Five things that are worth your time: December 6

Five things that are worth your time: December 6

This week’s five things are highly movie-inspired, as I share articles on two of my all time favourites—or is it three of my all-time favourites?—plus the latest on the Marvel Universe. I also share some advice on an important soft skill, and one beautiful story of a Holocaust survivor, which—for obvious reasons—is an important story to share right now as we wind down 2017.

Remembering the Wonderful Little Idiosyncrasies of Good Will Hunting on Its 20th Anniversary

Shea Serrano, The Ringer

Good Will Hunting is one of the my favourite movies. Shea Serrano is one of my favourite writers. There was no doubt this was making the list this week! Shea nails the truth of Good Will Hunting here: For all of the things that we remember about the film that make it memorable and enjoyable, it’s the little things between the lines that make it a classic. I love “Here’s ya fuckin’ double burger” sooo much. But Shea missed a couple: Billy’s “That’s a good takedown” when Will and Chuckie are wrestling at the batting cages; and Morgan’s Brando-inspired “I swallowed a bug” as he extricates himself from the scene when Skylar finally approaches Will at the bar.

A quote: ”The way Will leans in to propose a fight with Clark. That’s how you know he was serious about fighting. If Will wanted to just show out for the girls, then he’d have been really loud and blustery so everyone could see and hear the confrontation. He wasn’t, though, which is why you see Clark get filled with fear so quickly. As soon as Will lowered his voice and proposed stepping outside, Clark was like, “Oh fuck, this guy really wants to fight.””

Secrets of the Marvel Universe

Joanna Robinson, Vanity Fair

Speaking of things in my wheelhouse, here’s the great Joanna Robinson with a great “state of the union” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a look inside exec producer/architect Kevin Feige’s head. It’s a little light on actual “secrets,” of course—Marvel and Disney guard those details as if they were actual infinity stones—but it’s still a fun read, and the photos of everyone in costume are brilliantly outrageous.

A quote: ”One day on set (of Fox’s X-Men, 2000), (Lauren) Shuler Donner and Avi Arad, then head of Marvel Studios, watched as an exasperated stylist, at Feige’s insistence, sprayed and teased actor Hugh Jackman’s hair higher and higher to create the hairstyle that would become the signature look of the character Wolverine. The stylist “eventually went ‘Fine!’ and did a ridiculous version,” Feige recalls. “If you go back and look at it,” he admits, “he’s got big-ass hair in that first movie. But that’s Wolverine!” The experience stuck with Feige.”

Debate Club: Which is Better, Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back?

Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, SyFy

I am a big fan of Tim Grierson and Will Leitch’s movie reviews (and also, possibly, their podcast, of which I’ve saved every episode but have not yet found time to listen to). Here they tackle the age-old debate: What’s the best Star Wars film? For most of my life I’ve leaned slightly towards Star Wars, because even though Empire is, technically speaking, a better film, how can you top the original? But this article makes the case for Empire, all while neglecting to mention one thing: The music. And as much as I love Luke’s theme, and as memorable as the Star Wars fanfare is, Empire contains the one piece of music that may in fact be more famous than the Star Wars fanfare: the Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme). It’s also got Yoda’s music and Han and Leia’s theme (used to great effect in The Force Awakens trailer). So yeah. With that in mind, I think I’m giving Empire the slight nod. For now.

A quote: Empire is enhanced by Lucas settling into his more comfortable position as producer and overseer, hiring Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan to work on the screenplay, and bringing in director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky to give the sequel a more layered, somber tone. Also, Empire introduced some of the franchise’s best characters, including Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Yoda, who’s the movie’s spiritual center”

I Have a Message For you

Matan Rochlitz, The New York Times

This is the story of Klara, a Holocaust survivor from Belgium; specifically, her escape from a train taking her to a concentration camp, and who she had to leave behind on that train. And of a message that she receives many years later. It’s more important than ever to pay attention to and share these stories like this right now, of course, since Nazis are all but running the United States, but even setting that insanity aside, it’s just a lovely story and it’s beautifully presented. Here’s Rochlitz with some more detail behind the story.

A quote: ”You know what those cattle wagons are like? There’s a little window, like this. I put my legs through and turned around and I slid between the two wagons. The train kept going and going. It was very difficult because the SS would shoot at us. I waited a moment. Then I put my hands up to protect my head. And then I jumped from the train.”

