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The Majesty of Showing an Unexpected Skill Range

Lady Gaga has an amazing set of talents and skills, which many others have talked about better far better than I can. I’m impressed in many different ways, but what I wanted to focus on today was an aspect of her skill and self-control in not overdoing things, in using just enough to make the point, then moving on. It’s something that I treasure in the art I love, the ‘using just enough’, but more precisely in this instance, it’s the art of having a large amount of skill in an unexpected direction, and then doing something seemingly easy that shows that you have a lot of skill in that area.

In Lady Gaga’s case, what I’m getting at is we know she can sing[1], we know she can dance[2], but did you also know that she can speak French? In ‘Bad Romance‘[3], she seems to be really good at rolling her ‘r’s (3:21), and seems to easily to slip into French (3:52), both of which (to my untutored ear) sound well spoken. But she understands how much is ‘just enough’, and declines to descend into wankiness, carefully and with great skill putting the cherry on top of a delicious sundae.

Another great example is Psy (can you tell what part of my playlist I’m on right now?). He is a great singer & performer and dancer, but do you really know how *good* a dancer he is[4]? His most popular song (and the most popular song on Youtube, so popular they ran out of numbers) is a super-fun, somewhat problematic takedown of ‘Gangnam-style’ frou-frou culture in Korea. But what I want to talk about is his dancing.

At the end of the video, he’s in a dance-off with a friend (presumably) of his (it happens in a cut-down version earlier in the video, but this seems to be the uncut version). They’re having fun, each of them dancing in a way that works for them, and then suddenly, at 3:58, Psy breaks out his ‘legs-shuffling side-gallop‘ Gangnam-Style trademark dance, and his opponent, realizing he can’t compete at all, immediately stops, and has to take a second to regroup and find his groove. I’m not a dancing expert, but it seems to me that the ‘legs-shuffling side-gallop’ dance requires an inordinate amount of core strength, control, and body part isolation to bring off. If you watch the rest of the video, you can see that none of the other dancers get anywhere close to how well Psy is doing it. You can assume that Psy is big enough that they would find good dancers as back up for him, suggesting that either this particular dance is actually incredibly difficult to perform (or they are deliberately trying to not upstage him). Again, like Lady Gaga above, he makes it look easy.

Stay tuned for next time, when we talk about skill, privilege, and different ways of perceiving holding back. Thanks for reading!

Confusing skill & privilege, holding back

Note: The title of this post was also difficult to settle on, as I’m trying to express multiple related concepts:
– The idea that even having the skill is unexpected
– The idea that having that skill at such a high level is unexpected
– The idea that showing a skill and making it look easy (to show a very high level of skill) is majestic
– The idea that using a skill at a high level, just the correct amount, not overdoing it is majestic

[1] There are also great examples of this in the video, where she uses dynamics and range in an intertwined way to mold the energy and flow of the song, and it’s fantastic.

[2] Ibid.

[3] On a side note, can we talk about the censorship in that video, how they replaced ‘bitch’ with ‘bit’? I’ll admit it is some of the best-done censorship I’ve ever heard, the least disruptive to flow (except for perhaps ‘melonfarmer‘), but I still side with George Carlin on this one.

[4] Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in Korea do, but I didn’t. πŸ˜€

“During an interview with The New York Times, Psy revealed that South Korean fans have huge expectations about his dancing, so he felt a lot of pressure. In order to keep up with expectations, he studied hard to find something new and stayed up late for about 30 nights to come up with the “Gangnam Style” dance.”

The Feracious Potential of Autumn

I went for a walk today. This would not normally be notable, except that it was only the second time I’d been out on a walk on my own during the pandemic, and the first time since S went home to visit her parents.

It was a nice night. The perfect, slightly chilled temperature of late summer/early autumn, a light breeze bringing smells of something delicious, something burning, just cool enough to make you think of goosebumps.

People always talk about the potential, the bountiful feelings of spring, but I think that the fall speaks to me even more strongly. I’m not sure how much of it is that the heat of summer has finally broken[1], how much of it is that it signifies going back to school, the creativity and freedom/safety of end-of-summer music camp[2]. Conversely, it signals the end of summer, the world now feels like there is a deadline, that time is moving forward, and that things must be done before it is too late[3].

Whatever the reason, walking outside just now, I feel full of potential, and I’m looking forward to expressing more of it.

Saturn & Jupiter, sandwiched between the terrible streetlight pollution in my neighbourhood.
Saturn & Jupiter, peeping out from behind the terrible streetlight pollution in my neighbourhood.

Photograph taken 2020-08-18:
https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/canada/toronto

[1] Interestingly, I grew up in a room that was directly over the furnace, so I think that I have a little more heat tolerance/expectation/less blood circulation to my extremities[1a] than many others do. However, when it gets much above 23, I can feel my mental efficiency going down. I can still function, I’m still in emotional control of myself, but creativity, of the ‘sitting down creating something'[1b] type is greatly curtailed. My guess is that there’s something about the brain overheating, or energy being used elsewhere in the body (it does take some energy to ensure homeostasis during sweating). But back to cogitation and heat tolerance. It is known that the human brain uses about 20-25% of the body’s energy budget, and “As a metabolically demanding organ with intense heat production, the functional activity, and energy efficiency of the human brain is exquisitely sensitive to fluctuations in temperature”. My understanding of this is that one of the reasons scalp wounds bleed so profusely is that much of the purpose of blood flow to and around the brain is thermal regulation, basically keeping your brain cool so that it can keep thinking efficiently.

[1a] Also, tall people problems.

[1b] Not the ‘react with witty remarks’ type, that is pretty hard-coded, and seems to activate upon waking, and is almost impossible to turn off.

