystallised in this book. Ballantyne's example uses it to "summon up the smallest amount of discipline to open up the Microsoft Word program on my computer. That was the trigger that snapped me out of my procrastination".  This inception like observational trigger is one that I will definitely be making more use of.

The Goodnight formula
Ballantyne's day is a highly scripted one and did like his rules of thumb to help ensure a good sleep:

  • Caffeine - no later than 10 hours before bedtime
  • Food or alcohol - no later than 3 hours before bedtime
  • Work - no later than 2 hours before sleep
  • Screen time - no more than 1 hour before sleep

Again I do some of these, but others are worth testing.

Doing brain dumps at the end of each work day
This self explanatory technique seems like a good one for clearing your head and preparing for the next day.

Getting up
I tend to use the 5, 4, 3, 2 1 Go approach I learned from Mel Robbins - but Ballantyne recommends repeating something like this mantra:
“Remember why you are doing this. It’s your one and only life, one that is not rewarded for staying in bed, one that does not move forward because you stole an extra five minutes of sleep. If you want more sleep, you need to get to bed earlier, not wake up later. You cannot miss out on your magical fifteen minutes in the morning”
Craig Ballantyne, The Perfect Day Formula

That's kind of hard core, but I might try it...

Preach what you know
I've logged this based on something known to improve happiness - giving.  Ballantyne it turns out is big on giving knowledge away - and also rather eloquent:

“When you teach others what you know, when you share your knowledge, when you add value, this can help you in so many ways. It can deliver you from (mild) depression and anxiety, from a scarcity mindset, and from a lack of clarity. Teaching will give you a natural high”

 Craig Ballantyne, The Perfect Day Formula

Finding fellow travellers
Most of us who want to try something new will have encountered sceptism, perhaps even outright hostility or sabotage from others. The Perfect Day Formula suggests using small tests initially to find people who are on a similar path.  OK, it's fairly obvious but I hadn't seen it written down before so a hat tip to Craig for it. 

Verdict: Succinct guide to having a great day - if you are a lark!

Monday, 7 May 2018

Review: To be a machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and futurists solving the modest problem of death

O'Connell's Wellcome prize-winning book is disjointed meander through the various groups, philosophies and scientific approaches to transhumanism.

Eloquently written though it is (and it really does have an expansive vocabulary), there are few answers here beyond a few existential musings by the author and that makes it a strangely dissatisfying read if you are looking for something more than an introduction to the key concepts and personalities.

Part of the problem is that the author has simply told the story of his various research trips, rather than synthesise into a more profound analysis of this emerging field. It also tends to skim the science in favour of the more cultish elements.   I also felt it lacked access in places - for example,  it would have benefited from interviews with some of key players like Kurzweil, Diamandis, Musk etc rather than those who are generally on the fringe and relying on secondary sources.  Even when he does get access to people like Aubrey De Grey, he tends to concentrate on their personal appearance and seems to get nothing new from them science or approach wise.  I've listened to podcast interviews with De Grey that have more depth.

Verdict: Very human guide to this most human of concerns.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One is a 1980s geek's paradise of a book. Barely a sentence whizzes past without some pop culture reference - well known and obscure - surfacing.  Cline's knowledge of the era must be truly encyclopaedic.  If we're keeping score, I recognised most of the computer ones, but maybe only around half of the music, film and tv ones.

But it's the compelling universes that he's conjured into life, snippets of social commentary and identifiable  characters - particularly if you've ever felt socially isolated, pined for lost loves or even simply been a socially awkward teenager - that make it worth staying. 

Verdict: Heart-felt luxury bath in 80s geekdom

Monday, 30 April 2018

Review: Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons is a masterclass in how a small cast can convey the mores of an entire society. For most of the cast, these are career best or very nearly so performances. Even Reeves manages to come across as not quite so wooden as usual, while Close and Malkovich really deserved Academy awards for their work in this.  Who fans like myself may also spot a youthful Capaldi lurking around as Malkovich's character's manservant.

For a film with limited action, it is also an utterly compelling watch as Close and Malkovich scheme to destroy not one, but two other characters in their game of sex and power.

Verdict: Lively study of decadence.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Rose

Back in the ancient past of the 1970s and 80s, the only way you could relive much of Doctor Who was through the ever increasing numbers of Target novelisations. They were often slight retellings with little done to expand the original scripts. There were a few notable exceptions though - particularly at the beginning and end of the range.  The Daleks novelisation, for example, reimagines the series' origins.  Others fleshed out minor characters and described much better special effects than seen on screen.