Here’s the Key to Great Conversation in 1 Sentence

Wanda Thibodeaux, Inc.com

Most of the time, when someone’s talking to us, we’re listening—but only so that we can respond. We’re focused on what we’re going to say next, not what the other person is saying. And that sucks. But active listening is a skill that takes time to master. There are some good tips here to help. (Just try and ignore the typo in the first sentence…)

A quote: ”Formulate your answer only after the other person has finished talking. Embrace the silence that happens as you think. Your partner isn’t going to care about the pause if you give a thoughtful answer that demonstrates respect.”

That’s all for this week! Come back next Wednesday for another five things.

PS I’ve changed my mind already. I still like Star Wars more.

Five things that are worth your time: November 29

Five Things: November 29

For the past year at Brainrider my colleague Jon Kane and I have been putting together a weekly internal newsletter, sharing five cool things we’ve read (that generally have some relevance to what we do at Brainrider) with the entire Brainrider team.

At its core it’s just curated content with a little bit of commentary. We send it out on Friday and then we share one thing a day via our intranet the following week. The whole thing was Jon’s brainchild and I give him all the credit. But I like the idea so much I’m stealing it for myself! (OK, I asked his permission so it’s not really stealing. But it’s more fun to say it that way).

On to the things! This week they’re I have four fairly long long reads to share; you might want to settle in with a coffee. But I am very, very certain that all of them are worth your time. And I wrap it up with a video that I am also certain is worth your time.

Luke Skywalker Speaks

Dave Itzkoff, New York Times

I love how totally at ease Mark Hamill seems with his life; he became a mega-celebrity right at the start of his career, and it probably completely derailed said career but he’s just steered into it, owned it and enjoyed it. I think there’s an obvious lesson in there for all of us.

A quote: “Mr. Hamill isn’t bitter or jaded, and he isn’t Luke, though he has retained some of that character’s incorruptibility. He’s gone from a new hope to an old hand, with a lined, expressive face and a gray beard, beneath which lurks a mischievous sense of humor, a yearning to perform and a joy in sharing “Star Wars” war stories.”

Gal Gadot Kicks Ass

Caity Weaver, GQ

Super-hero movies have become pretty formulaic these days, and Wonder Woman isn’t really all that different… except for its star. Gal Gadot embodies that character in a way I don’t think any actor in a super-hero role has done since Christopher Reeve in Superman (whoops, just aged myself there). It’s like she was born to play the part. This profile seems to indicate she’s just as awesome in real life as she was on screen.

A quote: “Gal Gadot is very hands-on. As in: When you meet her, she will put her hands on you many times, in many different places. Israeli culture is so touch-oriented that guides for Americans traveling there warn they may feel their personal space is constantly being violated in formal settings… Even as Wonder Woman sequels and spin-offs propel Gadot to new heights of global stardom, she probably will not lose this habit of touching, because she is a charming, beautiful woman, and it will never occur to people to shrink away from her.”

“That’s My Justice”

Jordan Ritter Conn, The Ringer

Brenda Tracy was raped by four college football players in Oregon in 1998. It took her more than a decade, during which she battled depression and contemplated suicide, before she realized she had within her the power to effect change in the rape culture found among men’s athletics, and football in particular, on college campuses. This story is equally horrifying for what Brenda went through, and uplifting for what she’s trying to do now. My words can’t express how impressive this story is.

A quote: “Tracy realizes she may have offenders in her audience. She targets her message, though, to the vast majority of the players in the room who are unlikely to ever perpetrate a violent act but have the ability to shift the culture among their peers. At Houston, she says: “You might think to yourselves, ‘I don’t commit rape. I don’t beat on women. Why is this my problem?’ I’ll tell you why it’s your problem. Because if women could stop sexual violence, we would have already done it. Eve would have done it. The first woman on the planet would have done it. And do you think that rapists are going to stop it? No. Of course not. So it’s up to you, the 90 percent of men who would not commit rape, to put an end to it.”

Promethea Unbound

Mike Mariani, The Atavist Magazine

This is one of the best things I’ve read in a very, very long time. It’s the story of a child prodigy and the challenges she and her family had growing up. You’d think that a girl who started taking college classes at age 8 and earned her degree at 13 would have it made, but young Jasmine (later Promethea) encounters one challenge after another, climaxing in a tragic act of violence, that derails her future.

