Work-life imbalance

I have seen three articles today drawing attention to the norms of the American workplace, the multi-tasking; the send-and-resond, send-and-respond email culture; and the working long hours. All of these articles explain why this approach is sapping people’s energy and making them less productive. The prevailing belief is that putting more time in the office shows you are more committed to your job. As these articles suggest, that is so often not the case.

Bring back the 40-hour work week (Salon)

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

Modern Americans are multitasking their minds away
(LA Times)

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time (Harvard Business Review)

What we’ve lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It’s like an itch we can’t resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

The Knicks Playing on Valentine’s Day…

The Knicks playing on Valentine’s Day is the plot of many a husband-and-wife sitcom

c/o Mark's All in the Family Page



But how good is the impression of Todd Palin?

Like many of us on the internet, the trailer for Game Change, the adaptation of the popular book about the 2008 election, did not go unnoticed over here. I must agree with everyone that Julianne Moore seems to do a fine Sarah Palin. Ed Harris is rightly commended for his John McCain. He is spot on at aping the nervous I’m-about-to-explode mannerisms of Arizona’s senior Senator.

But here’s my question: where’s the other, oh, uh much more interesting first half of the book that focused on Obama versus Hillary and Jon Edwards’ painful implosion? What I’m saying is, I don’t really care about Sarah Palin. We all know this story. We saw this story. The least surprising parts of Game Change were the parts about this story. It was pretty clear in the fall of 2008 that the McCain campaign strategists who scouted her eventually came to regret their choice of Palin. It was pretty clear then that she didn’t know much about policy, geography, world leaders, etc.  It was pretty clear then that she quickly took to her celebrity. It’s no longer an even mildly interesting story, and yet it appears to be exactly what HBO’s Game Change is giving us. Are people really still that interested in Sarah Palin? Has she not worn herself out? Have we not worn out whatever joy we once took out of seeing how so totally in over her head she was? If this movie is only going to focus on the Palin story, there is nothing it will illuminate athat we don’t already know. The Edwards story on the other hand is driven by the compelling and yet still not quite answered question: how did a once fairly promising, down-to-earth politician make so many terrible decisions that alienated his loyal staff?

Sure, I’m going to at some point watch Game Change, but I am going to go in with no higher hopes than I had for another 2008 book-turned-movie called Too Big To Fail. An unmemorable HBO film, the only two things I can recall about Too Big To Fail are the strange but delightful choice of Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke and William Hurt as Hank Paulson walking around Times Square dizzily as the news tickers tell him that the world financial system is teetering on the brink.

Oh, and Game Change receives another demerit for the opening cliche — er line — to its trailer, from strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson): “We live in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle.”

Decide for yourself:

Tragically American

Here is the concluding passage from the wonderful book I just finished reading, Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.

What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, that “Silent Majority.” The “nonshouters.” The middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition who call themselves, now, “values voters,” people of faith,” “patriots,” or even, simply, “Republicans” — and who feel themselves condescended to by snobby opinion-making elites, and who rage about un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens. On the other side are the “liberals,” the “cosmopolitans,” the “intellectuals,” the “professionals” — “Democrats.” Who say they see shouting in opposition to injustice as a higher form of patriotism. Or say “live and let live.” Who believe that to have “values” has more to do with a willingness to extend aid to the downtrodden than where, or if, you happen to worship — but who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes of feckless elites who exploit sentimental pieties to aggrandize their wealth, start wars, ruin lives. Both populations — to speak in ideal types — are equally, essentially, tragically American.

Nixon bloopers

Much better than “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

The King’s Speech is actually a Best Picture algorithm

Last night my friend Alex and I saw The King’s Speech. I left the theater with both a warmed heart and a firm conviction that this film will almost certainly win the Oscar, unless the Academy tries to be cool and chooses The Social Network instead. This is because The King’s Speech is the quintessential Oscar movie — it’s almost as if someone made an algorithm for the perfect Oscar movie yielding this film. Here’s why (spoiler alert):

