Friday, February 26, 2010

Made to Stick: Keeping things Simple

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is about creating ideas that stick in people's minds, ideas that make people want to spread them. The first element of 'stickiness' is simplicity.

Simplicity is a proverb

When you're creating an idea, you want it to be short, easy to remember. Ideally you want your idea to be short and WORTHWHILE for people to remember. For instance, think about these phrases:

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

Proverbs are worthwhile ideas that are simple, profound, and (most importantly) useful. They provide a guide about how to behave in a complex situation or a principle to live by. Proverbs provide wisdom. And people share them - the bird-in-the-hand proverb can be found in Spain, Russia, Iceland, and even in medieval Latin documents. Its origin may be from one of Aesop's Fables, dating from around 570 B.C.

Simplicity is the most important thing

Think about a subject you know a lot about. Now, if you want to, try this mental exercise - it should take about 10 seconds. Imagine a friend asks you to explain a bit about that subject to them. They'll give you a couple of minutes to give them a bit of an overview of it.

Have a think about a few of the things you'd want to explain to them.

While you're doing that, I'll try it with the idea of time management. Skip past the bullet-points and I'll keep on with the post:

  • write everything down
  • review stuff regularly
  • keep a list of tasks you want to do
  • have a list of goals (yearly and monthly)
  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do things in small chunks
  • do stuff that excites you
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • keep a notebook with you to write stuff down
  • time management is a habit - start small
  • there are lots of good books to read.

So, here's why simplicity is good. People who are experts want to communicate a lot to their audience - and the tendancy is to communicate too much. I have 12 things in my list above - the chances are that 10 minutes after I explain this stuff, my friend is going to remember nothing. Maybe one or two things at most.

When an idea is simple, it means you've found its core - the most important thing about the idea that you want to communicate.

You can't have 5 'most important' things that you want to communicate. You've got to prioritise by weeding out the important ideas that aren't the most important idea. You've got to eliminate the superfluous.

What's left is like a proverb or a haiku: the most important thing about your idea.

If I were to do this with my list above, getting rid of stuff that'd merely be nice to talk about, I'm left with this:

  • have a list of goals (yearly and monthly)
  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do things in small chunks
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • time management is a habit - start small

If I then eliminate the stuff that I think would be really beneficial to know, I get this:

  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • time management is a habit - start small

Those are four principles of time management that I think are really important to know. But four is still too many - if I were forced to choose only the most important thing, then what would it be?

Only do stuff that adds to the person you want to be.

So, I didn't know that before I did this exercise. For me, the purpose behind time management is to help you live the life you want to live, and to help you be the person you want to be. Now, discussing that idea any further would be irrelevant to this post but it's a good illustration of this principle.


The chapter on Simplicity goes into more detail about how to achieve short, profound, essential statements of your idea. It talks about relating your idea to concepts your audience is already familiar with, and with using analogies (especially analogies that allow the audience to extrapolate a lot of information from them).

The whole chapter is a worthwhile read, but essentially it emphasises again and again the reason why we should aim for simplicity: when people remember the core of your idea, they know what's important. They know what to focus on in any given situation. Knowing the core allows them to make good choices under pressure.

Next up, ... Surprise!

Previous posts in the series:

In which I am impressed by the cover
An overview of the book

Monday, February 22, 2010

Time Management: Tips and hacks

I thought I'd follow up on some ideas from the Facebook post about how to stop myself from wasting time on the internet. Please let me know your ideas for not procrastinating, both online and in real life.

* I've started breaking my internet addiction through giving myself designated 'offline hours' and a dedicated half-hour in the evening where I can do guilt-free browsing and read anything I want. Also: no internet before 9 in the morning (which, it turns out, is quite hard for me to stick to)

* As part of this, I went on a one-week media fast - no news sites, or political sites, or newspapers/radio/TV. This felt great, and freed up an amazing amount of time.

* I built up some strong negative emotions
(like loathing, frustration, or boredom) towards particular websites - which motivated me to block them in my hosts file. This means I can't access these sites without manually unblocking them. Seems to be working - I don't miss them, and I think I *wanted* an excuse not to go back to them. (And unless Facebook makes some changes to its new homepage design - which has made the site way more irritating - it's another site that might be joining this group.)