Most of these have long been out of print - superseded by VHS, then DVD and even the spoken word.

Rose forms part of what might become the next generation: novelisations of new series episodes.  I picked up Rose - based on the introductory episode of the new series. It had a lot to do - but primarily it had to sell Doctor Who to a whole new audience as well as reward those who'd kept the flame burning during the wilderness years.

Having read the prologue on a Kindle sample, I was convinced enough to read the rest on a long train journey.  The prologue promised a lot as it brought to life an off-screen character. Unfortunately, this opener turns out to the best addition to the book - giving succour to the idea that you should never judge a book by its opening chapters.

It's not to say that the rest is bad - there are lots of nice touches which make characters like Clive and Mickey much  more sympathetic and bigger more coherent set pieces, as well as some fun pieces of foreshadowing - it just feels slight when compared to the prologue.   Also, and in common with many previous novelisations, there's almost nothing about the Doctor's own internal dialogue - although a few projections of what the Doctor could be in yet unseen regenerations will either intrigue or annoy. Personally, I really want to see the giant frog story now.

Verdict: Recreation of the original Target magic.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Review: The Blinds

The Blinds is unusual crime novel with a distinctly western, even Westworld, feel.  It's not overtly science fiction, but it does rely on one piece of technology that as so far as I know doesn't exist yet: the ability to remove targeted memories from individuals. 

Starting from this innovation,  Sternbergh has weaved a entire community that on the face of it is probably not too different to many run down places in mid-America - and perhaps calls to mind the lyrics of Hotel California - you can check out, but never leave.  The difference here, however, is that it's secure, extremely isolated and all of the residents are either criminals or witnesses to horrible crimes - but none of them remember anything about the reasons why they are there.

And he knows how to write an involving story too. It took me a little while to get into the story, but once I was - I was totally sucked in. The flash backs, reveals, and twists put me in mind of a less gruesome Stephen King.

Verdict: Engaging and atmospheric thriller

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Review: Wanted

Wanted is a hyperkinetic comic book fusion of the Terminator, Matrix and Fight Club.  So much so that some sequences feel like a direct lift from those films.   The story follows the Campbell monomyth template: a young hero is living an ordinary life until he is called to reluctant greatness via a series of training vignettes.

The generally well staged action scenes and sober fake ending make up for a series of fairly obvious twists and limited exposition.  Given its age, it's a remarkably grainy film on blu-ray.

Verdict: Cast are clearly having a ball with this amusing comic book movie.

Review: Do You Trust This Computer?

Do You Trust This Computer is a competent whiz through the current status of artificial intelligence. Inevitably, there's some groan-worthy imagery (eg globes with sun bursts, networks spidering across the Earth, people running towards beaches etc) and it leans towards sound bites than detailed examination. But it is bang up-to-date - even down to covering some of Cambridge Analytica's methods and would serve as a good introduction.

Where I think they did go wrong was hinting the leap from narrow AI (which is what we have now) to generalised AI to be a relatively small one - and focussing on the relatively sexy existential threats from superintelligence.
"Machines are natural pyschopaths"
Jerry Kaplan

Messagewise, I guess it would serve as a good antidote if you feel you've been drinking the AI kool aid too much recently.  Personally, I was a little disappointed considering the maker's previous pedigree - "Who Killed The Electric Car?" which was a genuinely interesting exploration of a little known area at the time.

Lastly, nearly all of the talking heads are men which isn't really representative of the field.

Verdict: A call to arms rather than a nuanced exploration. 

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Review: Unforgiven

It's been a lot time since I revisited Eastwood's much lauded Western - but I find my opinions haven't changed much. In short, I still can't see what the fuss is about.

It's a competent and involving example of the genre and I love Hackman's amusingly psychopathic lawman/incompetent house builder in this. His insistence on referring to Harris' character as "The Duck of Death" while providing a rather different interpretation of his past exploits never fails to raise a laugh as much as his explosions of sudden violence are shocking.

Eastwood is an older and even craggier version of the western hardman he's played forever. It's more controlled and oblique than in High Plains Drifter though.

But it's the framing device for the whole movie I struggle with. I simply don't buy it.  Freeman too seems a bit wasted and stereotyped.

Verdict: It's good, not great.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Review: Stake Land

I'll admit I don't really watch a lot of horror nowadays, but I was suckered (!) in by the cover of this vampiric road movie and it's huge number of four/five star reviews.