[1c] I was going to make a comment here about how the heart & brain make more ATP per glucose than other parts of the body (38 instead of 36, or 36 instead of 34), but it seems that science has moved on since I was in school, and I could not find a source for different cell types or organs generating different amounts of ATP, and also it seems that due to leaky mitochondiral membranes and other factors, human (eukaryote) metabolism is thought to generate only about 30 ATP molecules per glucose molecule[1d].

[1d] 29.85, at last count.

[2] Music camp holds a very special place in my heart. Similar to High Hrothgar, it is a peaceful place, very disconnected from the troubles of this world. For a number of years, I spent the last two weeks of summer at National Music Camp, playing music for five hours a day, spending time with old and new friends, spending time outside. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of walking from place to place, and hearing the drifting sounds of people practicing and making music being a completely normal and natural thing. One could use the percentage of our time we spend making music as a metric for quality of life, and as an indictment of our modern society.

[3] Similar to squirrels saving for winter, like the one earlier this week that perched on the chair six feet from me and noisily and ostentatiously ate a carrot.

Note: I tried a few different titles before I settled on ‘feracious’, meaning ‘producing in abundance; fertile, fruitful‘. ‘Subtle’ is not quite right, as it’s more of a quiet power, and ‘flowering’ or ‘flourishing’ are really more spring or summer words, respectively.

Processing Endgame VIIa: The Avengers (2012) (continued…)

Please note that this is one of a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Date re-watched: 2019-09-06

(Note also that this I liked Avengers (2012) so much, that I had to write more about it. #filmateleven)

In an effort to make this not just a laundry list of ramblings, I want to organize my thoughts into a few themes. Remember that a lot of this is about processing my feelings from Infinity War & especially Endgame, and really about the finality of the character arcs that ended there. There’s something about character death, similar to the death of a famous painter or sculptor. It puts all of their other actions into relief, and each moment becomes more poignant, as you see how each moment led them to their now inevitable end. Your mind tries to piece together their story, and make each bit make sense, now that you know the ending.

As far as characters, Tony is of course at the top of the list for me, probably because he’s the intended stand-in for the cis white male viewer, and perhaps also because he tickles my nerd/maker side (in a very cinematic way). In Avengers, a lot of the interesting interactions with Tony happen with Cap. As Jack Saint[1] argues, they are representatives of the two main sides of the heroic ideology in the MCU[2], Tony being the ‘pragmatist’ and Steve being the ‘idealist’, but still both representatives of the fundamental ‘great man‘ ideology of the MCU.

That being said, Tony & Steve, though they have philosophical differences, respect each other, well enough that Tony, who never takes orders from anyone, says at the height of the battle for New York (his home): “Call it, Cap.”. In the other direction, Cap asks everyone about Loki, to better understand his tactics. (Especially since Cap is the only one who has physically traded blows with Loki, and understands and appreciates his strength.) Thor is too embarrassed about being Loki’s brother, Banner dismisses him as having a brain with ‘a bag full of cats’, and Cap ends up understanding that only Tony can understand the way that Loki is a “full-tilt diva“. They also agree on other fundamentals, very distinctly that SHIELD should not be developing super weapons[3], and on defending the Earth from external threats…such as Loki.

Speaking of Loki, like Gamora, he is reborn (in a way) after Endgame, effectively re-setting his character development to the end of Avengers, so it’s worthwhile talking about where he is as a character here.

Physically, he’s the Asgardian/god/high-level ‘rogue’ of the party, able to hold his own in combat against ‘lesser beings’, even a ‘super-soldier’ human like Cap. With an artifact weapon (the staff), he is fought to a standstill by his warrior brother (Thor, who is likely pulling his punches), and falls twice to Tony’s repulsor blasts, and is taken out by the Hulk.

Loki wants attention and adulation ‘Full-tilt diva'[4], and is happy to bully lesser beings to get it, or to talk when he perceives that he has the upper hand, instead of using it. Tony is able to read this, perhaps because he sees it in himself, and has had to confront some of those demons in himself[5]. Perhaps more importantly, Tony is able to use this against Loki, using Loki’s distaste at being reminded of his brother Thor to distract him while he puts on the Mark 7 ‘bracelets’. Out-tricking the ‘trickster god'[6]. How much must that sting?

So, where is Loki sitting at the end of this? He had been cast out by his family and home, was taken in by an interstellar villain, given power (but always reminded that he was subordinate to them)[7]. He knows that he is being taken back to Asgard, to face some sort of punishment. He likely knows it will be some sort of imprisonment or exile. Like ‘a bag full of cats'[8], Loki is at war with himself. Thor is able to convince him briefly that they can work together to undo things, but he is unable to help himself from stabbing Thor and running away[9]. Throw the influence of the mind stone/scepter, and it’s difficult to come up with a consistent characterization. If anything, he might have learned something about being more effective, and perhaps how he is unsuited to command in a combat situation.[10] Or is he still ‘burdened by terrible privilege’?

Speaking of alternate timelines, the scene where Tony is thrown out the window in Stark tower has always been super-harrowing for me. Think of how many timelines there are where Tony didn’t survive[10], where Loki thought to shoot his suit with the scepter, all the times he almost died, both before and after this.

Moving on to the Natasha, she is easy to overlook, as she rarely gets a lot of screentime, and she is not the flashiest character, but we really have to give her credit for being the bravest character in the movie. (Also each scene she’s in makes sense, and there’s a reason for her being there.) She’s a (well trained) normal human being who decides to take it upon herself to leap onto a flying Chitauri chariot, knowing that one misstep would be her death. (And how did she even grab it? Was it her suit locking her hands?) We also get to see her unique ‘interrogation’ technique, allowing herself to get captured[11] earlier in the film, and again tricking the trickster god to get his plan for the Hulk out of him. Her ploy/way of understanding people and making them talk is not really played up in the other movies, and I hope that they explore it more in her solo movie. Avengers also brings out her relationship with Barton, and perhaps explains some of her bravery, as S puts it, the self-sacrifice might be a way to wipe the ‘red in her ledger’ clean.

