Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Tim Ferriss - Superman?

This isn't going to be exactly the same post as yesterday. Having done the snarky cynical perspective (even if you didn't get to see it), I thought I might try to make writing about The 4-Hour Workweek (TFHWW) for a second time in 24 hours a little more interesting for myself by, this time, giving Ferriss's ideas something more resembling a fair hearing. In other words, my initial assumption that Tim Ferriss was the strawberry-blonde embodiment of smugness - based largely on photos like the one below, in which it appears to be literally radiating from him - proved more or less unfounded.

That icy cool light behind him isn't entirely irrelevant, though.

You see, while I have every sympathy with the book's stated aim of helping people escape from the 9-5 to live a life doing what they care about - that's largely why I became a freelance writer, after all - I can't help but be put off by some of the strategies Ferriss advocates - he might not come across as smugly as I expected, but some of his ideas are still coldly Nietzschean enough to give me the shivers. We'll come to that soon enough, though.

First, the book's title - how on earth does someone write a book while working only 4 hours a week? Well, that question was soon cleared up by this (slightly badly recorded) podcast; the answer being: he didn't. Or rather, he didn't consider it work. A convenient explanation, perhaps, given that it must directly and indirectly account for a lot of his income these days, something I feel sure would have been a primary intention behind him writing it (judging by the way he approaches everything else), but basically it's an explanation I can't fault him on - on your own projects at least, I tend to agree, writing should be something you just want to do, or can't help doing.

Nor is Ferriss trying to encourage everyone to work a 4-hour week; it's a viable option for those who want it, he says, but the majority of readers will benefit from his book simply by being shown ways to reclaim more of their work time for their own purposes. He even seems to admit that a 4-hour week is a much more realistic possibility for those in certain careers. But what, you might be wondering, does he have to say about time-management?

Mostly, that he doesn't believe in it. The emphasis of time-management has traditionally been put upon getting as much work as possible done in the time available; whereas Ferriss's emphasis is upon just doing as little work as possible. Where Getting Things Done, for instance, was a system of organised forgetting, TFHWW is about productive laziness and selective ignorance. Everything in TFHWW is about freeing up time for your own enjoyment. To this end, Ferriss gives us the acronym DEAL:

Definition - define what you want in life, and calculate how much it will cost - often less than you thought. This is your TMI - Target Monthly Income.

Elimination - 20% of your tasks are responsible for 80% of what you achieve, meaning that most of the rest of your work time is benefitting you very little - try to eliminate those pointless tasks. Do only the things that are really getting you somewhere. Eliminate distracting and unnecessary inputs. (At this stage this might be helpful, for instance).

Automation - if you can get someone else to do something for you for less than the task will bring in, you'd be stupid not to. Delegate. Outsource. Come up with business models that largely run themselves.

Liberation - once your lifestyle is more or less automated, you can be anywhere in the world; you've been liberated from both your job and your geographical location; you're mobile.

Ferriss also talks about there being three currencies - in order of importance: Time, Income, and Mobility (hmm, TIM - a coincidence?). If you can maximise all three, you're on the way to a happier life. Time is most important, since it's in the shortest supply. Therefore, always look at your income in terms of an hourly rate: you could get a raise, but be expected to work more, for instance, and thus actually be earning less per hour - is that extra money worth it?

So far, so good, I suppose; I'm even, basically, in agreement with him. But it's when I look a little closer into his ideas regarding Elimination and Automation, that I find myself diverging from Ferriss's way of thinking.

In this recording of a presentation he gave at SXSW Interactive 2007, Ferriss talks about checking your e-mail only twice a day and setting up an autoresponder to deal with it all - saying, essentially, that he most likely won't reply, but please don't be offended, and if you have an urgent query just call his cellphone. Sounds kind of sensible, admittedly, but I get the impression he deals with his social life this way too. In fact, later he says, "I'm ruthless with my social life." On his website he talks about befriending an author, so that he could find out how to pitch his book to publishers. And at other times he talks about training the people you deal with, and how "having people wait for you is power." All of that stuff just leaves me a bit cold. It reeks of calculation and manipulation.

