Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Dip: When you should quit

When you're experiencing a Dip, you should do whatever it takes to get through it.

The worst thing you can do is quit in the middle of a Dip, during the period when you're experience the most pain and the least reward, quitting when you have the least perspective on the situation. And remember: if you quit in the middle of a Dip, then you're:
  • wasting all the time and effort you put into getting this far
  • giving up on becoming one of the few, valuable people who ever master a skill.
On the other hand, Seth Godin states, "If you're not able to get through the Dip in an exceptional way, you must quit. And quit right now."

So let's review. You should quit if you're:
  • working on a Dip that doesn't have a good enough reward at the end of it
  • on a dead end path (one where the rewards aren't worth or aren't getting any better)
  • engaged in a self-destructive activity (which Seth calls a 'Cliff')
"Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can't deal with the stress of the moment," says Seth. Instead he proposes that the better plan is to quit before you start.

Quitting before you start

Before you start a new project (or try entering a new career or work on a new goal) ask yourself, "When will I quit? Under what circumstance will I stop doing this thing?"

Be specific:
  • What will make you quit?
  • What would have to happen in your world?
  • How would you have to feel?
  • How long would you have to stick it out without making any progress?
The point is stop yourself from quitting when it's painful or when the pressure comes on. Asking yourself questions like these can give your some perspective when the Dip (inevitably) happens. It's a way of comparing the pressures that are tempting you to quit with the signals you've decided should make you quit.

An example Seth uses in the book is of a marathon runner working out exactly what would make them quit in the middle of an event. Blisters or cramps may feel bad, but they're not enough to justify pulling out of a race with two kilometres to go.

... But this is all pretty idealistic. Despite all this, we're all still going to face the Dip with the things we're doing and we're probably not going to have these pretty , well-organised "Quitting Criteria" to refer to. So Seth provides two questions to ask before deciding to quit while we're in the Dip:

1. Am I panicking?
If you're in the middle of something, and the pressure has really come on you, and you're at your lowest ebb ... then that is (very probably) a bad time to quit. Your panic is going to make you quit right in the middle of a Dip.

Panic should be a signal to stick with something. Don't quit.

2. What sort of progress am I making?
You're either moving forward, falling behind or standing still.

If you're going to succeed, then you've got to be making some sort of forward progress, no matter how small.

If you're not making forward progress, and you're not quitting (in order focus on something where you CAN make progress) then you're wasting your time, your energy, and your life.

The progress you're making doesn't have to be huge; in fact it can be quite subtle - and it's up to you to define what 'progress' means to you.(*) But if you're not making progress, then it's time to start assessing whether you're in a Dip or a Cul-de-Sac.

(*) It could be something more pleasurable, or that you're getting better results from, or earning more from. It's up to you to define the y-axis of this graph.

The biggest problem with quitting is that is requires you to admit you're not going to be great at something. As Godin says, adjusting our self image is something we tend to be bad at. That makes it easy to come up with reasons not to do it. As a result, we don't quit and don't have to face the truth that we're just average at something

But quitting does not equal failing. To quit is to say "I value this thing over the thing I'm doing now." Failure, on the other hand, happens when you exhaust all your options to try and succeed, or you run out of time to succeed, or you give up.

One more post to come - and we're going to loop all the way back to Jenni's story [LINK], to talk about the difference between quitting writing a book and quitting being a writer.

In the meantime, have you ever stuck with something and not quit even though you know you should have?

--- --- ---

As always, The Dip is available at Wellington Library.

Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Dip: Why it's good to quit

This is how I became a writer:

Originally I wasn't even in JP's band. He was being lead singer of The Wake (the band he'd set up during our first year at university), and I was struggling through my uni studies, trying to figure out how to write short stories and doodling around on my guitar.

The two of us started hanging out at my flat, showing each other the songs we'd been writing, and trying to figure out how to make them better. Eventually we had enough material to make a set list, and we realised that this was more than just jamming: we actually wanted to start a side-project from JP's band.

And thus Trash Dallas was born. JP and I decided to audition for a drummer and a bass-player, to take our show on the road. The auditions for our side-project were ridiculously hard, and eventually JP invited me to just start jamming with The Wake.(*) After a while, I became part of the band, and a whole bunch of plot twists ensued ...

(*) And thus Trash Dallas was dissolved, after about three months of auditions and no gigs.

About two years later, JP left - frustrated (I think) for various reasons. In the meantime I'd become increasingly integral to the band.(*) Another friend - Margo - joined as lead singer, and we recorded an album and did a few more gigs. Then Margo left, and we started working on a second album, scrabbling for gigs, and trying to audition a lead singer.

(*) Writing it down like that, I hope the two things weren't related!