A quote: “Solomon posits that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.” The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t cover prodigies, and the rationale seems obvious: These children are overequipped for normal achievement. Yet their unique requirements for learning and the extraordinary burdens placed on their families make prodigies resplendent doppelgängers to developmentally challenged children.”

When every word doesn’t belong to everyone

Ta-Nehisi Coates, YouTube/Random House

What do words mean to different people; different groups of people, different races or genders? And why are some words acceptable in some groups but not others? The amazing Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why white people using the N-word is problematic, and why, if you’re not black, you need to be OK with not using it.

A quote: “My wife, with her girlfriends, will use the word “bitch.” I do not join in! I don’t do that. I don’t have a desire to do it. The question one must ask, if that’s accepted and normal for groups to use words that are derogatory in an ironic fashion, why is there so much hand-wringing when black people do it? … Why do so many white people have difficulty extending things that are basic laws of how human beings interact to black people. And I think I know why.”

That’s all for this week! I’ll have five more to share next Wednesday.

Claire McNear breaks down the NFL’s entertainment fallacy for The Ringer

NFL entertainment

A few thoughts on this excellent piece by Claire McNear for The Ringer:

Claire thinks the NFL is no longer fun; I agree

I outlined my thoughts a few weeks back, but Claire frames it up nicely by saying it simply: NFL Football is supposed to be entertainment, but the controversies and violence have robbed it of that value.

She makes a valid point: It isn’t really new, either

We’re just finally starting to notice.

I find myself returning again and again to the suspicion that much of the discord—in outline, if not in specifics—has been here for some time, and in the past we’ve just been distracted by the football itself. This year, you might have heard, the quality of games has been lackluster: The caliber of quarterback play has been lacking; scoring across the league has been down; in Week 8, not a single game was played between teams with winning records.

I haven’t been watching so I can’t comment on the quality of the games, but yes, in the past, the love of the game, the players, your favorite team, your Sunday routine—they overshadowed the noise. But this year the noise got so loud, and the games have seemingly gotten worse, so the script has flipped.

The question then becomes, do enough people care?

Ratings are down, sponsors are complaining and owners are panicking. But what are we talking about here: a few less million for already rich-beyond-measure old white men?

It’s gonna take a lot more Americans tuning out before it really makes a difference. And what then? It’s not like it’s my goal to see NFL football go away; I would simply like to see it be a little more labor-friendly (and have those labor relations a little less tinged with racism) (OK, a lot less tinged). But will that ever happen? Is there even a workable solution that keeps football remotely the same as it is now? I don’t know.

Kudos to The Ringer, by the way…

I was just about out on The Ringer six months ago. Too much Hollywood and tech culture reporting, and way too many silly “fictionalized account” stories. The last couple months they’ve seemingly refocused on sports and I’m much more impressed with the content; their sports stories were always their best work. I hope it stays that way; it might just seem that way now because we had all four sports running for a full month there. We’ll see.

… especially for all of their diverse voices

It’s sad that there are still not enough women writing about sports, but I credit The Ringer for giving so many women a platform to write about sports and more; it would be very easy for them to pigeonhole their women as their Hollywood or pop culture writers, but Claire McNear, Haley O’Shaughnessy, Mallory Rubin, Alison Herman, Juliet Litman, and Kate Knibbs are all doing excellent, high-profile work on the NBA, NFL, MLB and tech beats. I still think they’re underutilizing Katie Baker though!

—-

So in case you missed it, I still haven’t watched a down of NFL football this year. I might feel different once the playoffs start, but I don’t miss it, at all.

Five thoughts on five thoughts

On Friday I wrote a blog post offering five thoughts on the Fantastic Four. I’ve had that one in my head for a while—since I restarted this blog actually. Originally it was going to be four things about the Fantastic Four—which, obviously, makes sense thematically. But I’ve been writing five thoughts about the Raptors every game and I’ve found myself enjoying it; so much so that I’m actually considering writing every post that way.

As a matter of fact… I have five thoughts about it:

  1. It’s a bit gimmicky. But it’s also a decent hook for a blog that doesn’t have much connective tissue beyond “things I like to write about.”
  2. There are some inherent challenges—but challenges are good. The first challenge is that it’s a constraint, a structure that I’m locking myself into that may not always fit “what I like to write about.” But I think that’s a good challenge. If it’s one of those short little curated pieces, maybe it’ll make me think more deeply about it. If it’s something I initially want to write more about, maybe it’ll help me focus my thoughts. And if I can’t make it fit the format… then maybe it isn’t right for the blog?
  3. If I really want to go deep, I can always do “five more thoughts.”
  4. My Photog category—which was essentially my Instagram replacement—definitely doesn’t fit this format. But I have a couple thoughts on how to make it work… and besides, I haven’t been using it much anyway. If this little idea works—and we’ll see at the end of this week—
  5. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog at all is to try new things and experiment with my writing. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t!