But there's more behind that impression. Almost everything in Ferriss's life he outsources; mostly, to sometimes as many as 40 assistants based in developing countries and paid as little as $4p/h. Maybe that's a living wage in Bangalore or the Philippines, though? I don't know. So I'll let that slide. But then you read a story cited by him as both hilarious and a good example of how such outsourcing might work, or you hear his story about a man who has his low-paid overseas assistants find and break in a new pair of jeans for him, so that they look as worn as his old pair - is it me, or does that task, and some of the others mentioned by AJ Jacobs, seem a bit demeaning? And doesn't AJ Jacobs start to sound ever more pathological in his outsourcing?

Ferriss himself has even used his team in Bangalore to manage his love life, arranging for him 30 dates with 30 different women in 2 days. Never mind anything else, doesn't that seem like an arrogant and grimly functional approach to dating?

All in all, the more you read and hear about Ferriss, the more you get the impression that everything in life, including a person, is simply an experience for him to have; the operative word in that sentence being 'him'. And I can't help thinking that, in his extra-curricular activities as well, his unspoken aim is that of achieving the Nietzschean ideal of the Superman, utilising everything and anything to raise himself high above the herd. The evidence presented here is scant I know, but to me there just seems to be something very self-centred and unfeeling of others at the heart of TFHWW; and there's more evidence out there, if you look.

Don't get me wrong, I can see value in advice such as the auto-responder, checking e-mail less often (and consequently responding to them in batches), narrowing down the topics on your RSS feedreader, etc., and I'm totally behind the overall idea of escaping the 9-5 and enjoying the more important things in life; I just find too much that's cold and clinical to be inclined to investigate any further.

In fact, after researching TFHWW, oddly, I find myself thinking almost fondly about Getting Things Done...

Maybe there's hope for me after all?

Next week: Just some useful hints, tips, and downloads, hopefully. And perhaps a short progress report - you'd be surprised after reading these last few posts, but I actually might be making some... Well, just a little.

This week's useful download: Evernote. I haven't investigated it too much yet, but it looks like something that might be really useful to the GTD crowd.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Crash and learn

Due to an incredibly annoying Firefox crash, the post that was almost here earlier isn't anymore.

In other news: a blog editor is indeed great if you blog using more than one Google account, but, unlike Blogger, SribeFire doesn't have an autosave function...


Yet another lesson in saving things more often, I suppose.

Anyway, I'm going to have a break now, during which I shall try not to be too literal about the breaking part, and hopefully something might appear here by tomorrow.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Nearly the weekend...

Ahh, that Friday feeling! I don't get it so much in my current job, but I still vividly remember those days when I'd wake up, sigh, and think of nothing else but the coming weekend for the rest of the day. God, I couldn't wait... Sadly, this would usually happen on a Monday, and I'd have to get through the rest of the week, each and every tedious day tainted by disappointment.

Still, thank God for self-employment. Oh, and here are some links:

Second-person tubular

Maybe you'll have already seen this on BoingBoing, but the Ultimate Machine just had to be on here. It's the most wonderfully pointless thing I've seen all week :) And according to the latest update on its creator's site, you'll soon be able to have one of your own... erm, if you must.

Another one that's been doing the rounds: an automated bike park in Tokyo.

At times like Friday afternoon, if it's any consolation, you have Mr T's sympathy. Or something like that. Mostly he just want's you to watch his telly programme, though.

And some more viral nonsense, as Cadbury's eggs go to the movies (more GooTube than YouTube).

Random bits and pieces

Chilirec: like TiVo for internet radio, said some site or other. Can't remember which one, though, but that pretty much sums it up.

The world represented in the form of URL country codes (with posters available for $30).

If you can't afford PhotoShop, can't get the hang of the free online Express version, or would find having a GIMP icon on your desktop a tad embarrassing, there's another good free alternative: Paint.net

And if you're still in a photographic frame of mind, why not supercharge your camera? Assuming you have a Canon, that is, and don't mind voiding your warranty.


Grow isn't just a puzzle game; in fact, it's a whole series of puzzle games, in which, as far as I can work out, you place combinations of objects together so that they, erm, grow and interact. Actually, I'm not really sure what's going on at all, to be honest, but it's all very pleasingly odd. UPDATE: Hmm, I don't even think it's a puzzle game... It's definitely wonderful, though, no doubt about that - inspired, Flash-based madness :)

Not much at the next site yet, but if you're a fan of both games and Penny Arcade it might be something worth keeping an RSS-fed eye on. Or if there isn't a feed, I suppose you'll just have to, erm, remember to check-in now and again.