All through this soap opera with the band, I was studying for my Honours degree, holding down a part-time job, being in a deteriorating relationship, and still working on my writing (I had a bunch of short stories at this point and a decidedly crappy novel). The pressure on me - the pressure of living my life in four different directions - felt enormous. And there was a single moment when it all reached a crisis point.

Greg the drummer came up to me in the quad at university, asked me if I had enough time to come to a rehearsal in a couple of days.

I remember looking up, staring at the roof of the quad, thinking about my Honours exams, about all the extra-curriculars I'd tried to cram into this year. But most importantly I thought about writing - about how I didn't seem to have any time for it, about how writing was something I could control, how it was something I enjoyed and wanted to get better at.

In that moment, it was clear to me that I had to choose; effectively, I had to choose between two possible lives: music or writing.

I looked up at the roof of the quad, and when I looked down I quit the band.

I chose writing. I'd written lots of stuff before this, but it was that moment that focused me. And a lot of great and painful things have come out of that.

I thought of this moment while reading The Dip. Seth Godin believes it's a good idea to quit stuff that you find unrewarding. When you quit unrewarding stuff, what you gain is time. You can use that extra time (and mental capacity) to focus on getting through the Dip on stuff that matters, the stuff that you can be great at.

Let's break that down a bit more:
  • Quitting stuff that ISN'T worth it = good for you
  • Quitting stuff that IS worth it = self-destructive for you.
If you keep quitting things that are worth it, then you'll never achieve anything. Instead, you'll just waste weeks (or years) of your time and never do anything worthwhile. So, that's bad quitting.

What's so special about this book is that it's remorseless. Quit any project that doesn't have a Dip, it says. Don't stick something out if you're not going to get the benefits of being the best in the world. Quit stuff that you don't want to be exceptional at; quit stuff that you're not really enjoying. If you don't, you'll end up below-average or miserable.

Thinking about it, this answers one of the questions my Inner Critic has been yelling at me while writing these articles. If you quit stuff all the time how can you ever get good at anything? How can you ever do anything worthwhile?

The answer: quit stuff that's not worthwhile. That gives you more time and energy to focus on the things that are.

What Seth Godin is saying here reminds me of something I read about 5 years ago and really took to heart - that quitting can become a habit, a bad habit. The essay I read went on to say that instead of quitting, you should only start things you intend to get all the way through.

Now, this is slightly opposed to what Godin is talking about ('Quit stuff that isn't adding to your life' vs. 'Only start stuff you intend to finish'). And I guess that's been the source of my confusion.

I think the way to reconcile the two is that sometimes you have to start something in order to figure out whether it's worthwhile or not. I'll talk about more about that in a couple of days, but Godin's basic approach is to decide - before you start something - when exactly you will quit it.

What about you: have you ever quit something and been happy you did?

--- --- ---

As always, The Dip is available at Wellington Library.
Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Dip: The difference between good stuff and bad stuff

I've been summarising Seth Godin's book, 'The Dip', which talks about how to deal with the powerful desire to give up on doing worthwhile things when they start getting hard or unrewarding.

Let me call on the power of enormous charts to illustrate what a Dip looks like:

See how this activity was worthwhile and rewarding when you started it. The halfway point on this chart represents feeling bogged down, like you're not making any progress or enjoying yourself. That's the Dip. If you push through, things become even more rewarding, and the curve rises up towards more results, enjoyment, and mastery. However, it's easy to imagine what the chart would look like if you quit in the middle of the Dip; instead of rising back up, the curve would crash down to zero.

In the last post, I talked about the idea of quitting bad stuff so that you can focus your energies on pushing through the Dip, and mastering or finishing your good, worthwhile projects.

Which raises the question: what is 'bad stuff'?

Seth describes these as 'Cul-de-sacs' - these are activities that you're not going to get any better at or that you're not going to enjoy any more than you already are. There are also cul-de-sacs where you not feeling that rewarded right from the start and it doesn't seem to be improving the longer you stick with it.

Cul-de-sacs suck away your time, when you could be doing better stuff.

Ultimately, these activities lead to either failure or giving up on them after sinking way too much time into them. They can also lead to perfectly enjoyable hobbies that you do for fun, without the intention of getting any better at. However, cul-de-sacs can also be stuff you don't really enjoy but you still keep doing it because you just don't think about it that much - you're on autopilot but ignoring the changing weather conditions.

The common element with cul-de-sacs is that you won't get any more enjoyment from it no matter how much you keep practicing or doing it. They look like this:

Or maybe like this:
Seth believes you can tell when you're in a Dip or a cul-de-sac. He says we have an innate sense about it (once the concepts have been pointed out to us). But while he's a big believer in relying on your intuition, later in the book he asks you to predefine the circumstances under which you'll quit. I'll talk about that in a couple of posts.

Next up, why it's good to quit. In the meantime, do you recognise any cul-de-sacs in your own life?