Does Stakeland live up to its reviews? I think it does - if you set your expectations accordingly. This is a low budget tour of a post-vampire apocalyptic America which is grounded in fine performances all round, some wilderness photography near worthy of the Deer Hunter and touches of intriguing exposition which really go to work on your imagination.

There are some gruesome moments as the vampires are closer to 30 days of night than Twilight in their realisation - but thankfully it never became unbearably tense.

I'm glad we watched it in daylight though.

Verdict:  Far right Christian cults enabling monsters make this a vampire movie for our times.

Review: Delicacy

On the face of it, Delicacy is a bit of French oddity as essentially it's a story about grief, recovery and even harassment - but still manages to be a comedy romance.  As a result, while this film manages to step around the issues with great subtlety and French sophistication - it's hard to imagine a Hollywood remake anytime soon. Bollywood on the other hand...

I'll just come out and say it, the lovely Tautou is superb in this and Damiens also a lot of fun as the initially bemused, but very eager, romantic interest. I loved the way the romance was developed and the reactions of those surrounding them - from incredulousness from her jealous boss to immediate acceptance by her grandmother.

The ending is a bit abrupt - but after thinking about it, it was completely perfect.  He's hoping for a place in her future memories.

Verdict: Grief, comedy and romance are three things I never thought I'd write in the same sentence.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Review: Downsizing

This Damon vehicle takes an intriguing science fiction concept with lots of comedic potential and takes in wholly unexpected directions.

But what initially started off as a Truman show or Edward Scissorhands like satire ended up feeling more like a European drama. That makes it a difficult movie to pigeon hole - but also a tonally variable one.

Also strangely, one area not fully explored is the impact of the real sized world on the small sized one. After about the first hour or so, you could easily forget that there was a difference.  The sense I got was they were no longer interested in exploring that difference (or perhaps the budget had simply run out).

Verdict: The great escape.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: The School of Life

I was completely drawn into this quietly engaging French drama set between the world wars.  Sure, there's nothing spectacularly original here plot wise - but the quality acting, rich script and beautiful countryside pulled me in.

I don't know quite why the French are so good at this kind of thing (see also BBC for costume dramas), but I'm glad they are.

Verdict: Gentle slice of life drama.

Review: Soylent Green

Soylent Green fares better than most 1970s science fiction movies in the anachronistic stakes - but it still feels like it's from another less demanding era.  Heston's slightly too old and hammy an actor for the part of determined future cop who's irresistible to women (who are nearly all "furniture").  Some of the riot scenes - especially those with the scoop - are near laughable.

But elsewhere there's some nice production design detail - in particular, the flat Heston's character shares with Robinson's.  It ably conveys the sense of two men living in quiet desperation - while "doing alright" in comparison to others.

And it is the scenes with Robinson which lift this dystopian police procedural above the mediocre.  His last scenes in particular rank with some of his best work and are sadly prophetic.

The final twist revelation remains as shocking - but only if you haven't had any prior exposure. My wife hadn't and the her realisation was delightful to watch.

Verdict: Not all that's green is good.

Review: Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick's epic war movie remains a brutal and stark watch. As ever the first half remains more powerful and tighter than the second. It's almost Groundhog Day like in its repetition as the recruits undergo basic training to a barrage of highly creative insults from Ermey's Hartman.

It's easy to see why D'Onofrio has made a career out of playing ambiguous characters since with his portrayal of the slow deterioration of Private Pyle's mental state.

The missus was puzzled by the inclusion of the oil palm trees in the later scenes - "you'd never plant them that close to buildings" and "they look sick" until I told her they'd been shipped for filming on the Isle of Dogs and Beckton Gasworks.

Verdict: First half almost a standalone film - and also the best part of it.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Review: Clarity

OK made for TV movie that really should have been an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.  There's an intriguing idea here, but one that's milked for maximum melodrama and overlong running time.

It doesn't help that much of the acting is mediocre, even poor, at times - and the dialogue doesn't always convince either.

Lastly, the double-meaning of the title had me almost face-palming at the obviousness of it.

But I did like the moments which focussed on what matters most when death is approaching.

Verdict: Not as smart as it thinks it is

Review: The Philadelphia Story

Light hearted rom-com featuring three legends of the genre; Grant, Hepburn and Stewart.  The dialogue exchanges aren't quite as whip smart as other comedies of the era - but's still a fun watch.  The storyline is an unusual variation on the spoilt rich girl being accidentally courted by someone from the wrong side of the tracks. In this case, she's already been married to him once before.