Movie Magic

An online collection of visually striking title sequences.

Trailers, recut and mashed-up at Trailer Mash.

New endings to old movies.

A selection of links from WebZen's Movie Zen post.

And finally...

At last, we're free! We can all stop our endless clicking and do something else instead: someone finally found it.

[Tries to think what else to do]

Oh well, I suppose, we could always start again from the beginning...

Monday, 21 April 2008

Getting things done... sometimes

As you can see, this is David Allen (not to be confused with Dave Allen, who's funnier but dead), father of Getting Things Done (GTD), the time management and personal productivity system I mentioned last week. As you can also see, he's done some podcasts, with Merlin Mann, productivity geek-wizard behind 43 Folders. In the interests of at least attempting to give GTD a fair hearing, and since I couldn't be bothered to buy the book, I decided I'd better get downloading and give them a listen.

But before I go any further, I should probably explain a few things. Like why my ears, I suspected, might prove to be a little deaf to his theories.

The short answer is this:

"If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn't, go for the one without form" - The Chance Traveller, in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami.

Now, I only happened to read that story last week, but it instantly struck me as the kind of rule I go by. You see, pretty much anything good that has happened to me has happened in large part by chance, and I kind of like it that way.

The long answer:

OK, nothing happens wholly by chance, I admit, but certainly calculation and rigorous planning weren't involved either - the kind of things that I seem to associate with GTD, in other words. My approach to life is more that of just doing things that seem like they might open up possibilities and seeing what happens; to leave plenty of room in anything I do for the odd surprise to happen.

Take blogging, for instance. Initially, I just left comments on a few blogs that interested or amused me. I can't say I especially anticipated this leading anywhere, but it at least seemed like it might cause something more interesting to happen than if I just sat in front of a TV all night. And to my surprise it actually did.

A little over two years later, and blogging (writing my own and reading other people's) has directly and indirectly led me to jobs, an MA, some very good friends (on and off-line), a new town, new interests, and a much freer, more fulfilling life. Which was a little more than I bargained for when I left my first comment, quite frankly, but hey, I'm not going to complain.

There was over that time - it would be disingenuous not to admit - some overall intention guiding my actions: I wanted my life to change, and I had some vague notion that I'd quite like to earn a living from writing. But none of my actions were taken with any more definite outcome in mind than those, and usually without even very much idea of how they might bring those goals about. If I'd gone into my MA, for instance, looking for some more fixed outcome I certainly wouldn't have ended up doing copywriting; that was the avenue that I, by far, least expected to go down (erm, I'm quite happy to be here, though, I should point out).

But enough of all that. Suffice it to say that trying to put myself in the way of happy accidents has served me quite well. And as you can probably imagine, that's something to which a system of baroque complexity and rigorous order, it's always struck me, would be utterly inimical: I mean, where's the room for chance and surprise? And aren't they the things that keep life interesting and exciting?

Let's open up the chance that I'm wrong about GTD, though. For one thing, after writing all that stuff above, it seems like it might be both unwise and hypocritical of me not to. And in fact that's just what I did yesterday:

Like any other lazy writer, my investigations began on Wikipedia. The short version of the entry: GTD is a system of organised forgetting.

Anything that's on your mind is taking your attention from what you're trying to do, Allen says, and probably causing you stress; whether that be your life goals, that bit of work you need to get done by next week, or just the annoying squeaking of your chair. Somewhere in your head, you're always worried that these aren't getting done and that you're liable to forget about them. GTD, then, gives you a way of getting all that "stuff" out of your head and into a system that can manage it efficiently and reliably, breaking each of your projects right down to the level of next physical actions necessary to keep them moving forward. With a now clear mind, these actions can then be accomplished even more quickly and effectively.

Sounds kind of nice, actually, doesn't it? Sort of reassuring... if desperately dull and worthy.

Nice or not, though, I was still a little on my guard when it came to the podcasts, Wired having informed me that David Allen is a minister of the somewhat nutty sounding Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. In fairness, the article did also point out that despite this no real cultishness seems evident in GTD itself, just in the enthusiastic devotion of its converts. Which was a little disappointing, frankly. That was my last decent excuse...