--- ---- ---

The Dip is available at Wellington Library.
Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Dip: An overview of how to succeed

Last time, I was describing Jenni's battle with her Inner Critic over whether her latest book was worth writing or not. I described that as a 'Dip': the increasingly powerful desire to give up on something because it's getting too hard.

Seth Godin talks about this in detail in 'The Dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick). What follows is my summary of some of his main concepts ...

Imagine you're learning something or creating something. It seemed like a great idea when you first started it, but at some point you start getting discouraged by the lack of results, or it starts hurting too much to go on (if, say, you're trying to do a measley 10 bicycle crunches a day in order to make a token effort to try getting a flatter stomach and yes that is personal experience talking). Perhaps it's simply a case that you don't know what to do next, or it's not fun, or you've found it impossible to make progress on.

Can you think of a situation you've been in like that?

When most people are faced with these sorts of obstacles, they quit. That's human nature. When faced with the unknown, when faced with embarrassment, or the prospect of failing, we quit.

Seth Godin recommends that we proactively quit. Essentially the advice in his book boils down to this:

To get through a Dip, quit the stuff that's bad for you, and stick with the stuff that's good for you.

Focus all your efforts on pushing through the dips of things that you really enjoy and that you could be great at. To gain that focus, you need to quit stuff that's distracting you, to quit the activities that are unrewarding (or only moderately rewarding) dead ends. "Quitting the stuff you don't care about or the stuff you're mediocre at or (better yet) quitting the [dead ends] frees up your resources to obsess about the Dips that matter," Seth says.

He's talking about being pro-active. You shouldn't just suffer through a Dip, waiting for it to end. Instead, actively work at getting through a dip quicker.

By quitting bad stuff and focusing your efforts on the Dip.

Quitting bad stuff gives you more time to focus on good stuff. And the thing is: anything worth doing probably involves you going through a Dip. So you need stick with the good stuff long enough to make it through discouragement and failure, so that you can start getting the benefits from it.

All of which raises the question of how can you tell good stuff from bad stuff? I'll summarise that tomorrow, and in the post after that I'll talk more about why quitting things is good.

Meanwhile, how does all this sound? Does this ring true to you?

--- ---- ---

The Dip is available at Wellington Library.
Seth's blog dedicated to the Dip is here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Open Thread

Talk, talk, talk. But also: share with me your top 3 interesting websites to visit. I would diversify my experience of the internet.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Dip: Jenni's Story

Recently Jenni was talking about whether to keep writing a novel she'd just started:

I don’t know if it’s because I’m starting a new project, but I am overwhelmed with doubt about my new novel.

I keep coming up with different arguments in my head for why I shouldn’t even bother trying. I formulated a sentence or two while in my bath, but when I sat down to actually write the thing, my Inner Critic said “What are you thinking, writing this?”

I’m like “Well, I thought it would be an interesting idea.”

Inner Critic said, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re writing about a woman going to the hairdresser. It’s really boring and mundane.”

Me: “Oh, but…I kind of thought it was an interesting relationship, because there’s this level of intimacy-”

IC: “No, trust me: boring. Like reading about someone going to the dairy for milk.”

Jenni talks about how this inner dialogue continued its combination of critique and sabotage, and how this conversation is not a new thing for her. She struggled with it while writing her first book, too.

While she wondered if it was self sabotage or a lack of confidence or writer’s block, in the end Jenni decided to ignore her inner critic altogether, and just write her hairdresser story down. But:

"It’s not easy when the inner critic is so loud and convincing. She really plays off my insecurities."

Later, Jenni decided to quit that novel and take up a new one she was more excited by:

... I know this sounds bad. Like, oh this one’s too hard so I’ll start an exciting new project.

I’m frightened of this mind frame because it can lead to me just continuing to abandon things when they get boring and never getting anything finished. So why am I letting myself do it this time? I’m not excited about book A. I don’t want to sit down and write it, and when I do make myself sit down I get distracted, my inner critic won’t shut up and I’m consumed with doubt.

... By comparison, book B (kid’s book) is exciting. I want to sit down and write it, and when I do the words flow out of me like iodised table salt (see how it runs!) My inner critic is silent, I am connecting with all this stuff from my childhood and it’s a dynamic feeling. This to me makes it a simple choice. Keep writing book B.
Jenni has since finished the first draft of Book B.

I take a couple of things from Jenni's story. First: the way she describes her Inner Critic resonates with me. It's something I've been through too, and I imagine it seems familiar to you as well. Its attacks are vivid and precise, and calculated to undermine the whole idea of working on that story. The Inner Critic was trying to make Jenni quit; the question Jenni was struggling with was whether the Inner Critic was right.

And that brings me to Seth Godin. He's one of my top reads on the internet (here's his blog). His book, 'The Dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick)', has been intriguing me for a couple of years.

