Quarterly review: FY13Q1

Upon finishing a particularly thought-provoking book or film I will sometimes spend a few days mulling it over before writing a review on this blog. Sometimes I just dash off a quick review on Goodreads or Letterboxd. For the sake of completeness, I thought that each quarter I would post my list of off-the-cuff reviews. Below are my 2013Q1 media missives. As always, my full reviews can be found here.

From Goodreads (2013)

★★★☆☆ Conservative Tradition (lecture series)

★★★★☆ Crime and Punishment

★★★☆☆ A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

★★★★★ A Fire Upon the Deep

From my Letterboxd film diary:

★★★☆☆ Dredd

★★★½☆ The Cat Returns

★★★★½ The Rocketeer

★★★★½ Porco Rosso

★★★★☆ Wreck-it Ralph

★★★★☆ Argo

Arguments v. Beliefs and responsibility

Eviscerating pundits who use boatloads of clichés is akin to shooting fish in a barrel (I took a couple of shots myself recently). But that doesn’t stop Thomas Frank in the latest edition of Harper’s from lamenting the tiresome and vacuous use of language by the punditocracy. One of his targets is the use of “argument” as a way to distance oneself from a conclusion. He gives the following examples:

“history just argues incredibly strong against it.”
“one could argue that Barack Obama’s smartest political move was putting Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet so that she wasn’t outside with Bill Clinton causing mischief.”
“Presidents have always been taking vacations and complaining about it amounts to a little more than partisan carping, one could argue.”

Frank calls this usage pattern “an epidemic”, writing:

People in the land of professional commentary no longer believe things or propose things or even assert things; they argue them.

Nice observation, but why is this? The true epidemic here is twofold. Firstly, lack of ownership. Pundits must loudly and reductively state their position in the most indirect way as a matter of job security. In The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver analyzed the accuracy of election predictions made by The McLaughlin Group, a rotating subgroup of the professional pundit class, and concluded that they offer as much predictive value as a mere penny.

The second source of these weasel words is due to the unassailable quality of beliefs. Rampant relativism and extreme individualism create an environment where beliefs are a personal right not to be criticized. Thus, no one is able to assert any beliefs, because they might infringe upon the beliefs of others. If you are not convinced, test this on a nearby creationist.

Certainly a lamentable situation. Although I enjoyed Frank’s observations, I wish he followed his lamentations with some assertions.

Finding Balance

Work-life balance is difficult enough to achieve, especially when you must balance your own development with that of your dependents. Like the information diet — limiting the intake “junk” information and information over-consumption — I thought of how my attention is spent, relative to my goal of leading a “considered life”. What are the “food groups” for my attention that require balancing? Considering how I fill each 24 hour period, came up with some categories:

  • professional
  • physical
  • mental
  • parental
  • entertainment

These categories reflect the current situation in my life (ie. a new parent), so your mileage may vary. Also, I am not arguing that each of these categories have equal distribution. The “professional” category takes up about 50% of my time and attention, and the physical only about 5%. But I digress…

The above categories might remind you of the top bits of Maslow’s hierarchy. Indeed, the first three categories are about self actualization; the fourth is about love and belonging; and the fifth is the stress-reducing “junk food” of attention, which is overlooked by Maslow, but important in itself (and if you look close enough, you will find that even here one can find personal development).

Both your time and attention are a limited resource. If you are to spend them in the pursuit of work/life balance, or living the considered life (or whatever your goal is) consider what the optimal balance should be for you. Think of all you do and how they fit into the above categories, and how much time in total you dedicate to each. It is a simple problem of economics: the allocation of scarce resources.

Forgive me now as I break down each of these categories using personal examples.

Professional

Obviously work, and the types of R&D, Meetup groups, and extra-work study you do to better yourself professionally is important. Having a work environment that supports your personal development gives you a great sense of well being.

Physical

This one has been a challenge for me since having children. When you do have a spare minute, who wants to go to the gym? I just want to sleep. I look forward to my kids becoming more independent so that I can get back on this. Walking or riding to work, having a good diet, going to the gym and doing some jujutsu are what I wish I were doing.

Mental

For many, mental development is closely aligned to professional development. For me, it is exercising my brain in ways that my professional environment does not. This usually means reading, specifically non-fiction (politics, science, philosophy, etc) or challenging literature. Writing about my thinking is also important to me and my mental development. It is why I dedicate so much time to this blog, despite having a very small audience. 😉 To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, “Those who cannot speak, cannot write.” Engaging in enlightening discourse through different types of talk clubs are a great way to exercise the brain. The internet — being asynchronous — does not count.