So, to the podcasts themselves:

Number 1 covered procrastination. Since I'd actually got around to listening to it, I thought I might skip that one. The blurb about Number 2 just scared me - "ubiquitous capture" and "scrupulous review" sounded like the next military scandal set to emerge from Iraq. Three was talking about a "someday/maybe" list, which pretty much sums up the lists I make already (headed by the words "To Do", but "Someday/Maybe" is probably closer to the truth). And Eight purported to be something or other about paying "attention to your higher altitudes", which actually did sound like something a bit culty...

Still, I listened to all eight of them anyway. And actually they didn't really sound too culty at all.

A bit confusing to the uninitiated, perhaps, and they didn't do much to make the process of first implementing the grand GTD scheme sound any less time-consuming or intimidating, but no, those were the only real objections I could find. They were even pretty short, for goodness sake.

So have I been converted, then? Erm, no. Not really.

To be honest, GTD may not even be all that inimical to chance, the more I think about it - you could probably adapt it so that all your goals were still quite open-ended - but realistically, there's still one huge barrier (well, for me at least): I'll just never get around to it. I mean, honestly, all that tedious faffing at the implementation stage? I haven't got a hope. Too many more interesting things to do. Always, too many more interesting things.

That said, I will actually be taking some things away from GTD. For instance, I really like the idea of just doing anything, right then and there, that will take you less than 2 minutes, rather than simply sticking it on a list. It's a stupidly simple idea, obviously, but it's still one I never normally put into practice.

(Actually, last night I did put it into practice. Time to set up a standing order to my credit card and stop worrying about late payment charges, I decided. Equally decisively, the bank's website was down. [Sigh] You try not to believe in omens...)

As well, the tickler file thing (from which 43 Folders takes its otherwise slightly mystifying name, by the way) sounds like something I actually might one day get around to: one folder for each month, and 31 more (to represent each day) which get transferred from month to month. I think you're supposed to put anything that will be relevant to you on a particular day into the matching folder; which, erm, does sound a better way of keeping track of things than my ever growing pile of paper on the floor.

And here's my favourite, from Podcast 1, David Allen's rather liberating definition of procrastination:

"It's not about 'not doing', it's about 'not doing' and feeling crappy."

Now that's the kind of thinking I can really get behind. Procrastinate to your heart's content, but just stop feeling guilty about it.* Brilliant.

Problem solved.

And in that spirit, then, I think I'll just skip Tim 'Four-hour workweek' Ferriss for this week.

Next week's questions: How does a man working only four hours a week write a book? I mean, seriously, is it really short? Or did it just take him forever?

N.B. This post was written using ScribeFire, a browser-based blog editor that was my real time saver of the week. I write on Root of the Matter using a different Google account from my usual one, which normally means either signing in and out all the time, or running slow and crashy Internet Explorer alongside Firefox, so ScribeFire has been a godsend :) If the post looks a bit wonky, though, forget I spoke.

*Other interpretations are available.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Links time again

This week, no particular theme, just links aplenty:

General YouTubery

How to download YouTube videos as MP4 files. You might be breaking the user agreement thingy, mind. But then again you might not. No-one seems quite sure.

Your inbox is probably already infested with video-clips of cats doing cute things, I know... But still, cats playing the theremin? Come on, you know you want to :)

Since, erm, it's pretty much the whole point here, a short animation about procrastination.

Some arty stuff

If photos of interesting artworks, with the occasional YouTube video thrown in, all lovingly presented beneath enigmatic snippets of song lyrics sounds like your kind of thing, then head on over to The Lucky Charm blog (cereal-hoarding leprechauns, thankfully, noticeable only by their absence).

Chances are you might also enjoy a stay at Motel De Moka: a tasteful brew of art, mp3s, song lyrics, poetry, and the odd bit of Spanish. Muy bueno.

For the more inadvertent face of representation, Faces in Places collects photos illustrating our in-built propensity to spot faces pretty much anywhere we care to look.

Possibly the most beautiful sheets of blank A4 you'll ever see.

And it's quite surprising what you can do with a watermelon too...