Jenni's story is a perfect example of what Seth's book is about: a Dip.

For me, the key sentences in Jenni's story are:

"... I know this sounds bad. Like, oh this one’s too hard so I’ll start an
exciting new project. I’m frightened of this mind frame because it can lead to me just continuing to abandon things when they get boring and never getting anything finished."

The Dip is the moment when you feel like giving up on something, even if it's something that seemed like a great idea when you started it. This is how Seth describes the lead-up to that moment:

At the beginning, when you first start something, it's fun. You could be taking up golf or acupuncture or piloting a plane or doing chemistry - it doesn't matter; it's interesting and you get plenty of good feedback from the people around you.

Over the next few days and weeks the rapid learning you experience keeps you going. Whatever your new thing is, it's easy to stay engaged in it.

And then the Dip happens.
The stuff that seemed worthwhile and rewarding when you began starts becoming harder. You're feeling bogged down, like you're not making any progress or enjoying what you're doing. That's the Dip.

The Dip is what makes people quit. They get discouraged, give up, abandon projects or dreams. It happens to everybody with everything, and it means that only a few people make it through to the level of mastering a skill like architecture, graphic design, writing, or the ability to effectively use social networks without them sucking up most of your life.

From the book:

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery.

It's the combination of bureaucracy and busy work you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving.

The Dip is the difference between the easy "beginner" technique and the more useful "expert" approach in skiing or fashion design.
It's the moment when you realise exactly how much effort it's going to take to be great at something. The question is: Will you stick with it until you've gone from good to great? Or will you quit?

I'm going to be taking about The Dip over the next four posts. I recommend the book; it's in Wellington Library (if you're local), and at 80 pages it's a quick read. You can get a taste of it here.

In the meantime, what about you? Can you relate to Jenni's story? What dips have you experienced?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting on the elements of a story

This is the last post about Crafty Screenwriting, and in it I want to look at what it says about the elements that make up a compelling story. These elements are very similar to the ones in 'Elements of Persuasion', so I think it's worth checking out whether they agree, amplify, or contradict each other.

This is how Alex Epstein summarises the way his elements work:
A main character
... who has a goal that we (the audience) care about.
... The main character is risking a lot
... and they have at least one but ideally three basic obstacles in their way.
Main characters can be unlikeable, but we do have to care about what happens to them. What is it that makes us care? Alex proposes two ways:
  • their situation is familiar to us (eg. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz)
  • we enjoy projecting ourselves into their shoes (eg. James Bond if you want to be a hero; D-FENS from Falling Down if you want to work through your rage)

The character's goal needs to be something we care about. Maybe it's internal (psychological, emotional); maybe it's external (save the world, fall in love). As Alex points out, "We don't have to necessarily be on the hero's side. We just have to be involved emotionally in what he's trying to do."

So, goals help us care about people. A person may be a jerk, but if their goal is one we can admire or get behind (put on the best show possible; kick the Nazis out of Europse), then we can root for them as a protagonist.

For me, one of the biggest tests of this (in recent years) is Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. As a manipulative, obsessive 19th century oil-man, he’s not a character I feel familiar with or whose shoes I want to walk in. And his goal: ‘to con a small community out of its oil at any cost’ isn’t one I can admire or get behind. So why do I root for him? I guess partially it’s because he’s an object of fascination – Daniel Plainview is such an unusual psychological presence; the way he thinks and sees the world just rivets me (plus he’s too dangerous to take your eyes off). And partially it’s because he cares about the boy he’s raising; Plainview’s goal of raising his son well is only a small part of the film, but it’s one I can get behind.

Man, time to watch There Will Be Blood again!

This idea of goals (and methods, I guess) being things we care about also reminds me Humanity checks in the game Sorceror. A protagonist can be a real scum-bag, but they remain worthy of our attention as long as we don’t think “That’s it. I’m done with you; I don’t care what you do any more – you’ve crossed a line and you’re irredeemable as far as I’m concerned.”

Alex also observes that characters without goals lead to stories without drama.


The third element is risk, jeopardy, the idea that the character has something to lose. And that what they could lose is worth caring about.

Actually, some of this feels a little tautological. We'll care about a character if the thing they could lose is something we'll care about? It's the idea of 'caring' that needs to be grappled with here.

And I think Alex makes a good crack at answering that at the end of this section:
Jeopardy puts the hero in play.
I like that phrasing. The hero (who's someone we care about because we identify with them or want to be with them) is now at risk of being transformed, harmed, or losing something vital to their life. They are in play; the thing that they are risking is (essentially) themselves.


Finally, the main character has "at least one but ideally three basic obstacles in their way." These obstacles are:

1. An External Antagonist or Obstacle: this could be so many things ... environmental (an erupting volcano), social (a corrupt justice system), personal (a masked killer stalking you), widespread (a continent-spanning war), or nearly microscopic (a swiftly growing brain tumour).

