Fantastic foxes

A friend insisted I watch Fantastic Mr Fox this evening. I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel a lot when I saw it; and FMF was great too. Good story, and somehow it moved well between farce and tragedy, in a way that I don’t quite understand yet, but that I enjoyed. I’m looking forward to more.

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Google being evil

I like Google. I use there search engine, their browser, and some of their other products on a daily basis. And I like the ‘don’t be evil’ aspiration. I think it’s a good one. So I was pretty disappointed when I found that Google was inserting itself into a document I was working on, without consent, to gain extra information about me.

I was working on a file in Google docs (another Google service I use occasionally), and I saved it to a pdf. When I was checking over it, I noticed that Google was adjusting the hyperlinks I’d inserted; specifically, it was adjusting them so they linked first to a google tracking address, and then redirected to your intended link. There’s a good explanation of it over on this forum; as the original poster comments, ‘It’s not as if a direct link wouldn’t work for some technical reason’. This is purely a way of tracking which links are clicked in a pdf that a user creates from google docs.

There is a work-around, for those that are wondering (also explained in the forum); using the ‘send as attachment’ option, and emailing the file to yourself as a pdf, will save the file without google tracking on any of the links. It’s frustrating to have to go through an extra few links; but personally, I found the unwarranted insertion of tracking much more concerning.

I understand that Google is a free service, for many if not most of their consumer products – that their revenue is almost entirely from advertising. And I know that if you’re using an advertisement based service without paying, then you are effectively the product (for some complications in that discussion, not all of which I agree with, see this article).

But I’ve also thought of Google as a company that I’m willing to trust a little more with my data. In part because I’ve had better experiences using Google products, and had a better sense that Google was serious about communicating with users about privacy. I can live with Google adwords tracking my usage and reading my email, even though it was seen as a big shift at the time. But I liked that Google explicitly talked about evil (specifically, “don’t be evil“).

What I don’t like about this tracking in the pdf is that it’s without any hint to me, the user, that it’s happening. It’s a pdf file that I was sending off to other people; not only is Google then tracking my usage, it’s tracking information about other people using my documents. There’s no consent from me, and no consent from recipients. And if the redirect hadn’t taken a moment to load, and if I hadn’t checked the links, I wouldn’t have had any idea. There’s a lack of notification, and a lack of consent; sure, there are worse things being done by other companies, but this is one thing by Google that’s distinctly on the evil end of the spectrum.

It’s disappointing, and it’s unnecessary.

Ground control to Captain Hadfield

I was lucky to see Chris Hadfield speak a while ago. It was an excellent presentation, with some incredible stories. It’s been a while since I got goosebumps listening to a live speech, but I did when I heard Hadfield.

On the strength of that I ordered a copy of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, although with a little hesitation. I was afraid it’d be cheesy, filled with truisms about the universe and attempts to stretch space metaphors too far. It wasn’t. It’s actually quite a good book, and I’d recommend it as a read; maybe not life changing, but definitely worth starting to see if you like it.

There were a couple of things that I really liked about it. Let me start with what could have gone terribly wrong, but didn’t.

The writing was good. I didn’t see any tributes to a ghost-writer, and I’m not sure how much Hadfield wrote himself. But regardless, it’s well written. The prose style isn’t why you’d read the book, but it manages to be good enough to not get in the way of the story. And it does a delightful job of carrying the small things; the morning of waking up to ride a rocket, the realisation that something’s gone wrong in space – Hadfield tells those things well. Which isn’t a small achievement; we’ve all read terrible books where the awful writing destroys a good story; this isn’t one of them, so props to Hadfield and appropriate co-authors/editors.

The other thing that could have gone terribly wrong was the author’s voice. There’s a lovely humility in the writing. Hadfield comes across as a very approachable person, which is impressive for someone with his extensive resume.

Part of why that works is what Hadfield talks about. Because the book is about space, but it’s much more about Hadfield’s journey to space, and some of his experiences along the way. And in telling that story, Hadfield’s willing to both talk about what has been difficult, and to try to distil some of the strategies that have worked well for him. It’s here that he runs a real risk of either stretching his material too far, or simply serving up truisms. But because he keeps it simple, and uses good situations and stories, it works really well.

Hadfield talks about all the factors involved in being an astronaut; all the challenges, the years spent in training, and the countless risks that can derail your journey (health, random chance, geopolitics).

Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad. You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier. It’s got to be an end in itself …

Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal. 

This reflection on strategies, and approaches to life that he’s found useful as an astronaut, are scattered throughout the book. Someone has already conveniently put together a list of life lessons from Hadfield’s book (but wait, there’s another list! and a collection of quotes). Some of the ideas I liked the most were his focus on always preparing as much as possible for different situations; his -1/0/+1 (try to be innocuous in new situations; it’s often a better accomplishment than trying to come across well in the first encounters, and looking foolish), and his recognition of the importance of teamwork, and giving others space.

Another strength of the book is the topic material. It’s about space!, and it’s Really. Really. Interesting. He talks about the experience of being an astronaut; the mundane matters of how to take a piss (cleaning up after yourself in zero gravity sounds complicated), to the awe-inspiring (space walks, and looking out over earth), and the challenging (preparing for space walks without any notice). And these fascinating stories are scattered throughout, and they’re excellent.

An area that I felt was perhaps a little underdone is his discussion of family. He talks about the amount of work that goes into putting an astronaut in space, including the impact on family. While there are acknowledgements, there are also stories that suggest that his work put a real strain on his family life. I don’t know the underlying story there, and perhaps his family wanted as little attention as possible; but it might have been nice if there’d been a clearer acknowledgement of what his work had done to his family, and how it had impacted them.

I’ll share a final quote that I particularly enjoyed, simply because it made me laugh out loud. When talking about his launch in a Soyuz, and the process leading up to it, he mentions visitors coming to see him off. Which is a major step, because ‘Kazakhstan is not easy to get to unless you live in Kyrgyzstan’.

Writing that is clever but not interesting

I read a few pages of The Thought Gang, but it felt tedious and somewhat arrogant. There are good reviews out there (mildly positive at the NY Times, for example), but I just couldn’t care either about the narrator’s voice, the protagonist, or the world that was being described. The word games were purely games, and there was not much of a hook to make me care about – well, anything in the author’s world.

I may come back to it later, particularly now that I’ve read the positive reviews. But for now there are other things I want to read.

Pop psychology books

Blind spots had a lot of potential. It’s a really interesting area, and an important one. Which made it even more disappointing that it didn’t live up to that potential.

The book is about the intersection of ethics and psychology; interesting material, with important implications. But it reads tediously, with that tone that you sometimes get in airports books, as though the announcer at an airport is reading a children’s book. The points the authors were making were obvious, and widely punctuated.

The book actually seemed reminiscent of several others I’ve read; all of them are poorly written, and seem designed to take advantage of the boom in pop psychology. They talk about interesting psychology experiments (usually if not always with slightly counterintuitive results, or results that are made to appear so), but fail to hold together an interesting underlying thesis, or to communicate it well. I think of them as ‘flop psychology’ books. For a pop psychology book that is interesting, and important, I’d recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow, which was excellent.

I may give Blind spots a try and finish it again later; but if I do it’ll be for the topic, and not for the quality of the writing.

Text messages and The Rhetoric of Fiction

I’ve just started The Rhetoric of Fiction (again). I’m only a chapter in, but it’s quite good so far. I’m fascinated by how narrative structure works, so this should be a good read.

There was an interesting example that occurred to me recently – how text messages are dealt with in movies. House of Cards, a TV show, and Chef, a movie, both show text messages onscreen, as floating bubbles of text. I actually first came across the question in a piece by Noah Gittell over at the Atlantic on the use of text messages in Chef, and once I started looking, it seems like it’s a question people have spent some time thinking about.

There’s a nice video by Tony Zhou outlining some of the different approaches (and why reading a phone screen isn’t great), and arguing that there isn’t a clear or useful convention for representing a person’s experience of the internet. There’s a piece over on Wired thinking about text messages in Sherlock.

Those questions – how to represent a particular piece of information to the viewer? – are a nice reminder that while in television, good narrative technique can feel invisible, like you’re just in the room, there’s actually a wealth of decision making going into not just the plot of a story, how but to tell it. Just take House of Cards; it uses its own conventions for asides (leading to multiple parodies), which is different to most TV shows I’ve seen.

There’s a whole wealth of complexity in how the narrative arcs between a storyteller and an audience, and I’m looking forward to reading a little more.