Saturday, February 26, 2011

How to Fight Distraction

Even famous actors succumb to distraction

As with all battles within which I am both the hero and the villain, I often find the fight against distraction to be extremely difficult. By distraction I mean any activity or thing that detracts from my ability or willingness to engage in tasks that are a more productive use of time or that are more urgently pressing. At this point in history the sources of distraction surround us entirely, entice us irresistibly and are able to grab hold of our attention for obscene amounts of time.

The most invidious aspect of distraction is that many times it's easy not to realize that you're being distracted. Some forms of distraction are obvious, such as image boards or YouTube. However, some activities, such as reading news sites or tech boards (Slashdot, Reddit, Digg anyone?) or sorting e-mail may seem productive while you're doing them; but on closer inspection, you may realize the contrary.

Of course, distraction isn't always bad. You can't focus your efforts entirely on work, all the time - adopting the lifestyle of a crazed workaholic leads to burnout and, well, the lack of a life. However, at some point the distraction becomes counter to your best interests, and perhaps even unhealthy. When I notice this happening I feel guilty for squandering time and energy that could be spent much more wisely. As a college student, succumbing to such a level of distraction often means sub-par grades or many long nights spent catching up on work that should have been completed long ago. To help myself, as well as others (but mostly myself, of course), I've decided to compile this humble list of tips to fight distraction that I've found to be helpful in the past.

If you watch this instead of doing homework,
then (like me) you may have a problem
1. Continuity Mentality
If you have a task that requires several hours to complete, such as completing a programming assignment or studying for an exam, it is essential to devote large, continuous blocks of time rather than small segments interspersed by distractions such as checking message boards or chatting with friends. When faced with such tasks, make an effort to put all other things on hold so that you may concentrate your focus for the length of time demanded. The reason for this is that being interrupted by a distraction takes your mind off of the work, and putting yourself back in the right mindset requires a start-up time penalty that adds up quickly.

2. The Judging Eye
When I'm having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or if I'm engaged in a particularly egregious act of procrastination (such as watching anime or other television shows), I find it helpful to imagine my conduct being witnessed by a parental figure or someone whom I look up to - maybe a coach or a professor, or a particularly over-achieving peer. What would they think if they saw me watching Jersey Shore instead of working on my assignment? Or if they saw me having difficulty getting out of bed after a solid nine hours of sleep? Often times, such self-talk and visualization is extremely effective.

Women: one of the many, most fatal
sources of distraction
3. Location and Rewards System
Obviously, when you need to get work done it's important to situate yourself in a place where distraction will have a hard time finding you. I find it very difficult to study in my room. Libraries, however, are perfect, because they are filled with people who are also doing work, and being the odd-one-out (e.g., watching Hulu in a computer lab) will make you feel guilty if you have any iota of conscience. In addition, if your case of distraction is particularly severe, you may find it helpful to use a second computer as your "work" computer - perhaps a netbook would suit the purpose - while reserving your main computer for leisure and distraction.

I find also sometimes find it helpful to make deals with myself - e.g., two hours of serious studying will earn me one hour of serious video gaming. However, your mileage may vary - that one hour of video games may easily transform into several.

Friday, October 1, 2010

4 Pretty Cool, Lesser Known Movies

If you haven't seen this, then see immediately.
So, everybody has seen or at least heard of the classics: The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Schindler's List, Fight Club, yada yada. These movies have already been discussed ad nauseam by others who are much more qualified than myself (I am by no means a movie buff). What I want to talk about are a couple of movies I've seen recently that, despite containing high dosages of awesomeness, generally seem to have managed to fly under the radar of the general public. Sure, they may contain a number of flaws or may lack the polish of the aforementioned classics (hence their relative unpopularity), but in my humble opinion each is worthy of an hour or so of anybody's time.

1. The Machinist
Everyone knows what a cool guy Christian Bale is from movies like The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation, American Psycho, etc. But his greatness as an actor certainly also shines through in this lesser known film that is basically all about a machinist who goes insane. Sure, there are elements of suspense and themes of revenge and repentance, not to mention Fight Club-esque plot twists, but the real reason to see this movie is Bale's convincing emulation of complete and utter batshit insanity (i.e., definitely see this if you're a psychiatrist).

Finally, an effective solution to America's obesity epidemic
If you previously had any doubts about Bale's dedication to his job as an actor, they will be completely erased due to visual proof to the contrary; in preparation for the role, Bale lost 62 lbs over four months to settle at 120 lbs (he is 6'2 in height). Essentially, on screen he looks like a walking skeleton to whom you feel urged to offer a loaf of bread, or at least a pack of twizzlers. According to him, he achieved this weight loss feat by eating only an apple or a can of tuna a day, every day.

I see tremendous marketing potential for a new diet fad: the Tuna and Apples Diet, heartily endorsed by Christian Bale, guaranteed to give you that Auschwitz-survivor physique you've always dreamed of!