Again, we have to care about the antagonists - perhaps because they're sympathetic; perhaps because they're scary as all hell. In fact, check out this quote from James Berardinelli's recent review of Robocop:

One of the standout elements of Robocop is the despicability of the villains. These aren't mealy mouthed bad guys - they are vile, mustache-twirling cretins who deserve horrible, painful deaths. It takes a talented director to fashion characters that become targets of such extreme vitriol. This is what Verhoeven wants; the more deeply viewers hate the bad guys, the more they will be involved in the outcome. It's nice for an audience to like the hero, but more important that they loathe the villain.
And this quote from Crafty Screenwriting addresses the other side:
If your hero has an obstacle instead of an antagonist, we still have to care about it. If your hero is crossing the Antarctic, you have to find a way to make us feel what is grand and compelling about a lot of ice. In a movie about climbing Everest, you are going to have to make us care about a really big rock.
2. An Intimate Opponent: Someone on the main character's side who is working at cross-purposes to them.

3. A Tragic or Comic Flaw (A Psychological Opponent): Indecision, guilt, self-doubt, a death wish, self-loathing, pride. This is all stuff I'm very familiar with from playing lots of Primetime Adventures - most situations can be made much worse if you just give a character enough rope to let their own Issues mess them up.

... oh, and a main character's tragic flaw can reflect the external antagonist or obstacle in some way.

That's it for Crafty Screenwriting. In about a week, I'll be moving on to the last of these books on story construction: "Made to Stick", which talks about why some ideas and stories survive and get passed on from person to person, while others wither and die. You can read excerpts from the intro here, if you're curious.

Open Thread

What's on your mind today?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting on pitching

Alex Epstein's book 'Crafty Screenwriting' also has a lot to say about pitching that I think it relevant to the process of creating a story. As I mentioned earlier, he fiercely advocates NOT writing down your story for as long as possible, and instead actually telling it to people.

Why wouldn't you write down your story? Alex suggests that writing it down 'freezes' your story, making you reluctant to make big / necessary changes to it. He uses the example of 'While You Were Sleeping', whose writers pitched the film for 5 years before realising how much it would be improved by having the GUY be the one in the coma. It was easy to change the story because nothing was written down.

Alex also says that writing down your story can make it easy to overlook its flaws. I can related to this - my eyes have certainly skimmed over sections of my outlines before, as I 'know' what it's trying to convey and don't need to pay attention to it. As a result, whole sections have wound up needing to be deleted or re-arranged in finished scripts.

The best way to find out if your hook or story works is to tell it to people. Tell it out loud, over and over again, to whoever will listen.(*) Telling it allows you to see what people respond to. And because you're not writing it down, it allows you to figure out what bits of it are memorable or not.

(*) Candidates for telling your story to include co-workers, friends, your mum, kids, strangers on the bus, muggers, priests in confessional boothes.

Basically, the process of telling your story will give you an opportunity to naturally flesh it out, elaborate on it, and deepen it.

Alex also suggests three questions to think about while you're telling your story:

  1. Is your listener interested in your hook at all? If not, then (a) rephrase it and try again, or (b) come up with a better idea.
  2. What does it remind them of? Check these other, similar stories out.
  3. What do they tell you? They may have ideas and criticisms. Listen to them. Even if they're off-base, you'll find out what sort of things they expected to hear or see when you told them your pitch.
Telling allows you to reinvent your story easily and on the fly.

Telling lets you immediately see the reaction to your story.

Telling mean you can hear when YOU get bored or confused.

Telling forces you to create a story that's so simple, clear and logical that you can remember it. It forces you to remember what comes next.

But what if the idea of telling someone your story completely freaks you out? Well, there are some alternatives:
  • Tell it to yourself
  • Write down the basic beats of the story on cards, mix the cards up, and try to put them back together in the right order
  • (... and my favourite) Write your story down. Hide those pages. Rewrite it again from memory. Hide those pages. Repeat.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting on hooks

I mentioned way back in my synopsising of Presentation Zen that I was going to have to do a bit more reading about the 'how to' part of how to construct a story. That reminded me that of a script-writing manual that I felt might have some relevance - Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein.

Alex advocates coming up with a hook - a description that encapsulates your story in a nutshell and intrigues the audience into wanting to know more. He also fiercely advocates NOT writing down your story for as long as possible, and instead actually telling it to people.

The idea of the hook resonates with the advice I keep reading about reducing your story or presentation down to its core idea, to a single catchy phrase. Why would you do this? Well, I think Alex provides some really good insight here: we all have multiple demands placed on our attention every day - so how do you cut through the noise and make someone pay attention to you?

You have to make them want to know what happens next.