There was also a nice gentle non-toxic masculinity scene with Tony & Banner (about 3:10), where Banner talks about being ‘exposed, like a nerve’. ‘A terrible privilege’ ‘but you can control it’ ‘because I learned how’ (Note that this scene also includes blueberries that RDJ hid on set.)[12] This is perhaps Tony trying to do for Banner what Yinsen did for him, trying to remind Banner that he can be a force for good. Tony is proven correct, when Banner shows up to the Battle of New York, after perhaps making a difficult decision while talking to a security guard who seems curiously well informed, and pushing him towards helping out… “I know where I can do the most good, but it’s also where I can do the most harm.” “Your mind’s already made up, son. The rest of you will follow”

A few last random comments, so this doesn’t become three posts:
I really enjoyed the ‘Metal Man’ comment by Thor, and the idea of Thor charging up Iron Man’s suit (which would not be fully realized until Endgame). I also wonder if the ‘Shwarma’ scene was part of Tony’s journey to deal with his PTSD and accepting the good things that the Middle East has to offer. I thought the ‘Hulk yelling at Tony’ to save him was silly, but it had the desired filmmaking effect to break the mood, even if it was outside the film’s general scientific basis (unless the Hulk has special ‘jumpstart’ powers in his yell).

Cap is also understated and seemingly hurt all through the helicarrier section, perhaps because the mind stone/staff is getting to him, perhaps by bringing out his PTSD and his feeling of being ‘out of time’. Eventually, perhaps Cap and Tony bond over their shared pain, but in a subconscious way (as opposed to the conscious way that Tony & Banner, or Natasha & Hawkeye bond over shared pain).

We also see the first installment of Thor vs. The Hulk, where they seem to be evenly matched, although Thor’s dodging prowess seems to be vitally important.

Lastly, we see the Tesseract acting with inconsistent characterization, with it ‘telling things’ to Selvig, although that could easily have been the Mind Stone (or the other stones have powers beyond what is normally assumed by their expected bailiwicks).

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! Next time, we’ll continue with Iron Man 3, where we follow Tony’s reaction to the Chitauri invasion and almost dying carrying a nuke through the portal into space. Stay tuned!

[1] S showed me this video this week. I recommend it very highly. πŸ™‚

[2] And this conflict will spiral into ‘Civil War’.

[3] This leads to the great scene where Tony is trying to break in and comb through SHIELD files on the helicarrier, to figure out what Fury and SHIELD are up to (‘Phase II’, energy weapons similar to ‘Hydra weapons’, as Cap puts it), while Cap simply breaks into the armory and brings one to the lab. “Sorry, the computer was moving a little slow for me.“[3a]

[3a] At 2:36, that video shows one of multiple occasions where Hawkeye enjoys posing with his bow slightly too much for non-sequential-art.

[4] Funnily, this just seems to add to the Shakespearean feel of the Asgardians, almost like they understand that they are but players on a stage.

[5] There are interesting questions here about whether humans, because of their mortality, are more likely to see it necessary to learn and grow.

[6] We never really get to see Loki’s illusions in ‘Avengers’. The closest we see is a few costume changes, and one image projection to trap Thor in the ‘Hulk Hotel Room’ on the Helicarrier (and to get around behind Coulson). So, we never really get to see how Tony would have dealt with them. There seems to be a ‘Mirror Image‘ quality to Loki’s illusions, where sometimes (like Ragnarok), he seems to leave an image behind while he walks away, while in Stuttgart, he seems to almost be able to teleport between them. (Although, upon watching it again, they seem to be only images…but this disagrees with what we saw in Dark World…) So, how would Tony deal with have dealt with these? Are they only visual illusions? We know that the Soul Stone was able to dispel Dr. Strange’s images in Infinity War, so we know that it is possible to tell them apart, but can it be done using only things like heat signature detection?

[7] Thanos’ herald: “You would question me, him?”

[8] As per Banner.

[9] Similar to the ‘snake story’ in Ragnarok.

[10] In Dark World, we see Loki only being truly effective in combat when paired with Thor. In Ragnarok, Loki will learn that he is not the most effective at command in the rulership sense, but eventually learns some of how to do this by the end of the movie (while still fighting alongside Thor). There’s also questions as to how much Loki was being influenced by the mind stone/scepter, and how much that impaired his judgement and abilities…but he seemed perfectly willing to cause chaos and destruction after being separated from the scepter during the ‘final battle’. However, Loki perhaps learns very different lessons when he escapes from ‘Avengers’ at in the middle of ‘Endgame’, perhaps having learned how to be a little more effective, but perhaps thinking that he just needs to find people more suitable for his ‘rule’, similar to how he pretends to be Odin later in the series, or perhaps he will just go around messing with people, taking the opportunity to be actually free of constraints.

[10] Although, we see in Endgame how the Ancient One is busy fighting off Chitauri during the Battle of New York, so one would expect that she would have used the Time Stone’s powers to set things so that New York would not be nuked. This also brings up general questions of fate, and how much the events were controlled by various types of puppetmasters, but that is perhaps more appropriately a better conversation for a later post about Dr. Strange’s plan(s).

[11] Perhaps by some of the arms dealers that Tony refers to in Age of Ultron.

[12] Perhaps the best foreshadowing of ‘Professor Hulk’ from Endgame.