* Decided to not follow or read
blog posts comments or discussions - this is tougher, but I've realised that I don't really process these conversations very well. They sort of swim in a haze through my eyes and brain and don't really sink into my long-term memory. A complete waste of my time, really, to look at them or check back in on them.

* I've re-categorised all my Google Reader feeds, allocating them to either 'Must Read' blogs, 'Skippable' blogs (where I can delete their posts if I'm running out of time). I also have a Probation' category now - where I put all the new blogs I'm subscribing to. I give them about a month in Probation and then decide whether to unsubscribe from them or not. Having a Probation category has also prompted me to delete several big blogs from my feed - most notably Aintitcool - which has significantly reduced the amount of infocrap I need to wade through.

Also a big shout-out to Billy from the previous Facebook post: he introduced me to the studyhacks site, which led me to this long but good talk by Merlin Mann about time and attention, and his recommendation of the 4 Hour Work Week was the tipping point into me getting the book out and having a read. Fascinating stuff.

What about you? What do you do?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lost: Second Impressions III

The finale of Season 1 was exciting stuff, had a great momentum, and we would have continued straight on into Season 2 if the disc had worked.

A couple of weeks later we managed to watch the opening three episodes of Season 2 in a row. This is something I've wanted to do for a while - my memory of watching these week-by-week was that they were a bit frustrating in the way they replayed the same events from different points-of-view. Watched in sequence ..., well it was good fun but the repetitiveness was still there. And perhaps that's a part of the explanation for the start of the huge drop-off in Lost's audience during Season 2: a slow, repetitive start followed by a huge dose of mythology (with buttons to be pushed and Dharma Initiative orientation films to be watched).

... Also, my advice is never to play a drinking game where you have to scull every time Michael yells either "WALT!" or "They took my boy!"

Based on reading a few 'Favourite Episode' lists that are floating around the net, we decided to skip forward to the highlights of Season 2. This meant we missed out much of the Dark Charlie, and the long con with the guns stuff.

Instead we skipped forward to the one-two punch of Shannon's spotlight episode followed by 'The Other 48 Days'. Shannon is still a favourite character, and her spotlight episode goes to great lengths to make her sympathetic and someone we're willing to root for. And then Ana-Lucia shows up. Unfortunately, Shannon may be a sympathetic character but she's not iconic in the way Jack, Kate or Locke are - therefore: bye-bye Shannon.

(Is it worth noting here that I like Ana-Lucia? I'll go into that in more detail if it seems relevant.)

The Other 48 Days, which I thought would be terrible given that most of the characters it developed are now gone (although at least one of them will return in Season 6)
was great, actually. Really rewarded rewatching - even though some of Goodwin's behaviour bugged me now that he's been fleshed out as a character in subsequent episodes. It just seemed to me that his conversation with Ana-Lucia should be much more reasonable and less darkly villainous ... but it wasn't really a deal-breaker for me.

In our next re-watch session we sat down to the very character-centric The 23rd Psalm, an Eko flashback episode that I found moving and involving.

This contrasted with an episode I thought I was really going to enjoy: Meet Henry Gale. The introduction of Henry Gale into the show is one of the pivotal moments of Lost, but rather than being character-focused, it's an episode about people shouting at each other and using torture as the option of first resort. So, it felt plot-heavy and not particularly insightful. Pretty great Sayid performance though.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Play: Looking back on February

So, at the end of PLAY!, here's what's I've done:

Read Mixtape: I did enjoy this script. It's sweet and light, with five or six laugh out loud moments. The structure of having a thirteen year old trying to track down the songs her parents (who have died) loved is excellent and leads to nice character growth. The film feels very much like Freaks and Geeks to me. Here's a link to Scriptshadow's review, and an interview with the author.

The Orphans: continued plotting out my creepy 'kids stuck in a haunted orphanage' movie. Have written another couple of sequences, and am getting to the point where I really need to start thinking about the film's tone: its pretty grim, but is there going to be a happy ending? Or a pyrrhic victory? Or will I embrace nihilism? I think I've realised that I'm writing a Saphhire and Steel story in which Saphhire and Steel never show up. and I'm definitely at the point where I want to find out how it all turns out for them.