  • It features a largely British and Australian cast. Just about any actor with a British accent is considered a good actor, as are most Australians, save Mel Gibson.
  • It is produced by notorious Oscar strongmen the Weinstein brothers.
  • It is a period piece.
  • And it’s not just any period piece, it is set on the eve of World War II, Hollywood’s favorite period.
  • It tells the story of a man overcoming the adversity of a disability. The only thing Hollywood loves as much as people overcoming disabilities (Forrest Gump,Ray, Rain Man) is people who train in order to fight and win against a stronger opponent (Gladiator, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby).
  • Not only is the film’s protagonist, King George VI (Colin Firth) sympathetic owing to his speech impediment, he is also portrayed as a firm opponent of totalitarianism and consistently supports going to war against Hitler and the Nazis. (This is, unsurprisingly, where one of the movie’s biggest historical inaccuracies comes into play, probably because Hollywood-produced films are adverse to moral ambiguity, especially moral ambiguity during World War II. In The King’s Speech, Winston Churchill, one of the early anti-Nazi voices in the UK, is portrayed as fully supportive of George’s coronation when his brother Edward abdicates the throne. In fact, Churchill was a friend and supporter of Edward, who was a Nazi sympathizer. And, in reality, George was not a reflexive anti-Nazi. He was instead for a time a supporter of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement).
  • Geoffrey Rush
  • Helena Bonham Carter
  • King George VI is a benevolent, well-intentioned and humble leader who, while not well-acquainted with the common man, has respect for him. In Hollywood, the only thing better than a poor, downtrodden soul who overcomes adversity is a rich, regal person who does the same.
  • The script gives a nod to the media revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the radio is revolutionizing how heads of state communicate with the public. This causes us viewers to feel smart for knowing how much the radio and then the television will transform how the royal family relates to its subjects.
  • George’s speech therapist Lionel Logue’s methods are eccentric and unorthodox. But it is precisely his bucking of convention that allows him to successfully help George overcome his stutter.
  • At the end of the day, this is a movie about friendship, between George and Logue.
  • Colin Firth is the perfect best actor contender. He has been in enough legitimate movies in the past to be more than a throwaway nominee, but he also has a distinct arc in his career trajectory, having come a long way from his less serious films, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary. And with his successful portrayal of a stutterer, Hollywood is probably chomping at the bit to coronate him best actor. I’m actually 99% sure Firth will win this award.

In spite of its many advantages in the Oscar race, The King’s Speech still lacks a few elements that would seal the deal. Those are:

  • Dame Judi Dench
  • Maggie Smith
  • A lower class character who shows the king how a live of humble modesty is ultimately more satisfying than one of entitled wealth.

Correction: I stand corrected about one thing. Apparently the Weinstein brothers are no longer the forces in Hollywood they once were, according to this New York Times article published yesterday.

Song of the day

Some songs are just good. One such song is Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” 

It is used to great effect in this mock ad for Shining

Personal computers: a history through commercials

Just came across this chronological compendium of computer commercials from what looks to be the early 1980s on. It is a great walk down memory lane for for my generation. And it is funny to see that there are now so many anachronisms in the world of such a recent technology, among them: Atari and the idea that people would buy it to learn French, the Commodore Vic 20 (what?), iMac G3s, and the use of Paul Reiser in a commercial. Though it’s 15 minutes, it is worth watching.

Evolution Of Computer Commercials. Watch more top selected videos about: Shatner, cosby, swit

What’s now is now in Watertown

Just yesterday, my brother introduced me to one of Frank Sinatra’s later and lesser known albums, one that met with mixed reviews from critics and poor sales. Released in 1970, Watertown was one of Sinatra’s last gasps, a concept album that was innovative but perhaps not in the right way at the right time. As this guy perceptibly says, “Watertown comes housed in a sad, dull little brown etching of a desolate hicksville train station, and resembles a no-budget private-pressing or lo-fi folk album more than it does a work by the world’s most successful male vocalist. Brave stuff.” Watertown is poignant because of the point it marked in Sinatra’s career and in his life — no longer a young, glamorous JFK Democrat, Frank was becoming an old, somewhat washed up Nixon/Reagan … Democrat.

And yet, in spite or because of where Sinatra was in celebrity and in life, the album is beautiful and has drawn wonderful write-ups from various corners of the Internet (“If ever I’m asked why I think hipsters are wankers, Watertown is exhibit one…the album Watertown resembles most in this respect is Macarthur Park, Jimmy Webb’s suite of songs for the similarly-limited Richard Harris”).

It tells the story of a man whose wife has left him and their children in Watertown, NY. He laments her loss and recalls her fondly, wistfully, and without ill will. We’re not sure why she left, though there are allusions to an affair and her desire to break from domesticity. Some have suggested that she has in fact died, and that our narrator is experiencing the denial of a truly broken man, waiting in vain for her to return to the Watertown station on a train. Whatever the true intent, it is an album that ought to be rescued from semi-obscurity. So I’ll take a stab right now:

Duke’s problem with women, real or make believe?

