Inbox Cleaning with Unroll.me

One of the tasks that I complete everyday before lunch is called inbox zero, which means leaving nothing in your inbox unread. I’ve gotten to this point only after years of leaving unread inbox items as a second list of to-do items (in addition to having an actual to-do list).

A big part of keeping a clean inbox is preventing junk from finding its way there in the first place.

If you’re a Gmail user, like most people I know, then Google is probably already doing a fantastic job keeping spam out of your inbox. But if you’re like me, your inbox is filled with email newsletter subscriptions that you’ve signed up for. I’ve been unsubscribing from these on a regular basis for months, but it wasn’t until the other day that I realized there’s a much better way: Unroll.me

Here’s how it works:

  • Sign up on the site for free
  • Login with your email login credentials through their website
  • Unroll.me scans your inbox and tells you how many email subscriptions you have. I had 90 (after regularly unsubscribing from email newsletters over the last few months), but the friend who recommended this service to me had over 400.

Next you’re presented with a list of all your subscriptions, along with three options for each subscription:

  1. Add the subscription to Unroll.me
  2. Unsubscribe
  3. Allow the subscription to continue to land in your inbox as it has

I unsubscribed from everything non-essential and “rolled up” everything else, ending up with 35 subscriptions. Now I receive a daily rollup with all of the newsletter subscriptions from that day in one place. This is what the daily rollup looks like:

Unroll.me

It’s a grid layout of all the updates from that day. Clicking on a grid takes you to the Unroll.me website where you can view the full content of each email. What I find is that I don’t click on a lot of these, though. I remain subscribed to most of these newsletters to make sure I don’t miss any important information, which is generally revealed through the thumbnail summaries.

The service is free but is monetized through banner ads which you can see above. Unfortunately (for them and for me) the ads do not seem to be targeted. They do not bother me too much though, and it’s a price I’m willing to pay for a very useful service. Check it out at the link below:

Unroll.me
Published on February 6, 2016

Should You Listen to Music While Working?

I love listening to music. I have a huge collection of music and I’m always seeking new artists and albums to explore. I also spend most of my days working on a computer. It seems like the two would be a perfect match, but recently I am not finding that to be the case.

I got started down this line of thinking when I noticed a pattern with how I listen to music while working: I play the same songs over and over. I don’t normally do this when listening to music, only when I’m doing something at the same time. As I read more about this phenomenon, I uncovered some interesting things.

The first was from a book called On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind by psychologist Elizabeth Margulis, where she says:

Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next… A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.

Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, does the same thing:

When you’re coding you really have to be in the zone so I’ll listen to a single song over and over on repeat, hundreds of times. It helps me focus.

There are a few reasons why this happens:

  • The Mere Exposure Theory says that the more we’re exposed to a stimulus, the more we like it. Songs, and other things, grow on us. A repeating song, or small playlist of a few songs, puts us into a state of psychological flow.
  • Listening to music consumes attentional capacity, leaving less for what you’re doing. When you’re listening to music that you like while doing something, you are having more fun, but generally not doing the task better. In this study conducted in Taiwan, it’s called the Attention Drainage Effect.

Studies like this one confirm that listening to music before approaching tasks increases cognitive processes like attention and memory. Listening to music when taking a break seems like a good approach.

So… Work in Silence?

Psychology of musicAs much as I try, I cannot do this. Fortunately, I have found something better.

For a few months I’ve been using Brain.fm, which has become one of my favorite apps. It’s a brain entrainment utility which generates background noise to listen to while working, relaxing or sleeping. I started with a daily habit of using this tool for a few minutes each day to see what effect it had. And what I quickly found is that going back to music after listening to brain.fm was jarring and disorienting. I felt like I couldn’t focus entirely on what I was doing.

I listen to brain.fm for most of the day now. Try it and see if it doesn’t a similar effect for you.

Brain.fm
Published on February 4, 2016

2015 in Review on Pocket

Another year, another ludicrous amount of reading done inside the Pocket app. Almost three times as many words read as last year’s review. This is one of my most used and most loved apps on my iPhone. As if you can’t tell by these insane numbers.

Pocket in 2015

GetPocket.com if you want to give Pocket a shot.

Published on February 3, 2016

Game Review #11: Undertale

One of the games that I loved the most growing up was Final Fantasy 2 on SNES. In many ways it is the prototypical roleplaying game: you play a warrior protagonist in a medieval world, collecting items and equipment as you slay monsters and journey toward the source of ultimate evil. You defeat him, save the world and the story ends. It has been well over 20 years since Final Fantasy 2 was released, yet virtually every roleplaying game since then has used the same formula. The roleplaying genre is one that is notoriously stuck inside of its own mythology. So when something breaks out of that pattern, it gets attention.