Afterwards, Bale regained all the weight he lost and added 40 more lbs of rock-hard muscle in preparation for his role as the goddamn Batman. Remember the intense level of preparation that the actors in 300 underwent to attain their sinewy, ripped bodies? Well, Bale makes them all look like scrawny, daffodil-picking pansies. Let's face the facts: this man is a badass.

2. True Romance
Man, Christian Slater looks
like a douche
Everybody nowadays is familiar with Quentin Tarantino's work; Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc, are all amazing movies. But not many people seem to know about this gem that was written by Tarantino. If you like the movies I just named, then you should probably see True Romance, because it has everything you would expect: awesomely gratuitous violence, gratuitously awesome shootouts, and very memorable dialogue. In addition, many big-name actors appear, many of whom were within the incipience of their stardom at the time: Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini (Tony from The Sopranos), Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, and Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few! Sweet jeebus, I'm clueless as to why this movie isn't more popular.

Okay, maybe it isn't more popular than it is for one important reason: the plot sucks! That's why I haven't bothered to describe it, lest it turn you away. The romantic bits are especially vomit-inducing, which basically means the first 10-15 minutes of the movie are mediocre at best. After this period, however, there are many particularly awesome scenes of action and dialogue, which I suppose is a given for just about any Tarantino-influenced production. One scene in particular, featuring Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, strikes me as perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of dialogue in all of cinema (this is not an exaggeration!).

Does he look like a b -- oops, wrong movie

3. Oldboy
First off, if you haven't already seen this one, I will warn you that it is not a family-friendly movie, and I mean that in the most literal way possible - pretty much, don't watch Oldboy with members of your immediate family unless you are prepared for particularly uncomfortable moments.

Hammer: apply directly to the forehead

With that out of the way, let me tell you about how great of a movie this is! If it inspired the Virginia Tech shooter to go on his killing rampage, then you know it has to be filled with ultra-violent awesomeness (damn, I'm so insensitive). In summary: A Japanese man named Oh Dae-Su is kidnapped and locked inside a nondescript hotel room, with a television being his only connection to the outside world, for 15 years without having the slightest idea of who his captor is or what his motives are. Food is slid underneath his door and occasionally he is gassed into unconsciousness so that his captors may trim his hair and nails. Man, if only modern hotels were so accommodating (Days Inn, Best Western: take notes!). When he is finally released he embarks on a mission to discover the identity of his captor and inflict revenge of the gruesomest degree, using an attractive young girl as his sidekick. So, if you enjoy revenge-themed movies, then you will probably absolutely love this one.

4. Koyaanisqatsi
Cool movie bro
This last one deviates a bit in style from the previously listed movies. Notably, it has no obvious plot, no cast of actors, no dialogue, no narration, and nothing in the way of special effects (unless you consider slow-motion and time-lapse photography to be particularly special). It simply juxtaposes images with music to explore its themes and convey its messages. To give you an idea of what themes may be present in this film, the word Koyaanisqatsi (taken from some obscure, antiquated and irrelevant language spoken by an obscure, antiquated and irrelevant people) translates roughly to "life in turmoil, life out of balance, or life disintegrating." Sounds peachy! Really, no further description will do the movie any justice; if what I've said about it already is at all intriguing, then you should watch it, if only for the fact that there is no other movie quite like it, and it is potentially an edifying experience. Just allow it your patience and you'll be rewarded.

If you do end up watching Koyaanisqatsi because of my recommendation (if you haven't already seen it), and you absolutely hate it, bad lolz.

Feel free to discuss/add to this list in the comments!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Best and Worst: Television Shows

Olmec, from the glory days
I will preface this post by saying that I am far from being an avid watcher of television shows. Not since the glory days of elementary and middle school - the glory days of Reboot, DBZ, Legends of the Hidden Temple, etc - have I sat and watched television for more than a couple of hours per week. Nowadays I usually only turn on the TV for news and sports. This past summer, however, I happened to be in possession of a significant amount of free time which at first I was helplessly unsure of what to do with. Then, of course, it occurred to me: what better way to burn through free time at an alarming rate than to sit and watch TV shows? And that is exactly what I did - The Office, The Sopranos, House, The Wire, and even Jersey Shore received fair amounts of my attention. I want to particularly share my views on the latter two, because they, in my very humble opinion (as mentioned, I am in no way a television aficionado), are quite representative of today's Best and Worst of what is available on the telly.

Here is where I throw you a curve ball: I highly recommend that you watch both The Wire and Jersey Shore, given that you can afford the time, despite knowing with fair certainty that watching an entire season of the latter will fry your brain. Wait, what? A good friend, or even a stranger from the internet, would not wholeheartedly recommend something that they know to be hazardous to your health, would they? Unless they were a devious bastard. Well, I'm here to tell you that I am not a devious bastard, and that in fact you should watch Jersey Shore, not because it is good TV, but for reasons that I cannot quite express. Maybe because it is representative of many things that are wrong with society and we can use it as a learning tool. Maybe it is so horrendously bad that it circularly wraps around to becoming awesomely good. Or perhaps it's just freaking hilarious to watch. Okay, I'm going to go with the last one.