Some newsy stuff

The BBC's latest Pods & Blogs podcast featured a couple of interesting newsy sites:

According to the spokesman interviewed, pundits and public alike will soon be going head-to-head to prove their prescience on Hubdub.com, a news prediction game. If you're in the business of tech predictions, a good Hubdub ranking might one day be as important as a well-read blog, they said. But you probably knew that already, didn't you?

Ever wanted to be an interviewer? Well, Yoosk won't quite let you do that, but it will ask politicians and celebrities questions on your behalf. If your fellow users have given them at least 100 votes, that is. Yesterday on Yoosk, it was the turn of the London Mayoral candidates, minus Ken and Boris so far, though...

ITN have just added a News channel and a Music News channel to their previous YouTube offerings. That should perhaps have been in the YouTube section, but frankly the thremin playing cats were more interesting.

Oh, and small-minded self-righteousness and xenophobia just got a makeover. Great. They must have been at a loose end after the Diana inquiry (which should be a worry to us all, I suspect)...

And finally...

This Dear God site seemed like it might have been a nice quirky idea for this slot...

But yikes, is that depressing!

Seriously, you won't be able to make it through more than a few posts without losing the will to live. So instead, to rather belatedly celebrate the new Portishead album, and because even a Portishead song sung by the cold dead cicuits of a machine is infinitely cheerier than that God site, here's Roads sung by a computer.

It has a girlfriend, too. She's called Audrey. Sometimes they do duets.


Here's a review of the Flock social browser.

There was a link to it on the e-learning blog I linked to last week, but it looks like I left out one of the bigger language learning social network sites, iTalki.

Monday, 14 April 2008

The reluctant lifehacker

Over the last few years I seem to have found myself increasingly drawn to articles like these. Not that I can recall ever implementing even a single bit of advice suggested by any one of the personal productivity, organisation, or time management gurus featured therein. Really, I'm not even sure why I read them at all. And yet, I do. Every single word.

The one idea I've come up with is this: I think it might be for much the same reason that I sometimes find myself reading articles about the inexplicably murderous or psychotic of this world - basically, out of a sort of horrified bafflement as to what might drive someone to do such things... I just don't get it. Why would anyone regiment their life like that? (Oh, and I don't really get violence either. Obviously. Or at least I didn't until I'd worked in customer services for a couple of years...).

But now, here I am, self-employed and freelance, and - in a direct reversal of the customer service years - constantly nagged at by stirrings of optimism and ambition and dreams that seem all too impatient to be fulfilled. Also, there seem to be quite a lot of troublesome bits of paper. In fact, it's a bloody unmanageable nuiscance this being happy thing. Not least because it's really starting to test my natural antipathy towards organisation and time management.


You see, I'm actually starting to wonder if maybe they might be on to something? I mean, however hard I might find it to believe otherwise, it's not necessarily impossible.

Is it?


The trouble is, so much of this stuff seems to be couched in the kind of terms employed by the competing nonsenses of Self-Help*. Add to that an off-putting whiff of cultishness, and whenever I go near the stuff, sooner or later, my mind starts going into the kind of peristaltic mental spasms that I tend to think of as the brain's equivalent of the gag reflex. Oh, I'm sure there are some nutritious morsels of common sense in amongst the emetic babble... I'm just damned if I can swallow them.

Nonetheless, if only to shut up those noisy and demanding dreams, I'm determined to attempt to give it all a fair hearing. At least for a few weeks. After all, it's usually best to try to learn about things before dismissing them out of hand and subjecting them to ridicule. For one thing, ridicule's an awful lot more effective when you know what you're talking about. And easier.

So, in that spirit, or something like it, I've really, actually, been properly reading through 43 Folders and lifehacker. And re-reading those articles I linked to at the start.


But before I elaborate, an update on last week.

If you remember, I was trying out out some Greasemonkey Firefox extensions. The results:

- Better YouTube - really handy :) Downloading videos - or just opting to use the buffer-before-playing alternative video player - generally, and mercifully, sidestepped the tedious faffing and replaying I often used to have to employ to get the increasingly glitch-ridden (but perhaps just on my machine?) YouTube to work. And automatically showing the full details of each video; well, it's just a tiny thing, really, but still very, very welcome.

- Better Gmail - erm, not so much. Being able to add a Google Reader feed to the sidebar is just a constant self-renewing invitation to procrastination, frankly. As for the other options: I suppose they might be useful to some people, but I found all of them either a bit fiddly or merely cosmetic. Then again, I was happy enough with Gmail already, so it probably just wasn't for me.