Free writing: Spent a little bit of most days just jamming on different story ideas, putting absolutely no pressure on myself. So far I've played around with LARP ideas, status updates for lovebites characters, and a best-selling thriller.

Artificial (the AI story): I said that I was thinking about how to make the Pessimist character interesting. Well I did nothing on this until the very last evening of the last day of PLAY. I was reading this excellent interview with the author of Source Code, and his comment on his focus on character awoke something in me. I saw the moment between the Pessimist and the AI that I needed to work towards, and then came up with a diagram that defines the relationship between the three of them (AI, Pessimist and Optimist). That gives me pretty much all I need to start outlining the movie.

Destinies: I think I'm pushing this back a little - to focus on finishing Bad Family, and then outlining these other ideas. Need to discuss, re-negotiate timeframes with my brain-storming collaborators.

And for extra credit ...

Read The Second Session: INCOMPLETE! In fact, unstarted. My first draft script about musicians trying to record an album is still in my to-read pile.

Made to Stick: I've blogged 1.5 more posts in this series - cued up to publish in March.

The Limit: Still need to assemble a contact list of emails for producers.

I've also decided to shift the time I spend playing and working again. For the next little while I'm going to spend four weeks working and two weeks playing. See how that feels.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Test: Please comment on this post

Hi all. Regan just told me that she's been having problems commenting on the blog.

Could you reply to this post, please? If you have any problems, give me an email or comment on facebook.

Hell, let's even make it constructive: what would you like to see me blog about this year?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Books: January

Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert is the story of an army of mercenaries laying seige to Carthage in the third century BC. I was enjoying it until I lost the library's copy of it on the train. But ... go Project Gutenberg! Here's an online copy of it.

Illium by Dan Simmons took me by surprise. I thought it was a simple re-telling of the Trojan War where the role of gods is taken by time-travelling humans with advanced technology. It's more complicated than that - there's an inter-cutting storyline between three planets that doesn't fully pay off by the end of this first book, but has helped to set up a pretty amazing change in the situation. Favourite subplot: a bromance between two robots.

The Left Hand of Darkness - a simple, ultimately moving book about first contact. Le Guin creates a world that simulataneously feels real and like an parable.

The Four Hour Work Week is filled with some quite inspiring ideas about creating more time for yourself. I'll be re-reading this one more closely.

Olympos is the sequel to Illium (above). If Illium was about exploring the novel's setting, then this is about exploding it into action. There's a game called Sorceror which has a concept called a Kicker: a starting situation that radically upsets everyone's lives and the status quo, forcing unpredictable responses from everyone. Olympos starts with a great Kicker, and continues to place the characters in terrible situations where they must choose, choose and choose again while under time pressures and limited information. It is great stuff, and Achilles is once again a bad-ass.

This stuff has inspired me to give the Illiad and the Odyssey a go.

Mixtape turns out to be a sweet, funny little script. I really liked it and wish it the best in its journey towards becoming a movie.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Movies: January

Surf's Up is a surprisingly enjoyable animated film. It's a story about a penguin trying to win a surfing competition, and the film takes advantage of the fact it's shot in a handheld reality TV style to create a relaxed (almost-improvised feeling) series of jokes.

Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is a film I remember as being long and dull. I was wrong - this time round it played out as a fun romp with engaging characters.

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest is a film I remember as being long, dull and overly-complicated. I was mostly wrong - it is extremely long, but I think my two main problems when I watched this in the movies in 2006 were (i) I'd completely forgotten who all the characters were in the two years since I'd seen the first one (like, who is this 'Norrington' guy, again?), and (ii) in the cinema this played out like an ADD assault on my senses with a volume at somewhere around 120dB. Both Dead Man's Chest and its sequel play better watched as part of a trilogy - they play even better when viewed as a single epic fantasy film that you can break up into easily digestible pieces on your computer.

Avatar was good.