Now my next challenge is finding a better way to title these posts! I can’t keep calling them “five thoughts on…” every time…

That Athletic co-founder’s quote…

Last week I heaped praise on The Athletic—specifically, the Toronto corner’s Raptors coverage, as well as the enterprise overall. I dig the model and I dig the work they’re doing.

Today, I’m not feeling so food about, after one of the co-founders had this to say to about his business model to The New York Times:

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

That right there is some bullshit.

In my post last week, I also recommended Blake Murphy, an Athletic contributor, as a Raptors voice to read. He summed it up on Twitter:

Blake Murphy Twitter

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ll just add that maybe that Mr. co-founder should remember that pretty much all of his writers come from those newspapers; they undoubtedly all have friends, colleagues and mentors who work at newspapers. And I’d bet 90% of those writers have been laid off or package’d out of a newspaper job themselves, and know how awful it is (raises hand), and wouldn’t wish it anyone, friend or not.

So maybe don’t wish for anyone to lose their livelihood, and just do good work and mind your own backyard, Athletic.

Airport customs checkpoints and automation

Going through customs has always been a chore but recent automation “improvements” seem to have made it worse.

I’m talking mainly about the “automated passport scanners and customs declarations forms” machines that are now appearing in many airports, but especially here in Toronto’s Pearson International. I came home from a trip to London earlier today, and this may just have been the worst experience I’ve had at customs.

If “automation” is a way of making something function on its own, minimizing (or eliminating) human interaction, then this process has a long way to, I think. Let’s illustrate this and you can judge for yourself how effective it is.

First let’s recall how customs used to function, and still does in airports without these scanners. You get your customs form on the plane and fill it out. You file off the plane and are funneled through a queue until you reach of a bank of customs officers; often a single officer might guide the front of the line to the next available officer. You present your passport, your customs form, confirm your declaration is true, the officer asks you a couple questions, and assuming everything’s hunky-dory you’re on your way.

Here’s how it works at Pearson now.

You don’t fill out your customs for on the plane. You file off the plane and are funneled through a queue until you reach of a bank of computers. Here, you scan your passport, and you fill out the customs form on the spot. Then it takes your picture, prints a receipt of your customs form, and sends you on your way.

A couple points to this. First, there are multiple lines, and there’s no signage directing anyone anywhere, so unless you happen to arrive at the right moment—otherwise known as “the moment when the customs lady decides to scream about which line is for connections, which is for express, which is for regular passport holders etc.”—you’re left standing in confusion, creating a wonderful backlog right from the start. Once you get in (hopefully the right) line and get to the front, you wait for the next machine. A light on the top front of the machine lets you know when it’s free, except, half the machines face away from the front of the line. So you can’t see the light. Unless you wander over to that bank… but then you might miss the “next free” machine if it’s on the other side… so you’re stuck in limbo, hoping a machine you can see opens up.

Second, the electronic filling out of the form itself is… well, I get that it’s nice to have that data electronically, but it doesn’t seem to make sense from an efficiency standpoint. Previously travelers did this on the plane, prior to arrival, so when they got to customs they were all set. Now, they have to fill this form out at customs, along with ALL other travelers, one at a time, at one of the few available kiosks. Efficiency is greatly reduced by this.1 2

Third, let’s talk about the machines themselves. The touchscreens are of average responsiveness it seems, but the passport scanners seem pretty unreliable—at least a third of the people I watched while waiting in line needed assistance from a Customs officer on this part. And then the camera part—that’s just excruciating. The camera has to move into eye level, and that is SLOW. A customs officer with a camera would be much, much more efficient, but more importantly, I have to ask—WHY do you need a picture? You have my passport. IT HAS MY PICTURE ON IT. That I paid for. That Customs has a record of. There is absolutely zero need for this machine to take my photo, and that’s the slowest part!!