Processing Endgame VII: The Avengers (2012)

Please note that this is one of a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Date re-watched: 2019-09-06

So, this is perhaps my most favourite of the MCU movies. Maybe it’s like the first even-numbered Star Trek you see. The Undiscovered Country may be a better movie, but Save The Whales will always have the favoured place in my heart.

It’s also probably the one I’ve watched the most, but only in clips. It was super-interesting to watch it in full-movie form, both without interruptions, but also to see all of the interstitial scenes that tied things together. It’s interesting, the decisions movie makers make, which connecting scenes they think to be necessary, and which ones not, kind of like decisions as to what action/etc. to put in the whitespace between comic panels[1]…

For example, these interstitial parts established Banner as some kind of M.D. (or at least proficient enough to practice medicine)[2].

The interstitial parts showed the interplay between the characters, really smart & funny dialogue (“he’s adopted”, “No hard feelings, Point Break, you’ve got a mean swing.”, “I was having 12% of a moment”, “How does Fury even see these?” “He turns.” “Sounds Exhausting.”, “Are you nuts?” “Jury’s out.”[3]

Interestingly, apparently Robert Downey Jr. is known to never say the same line twice: “Robert will never do the same line twice. I think it’s sort of, he gets bored the minute he says the line.” He also improvised the ‘blueberries scene’ near the “Jury’s out.” scene above.

Chris Hemsworth was kind of odd to watch in this movie, especially since Ragnarok was so fresh in my mind. This was pre-‘Kevin‘, but you can see some of his humour coming through in lines like “He’s adopted“, but he seems almost reticent or guilty about it (but that could be the scene), and plays it straight and narrow through the rest of the film, falling back on the once-interesting, but very one-note Shakespearean, similar to the first two Thor movies, one each before and after this. (Interestingly, it seems that the writers/director felt this way too, and decided to send it up with Tony’s mockery of Thor’s Shakespearean demeanour with “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?“, but they rolled that back in Thor:The Dark World, reverting/sticking with the Shakespearean tone…speaking of Shakespearean tone, only Tom Hiddleston could have pulled off ‘Balm’ in an American movie.)

In this movie, we see various Avengers facing off against each other, perhaps because (like the first two Iron Man movies), the antagonists, while powerful, are not a match for the heroes all working together (witness Thor ‘lighting up’ the Chitauri coming through the portal). In these face-offs, one can see the relative power levels of the characters (or perhaps the perception of the screenwriter/director), with Thor and Iron Man battling to a standstill (although Thor might have been pulling his punches, as he’s still the protector of Earth, after all), with Hawkeye successful only through stealth (he is a ‘master assassin’, though), Thor knocking the Hulk back through better combat skill, and a seemingly similar ability to soak damage, and Black Widow vs. Hawkeye also quite evenly matched.

We see some interesting combat tactic foreshadowing, or perhaps Loki’s weakness, where both Cap & Thor have similar ‘throw something at him, make him react, then you can get inside his defenses’. Cap also mentions that Loki ‘packs quite a wallop’, suggesting that even though ‘weak’ for an ‘Asgardian’, Loki still somewhat outclasses the ‘Super-soldier’.

It’s also fun to speculate about the composition/mechanism of Iron Man’s repulsor beams, as they seem to have some sort of knockback force for Thor & Loki when used. Iron Man seems to also quickly one-shot Loki both times they confront each other directly.

We also see a common trope, where the ‘biggest gun’ is busy fixing something (or solving a different problem, where Iron Man is unavailable for the Helicarrier battle, where he could have make a huge difference, because he’s also the best (only) one who can solve the technical problem.

We see some character growth, from Natasha talking about the ‘red in her ledger’ that she wants to erase, talking with Barton about how she’s been ‘compromised’ and is now fighting for something. Thor’s (slow) growth is mentioned above, but his ‘protector of Earth’ is very much in play, especially wanting to protect Earth from the ‘higher form of war’. “Your work with the Tesseract is what drew Loki to it, and his allies. It is the signal to all the realms that the earth is ready for a higher form of war.”

One wonders how Thanos found Loki. The other time he fell off the Bifrost, he ended up on Sakaar. Given Thanos’ goals, it is possible that he was watching Asgard very closely for any signs of weakness. Speaking of Loki, how much of the ‘glorious purpose’ that he was ‘burdened with’ was from inside himself, how much was from drifting in space for a year, how much was from the mind stone?[4]

Loki’s plans were really not that good (as Tony was quick to point out). They involved dividing the Avengers, and making a quick show of force to cow the Earth into submission. This worked (mostly) well enough with the civilians at a gala in Stuttgart, but as soon as Cap & Tony got there, it quickly fell apart. Eventually, Loki’s machinations at the Helicarrier end up bringing the Avengers together, perhaps a type of ‘predestination paradox’… Even though the Chitauri are widely known (outside Earth) to be a terrible army (perhaps a sign that Thanos was not in favour of sending his ‘A-Game’ along with Loki[5]), Loki still used them badly. He sent a small number of Chitauri chariots, let the Avengers get used to them, then sent one large Leviathan, allowed the Hulk & Tony to take care of it, then sent ‘the rest’, with apparently only minimal orders, apparently only trying to cause as much destruction and chaos as possible.

Perhaps it is because, as Coulson said, Loki ‘lacks conviction’. Loki always seems to be seeking approval for his actions, from Coulson ‘Where is my disadvantage?’, from Tony ‘What have I to fear?’, from Thor “It’s too late to stop it.”, as if he has mounted the tiger made by his ambition and the Mind Stone, and even though he doesn’t really want to rule, he wants to be respected (feared?) as if he was. It feels almost like a classic ‘B’ personality raised as with the expectations of an ‘A’ personality, always at war with themselves, never willing to accept that the ‘Trickster God’ is never really meant to rule, and can be much more effective in other ways, no matter how much they think they might want something else.[6]

This is getting long, so I’ll continue in a second installment, where I’ll talk about a bunch of smaller things, and perhaps get into some analysis of some of the ‘physics’ of the MCU. Stay tuned!