- From the Top 10 Greasemonkey scripts, though, I shall definitely be continuing with Textarea Backup. Finally, no more losing not yet sent blog comments when you (or your browser) happen to do something stupid :) That alone, come to think of it, might be worth all this productivity-blog reading I've been doing.

Speaking of which, time to return to lifehacker and 43 Folders.

Observations so far:

The former's emphasis on tech-enabled hacks and shortcuts, I have to say, certainly sent my brain into noticeably fewer peristaltic contractions. The cultishness and self-help stuff is there somewhere, admittedly, but mostly it's pleasingly well buried beneath a wealth of inoffensive practicality and useful downloads. Some of it's even just simple DIY stuff like how to make a cheap laptop stand, or using carrier bags for something creative. In short, I shall definitely be returning; it's not hard to see why Time magazine named lifehacker among its Top 25 Blogs.

43 Folders, if I'm honest, wasn't entirely indigestible either. It's very much Mac oriented, so if that's your machine of choice, you'll probably feel a bit more at home there. And there's a handy, ever-expanding, and - you'll not be surprised to hear - well organised wiki of all the hints, tips, systems and strategies its writer and users employ. Under(and over)lying pretty much all of it, though, is David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) system. And it's at this that my cult averse, Self-Help queasy, organisation-agnostic brain seems to heave most strongly of all.

Join me next week, then, as I explain my GTD misgivings, try to keep brain vomit at bay, and perhaps learn that a tickler file is something other than where Ken Dodd keeps his tax returns.

I'm looking forward to it already...

No, actually, I am.

But mostly just because I'll probably end up having a go at time management guru-du-jour Tim Ferriss as well - anyone can enjoy a four-hour workweek, my asterisks!

UPDATE: Don't know if anyone's tried the Better YouTube package yet, but at the moment it seems to need updating. Instead, you might want to install the updated Download as MP4, Full Details, and Alternative Video Player scripts separately.

*Clearly, this is a gross generalisation. Some of the nonsenses are actually quite complementary.

Friday, 11 April 2008

This week's procrastination fodder

Well, after six more days of rest and relaxation, it seems Friday has once again decided to grace us with its welcome presence. If only we all had such cushy jobs...

Sadly, of course, we don't.

But what we do have is procrastination - the ray of light in the darkness of our working days! Not that days seem to do much work, apparently...

Anyway, the rest of us do, which is why you'll be needing these links. Today's (quite loose) theme: words.

YouTube clips

[Er, clearly, I didn't really have YouTube in mind when I came up with that theme... but still, one or two things presented themselves this week. Thankfully.]

Wikipedia's full of words, and so's this documentary: The Truth According to Wikipedia. Erm, the words might be in Dutch, though (I haven't watched it yet, and now my computer's refusing to play it, so I have no idea. UPDATE: Nope, they're in English. Phew).

This one combines both words AND procrastination. Or at least some very skillful procrastination using things you might use to write words. There's even a National Championship in Japan.

A whole load of videos, courtesy of Wired, of toys that sound like they're saying words they probably shouldn't. Question: if it's a toy, and it's not really saying what it's saying, is it still NSFW? Your call, I think.


How to describe Poesysteme? Fridge Poetry left to fend for itself, was the best I could come up with. At present, it's more of an interactive screensaver, but it's kind of an interesting idea. And might be good, if you feed in some real text, for generating aleatory cut-up poems.

Not words exactly, and not a text adventure either, but on the other hand, Super Serif Brothers! is a platform game composed entirely of letters and punctuation. You control the letter I, appropriately enough.

Some other wordy stuff

Erm, I guess there are quite a lot of words on social networks (I told you the theme was quite loose)... Well, anyway, they're great for procrastination, so here's a browser designed especially for the social web: Flock.

More in keeping with the theme, though, maybe you could use your new browser to engage in book club type chats on Book Glutton? It's a "community for people who want to read, share, annotate and discuss, right inside the text", so it says. Here's a YouTube video of how its "proximity chat" feature works.

Or why not point your browser (and probably your headset too) at another kind of social network and learn a few foreign words? Language learning, in fact, being the whole point of these: Livemocha, VoxSwap, My Happy Planet, palabea, and indeed many more besides.