I watched Mike from Milwaukee's video review of The Phantom Menace. It's a 70 minute long work of incisive, cruel comedy gold. Among the many highlights, a two minute explanation of why Qui-Gon Jin's strategy to free Anakin Skywalker from slavery makes no sense whatsoever. It also spends a lot of time pointing out the biggest flaw of the movie for me: that it lacks a main character, and that the most obvious choice for a main character (Anakin) doesn't show up for 45 minutes and then proceeds to do basically nothing for the rest of the story. What I hadn't noticed before was the story potential to be mined from amalgamating Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's characters. Anyway it's great: here's a link to all seven parts of the review. I've embedded the first part, below.

Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End. Again, I enjoyed this, breaking it up into smaller chunks. (Perhaps I have become influenced by watching too much TV on DVD, and 45 minutes seems like a natural amount of time to sit down to watch something.) Particularly liked spending alone time with Jack, and the battle at the end.

Inglourious Basterds doesn't actually feel like a Tarantino film to me, and I think that's a good thing. I suppose what I mean by that is that there's a focus on the story that I appreciate (as opposed to focusing on making sure that you'll perceive that the story is being told in a way that's cool). As a script, I guess the main character is Shoshanna, the protagonists are Shoshanna and Aldo Raines, and the antagonist is the German education system - which seems to produce perceptive and resourceful soldiers. I broke this in a multi-day viewing - because the film itself is broken into chapters - and I found it immensely satisfying.

Watched Reincarnation at Chris' recommendation. An excellent J-scare by the director of the Grudge, involving a movie being shot about a horrible slaughter at a hotel 35 years ago. Past lives, repressed memories and multiple timelines ensue. What's great about this film is that it slowly trains to you keep looking into the backgrounds of shots, because weird and disturbing shit keeps happening there in really subtle ways. After about 25 minutes of that, the movie had me on the edge of my seat without really needing to do anything scary at all - it had made the ordinary terrifying. Bonus points for NOT playing out a twist with one particular character, and for having a very very appropriate ending. I, too, now recommend this film.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Games: January

Battlestar Galactica: The Boardgame. It's a good game that nicely captures the 'struggle for survival' dynamic of the earlier seasons, and has the 'all the players co-operate against a common pressure but one of them might be a traitor' structure that I love. However, I'm not convinced I ever need to play it again.

My third one-shot of D&D 4th Edition was an almost-dungeon-crawl undertaken by a group of all 'arcane' (magic-using) characters. Most important thing I took from this game: Skill challenges can be great. I really enjoyed how they give scenes importance and weight. Skill challenges take encounters that previous editions of D&D would have solved via conversation, GM fiat or a single dice roll ... but under the skill challenge system, role-playing conversations and investigations is encouraged and then converted into successful and unsuccessful tests. If you accumulate a pre-defined number of successes or failures and the plot advances. Luke (as DM) was great at making them 'follow the fiction' rather than just be dry dice rolls.

Biggest problem? I found that combat was an excuse to unplug from being involved with the character for LONG periods of time. Combats are fine and will go faster when you know the system, and running encounters using video game logic and level design would be great.

I also think you have to aggressively work to contribute to the game's fiction when you're in combat. For instance, me narrating tentacles coming up around a platform to drag an enemy to his death works far better than simply activating a power. But that's something I have to push for and remember, rather than something that's encouraged or mandated by D&D's rules (for a completely different experience, try playing Dogs in the Vineyard sometime).

I spend a couple of weeks in January taking a deliberately low-key approach to gaming. I reduced or postponed game pre-Kapcon, to avoid burnout.

In that time, I played VVVVVV, a brilliant platformer that's challenging, but not too challenging. Click on that link to play the first two levels for free.

I also checked out the Doom Roguelike, an overhead ASCII version of Doom I. This was my first experience with Rogue-like games. I liked it, and decided to uninstall it before I got too deep in, as I could feel the addictive properties starting to well up inside my brain. Basically, I asked myself, "Is it 'worth' spending the time learning the interface and mastering?" In this case the answer was, no. But I recommend it, anyway.

Canabalt is a nice simple adrenaline boost of a Flash game. Got about 5 minutes amusement out of it.

One of the reviewers on Play this Thing described Avalanche as the best Flash game ever. I found it completely frustrating.