So, a hook is a fresh idea that instantly makes showbiz people want to read your script, and audiences want to see your movie. It makes people want to see how it turns out. Alex provides some examples, such as:
  • A puppeteer finds a secret tunnel into John Malkovich's brain
  • There's a bomb on a crowded city bus. If the bus slows down below 50 miles per hour, the bomb goes off
  • Three film-makers goes missing in the woods while taping a documentary about a legendary witch. A year later their footage is found.
Hooks are fresh. Intriguing. Simple.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Buffy: The Big Finish

I remember this being a lesser episode, but the word online is that it's good. Let's check it out ...

... (after watching it) Yeah, that was good. Much more than I remembered. Earshot is an episode that takes its time and lets us hang out with the characters, rather than rushing along with the plot. I also felt a sense of fear for Buffy - that this telepathy could be really bad for her - and I felt that despite (a) having seen the episode already, and (b) still feeling my prior comments about how threatening the lead character's life doesn't work for me.

So, the thing that was different for me here was the idea that being driven mad by telepathy could actually change Buffy. And it occured to me that in long-running TV shows with established lead characters, change can equal jeopardy. Hypothetical example: you can't kill off Jack Bauer in 24, but you can change him so that he's no longer operating from motives that we'd sympathise with.(*)

(*) I know. They'd just change Jack's character back within 2 or 3 episodes, or reveal that it's an elaborate bluff ... but man, a series of 24 where Jack is the bad guy? And we're following him? That'd be spectacular. And probably the end of the show.

The episode also really illustrates that Buffy is a hero, by showing her as crippled by the telepathy but still compelled to help, and it has a great reveal at the end about the killer. Top marks: not essential to the main plot of Season 3, but excellent television.

I remember 'Choices' as being a really strong episode, with a locked room setting that's one of my main memories from this season. Let's see how it stacks up to the idealised episode in my mind ...

... ah, it's a bit different. The locked room setting takes up maybe 5 minutes, a far shorter portion of the ep than I remembered.

'Choices' features some great little moments: Faith's look of hatred towards Willow; the Mayor as a well-intentioned, yet evil truth-teller; and a great payoff for Willow's floating pencil trick. And at the very end I thought they were going to have an upbeat finish ... but no. The script had to decompress itself through 2 scenes, but it managed to get to a downbeat place eventually. Yay! Or yay-ish. The sense of dread and the maudlin tone of Season 6 is not entirely unknown to this show.

A good ep, and very clearly belongs in the main plot of Season 3.

The Prom
I remember this being pretty good, but it turns out that The Prom is a fracking great episode that delivers a huge emotional payoff for setting the show at high school for three seasons. What this episode has in common with 'Earshot' is that it's not afraid to humanise the characters, to take time to reflect on their relationships.

It's also a big Buffy-Angel (BAng) episode (and it makes me realise that Season 3 is partially about resolving the BAng relationship so that both characters can move on.(*)

(*) Two asides: The first is that having watched the spinoff show Angel, I can see how 'cooped up' Angel feels hanging out in Sunnydale. Moving to Los Angeles gives him a more epic quality that I really like.

... Secondly, Angel has just spent several hundred years being tortured in a hell dimension. It always occurs to me that the time he's spending in Sunnydale during Season 3 must feel like a dream, like a fantasy that the hell demons are using to torture him and that'll be yanked away at any moment.

Graduation Day
It's a well paced war movie of a finale, and I don't have too much to say about the plot - other than it's good, and it weirdly makes me regret not going to my own graduation.

There are many fantastic moments in it, but most notable for me is that I totally buy the Mayor's paternal attitude towards Faith now. What started as a comedic characteristic that came completely out of the blue is completely sold by the way they talk to each other and the Mayor's genuine rage when he finds out what Buffy and Faith have been up to. There are also beats that are mirrored and developed in later seasons (Buffy quitting, Buffy going to war).

Basically it's an excellent two-parter that first sets up a smackdown with Faith, and then a war with the Mayor, and neatly wraps up three seasons of story-telling.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Long Range: Ariely on cheating

I'll summarise the main points of Dan Ariely's talk on cheating here. If anyone want to dig into this a little bit deeper, let's hit the comments.

Ariely's saying that people like to think of themselves as a 'good' person ("They like to be able to look themselves in the mirror"). But effectively what that means is that people can cheat a little bit as long as it doesn't change their image of themselves.

That means that the amount a person cheats is NOT affected by:
  • how much they can potentially earn through cheating
  • discovering there's a reduced probability that they'll get caught
Neither of these has an effect on a person's mental image of themselves.