Undertale is a highly unconventional roleplaying game which discards most of the legacy that games like Final Fantasy have left for it. Genre conventions that remain are turned upside down in Undertale, so the game is as much a story and experience in itself as it is a commentary on the RPG genre. You play Chara, a human who travels through the subterranean monster world seeking a way to to return to the human world. In a genre filled with deeply entrenched conventions, it is a breath of fresh air.

Undertale Trailer

In Undertale, the world is populated by humans and monsters. Monsters exist in a subterranean world which is separated from the human world, and the two do not co-exist. You play a silent protagonist with an unknown sexual identity (I played the game thinking I was a girl before realizing that it had remained ambiguous for the entire game). As you journey through the monster world, you make friends and enemies and witness head-spinning weirdness. This is one of the weirdest games that I can remember playing.

UndertaleWhat’s so enjoyable about Undertale is that unlike other games in this genre, it doesn’t take itself seriously, and it takes incredible risks. As you may have already heard, these risks were worth taking, and contributed to Undertale being widely considered one of the best and most surprising games of 2015.

One much talked-about feature of Undertale is the ability to complete the game without killing anyone. Without revealing too much about the “reveal” in Undertale, the game is about morality and perspective. Weighty themes for a retro roleplaying game to be wrestling with, but it gracefully manages them.

At around six hours, the length of this game feels just right. I am intimidated by the time commitment that most RPGs demand (20-30 or more hours is not uncommon) and I do not find a longer game to be a better game.

Conclusion

I love games get straight to the point, in 10 hours or less, and that is what Undertale does. I have spoken to a few friends who completed Undertale and went straight back into the game to complete it again with a different ending, so replayability is there. I may do that after a year or more, when Undertale has faded from my memory. For now, it was a bizarre odyssey into a monster world that was nothing like I expected it to be. Highly recommended, especially if you played roleplaying games in the 1990’s.

Rating:

4.5 Stars

Undertale on Steam

Published on February 2, 2016

Ten Mobile Games for January

Last month I did a massive round-up of 80+ mobile games that I test over the course of the year in 2015. For the entirety of the year, I had all of those (plus many more) on my iPhone at the same time. Instead, I will post those which I’m checking out every month here, and only keep the best one or two.

Nom Cat on iPhoneNote: all of the links below are to iOS apps the iTunes App Store

  1. Lifeline: Communicate with a stranded astronaut in space through text messages. One of the most talked-about games on the Apple Watch. Innovative narrative style.
  2. Pocket Mortys: A new spin on the Pokemon-collection formula innovated by Nintendo in the 1990’s on Gameboy. Set in the Rick & Morty animated television series world. Very funny but includes maybe one week of content, at most, for now.
  3. Blocky Football: An endless arcade runner set on a football field, just in time for the Super Bowl, which is in one week. Fun for a few minutes, worth paying $1 to remove ads if you’ll be playing longer than that.
  4. Surfingers: Raise and lower the water level to keep your surfer afloat. I lost interest quickly.
  5. Virtual Beggar: Tap on the the screen to make pedestrians on a busy street leave change for you. Change accumulates behind your virtual beggar into a cartoonishly-large pile of coins which you use to rent office space, hire people, and become a more wealthy and successful beggar. A funny adaption of the current trend of adding metagame to the “click as fast as you can” casual mobile game formula which has become common.
  6. Dice Mage: a retro pixel art rogue RPG where combat interactions are resolved through dice rolls, similar to Risk. Features perma-death (no game saves) which is the right choice for this format. Fun for 5-10 minute sessions.
  7. Nom Cat: Two cats appear on the screen, tap on each one as fish fly through the air to catch to catch them in your mouth. Don’t eat the bombs that are thrown your way. Charming presentation and cats.
  8. Baum: an atmospheric plant-growing game where you guide a droplet of water past obstacles to a flower in a variety of stages. Costs a few dollars but I did not stick with it for more than a few minutes.
  9. Path of War: Recapture Washington D.C. from renegades and rebuild the new America in this strategy game of territorial control. Bears a strong resemblance to Invasion: Modern Empire. A complex, hardcore mobile strategy game which demands significant investment in time.
  10. Clash Royale: Collect, arrange and use cards to overwhelm your opponent in a real-time casual strategy game. This is the latest Supercell game, and a hybrid of three of the most popular games right now: Hearthstone, League of Legends, and Clash of Clans. Only available in select countries for now (create an iTunes account in Canada to download this game). A fun game which will likely have a huge impact on the mobile gaming industry in 2016. For casual players it is worth waiting until the game sees a global launch and is available in your region.