Parental

Developing as a parent is important, since your kids will only have one childhood and it is your duty to give them the best one you possibly can. I mix this a lot with Entertainment, since it usually also involves play, outings and watching movies together. Another important part of parental duty is being a spouse. Don’t skimp on the husband+wife time, especially if your spouse is stay-at-home.

Entertainment

Life without fun, isn’t. For me TV, movies and reading (eg. genre fiction or comic books) fall into this category. I also watch the occasional football game, and recently was invited to a D&D group which is about as escapist as one can get. That is not to say any of the above categories cannot be fun. They should be. (In fact, “husband time” can be a highly recommended form of escapism, wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Taking stock of each of these categories in your life and arranging your activities for optimum balance, even on paper, is a brilliant exercise in self-evaluation. If you are a subscriber to the idea of “the quantified self” you already understand the value, even if this is more of an abstract/subjective approach. A constant struggle, and like a diet you must occasionally return to first principles, periodically taking stock of how your spend your time and attention is rewarding.

Startup Weekend Okanagan AAR

It has been a week, and I think I have finally recovered from Startup Weekend Okanagan. I had a total of 7 hours sleep over the three days of taking a product from concept to pitch. The team was a powerhouse with 5 devs, a designer, 2 biz/cust devs, and me (a product dev). Throughout the weekend, we never thought we had a chance of winning, and were in it for the love of the product, the love of the tech, and fun. In the end, our enthusiasm prevailed and we were able to take home top prize, even though I think half of the audience still had no idea what it was we made.

1st place: Arkitektor
Champions, with AO CEO Jeff Keen on the left, and city councillor Colin Basran on the right

The Arkitektor concept was formed out of a #devKL session where we discussed visual modelling. Our fearless team leader @neh decided that we should use Startup Weekend as a chance to try and build the product development app of our dreams. At the pitch he said “graph database” and boom! He had a team. Originally, I wanted to join a team with people I didn’t know. However all the other pitches did not excite me as much as Arkitektor, which I threw myself into.

It was a tiring/amazing experience. I truly believe that the amount of talent on the team made it a once in a lifetime experience. I didn’t get much of a chance to learn Node.js or Neo4j as I spent so much time on the planning, presenting, biz and cust dev side(s) of the project. I was pretty ragged by the end.

I was very happy that SW integrated market validation into the judging this year. At the #devKL beforehand we were planning on pushing such an agenda and basically told all the dev’s not to make anything until it was proven. The Arkitektor team used both the Lean Startup Machine’s Validation Board and the Business Model Generation tool.

I had a crash course in delegation. Our dev team was experienced and could quickly get up and running, but our designer and biz people were not used to working in a startup environment. I introduced a kanban style task list to the biz people, which worked pretty well. I hope they got a taste of what startup life is like: you cannot afford to be a specialist, you cannot wait to be told what to do, you must use your initiative.

My other big lesson learned was the importance of honing your message. I practiced explaining our concept to as many people as I could, and even though I felt I got better, we still were not able to to explain it to a non-dev in two or three sentences.

Prize

The only thing that I would suggest to the organizers, other than providing lighter meals, is to have a physical object to award the winners, even if just a piece of paper. We had no idea what we won, and had nothing to show for it, which was a bit anticlimactic.

If we are to have this thing every year in Kelowna, I think it would be great if we could make an 8-bit trophy, maybe 3D printed, to give to the winning team to keep in their office until the next year.

Taking Startup Weekend into another dimension

Speaking of 3D, I think it would be brilliant if we had a special edition of Startup Weekend that focused on physical products, with 3D-printed prototypes. It is hard to imagine what amazing products would come out of such an event. I am sure physical product-focused events like Startup Weekend happen all the time in other contexts. However, Startup Weekend has typically been the purview of digital products, and we find ourselves in an era of bit-pushers being able to push atoms, bringing all their web and graphic design skills to the physical world. We could even get Objet or some other company to sponsor the printers, and have to include the lengthy printing time in the development strategy.

Furthermore, think of the new types of people that would be introduced to Startup Weekend. Kelowna has healthy gaming and animation communities, filled full of modellers that would be worth their weight in gold on a 3DSW team. It sounds like lots of fun…

Well, what do you know, it has already happened!

Wrap-up

Highly recommended. We are still considering whether to make Arkitektor in real life. Regardless, I will be there next year, hopefully as a well-rested volunteer organizer.