Writer Caitlin Flanagan has a somewhat controversial article on the Atlantic about the Karen Owen Duke Powerpoint controversy, months after it happened and then faded quickly from the news. Flanagan’s article has several flaws: there is virtually no reporting (e.g. “But it’s not at all hard to believe that Owen had only three friends in college.” Why not try to find this out?); Owen, is used as more representative of college women today than she probably is statistically (Flanagan’s defense of this is, at least implicitly, embodied by this line: “[I]t’s a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones.”); and Flanagan’s own past is speckled with some disingenuousness (she wrote a book that champions her inner housewife, than came out blazing against all of the supposed Democratic attacks she sustained for it, all the while acting as if a book written about this subject could be apolitical. And  in actuality, she is a working woman who had a nanny).

Nonetheless, much of what she says rings true:

For all the attention Owen has received as a boundary-breaking, sexually empowered new woman, there has been almost no discussion of the fact that the kind of sex she most enjoyed was rough to the point of brutalizing.

[S]he seems to have been willing to do absolutely anything to please the men, which often meant hanging out with their boorish roommates until it was her time to perform.

These louts [the guys Owen hooked up with] did not operate on the fringes of polite society at the university, but existed—were lionized—at its epicenter.

If what we are seeing in Karen Owen is the realization of female sexual power, then we must at least admit that the first pancake off the griddle is a bit of a flop. What rotten luck that the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her.

I think in part because of these uncomfortable truths, the article elicits a whole lot of objections — that it is unfair because Owen is not representative of most women, that the real Duke is unrecognizable from what Flanagan describes (though Flanagan is mostly describing it from Owen’s recorded sexual encounters), or that Owen is a person with agency and not a victim — how Flanagan portrays her.

But let’s remember that before Flanagan’s article, some feminists were congratulating Owen for being empowered, because she was aping what men do. (It should be said that other feminists also feel very uncomfortable about it). So whether or not Owen represents women, her situation is certainly a flashpoint that raises questions about feminism and male power. And I think, much more than Jezebel’s congratulations, Flanagan’s hypothesis about why Owen made the Powerpoint rings true:

But in the sheer amount of anecdotal detail, and in particular in her relentless descriptions of the anatomical shortcomings of various partners, she reveals that the thesis is motivated by the same force that has prompted women through the ages to describe with savage precision their liaisons with men who discarded them: revenge.

A feminist Owen defender’s rejoinder might be, well, why can guys do what Owen does and not have people question their motives, but once a woman does it, she is questioned? My answer: let’s question guys’ motives. Let’s wonder why some guys as much as some women (by all means, not the majority, but certainly enough) see women as merely sexual creatures who are not worthy of respect. And let’s wonder why women go along with this. Let’s raise what it all means psychologically, because I think it is both very interesting and very psychologically-driven.

As to the criticism from Duke students and alumni that Flanagan is painting the school with a broad and inaccurate brush, I bet everyone, especially Duke students, know what Flanagan is talking about and is being frankly disingenuous by pretending not to.

For instance, Flanagan refers to the “the predictable angry letter to the school newspaper about the episode, written by a group of ‘female Greek leaders on campus’” after the Owen incident. The same things used to happen at my alma mater, Northwestern after embarrassing sorority or fraternity (usually fraternity) incidents. Greek leaders would write in scolding the reporting of the incident and describing in their defense philanthropic endeavors and high grade point averages, as if (1) good deeds and scholarship are the reasons people join Greek houses and (2) that participating in social service and earning high marks renders criticism of crude acts beyond the pale.

Having gone to a school similar to Duke in many ways, I recognize Owen’s social milieu — one of weeknights that begin with binge drinking at the campus dive bar or a frat house and that can end in drunken hook-ups — even though it wasn’t my social milieu.

As to the criticism of the media coverage: there is more coverage of the Duke lacrosse team incident and Owen’s Powerpoint than there is of say, the engineering school or the black student groups on campus because the media writes about what is news. It is news when people who are the face of a campus that values athletics, who often enough went to excellent high schools, and who are poised to be future leaders in society so crudely debase others. I imagine most people know these people do not represent all of Duke.

As I said, I went to a university that has many similarities to Duke — a variegated student body, but one in which athletes — and to an even greater extent — Greeks, have a pretty prominent campus role, lots of binge drinking (probably, that is most colleges), and a lot of other things going on that have nothing to do with drinking and Greeks and sexual exploits.

But the fact is, many do, and they stand out, because they often set the tone. The loudest, crudest people, in voice or behavior, tend to dominate, and so that is why the media focuses on them. They, not the quietly studious, have a much greater influence, one which people should have every reason to want to address.This slice of Duke stands out precisely because our default expectation of of an elite university is of great athletics and academic programs.

It is not wrong for adults to drink, or party, or have protected sex with semi-strangers. What is wrong is when these activities legitimize a social order that undercuts advancements women or minorities or others have made, and I believe that is what makes Owen’s story uncomfortable to read about.


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