Recommended: Lifeline

LifelineLifeline is the app to check out this month. It was free on the App Store when I downloaded it a few weeks ago, but it is worth buying for a few dollars. There are several more recent iterations but I have been playing the original, and it is old school, innovative and refreshing at the same time. I do not want to spoil it by saying too much more, but it is like a 21st century interpretation of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series of the 1980’s.

Published on February 1, 2016

Book Review #28: Unmade in China

Unmade in ChinaThe subtitle of this book is: The Hidden Truth about China’s Economic Miracle and what it implies is that China’s economic rise is not what it appears to be. This is an idea that I have quietly held inside my head for most of the last decade, based on the things that I have seen. Things which do not match with the rising global superpower narrative that is continuously present in international media.

I sought this book out to educate myself on the things that I have yet to fully grasp about China’s economy, specifically the manufacturing sector which been its engine.

Economists do a lot of forecasting and economic analysis on China’s economy, but making predictions is difficult because of the opaque nature of China’s economy. According to the author of this book, entrepreneur and Georgetown University business professor Jeremy Haft, we can ascertain a lot by carefully looking at how things are made in China. From shirts to toys, apple juice to oil rigs, there are tell-tale signs that contradict the commonly-held view that China is going to take over the world in the twenty-first century. In the words of the author:

From the inside looking out, China is not a manufacturing juggernaut. It’s a Lilliputian. Nor is it a killer of American jobs. It’s a huge job creator. Rising China is importing goods from America in such volume that millions of U.S. jobs are sustained through Chinese trade and investment.

China GDP

A good indicator of how much I learn from a book can be made by how many highlights I leave in the book: there were 86 highlighted passages in Unmade in China. It is filled with fascinating information which was new to me.

Favorite Passages

Things fall apart. So the science of making things is to minimize risk. Of course, risk can’t ever be completely eliminated. But you strive to achieve a successful outcome again and again, reliably, not randomly, as often as possible. An airplane that flies. A bridge that holds firm. A medicine that cures, not kills. China is deceptive that way. It looks like a manufacturing powerhouse until you draw back the curtain. Then, you see risk everywhere.

Exploring China’s secret supply chain is the only way to get a clear picture of China’s competitiveness. For when it comes to accurate economic data, China is a black box. Its official metrics are highly unreliable, partly because they’re politically motivated and partly because comprehensive research on any given topic in China is either rare or non-existent. So the aggregate data are untrustworthy, and the small case studies are misleading. That’s why China’s own government officials disregard measurements of China’s economic size, trade volume, and exports as untrustworthy. Yet US academics, media, and politicians swallow these false numbers whole and regurgitate them as fact. A lack of good economic data has contributed to our China myopia. China looms much larger in the world because we are looking at it through a false lens.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when America was gripped with another fit of “Chicken Littleism,” the Great Japanese Menace was going to steal American jobs, sap American competitiveness, and take over the world. During those days, Japanese companies were actually doing some very innovative things, including figuring out ways to reduce risk in manufacturing. They designed quality control systems that would be the basis for what would become known as Six Sigma – procedures that were later adopted by the likes of General Electric and Pfizer. In a salute to Japanese corporate know-how, American companies often tried to imitate Japanese business practice – in management style, quality control methods, and even rituals like standing in meetings, to keep them short. I don’t know of a single company that tries to imitate Chinese business practice.

Since state-owned companies are legacies of China’s old command economy, in which the factors of production were controlled, managers are acclimated to this way of doing business. If you ask the manager of a large state-owned firm how the year went, you will usually hear, We had a great year. We produced 10 million tons of output. But that’s beside the point for competitive modern companies. The key metric is sales. How much product did you move? How many reorders? How much profit? Were your customers happy? It’s quite rare in China, especially among state-owned firms, to hear this kind of analysis. They act as government-backed budget spenders, not market competitors.

Remember that China is not, as is often presumed, a capitalist economy with an autocratic regime. It’s a hybrid economy, part communist, part capitalist. In China, they call it Chinese socialism, or capitalism with Chinese characteristics. What has resulted from this belt-and-suspenders economy is a situation where descendants of Mao’s original state-owned firms exist alongside hundreds of thousands of small and mid-sized nonstate-owned firms.

Dispelling Myths

Like another book I read a few years ago, Why China Will Never Rule the World, is about dispelling widely-believed China myths. Three of those myths are central themes in the book. I have included those here, along with the author’s opinion on each. The author makes a much more comprehensive argument in the book, but for the sake of brevity I have included the parts which were most interesting to me.