[1] Thanks, ‘Understanding Comics

[2] Not to be confused with the scene (after the credits in Iron Man 3) where Banner states that he’s “not that kind of doctor.” This trope is played multiple times for comedic effect, my favourite being in the escape from Sakaar, when he states that none of his Ph.D.s are ‘for flying alien spaceships’. I’ll admit that I enjoy doing this myself. I have two degrees with the word ‘Bio’ in them, but S is generally the one who is more knowledgeable about human biology, leading to hilarity (at least on my part.)

[3] This is not just Tony, Romanoff, Banner, Fury, Coulson, Stark, Potts, even Cap have many pithy lines. It’s unclear how much of this is good/pithy writing, stealing from the comic books, or improv. that made it in.

[4] There is a theory, and I don’t remember where I first heard it, that the infinity stones are sentient, and/or are part of a larger cosmic plan. If this were true, one could see their effects all over many of the movies, if only to explain away mistakes that characters (especially villains) make. There’s also a competing theory that we’re viewing the only MCU where things turned out well. Many of the characters, without whom things would have turned out very differently, have come extremely close to dying…

[5] Either Thanos trusted that Loki would never figure out that the ‘glowstick of destiny‘ was powered by the Mind Stone, or the Mind Stone was affecting both of them (leaving aside the fact that the Infinity Stones had still not been retconned at this point). Loki for sure did not know the significance of his scepter, as can be seen by how easily he was willing to leave it behind. Speaking of the significance of the scepter, one might wonder why the Mind Stone would be able to close a portal made by the Space Stone.

[6] There is also evidence that Loki is the classic ‘Bad Man’. As per Pratchett:


β€œSomething Vimes had learned as a young guard drifted up from memory. If you have to look along the shaft of an arrow from the wrong end, if a man has you entirely at his mercy, then hope like hell that man is an evil man. Because the evil like power, power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat.

They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.

So hope like hell your captor is an evil man. A good man will kill you with hardly a word.”

Don’t Listen to me, Listen to People who have Lived This Experience

If you are reading this near when I wrote it, you are likely aware of the worldwide protests related to the murder of George Floyd.

I have a lot of words that I could say about this, but you shouldn’t be listening to me. You should be listening to people who have actually lived this experience.

A good place to start is one or more of the books on this excellent list from the Toronto Public Library. The first book on the list is by Desmond Cole, an excellent local journalist, activist, and writer:

https://account.torontopubliclibrary.ca/shared/blacklivesmatter-a-booklist/7a30VmdcoaVzXnHz5QRMyCEAsh7MfWLIhaF08xO8JLFLNB1xuF

You can get these books from the library, but if you can, it is good to support writers, for example from a Toronto black owned bookstore: https://www.adifferentbooklist.com/

If you want to learn some more about the history of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, the story of Fred Hampton [Wikipedia] may be instructive, here summarized in a twitter thread.

There are some interesting findings about what does and does not work for police reform, summarized in a twitter thread here.

Some words about how to be a good ally.

12 ways you can be an activist without going to a protest.

And finally, some words from one of my favourite people in the world, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

To Move Forward, We need to Address This First

If you are reading this near when I wrote it, you are very likely aware of the worldwide protests related to the murder of George Floyd.

At the root of it, these protests are about police brutality, and many are asking the question “are the police really who we should be calling in order to solve the problems we see?”

There is a movement to defund the police. Specifically, there are a number of jobs that we have been asking the police to do that could be done more effectively (and with less violence, and likely in a less costly way). The following pictures paint a vision of what would be possible if we diverted more of our resources towards solving some of these problems instead of suppressing them with people who are trained primarily in the use of force.