Mike "The Situation", quintessential Guido
Might as well start with the bad. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a show that is worse, in any reasonable metric, than MTV's Jersey Shore. But as I've suggested, that is possibly part of what makes it, like a train wreck, so hard to turn away from. It is a "reality" TV show - we are expected to glean entertainment from watching the relatively day-to-day lives of the eight members of the Shore House. Doesn't sound exciting? Well, if you were to cut a cross-section of America and randomly select eight people to do this sort of thing, you would indeed probably end up with a pretty boring and uneventful show. These eight, however, are proud, flag-bearing members of the "Guido" subculture (pronounced 'Gwee-doh'). The term was originally used to demean lower-class Italian Americans. Nowadays it is popularly used to describe members of the flourishing subculture that exists in Jersey as well as elsewhere, who: are usually of Italian descent, use steroids to get jacked, stay perpetually orange with spray-on tans, "fist-pump" to house music, and spend a little too much time on their hair. I've just described a male Guido; the female counterparts call themselves "Guidettes" - they are the ones, I suppose, who find these qualities in a male attractive.

Now that I've introduced you to the (somewhat ridiculous) terminology, perhaps you might now be able to see how such a show can be successfully entertaining. Quite simply, the first-time viewer is usually completely incredulous as they watch the Jersey Shore cast go about their lives. Mike "The Situation" popularized the term "GTL" - Gym Tan Laundry - that describes the daily routine that you must follow in order to stay fresh. Remember: "If your shirt looks bad it makes the whole product look bad." Hmm...right. I'm not really sure if any of the cast is college-educated, or what they will do with their lives once they outgrow their Guido phases and realize that there is more to life than GTL, fist-pumping and creating unnecessary drama. Existential crises? I suppose only time will tell.

Your knee-jerk reaction to the show may very well be to immediately stop watching before irreparable harm is done to your brain. You might ask, do these sorts of people actually exist? Well, yes, amazingly. Is the show a self-parody? Is the cast "in on the joke"? Yes, it's obvious that the show is doing the most to capitalize on the ridiculous aspects of the subculture, and the members of the cast probably do try to play-up the Guido stereotypes when they can. But it is also a matter of fact that these are real people, that Guidos are a real phenomenon, and that all of this can be really hilarious. Certainly it is bad television that has no redeeming qualities and plenty of mind-numbing effects, but honestly, where are you going to find better entertainment?

Phew, now on with the good. The Wire is a show that premiered in 2002 but is surprisingly unknown to most. It is a crime-based drama centered on the city of Baltimore, but try not to think CSI or even Law and Order. In contrast, The Wire is (almost) uncompromisingly realistic and un-formulaic. Pfft, reality? Real life is boring, you might say. Who wants real life when you can have impressively unrealistic crime labs, stunningly unnecessary CGI scenes, and a guy (*cough* David Caruso *cough*) who, at the exact moment before the opening credits, removes his shades and makes a remarkably cheesy pun? Well, contrary to what you might expect, realistic drama can be just as interesting and exciting as the aforementioned fantasies, especially if it is as multifaceted as The Wire - the show explores the lives of drug dealers, corrupt union leaders and politicians, homicide detectives and government bureaucrats, all with equal attention and little or no bias.

An example of good television
Unlike current popular TV shows of similar genre, most things that happen in The Wire are plausible events. Rarely do I find myself having to suspend my disbelief while watching, whereas with others such suspension of disbelief is simply an expected precondition of the viewer. It is a widely-encompassing exploration of the Baltimore drug scene that is, by television standards, actually somewhat educational in nature. I didn't expect it, but I find that I became more knowledgeable about the subject matter while watching The Wire. Though House provides plenty of entertaining drama and character development, it's reasonable to say that you probably won't learn much about medical science by watching it. In comparison, you probably will learn a thing or two about detective work and drug dealers from The Wire in addition to being entertained by the drama and the characters (I'm not at all bashing House, just trying to make a point). Some might not have the patience to sit through a show as realistic and devoid of instant gratification - for those people, there are plenty of shows that shun reality, some of which I've already mentioned. But for the others, I believe that watching The Wire can be quite a satisfying and entertaining experience.

An example of a badass
Well, there you have it. Two shows from opposite sides of the spectrum, both of which I believe are worth watching. Certainly there are probably shows that are "worse" than Jersey Shore, and ones that are "better" than The Wire, but these are the ones that have left indelible impressions in my limited experience. I do not believe that all such bad shows should be removed entirely, nor should all similarly good shows dominate television. Both have their place, and both can be very entertaining. Feel free to comment!