But you can increase the likelihood that they'll cheat through two simple methods:
  • make what they're cheating or stealing more abstract or symbolic; the less it initially feels like tangible money or valuable goods, the easier it is to cheat or steal it
  • be part of a group where it's socially acceptable to cheat
The conclusion Ariely draws here is that the stock-market (*) is a prime target for this sort of cheating as it's filled with items of value that don't feel like money, and is run by a group that has suffered from people committing spectacular fraud. There's a short article expanding on this talk, here, where Ariely discusses the Bernie Madoff financial scam. He speculates that some members of the financial industry, "now that they have been exposed to this extreme level of dishonesty, might adopt slightly lower moral scruples."

(*) Well, the stock-market or a corporation's profits.

I also found this interesting: You can decrease our inclination to cheat / improve our morality simply by making us think about moral things (the 10 Commandments, the Honour code). You don't have to believe in this things for it to have an effect - one of Ariely's experiments showed a statistically significant decrease in cheating (like, no cheating) when atheists swore on the Bible.

One other item of note for this series on long range thinking. Ariely claims that people (tend to) feel that their intuition about things is right. That would mean that it's difficult to motivate yourself to test whether your intuitions or theories about how the world works are actually correct.

Long Range: Getting ready to look at Predictably Irrational

I mentioned that there's a few books I want to read about the irrationality of human decision-making. I thought I'd lay the groundwork for that with a few videos.

Here's a talk by Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and the author of Predictably Irrational. His talk discusses cheating. Ariely looks at "the bugs in our moral code: the hidden reasons we think it's OK to cheat or steal (sometimes)."

I've kicked off with this presentation because Ariely starts with an extremely personal story about being seriously burned, and arguing with his nurses about whether it's best to take his bandages off in one fast rip, or in a slow drawn-out pull. Not only is this story hilarious (it leads to the invention of a 'pain suit'), it also makes me empathise with him - I can imagine the pain he went through, and understand his motivations for testing our intuitions.

(I'll have a separate post later today to discuss this presentation.)

Next (but in real-time I think a year or two earlier), Ariely 'uses classic visual illusions and his own counterintuitive (and sometimes shocking) research findings to show how we're not as rational as we think when we make decisions.'

Friday, August 07, 2009

Where the Wild Things are

I think we need to talk about how this might turn out to be the greatest movie ever made - especially if it does what I think it's going to do with Max's relationship with his parents.

Trailers here.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Buffy: The Turning Point

Bad Girls
A great episode that contains two strong choices that I think are wrong.

First up: Buffy and Faith are fantastic together when they're having fun - they kick arse and then celebrate in a way that feels liberating, sexy and a bit dangerous. It's fantastic to watch them enjoying themselves to what they do best ... and naturally it can't last. In fact, it doesn't last more than about 15 minutes of screen-time. Now I get that happy characters are dull characters; I get that you have to bring the conflict. But it strikes me that you could've stretched this change in Buffy towards being a bad girl for at least one more episode, and used Willow's feelings about being displaced as a friend (and the Scoobies' concerns about Buffy's transformation) as a source of conflict. So, yeah, I wanted to see the two female leads actually have fun for a while.

Second: I do not buy Faith's line at the end ("I don't care.") Sure, it's harsh and sets up some good conflicts down the line. But it feels forced and inconsistent with the character we've been watching. I seem to remember this gets deconstructed in later eps (especially in Season 4), so I'll withhold some of my judgment for a while.

This is also the episode that confirms the Mayor is the Big Bad, introduces Wesley Wyndham-Price and begins his epic character arc, and really strongly showcases the Buffy-Faith relationship. Pretty essential stuff.

So, I as I was saying, I really wanted to see more of Faith and Buffy working together as Slayers who are good at their jobs and enjoy life ... and this ep sort of didn't give me that but after a while I didn't mind.

What starts as a placeholder episode (we know Buffy is going to tell Giles about the murder eventually) ends as an intensely action-packed mini-feature film filled with lots of story and character development.

It kicks off the Angel-Faith plot that crosses from here over to Angel and then back to Buffy again.
It has an AMAZING moment between Xander and Faith.
It finishes with a bold twist. If I didn't know better, I'd say Faith was going undercover.

Playing Faith as being in denial is a good choice, and alleviates quite a few of my worries from Bad Girls. I still don't fully buy Faith's reaction to the murder, or her psychology, but Consequences gives me enough to get by.

There's also a really nice shifting focus between who the villain is: The Mayor or Faith.

An excellent episode, vital to the main line of Season 3 (and featuring a great moment where Giles holds the idiotball that made me yell at the screen).

Basically, this is 'just' an excellent mistaken-identity farce. A spotlight episode for Willow that features two well-motivated versions of her character initiating their own plots and bouncing off each others. The multiple sources of pressure on Willow to conform and obey lead to her desire to be rebellious, which (at a writers' level) motivate the arrival of her doppelganger from Dark Sunnydale. It's a big episode for Willow that shows her as the go-to wicca for serious magic, and illustrates again that she's good at whatever she does, whether that be computer hacking or being a vampire.