[image of text: SOMEONE IS BEHAVING ERRATICALLY & IN HARM'S WAY. IMAGINE... ...TEXTING A NUMBER & AN UNARMED URGENT RESPONDER TRAINED IN BEHAVIORAL AND MENTAL HEALTH COMES WITHIN 5 MINUTES. AN HOUR LATER THAT PERSON IS SAFE & GETTING THE SUPPORT THEY NEED. ____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: SOMEONE IS BEHAVING ERRATICALLY & IN HARM’S WAY.
IMAGINE…
…TEXTING A NUMBER & AN UNARMED URGENT RESPONDER TRAINED IN BEHAVIORAL AND MENTAL HEALTH COMES WITHIN 5 MINUTES.
AN HOUR LATER THAT PERSON IS SAFE & GETTING THE SUPPORT THEY NEED.
____
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: SOME FOLKS ARE SLEEPING ON BENCHES IN THE PARK. IMAGINE... ...A CITY EMPLOYEE COMES BY & CHECKS IN TO SEE IF THEY NEED A PLACE TO SLEEP, FOOD, WATER, OR HEALTH CARE. AN HOUR LATER, THOSE WHO WANT A DIFFERENT PLACE TO SLEEP HAVE ONE. _____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: SOME FOLKS ARE SLEEPING ON BENCHES IN THE PARK.
IMAGINE…
…A CITY EMPLOYEE COMES BY & CHECKS IN TO SEE IF THEY NEED A PLACE TO SLEEP, FOOD, WATER, OR HEALTH CARE.
AN HOUR LATER, THOSE WHO WANT A DIFFERENT PLACE TO SLEEP HAVE ONE.
_____
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU ARE EXPERIENCING A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS & AFRAID IMAGINE... ..YOU CALL +311 & A FIRST RESPONDER TRAINED IN MENTAL HEALTH COMES TO YOUR DOOR. 1 HOUR LATER, YOU ARE IN A SAFE PLACE WITH YOUR CONSENT, WITH PLANS FOR FOLLOW UP CARE. _____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU ARE EXPERIENCING A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS & AFRAID
IMAGINE…
..YOU CALL +311 & A FIRST RESPONDER TRAINED IN MENTAL HEALTH COMES TO YOUR DOOR.
1 HOUR LATER, YOU ARE IN A SAFE PLACE WITH YOUR CONSENT, WITH PLANS FOR FOLLOW UP CARE.
_____
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU DON'T REALIZE, BUT YOUR BRAKE LIGHTS AREN'T WORKING. IMAGINE... ... A CITY EMPLOYEE SIGNALS FOR YOU TO PULL OVER & SAYS, "HEY - HOW ABOUT I REPLACE THOSE LIGHTS FOR YOU RIGHT HERE SO NO ONE GETS HURT?" AN HOUR LATER, BOTH LIGHTS WORK & YOU'RE AT HOME. ______ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU DON’T REALIZE, BUT YOUR BRAKE LIGHTS AREN’T WORKING.
IMAGINE…
… A CITY EMPLOYEE SIGNALS FOR YOU TO PULL OVER & SAYS, “HEY – HOW ABOUT I REPLACE THOSE LIGHTS FOR YOU RIGHT HERE SO NO ONE GETS HURT?”
AN HOUR LATER, BOTH LIGHTS WORK & YOU’RE AT HOME.
______
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU ARE EXPERIENCING INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE. IMAGINE... ...TEXTING A NUMBER & A TRAUMA INFORMED CRISIS INTERVENTION SPECIALIST MEETS YOU IN A SAFE PLACE. AN HOUR LATER YOU ARE WORKING TOGETHER TO MAKE A PLAN THAT WILL KEEP YOU SAFE LONG TERM. ____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: YOU ARE EXPERIENCING INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE.
IMAGINE…
…TEXTING A NUMBER & A TRAUMA INFORMED CRISIS INTERVENTION SPECIALIST MEETS YOU IN A SAFE PLACE.
AN HOUR LATER YOU ARE WORKING TOGETHER TO MAKE A PLAN THAT WILL KEEP YOU SAFE LONG TERM.
____
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: YOUR FRIENDS ARE INTOXICATED & FIGHTING BUT YOU DON'T WANT THEM TO GET IN TROUBLE. IMAGINE... ...YOU CALL +311 AND A CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM COMES TO YOUR DOOR. 1 HOUR LATER, YOUR FRIENDS ARE SLEEPING IT OFF AT HOME. ____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: YOUR FRIENDS ARE INTOXICATED & FIGHTING BUT YOU DON’T WANT THEM TO GET IN TROUBLE.
IMAGINE…
…YOU CALL +311 AND A CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM COMES TO YOUR DOOR.
1 HOUR LATER, YOUR FRIENDS ARE SLEEPING IT OFF AT HOME.
____
isn’t that public safety?]
[image of text: SOMEONE SEEMS TO BE SNOOPING IN CAR WINDOWS IN YOUR BLOCK. IMAGINE... ...CALLING YOUR NEIGHBORS WHO ARE TRAINED IN SELF-DEFENSE & DEESCALATION & APPROACHING THE PERSON. AN HOUR LATER THE CONFLICT IS RESOLVED & THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE IS GETTING THE SUPPORT THEY NEED. ____ isn't that public safety?]
[image of text: SOMEONE SEEMS TO BE SNOOPING IN CAR WINDOWS IN YOUR BLOCK.
IMAGINE…
…CALLING YOUR NEIGHBORS WHO ARE TRAINED IN SELF-DEFENSE & DEESCALATION & APPROACHING THE PERSON.
AN HOUR LATER THE CONFLICT IS RESOLVED & THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE IS GETTING THE SUPPORT THEY NEED.
____
isn’t that public safety?]

2020: Processing How We Got Here I

It’s now been 11 weeks since we went into social isolation, somewhere between 12 and 13 weeks since S said “Perhaps we should stock up a little.” Since then, (our part of) the world has been upended, time has lost all meaning, even while the season has turned. Looking back at pictures that I took back then[1], there was snow on the ground, and today it was sunny and 19C.

But like I said, time has lost all meaning. It’s been difficult a couple of times the last couple of weeks remembering which day of the week it is, even taking into account a working-from-home[2] schedule. I keep coming back to ‘time has lost all meaning’. I’m one of those people for whom it’s easy to lose an hour[3], if I get into something, or get distracted by something. I can even lose weeks because I’m in the barely-slept now. But this is very different.

Some of you know that a main reason that I started blogging was because I was afraid of life passing me by, of the fear of looking back and not having anything tangible to show for all the time I had spent on this world. I successfully wrote every day for 7 months, and even after I fell off the wagon after falling sick, I was still able to gather myself and write intermittently. In fact, I was in the process of restarting a regular cadence[4]…then all of this happened.

How does one write a long series of in-depth articles about a phone strategy game that no one has heard of or cares about, when there’s a global pandemic that is the only thing on everyone’s mind? Is that even a remotely responsible thing to do? It took me a while to understand that I needed to write about this experience instead, and first, as a way of processing everything that I was feeling and experiencing. Some people say it’s important to document along the way, to help you (and others) understand later what it truly felt like. All I can say is that the allostatic load has been so high, that it took me this long to find the mental space to do this. But back to our story…

There was a flurry of activity, reading up every bit of information on Covid[5], preparing ourselves, seeing my mom one last time, going out to see friends one last time…then on March 9th, I went to the office for the last time, and then…waiting…waiting…waiting for people to take this seriously enough.