Some scenes undoubtably wouldn't be filmed nowadays, eg Grant's pushing over of Hepburn's seems rather shocking to modern eyes (especially coming after him checking himself from punching her).  Other themes, like those of press intrusion, feel as contemporary as ever. .

Verdict: Classic screwball

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Review: I, Tonya

Darkly comic biopic of renowned and infamous ice skater, Tonya Harding. The documentary style regularly breaks the fourth wall with dry humour - usually during a pause in a beating Tonya is on the receiving end of.

Margot Robbie is never fails to convince as Harding - a redneck seemingly born with a talent to skate (and an unusually pushy mother). The supporting cast are equally good (with Janney as her monstrously abusive mother, LaVona, being another standout).

LaVona Golden: You're a dumb piece of shit who thinks she deserves to get hit.
Tonya Harding: I wonder how I got that idea?

I don't remember much of the incident which this movie has been pulled together around, but I imagine this movie has done a great deal to rehabilitate Tonya as a sympathetic and vulnerable person behind the brash exterior.  I was particularly struck by the realisation of how much we are all the product of our circumstances (cf Homo Deus) and the unjustness of Tonya's fate - both on the ice and in personal relationships. I hope she has found peace and the life she deserves.

Verdict: Skating on thick ice.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Review: Denial

Dramatisation of the David Irving Holocaust denial court case starring Timothy Spall and Rachel Weisz.

Spall, despite not physically resembling Irving very much, captures his manipulative intellect and arrogance well. It's not in any way a balanced portrayal though - there's no light to the shade.  Even the lighter scene of Irving with a younger member of his family feels slightly disturbing.

Weisz's Lipstadt isn't quite as strong, and that's partly because a deliberate and probably wise strategy not to pit her against Spall's Irving. But she does bring a quiet and impassioned sense of justice.  A couple of shout outs to Wilkinson's Rampton, and Scott for finding another slightly oily character.

The way the case against Irving is built (including a spine shivering visit to Auschwitz) was exceptionally told and gave me a new found respect for the subtleties of English law and those who practice it.

Verdict: Powerfully impressive takedown.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Review: The Greatest Showman

Exuberant musical take on the key beats of P.T. Barnum's life featuring Jackman, Williams and Ephron. It's rather creative with his life story and the facts at times - but it's all in the name of entertainment (and I feel sure the man himself would have appreciated, even celebrated the changes).

There's not much depth here, but themes of inclusion, friendship and family are universal and the wonderfully uplifting soundtrack carries it through the odd problematic moment.  So much so, I was surprised it ended when it did.

I even managed to annoy the missus by calling out the various aerial hoop moves!

Verdict: Elation in musical form.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Review: The Shape of Water

As homages to 50s creature features go,  The Shape of Water is a near perfect one.  The twist on the normal formula is that Hawkins' mute Elisa quickly grows to sympathise with and fall in love with Jones' amphibian man as she is denied the normal scream response.  I think I spotted nods to Amelie and Delicatessen too.

Hawkins' highly expressive performance is utterly absorbing and Jenkins' is her gentle foil who clues the audience in on any necessary exposition. Also of note,  Shannon adds another brutal and troubled hard man to his catalogue, while Stuhlbarg gives us another ambiguous one.

A word also to the marine inspired colour palette which imbues the production with a wonderful dream-like quality. At one point, a character gently mocks this and a modern trend in movie grading generally - by exclaiming "it's teal,  not blue".

Verdict: Wonderful fantasy romance.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Review: Rex

Surprisingly unsentimental tale of a marine dog handler, Megan Leavey and her dog, Rex, in Iraq.   Although based on a true story, there's a certain amount of dramatic license. But this aside, it's told in an unflashy way and takes its time to build so that when the action kicks in, it feels suitably shocking and earned.

Mara is convincing as the lead and despite the UK title, it's more her film than the dog's.

Verdict: Woman's best friend

Monday, 19 March 2018

Review: The Rise of Superman: Decoding the science behind ultimate human performance

Behind the hype of the title is a refreshingly market-speak-free read detailing how top performers in adventure sports and athletics manage to regularly perform seemingly superhuman stunts like ski-base jumping,  free-falling from space or even  - tapping into history here - breaking the four minute mile barrier.  The secret, Kotler asserts, is flow.

Flow turns out to be that quixotic sense of being so deeply absorbed in a task that time passes without you noticing while accompanied fantastic levels of creativity and performance. Or in my generation's parlance - being in the zone. Or if you're a runner like myself - runner's high (a low level version of flow apparently).