Moving along, once you’ve got your customs form receipt, it’s back into the queue… leading to a bank of customs officers… to have the customs officer look at your passport and said receipt. In other words… it’s the exact same process as it was before the stupid machines were installed. It’s moderately quicker, because they are not physically scanning your passport – just eyeballing it (looking at your picture, then at you, to make sure it’s you, which again raises the point… why did your stupid machine take my picture?), but they’re still asking how long you stayed, purpose of your visit, bringing back any alcohol, etc.—all the same questions they asked before, and all the same questions that are answered on your form.

If you’ve lost track, this so-called automated process has not reduced the number of humans needed and has almost tripled the time it takes to move travelers through customs. I supposed there may be some security benefits to having more information electronically, but I also know that keeping more people confined in a small space for more time is inherently less secure, so seems like a wash to me.

All of this to say… you’ve still got a lot of work to do here, airport customs.

 

1I do note that the electronic form is simplified and asks fewer questions about how much you spent etc., which is appreciated.
2Apparently there is an app that allows you to fill out your customs form and advance, and sync when you get to the machine. I was unaware of this. My dad heard about it, and tried it; the sync didn’t work so he had to fill it out anyway at the kiosk.

 

“Social media moderation”

Denise Balkissoon, writing for the Globe and Mail, has been experiencing feelings similar to mine on social media. She makes an effective comparison to food and unhealthy consumption, arguing that self-moderation is the best solution.

…social media is actually more like food than a drug – a broad category of sources with both helpful and harmful possibilities.

Like food, social media can nourish us in the right company. But it can also be addictive – or at least a crutch for our vulnerabilities. Those weaknesses are exacerbated by inequalities of access that leave some people more open to manipulative messages or unhealthy choices.

I think I agree; over the past few weeks, I’ve significantly cut back my social media usage, but haven’t gone cold turkey. I feel better about it, but I also don’t feel disconnected.

Balkisoon’s piece is thoughtful and well worth a read.

Behind the doors of the moonshot factory

The Atlantic published an inside look at Google X, Alphabet’s specialized R&D division, in their November issue. Google X is essentially a think-tank whose mission is to come up with crazy ideas, and either prove or disprove them. I really enjoyed the look into their “culture of failure,” the way they question everything, and try to break everything down in order to find the right solutions to the right problems.

Most people don’t want to do the hardest thing first. Most people want to go to work and get high fives and backslaps. Despite the conference-keynote pabulum about failure (“Fail fast! Fail often!”), the truth is that, financially and psychologically, failure sucks. In most companies, projects that don’t work out are stigmatized, and their staffs are fired. That’s as true in many parts of Silicon Valley as it is anywhere else.

And they seem to be working on some pretty cool problems: renewable energy, high-speed energy for all, self-driving cars, etc. On the other hand, it’s Google, so, you know, I don’t exactly trust their motives. But still, I’m glad someone is out there trying to invent new shit.

Then again, there’s this guy:

Just beyond the drones, I find Astro Teller. He is the leader of X, whose job title, captain of moonshots, is of a piece with his piratical, if perhaps self-conscious, charisma. He has a long black ponytail and silver goatee, and is wearing a long-sleeved T‑shirt, dark jeans, and large black Rollerblades. Fresh off an afternoon skate?, I ask. “Actually, I wear these around the office about 98 percent of the time,” he says. I glance at an X publicist to see whether he’s serious. Her expression says: Of course he is.

Oy.

ESPN piles on

Yesterday I said,

That the NFL has not unequivocally taken a stance behind its players and supported their first-amendment-protected rights is disgraceful…

Then ESPN went ahead and suspended Jemele Hill for, I don’t know, daring to be a black woman with her own thoughts and the ability to type them, I guess, proving that the NFL isn’t the only organization that doesn’t have the backs of its workforce, at least not when they’re minorities.

Drew Magary nails it:

A decent boss—shit, a decent person—would support Hill and protect her from this horseshit. ESPN didn’t. They shoved her into the wolf cage and locked the gate shut.

I guess the fact that ESPN is one of the NFL’s biggest partners is just another reason not to watch anymore.

“This is what systemic oppression looks like”

A quick follow-up to my football piece from this morning, here’s San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid on Vice-President Pence’s “walkout” stunt:

“So this looks like a PR stunt to me. He knew our team has had the most players protest. He knew that we were probably going to do it again,” Reid said.

“This is what systemic oppression looks like,” he said. “A man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple of things out and leaves the game with an attempt to thwart our efforts. Based on the information I have, that’s the assumption I’ve made.”

Sounds right to me.