On the 11th, I shared this article “Why you must act now“. We had spent the previous week in a ‘hair-on-fire’ state, S had her last day in the office on the 6th, I told my team at work that same day to bring everything home that they needed for an extended stay.

So, we were personally ready (we thought) for this exponential threat that was coming at us, I was telling the people I knew that it was coming, and they seemed to be aware of the danger, but we weren’t seeing it in a bunch of the people as we walked around, and we weren’t seeing it in the media. The previous Thursday (March 12th), Doug Ford was saying that school would be closed for two weeks after March break, but still saying that people should ‘enjoy themselves’ over March Break. Later that day, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau self-isolated (and eventually tested positive). I think this ended up being a good thing, as it put a human face on the pandemic, and perhaps helped convince people that everyone was susceptible (and perhaps put more of the fear into the politicians).[6]

This is getting long, so I think I will stop here, somewhere in the second week of March. We’re safely isolated and stocked up, (we think)[7] we know what this will feel like, some politicians (in Canada at least) are juuust starting to say the right things, but people are still getting ready to go for March Break, and we’re hunkering down for the long waiting period of ‘turning the ship’ of convincing tens of millions of people to change this seriously and change their behaviour.

Thank you for reading this. This feels cathartic in a good way, and really important to help me process this. πŸ™‚

[1] In the ‘Before Times’.

[2] I have a lot of words to say here, but fundamentally, I feel so lucky and blessed to have a job/career that allows this easily.

[3] Or five.

[4] Huge thanks to L here, who suggested meeting up in a local cafe, where I got a lot of good writing notes in, that will be interesting posts some day, hopefully soon. πŸ™‚

[5] I feel uncomfortable saying the word ‘Covid’. I’m not sure why. It may be that I have very strong and complex feelings about the word, and I assume others do too, and I very much want a specific and understood[5a] reaction to each word that I use, and words that are this loaded make me apprehensive.

[5a] To the extent that a human can ever be said to understand another human…

[6] This also eventually gave us this magical song: Justin Trudeau sings ‘Speaking Moistly’
(Original clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slK5IY_GJzI )

[7] Ha ha ha so wrong… πŸ™

What is Management?

So, I’ve been thinking about management training recently[0], and while I’m collecting my thoughts, I thought it would be good to talk about what ‘management’ is, at its most fundamental.

I’m going to make some assumptions here:
– Management is about the art of helping[1] people to work together towards a common goal
– We’re talking about ‘good’ management, which is trying to do the above in a positive and sustainable way
– The things we’re going to talk about will be relevant to all[2] organizations with some sort of hierarchy, and perhaps some without

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, manage.’
– A paraphrase of a quote from George Bernard Shaw

The quote above, while flip, has some interesting truth to it. I would argue that, beyond perverse financial incentives[3], those who decide to go into management from an individual contributor (IC) role do so because of some competitive advantage pushing that choice. Likely one of:
– They are better at managing then at being an individual contributor (leading to the quote above)
– They are better as an IC than as a manager, but they are better than anyone else at being a manager (competitive advantage)
– They are better as an IC than as a manager, but they are afraid that any one other than them chosen to be manager will be worse (and/or they want control over their work environment/process)

So, having some idea of why people ‘get into’ management, what is ‘management’?

Like we said above, ‘management’ is the art of helping people work together towards a common goal, in a positive and sustainable way.

To me, this includes the following components:
– Helping people work together towards the goals of one’s team
– Helping people work together towards the goals of the larger organization
– Helping people and the organization as a whole improve goals and process[4]
– Helping your team (and yourself[5]) achieve career goals
– Keeping your team (and yourself) happy

Now that we have some categories, we’ll continue next time going into a little more detail. Thanks for listening. πŸ™‚

[0] And feeling super-pompous about it. Luckily, I have good friends who will tell me when I’m full of it. πŸ™‚

[1] I use the word ‘helping’ here, a relatively positive word, and probably suitable for working with one’s direct reports, or in a truly psychologically safe environment. Sadly, most environments are not that, and people must often be convinced to do what is in the best interests of the organization (and often must be convinced to do what is in their own best interest, too). ‘Convincing’, or ‘getting’ might be used in other environments, but even in those environments, I think ‘helping’ is still a healthier and more productive choice.

[2] Public, private, etc…

[3] There are some organizations where the structure is such that one can only advance in one’s career (read payscale) by advancing in ‘management’. Some would say that most large organizations are like this to some extent. This discussion, while important, is out of scope.

[4] I have much to say (and many books have been written) about the ways in which organizations do non-optimal things, decide on non-optimal goals, or otherwise lose their way. (My favourite book which touches on this is ‘The Goal’, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt.)

[5] It’s incredibly important to support your team, and do the best you can to ensure their success. In general, you become successful when your team is successful. There will be points where this diverges, though, and it’s important to know when those are, as you and your team members will be healthier with healthier boundaries.

Some More Management Roles

A few years ago, I talked about some management roles, specifically how the traditional ‘Team Lead’ role could be de-convolved into five different roles:

Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation)
Estimatrix (Estimator)
Product Owner (Prioritization)
Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles)
(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations)

At the time, while I’d been running important teams in my organization, it was still a relatively small organization (each CEO knew me by name), so the role and significance of each team was more clear (or at least had been justified by someone before me).

Since then, I’ve learned a little more about what is important in a large organization, and I have some more roles to add. The above management roles have more to do with day-to-day management of a team, and assume that managing upwards and managing long-term are taken care of elsewhere. (Theoretically, they are probably most likely part of the ‘Product Owner’, but most likely they would be part of the ‘reserve power‘, and would devolve to whomever was considered ‘highest’ in whatever organizational hierarchy was present.)