A great episode, but only essential-ish. There's some Faith-Mayor developments that feel a little too rapid to me, especially when the Mayor raises the subject of what to do about Willow. There's only 6 episodes till the end of the season and it feels like things haven't really gotten moving yet.

I don't have much to say about this episode. The opening scene provides a good illustration of why the Buffy-Angel relationship won't work, and the rest of the story follows that through in a covert yet interesting way.

The episode is based on a tension of 'When will Buffy find out that Faith is evil?', but because the whole story is based on a deception which I remembered from my previous viewing, I felt little sense of jeopardy.

Coupled with that is realisation that while the Mayor's paternalism towards Faith is a great character trait, it's feels cosmetic - there haven't been enough on-screen events between the two of them for that relationship to have been earned. I'm also finding Faith's characterisation to be all over the place, and I'm looking forward to watching the essential episodes of Season 3 to find out how it all tracks when you string the key episodes together.

In all, this episode is essential for a few plot reasons, but I found it kind of irritating.

2012: It's a Disaster!

An awesome trailer for my most anticipated film of the year: 2012 by Roland Emmerich.

Don't worry: the Institute for Human Continuity has got our backs.

(And yeah, I'm a carrier of viral marketing. I don't care: I'm also an apocalypse nerd.)

Speaking of which: choose your own apocalypse. Turns out I'm a blood-thirsty misanthrope.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Long Range: Does choice work?

OK, time to start dipping back into this series. For new readers, Long Range is my attempt to examine why some people are able to successfully think further into the future than others.

My first set of posts on this topic got slightly sidetracked when Billy and Mike both raised the reasonable point that people don't make the best decisions possible - that our judgments have biases and irrationalities built into them. So, as well as looking at some of my social psychology texts, there's also going to be some study of the following books in the near future:

Stumbling on Happiness
Predictably Irrational

Nudge is an interesting book, because (as I understand it from listening to one podcast) it postulates that you can give people choices, but you get 'better' results when you constrain people to a 'choice architecture' that's been designed to guide people towards an optimal result.

Here's a local situation to illustrate the difference. The previous Labour-led government wanted to introduce legislation that eliminated conventional lightbulbs from the marketplace, replacing them with more efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.

Recently, the Electricity Commission announced the launch of, a website to provide tools and information to help families and businesses reduce their power bills and choose the right efficient light for the particular application.

State-imposed constraints versus freedom of choice. I am fascinated to see if the rightlight initiative has an noticeable impact, as (I believe) people will buy the cheapest thing. The lower prices of conventional bulbs will be more appealing to consumers than any projected long range benefits of buying CFLs.

So the question I think I'll be looking at (occasionally) over the next few months is 'Does choice work?'

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Movies: Some capsule reviews

My consumption of feature-length media continues.

Beetlejuice is a movie I haven't seen since it came out in 1988. It's far more incoherent than I remembered, but I totally forgave it because of its great over the top performances and production design. Weird that Beetlejuice doesn't actually show up as much as I remembered, though.

Knowing is the movie that taught me it now costs $16 to go to the movies. Way freaking darker than I expected, but lacking in psychological plausibility and possessing a cringe-inducing epilogue.

Paprika is an anime about dreams, movies, and weird surreal parades filled with fridges and frogs. For me, this was an almost great movie, despite its repetitive scenes and frequent incoherence. Here are the opening credits (which I fell in love with):

Shortbus is a movie about people trying to overcome sexual problems in their lives. It may have kicked off the Bex/Steve breakup via a pretty intense discussion about pornography and morality, but I thought this movie was fantastic.

Snakes on a Plane has an unexpectedly lame opening credit sequence, but is pretty much utterly ludicrous fun for the rest of its running time.

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor was quite fun, with the best giant robot threatening London since Steamboy, and I found the ending moving and affectionate.

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead was great; the storyline had a clarity to it that I appreciated. Nice dread at the end, too. Michelle Ryan would've been an excellent on-going companion but I can see that she might have overshadowed the new Doctor as he finds his feet in the role.

The Frighteners is a nice companion piece to Beetlejuice. I'd forgotten how it descends from frivolity into darkness. The Director's Cut makes a whole bunch of stuff play better too: Jeffrey Combs delivering the classic line "My body is a roadmap of pain", and the murder-spree flashbacks in the hospital. Overall: PG for Pretty Good.

Snatch lacks a compelling central story or characters to focus on, but it's got a nice, ironic big-picture view of seedy London. I particularly liked this guy:

Layer Cake, on the other hand, has a clear focus and a taut, political view of epic-level criminal London while still remaining filled with the potential for brutal violence. This and Shortbus are the best movies I've seen recently.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Open Thread

This weekend's question is brought to you by Helen's prompting. What are you proud of? What are you pleased with?