Kotler slowly unpacks the neurochemistry (an interplay of around half a dozen potent chemicals) and biology behind the metaphysics of flow through well told and inspiring examples of derring-do.  There are areas of our brains which give us near supernatural powers like being able to predict the future (in a limited way) and making non-obvious connections and acting on them unconsciously.

The good news, however, is that ordinary mortals like yours truly can also access flow in our everyday lives and also benefit from up to five times increases in productivity (according to a McKinsey study of executives):

Tips for activating flow

Avoid multitasking
Flow is experienced when the brain stops multitasking and so you are more likely to enter it - if you concentrate on one task.

Growth mindset
Some people that intelligence and abilities are fixed, others believe they can always expand and improve aka they have a growth mindset.

You have some level of control over your current experience.

Different environments or situations like visiting a new coffee shop can help unlock flow.  Being in nature can be especially good.

Kotler uses various examples, including the breaking of the four minute mile, to show how visualisation can help the impossible become possible.
“What does impossible feel like, sound like, look like. And then we start to be able to see ourselves doing the impossible—that’s the secret. There is an extremely tight link between our visual system and our physiology: once we can actually see ourselves doing the impossible, our chances of pulling it off increase significantly.”
Michael Gervais, psychologist 

Clear goals
Chunking a big goal into lots of tiny ones helps enormously.
“I don’t think about breaking a record, I can’t ever think about the whole dive. It’s too overwhelming. I have to chunk it down, create tiny, clear goals. I go through kick cycles. The Voice (the voice of intuition) keeps count. I want to pay attention through one cycle, then the next, then the next. Keep the count, that’s my only goal. If I keep the count, I can stay in flow the whole dive.”
Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Free diver

A writer is better focussing on a few great paragraphs at a time, than an entire chapter.

Immediate feedback
If you can get immediate feedback on what you're doing, then that helps drive learning and flow. One of the most profound flow experiences I had was during web development - I was right on the edge of what I was capable, but getting feedback (whether the program would run or not) almost every few minutes.

For individuals, this means tightening feedback loops (OODA loop style). That could mean daily rather than quarterly or annual reviews.

4% more
You are more likely to find flow when the task you're doing is 4% more challenging than your current capacity.  The benefits of this are cumulative over time and akin to Team Sky's aggregation of marginal gains.

Element of danger
Note: danger doesn't have to be physical or life threatening - to a shy person crossing the room to talk to someone new can feel dangerous enough.  Flow is often found close to boundary of fight or flight.

For those seeking flow in team situations, the following can also help:

  • Familarity
  • Collective humility
  • Being engaged in the collective here and now
  • Yes, And
  • Choosing your own challenges
  • Having the necessary skills

Finally, he finishes with an inspiring call to action drawn from another revolutionary author:
"We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for."
Alice Walker

Verdict: Thrilling and engaging, but not a how-to-manual

Review: Sphere

Thanks to the cast and occasionally great one liners worthy of a screwball comedy, time has been kind to Sphere.

It's mostly a three hander between Hoffman, Stone and Jackson - and their exchanges make it worth the entrance fee (in this case, about 25p from a charity shop).  In a near breach of the fourth wall, one of them even asks what the another member of the party is doing there.

Sure, it's not terribly original (cf The Forbidden Planet and every base under siege story in Doctor Who) and it doesn't feature groundbreaking special effects - the only OK CGI sphere seems to have absorbed most of the budget, but the film has a certain something.
Harry: Are you a religious man, Norman?
Norman: Atheist, but I'm flexible. 
The claustrophobic nature of the realistic looking undersea environment and largely implied violence winds up the tension to the max. There are some genuinely chilling moments. For example, Hoffman's response to the discovery that the entity is happy, sent a real shiver down my spine.

Verdict: Not quite aged like a fine wine, but more like the unexpected discovery of a slightly out of date chocolate bar at the back of a food cupboard.

Review: A simple life

A simple life charts the post-work life of Ah-Tao, a maid for a Hong Kong family, who have all but one emigrated. The remaining family member, Roger, shares a flat with her - but after a stroke she decides to move into a care home.

I liked that the story didn't take a predictable redemptive route and it is fascinating to see how another country undergoing great and fast paced change takes care of their older generation.  It turns out that old people's homes in Hong Kong, even relatively expensive ones, are no less depressing than those in the West.

The film is also populated by interesting characters - even if their back stories aren't fleshed out. There's one larger than life character in the home who seems so able, it isn't clear why he's there at all. I also enjoyed the well observed interlude with a celebrity pop star.

Verdict: Touching slice of a different culture's life