I had also been blessed with excellent technical leads on all of my teams at all of the places I’ve worked, enough so that I didn’t think to explicitly call out ‘Technical Lead’ as one of the ‘traditional’ management roles.

(So now, we have six):

Technical Lead (Software Architecture & Implementation Decisions)
Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation)
Estimatrix (Estimator)
Product Owner (Prioritization)
Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles)
(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations)

(There are also some questions about the exact line between ‘roles’ and ‘skills, for example: ‘Running a Meeting’ ‘Presenting engaging presentations’), so I will include them for completeness, even though they bleed into many of the other ‘roles’.

As mentioned above, the roles below would fall under some combination of:
– ‘Product Owner’ (because they involve working with people or groups outside/above the team in question)
– ‘Scrum Master’ (because the team would notice that they were blocked or impeded by not paying attention to a certain type of issue, and might be perceptive enough to up-level the discussion to a more general/role-based one)
– ‘Reserve Power’ (roles or tasks that are automatically put under a traditional ‘Team Lead’, but no one really considers them separately, even though they take real time and effort)

Anyways, here are some other longer-term and/or more upward-facing roles to add to the above:

Milestone setter
Team Vision & Planning
Recruiting, Interviewing, & Hiring
Team compositions planning/Team Development (this is development of the team as a whole)
Building relationships (travel, phone, random 1:1s)
Running Meetings
Preparing & presenting engaging presentations
Tech architect (Longer-term decisions about code structure)
Code reviews (this would likely fall under ‘Tech Lead’ above, but ‘what is good enough’ would likely fall under the next line, ‘Quality decision-making’)
Quality decision-making (how good is ‘good enough to ship’?)
Quality Assurance & testing
Asking for resources
Team Champion, in charge of Dog & Pony shows[1] (Why is the work that the team does important?)

Some of the above roles are systematized, automated, or otherwise circumscribed by processes in larger organizations, for example, they may have specific processes for project planning, or for recruiting or development conversations.

But still, there are a lot of these. This suggests that either teamwork is super-complex, and requires too many different things to easily handle without tools[2], or there must be some way of grouping them into meaningful ‘roles’.

So, how do we group them? We could group them into the familiar Agile ‘Technical Lead’, ‘Scrum Master’, and ‘Product Owner’, but that just really puts us back where we started, shoehorning roles into boxes that don’t quite fit, or with a bunch left over.

Fundamentally, all of the above roles are some combination of tasks and making different kinds of decisions.

I’ll do what I can to define, codify, and group them tomorrow.

[1] I am somewhat flip in my naming here, but in any large organization, any team should have a story for how they are planning to remind the management structure of why they are important. This serves a number of functions:
0) The obvious ‘remember who we are and what we do’
1) It’s a good check-in, to make sure that what they are doing is actually perceived as important
2) It’s good practice for the inevitable re-orgs in any large organization, or even if one’s boss changes because they leave for another position or organization

[2] Like checklists, or more advanced tools like JIRA and wikis.

Sriracha & Potato Stir-Fry

So, we were experimenting with stir-fry composition, and happened upon a new favourite: Sriracha & (Rosemary) Potato.

It goes as follows:

Total preparation and cooking time: 25-30 mins.
Serves 2.

Recommended music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkSr9Lw5Gm8
(Because cooking is very much like building things.)

Equipment required:
– Some sort of stove
– Some sort of frying pan
– Some sort of stirring/spatuling instrument

Ingredients required:
– Some sort of cooking oil (we’ve been using grape oil, which is actually super-tasty)
– Two medium potatoes
– One medium onion (I prefer yellow) or 1/2 bunch of green onion
– Three half peppers
– Two cloves of garlic
– Sriracha sauce
– Some sort of soy sauce (we used Kikkoman low sodium)
– Rosemary (cf. Rosemary Potatoes)
– Some sort of herbs/spices (we used Oregano & Basil)

Pairs well with rice & greek salad, as seen here:

The delicious stirfry from today:
The delicious stirfry from today:

Directions:
– Turn on the stove to medium-low (I do 3/10 on our stove’s large burner, with both parts of the burner turned on)

– Thin-slice the potatoes, and cut these slices in four (I cut the potatoes in half, cut them into thin slices, and then put the pile on the cutting board, and cut again in four.)
– Add the potatoes and some cooking oil to the frying pan.
– You are going to want to stir on a regular basis. Potatoes are frying pan-sticky
– If you’re using a medium/cooking onion (not green onion), chop up the medium onion and add it to the frying pan. (I top and tail the onion, remove the outer layer or two, then slice it, then chop the stack of slices in four or six. I usually rinse the onion before chopping, but that was not enough to protect me today.)
– Chop up the garlic and add it to the mix (I do garlic the same way I do onions, top & tail ,then remove outer layer, and then slice, then cut stack of slices in two or four.)
– You may need or want to add a little more cooking oil, to prevent burning or sticking.
– This is a good time to add the herbs (rosemary is the most important), and the sriracha & soy sauce. For the sriracha, enough to go back and forth in the frying pan a few times, and perhaps 3-5 splashes of soy sauce.
– Chop up the peppers (I chop three in half, so I can get red/orange/yellow, and save the other halves for tomorrow’s meal). I wash them, remove the tops, rinse them, cut them in half, remove the bottom center part, then slice and then dice them. Throw them into the mix.
– You’re still stirring, right?
– Keep stirring until the potatoes are soft enough that you want to eat them. Total elapsed time was about 30 mins today. (Total time yesterday was about 25 mins at a stove setting of 4/10, but I was worried about burning the mix throughout the entire process.)

Serves 2.