And finally...

Light isn't the only thing a little procrastination can bring into your working life. How about a little bit of colour too? Just type a word in here to find out what colour people think it is. A fuller explanation can be found here (though not of why friendship might be purple).

Actually, that wasn't nearly as interesting as I'd hoped, so here's a music video consisting almost entirely of virtuoso shadow puppetry.

Erm, no reason.

I just liked it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Made a violent video game? Then why not let the Advertising Standards Authority do your marketing for you?

Not for the first time, the Advertising Standards Agency has banned the advertising campaign for a violent video game. On this occasion, the Xbox game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. According to the ASA, the poster was "graphic and too shocking to be seen in an untargeted medium". The print and TV ads were banned too.

If you want to know the exact plot of the game, it can be found here. If not, suffice it to say, it involves two reluctantly co-operating amoral antiheroes - a mercenary and a "medicated psychopath" - embarking on a killing spree. It's the kind of premise you could easily imagine being behind one of Hollywood's more extreme action movies - not so much a 'buddy movie', perhaps, as a 'bloody movie'.

The thing is, though, mightn't being banned have been the whole point of the ad campaign?

Let's say you're the game's producer, Eidos, or you're whoever's been commissioned to market Kane & Lynch: what kind of ad campaign might people who like violent, extreme video games respond to?

Not exactly a difficult question, is it?

Hence poster images implying torture and featuring the boast, "Grittier and nastier in tone than anything you've seen before, the violence here is visceral, brutal and very, very real."

As for ASA sanctions; well, what stronger way could there be to back up a statement like that than having the ads banned? Oh, and should the national press then pass this news on to your potential customers (and it almost certainly will), well, so much the better, frankly.

Your marketing strategy in a nutshell, then: produce 'shocking' ad > ad gets banned by ASA > game receives a) additional free publicity (literally free - the ASA can't even fine you), b) an endorsement of its claims towards previously unseen levels of violence, and c) an additional outlaw cachet in the eyes of its target audience. Job done. And thank you, ASA.

Granted, aside from banning ads and generating bad publicity, the ASA hasn't the power to do much more to an offending company than - as it has done with Eidos - "advise them to seek guidance from the CAP Copy Advice team before publishing future, similar non-broadcast material". And how or if those powers might, realistically, be improved upon, I have no idea. But if the ASA really wants to discourage violent ads for games like Kane & Lynch, rather than achieving the reverse, more than likely it's going to have to arrive at some much more sophisticated methods than simply banning them.

After all, when your game is based on the, erm, philosophy that "this world is separated into two kinds of people: asses and badasses," good publicity probably wasn't ever really what you were after.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Flaming foxes and greased monkeys

Is there hope for the hopelessly disorganised?

At present, my personal filing system consists of piling bits of paper on the floor until I feel disgusted enough with myself to be bothered transferring them all to whichever folders in the three dusty, overstuffed box files under my bed seem least inappropriate. When being organised is predicated upon feeling bad about yourself and makes you sneeze chances are you need a better way of getting organised.

I also have a terrible procrastination problem. I put the 'pro' into 'procrastinator'.

Oh, I get work done, but not without first putting myself through countless wasted hours of pointlessness, or doing everything else I possibly can until the only thing that's left is what I'm supposed to be doing. Work by default, you might call it. It seems to get results, mind, but there must be an easier, more sane way of going about things. Mustn't there?

Well, that's what this blog will set out to find out, every Monday: ways in which to become more organised and productive; preferably without developing OCD.

After a cursory browse of the World Wide What-was-I-supposed-to-be-doing, the first thing I will definitely not be doing is this. It might be a neat time-saving way of combining work and exercise, but somehow I think I can soldier on a while longer without feeling like a trapped hamster.

Thankfully, there seem to be an abundance of more sensible suggestions out there, though; ones that don't appear quite so dispiritingly symbolic of going nowhere.

The most famous websites dedicated to organisation and getting things done are probably lifehacker and 43 Folders. Both sites promise that you can get more done in less time simply by making little alterations to your everday life and work routines. The idea is to 'hack' your life to make it do what you want it to, in much the same way that a tech-savvy musician might hack an old games console to use its sound chip to create beats and bleeps. Or in the same way that someone might create an add-on for Firefox to make it do something useful that it doesn't do as standard.