Despite my commitment to not continuing to play Poker on my cellphone, I cracked another level on this game. I continue to be impressed by the economics of this game - and by the way each level forces you to develop a feel for different aspects of poker.


Kapcon 19 is a two-day games convention held in Wellington, NZ, in late January. This was the third year where I was helping run Games on Demand, where we pick the games to run based on player enthusiasm.

In the first session, Jenni insisted I run Bad Family. Excellent peer pressure from her. Mike summarises the session nicely here. This was my first test-run of the revised rules, and I thought for the most part they worked splendidly. I'm particularly happy with a section in the set-up of the game where everyone asks one question of everyone else's characters - it generated a lot of good material to use in the game. Probably one more revision from here, which will focus on creating an Apples to Apples style simplicity, and fleshing out a few bits of the text to make them more readable.

Poison'd, Vincent Baker's game about nasty pirates was very satisfying. My first time running it: we captured a ship, took down two of His Majesty's vessels, killed a plantation owner after setting his mansion on fire, betrayed the captain twice (once, successfully), and made deals with both God and the Devil. Playing this helped me see how you can adjust the dial from extremely brutal to fun romp, and that you really need to, depending on the players you have.

Two-thirds through the game, I was a little worried that after a couple of ship-to-ship combats and some time on shore that things would get a little repetitive. Fortunately, the design of the game and some excellent characterisations from my players shifted the story into a revenge/atonement finale that proved extremely satisfying.

Bliss Stage was a highlight of the con - a powerhouse of gamers I respect sitting down at the table to create a gritty, incredibly tough story about the cost of war on a group of teenage soldiers. Apparently just as good, if not better the second time it was run.

ACTION CASTLE! is a work of genius. It's the game of 1980s text adventures. One person plays the computer telling you what you see, and every other player gets to take a turn giving the computer one single command. ('Go north'. 'Examine tree'.). Remember to save!

A World of Possibilities was an excellent scenario created by Mash. In discussing it, I need to give away a little bit: this is one of the games of TORG (*) I've always wanted to play, and I got a lot of satisfaction out of fighting in a war for reality. My only advice to Mash might be to emphasise the cost of our decisions a little more - spend a little more time milking the denoument for pathos. On the other hand, it featured a brilliant Mash-created cosm that was plausible, freaky, and stunningly clever in its Twilight Zoneness.

(*) Don't worry if this means nothing to you. It's totally a 90s RPGeekery thing.

In Session 5, I decided that I was feeling exactly in the mood to run some Primetime Adventures. I got together a large group filled with some welcome familiar faces and some people I'd been curious to meet for a while. The brainstorming session to decide on a show, I decided to run it in an extremely relaxed, no-pressure style. I wanted us to take our time, build some trust and share some ideas about the types of TV we find excited. We actually found a show idea that 'clicked' pretty early - after talking about the "Anything's possible" vibe of New Dr Who, and getting a hit from the whole group when Sapphire and Steel was mentioned, we started creating a show about an organisation that fixes problems with reality. We spent a bit of time mining the show for ideas and structuring the series, and ended up with the group playing members of two rival teams - one that solves problems through creativity and compassion, the other using guns and murder.

We decided to play an episode where the two teams collide on a mission, and an excellent conflict-filled series of scenes and time-loops followed. Props to Eric in his second Kapcon experience for playing a real bastard of a military leader, to Andy for playing his minor role with comedic aplomb, and to Rohan for a great characterisation of an intellectual who really didn't look like he was capable of saving the day.

I finished Kapcon by running my craziest game of Inspectres ever (and that includes the game set in the town of Footloose). I've been feeling a little burned out on InSpectres, and was tired and headachey, so I warned everyone I'd be running it mean, activating the death and dismemberment clause, and pushing hard. By the end of the game, we had recruited an entirely new second (and rival) franchise of InSpectres who were sitting at the other end of the table, solving a parallel mission - team one consisted of three beta-male losers struggling to make their business work, and team two consisted of their extremely aggravating ex-wives. Featured: a ghost with Alzheimers, the transformation of Brian Tamaki into an immortal, an ex-husband and wife meeting-cute over an alien abduction, and regular spots in the confessional chair to call out to our sponsor: Hell Pizza.

Great stuff.