Myth #1: China’s economy is about to surpass the U.S.

China’s GDP numbers are fiction, and GDP is the wrong metric to judge the true size and dynamics of China’s economy. The same goes with China’s famously red-hot economic growth. Like China’s trumped-up GDP statistics, its growth metrics are also fictional. The numbers from the provinces year after year outstrip the growth rate of the whole country. For example, in April of 2013, when all of China’s 31 provincial governments released GDP growth rates, none was lower than the national GDP growth rate – a statistical impossibility. The sum of the parts can’t be growing faster than the whole. Yet most US economists just lap up these growth numbers as proof that China is about to overtake us.

Myth #2: Everything is “Made in China”

iPhones, on the whole, aren’t manufactured in China; they’re just assembled there. China, in fact, adds only a smidgen of value to each iPhone it assembles. So while an iPhone costs about US $ 179 to make, China contributes only US $ 6.50 worth of value in putting together the parts that are made elsewhere. But because China is the last country to export the iPhone to the United States, trade statistics consider it as 100 percent Chinese-made!

Myth #3: China is Killing US Manufacturing

Even as American manufacturing employment has, by and large, been declining from its peak in 1979, the total value of US manufacturing has been trending upwards. With productivity gains – driven by advances in manufacturing technology – we are able to produce more with fewer workers. In the United States, for example, “97,000 steelworkers produced 9.5% more steel in 2011 than 400,000 workers did in 1980,” according to the Center for Innovative Media at George Washington University. 44 As Chinese firms acquire better technology, they are shedding workers, too.

Conclusion

If you have interest in seeing the other side of the “China story”, I highly recommend reading this. I have little interest in manufacturing as an industry, but am filled with enthusiasm for untangling the wires when it comes to understanding what is happening in China. That is what Unmade in China is about.

After reading this book I look at international news about China a little bit differently, noticing many of the effects that Haft describes. In particular, politicians and media reporting figures which countless economists around the world agree cannot possible be true, yet are routinely reported as unquestioned fact. Politicians and the media have an interest in distorting and exaggerating the power and influence on the horizon.

Debate and discussion about the truth at the center of China’s economy has become a bigger topic of discussion recently, as the yuan has lost significant value and China has released annual GDP figures. It seems certain that in 2016 they will escalate rhetoric surrounding China and its influence on the United States as they rally people around false issues like Apple bringing manufacturing back to the United States (it won’t and it shouldn’t).

Rating:

5 Stars

Unmade in China on Amazon

Published on February 1, 2016

8|8 Mixtape: Anger

Just Charlie - AngerThis week I recorded another mixtape for a local mixtape project called 8|8. It is eight songs long. This is the second such mix that I’ve made, the first one was Grand Imperial Mystic from December 2015.

Unlike the last mix this one has a very narrow focus: the emotion of anger. Each of the 8 people involved in the project (there are two groups, so 16, technically) were randomly assigned a different emotion to record a series of 8 songs to. My randomly selected emotion was anger.

This theme was not particularly easy because it demanded striking a balance between anger and music that I would want to listen to. I do not listen to much angry music. It was a fun project which forced me to go slightly outside of my musical comfort zone. It includes a lot of inside jokes and a few film references.

Download Link

“Anger” Mixtape MP3

This mix is 32 minutes long, 320kbps, and 78 megabytes in size.

Tracklist

  1. Black Sun Empire – Wasteland (feat. SPL)
  2. Bob Dylan – Masters of War
  3. Bassnectar – Seek & Destroy (Remix)
  4. Metallica – Seek & Destroy
  5. Black Flag – Rise Above
  6. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
  7. Carly Simon & James Taylor – Mockingbird
  8. John Lennon – Gimme Some Truth

Sampled on this Mixtape

  1. Sarah Palin endorses Donald Trump
  2. George Carlin on “The real owners”
  3. Bill O’Reilly “Doing it live”
  4. Howard Beale rant from Network (1976)
  5. “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles” from The Big Lebowski (1998)
  6. “Who needs the radio?” from Dumb & Dumber (1994)
  7. “You can’t handle the truth” from A Few Good Men (1992)
Published on January 30, 2016

Chengdu Gaming Federation Flyers

We’ve been hosting Chengdu Gaming Federation events for just over half a year now. Here are a few of the flyers for those events, one of which is tonight (the Street Fighter 2 Tournament). This has been a really fun project.

CGF Flyers

These flyers are depicted inside of an iPhone because that is the way they are distributed (digitally).

Published on January 28, 2016