In fact, that's one of the things lifehacker seems to recommend, harnessing the power of Firefox add-ons to streamline your web-browsing and get what you really need from the websites you use. To this end, the extension it seems most fond of is Greasemonkey.

Greasemonkey allows users to control how they see and use a website by creating a script that Firefox will run every time that site is visited. Which sounds a little complicated... Fortunately, though, you don't have to write these scripts yourself, you can just browse and download ones that people have already created.

Is there something that's always irritated you about YouTube, say, or Gmail, or something you wished those sites could do? Well, chances are someone's already created a script to remedy or enable exactly those things. And here they are: Better Gmail and Better YouTube (the Greasemonkey extension needs to be installed already, I think). The blurb at the links will tell you what they do.

No idea, yet, whether they're any use, or whether they might actually save time or get me even slightly more organised, but I shall report back next week. And by then I might even have manged to read and filter through some more of the endless productivity hints, tips and systems that seem to be out there. Seriously, you could waste weeks looking through that stuff. Which, erm, probably isn't the point.

UPDATE: Lifehacker's Top 10 Greasemonkey scripts.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Relax with Radix

Newton's third law of motion states that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." In other words, all that aimless internet browsing, blog reading and general slacking off you get up to on a Friday afternoon is entirely essential activity - without a relaxing Friday afternoon you'd get even less done between yawns the following Monday morning. Welcome, then, to The Root of the Matter's first weekly selection of paradoxically productivity-enhancing procrastination fodder.

Without further ado, then, let the parade of YouTube clips, gadgets, odd news stories, games, and sundry other stuff begin. Today, a musical theme:

YouTube clips

According to this, a halfway listenable electronica track can be made entirely from sounds native to Windows XP and 98.

More gadgety resourcefulness: there's now an iBand, playing songs on modified iPhones and a Nintendo DS. (You can see more of the iPhone being played as a guitar, and as a piano, here and here, respectively. Oh, and there's an iBand site with loads more videos - only just spotted that).

Rather than hack their DS, Japanese users can now get professional music making software, courtesy of Korg. The existence of an English website, suggests it might be heading this way...

Further illustrating Japanese tech-know-how, here's Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) getting to grips with a unique new musical instrument, the TENORI-ON - cooo, look at the pretty lights!


Might be slightly old news this one, but, well, let's just say, it's a bit different, and it fits the theme: Synaesthete.

This musical puzzler-thing's just a demo: Audiosurf. But you could pay for the full version.

And if you happen to have a guitar controller handy (no, me neither, but anyway), you could use it to "play" a platform game: Fret Nice.

[At the risk of having nothing to post next week: all the above found at the Independent Games Festival 2008 site].

For when you've completely given up on any pretence of work for today...

Radiohead have released the five "stems", and a GarageBand project file, that make up their new single "Nude" - download them from iTunes and post your remix here. Apparently the band will listen to the ones that get the most votes. It doesn't say whether they'll do any more than that, mind, but still, it could lead somewhere...

Loads of great bands have played at Amsterdam's Paradiso and Melkweg, over the years; fortunately both venues have been recording them. In high quality. And they'll let you see/hear them for free. Well worth a look through the concerts list. More bands added as more bands play (the blog should keep you up to date).

Songbird is a web browser/media player designed for music lovers. It's in beta, but apparently it's been stable for a while now. And for added procrastinatory value, it's based on Firefox, so you can customise to your heart's content.

And finally...

Has it been one of those weeks? Nerves frazzled? Starting to wonder what life would be like without all those people around to screw everything up? Anything just to get away from them? Perhaps, you might have found yourself thinking, it would be more peaceful living on the bottom of the ocean... Well, now you can find out. Sit back, stick some headphones on and chill out to the sound of no humans whatsoever.

Bliss. Utter bliss.

Actually, you possibly better not do that: sometimes things like this happen. Iceberg calving can be a bit loud, apparently...

This service is provided purely for the benefit of our readers; any way in which the gathering of these links might be construed as an attempt on my part to legitimise my own countless moments of time-www.asting idleness is purely coincidental, and entirely accurate.

Oh, and videos weren't embedded to save loading times. Or would people prefer to see them added to the post next time?