Book Review #18: The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way is the third book published by Ryan Holiday, the 27-year old marketing guru who was famously the Director of Marketing for American Apparel. It’s loosely based on Roman stoic philosophy, and features a lot of quotes and ideas from figures like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Perspective as Reality

One of the defining qualities of stoicism, which emerged in 3rd century BC, is that perspective defines reality. True sages, according to the stoics, are invulnerable to bad fortune because virtue is sufficient for happiness. Stoicism teaches that the key to overcoming destructive emotions is fortitude and self-control, leading to what’s called “stoic calm”.

The title of this book originates from a Marcus Aurelius quote which says: “the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Ryan Holiday talks about the process of facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles – a process which results from logic and self-discipline:

  • To be objective
  • To control emotions and keep an even keel
  • To choose to see the good in a situation
  • To steady our nerves
  • To ignore what disturbs or limits others
  • To place things in perspective
  • To revert to the present moment
  • To focus on what can be controlled

The Premortem

Epictetus

Stoic philosopher Epictetus, born a 1st century slave

One interesting exercise of perspective described in this book is the premortem. As defined by Holiday:

A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins: “I have bad news . The project has failed spectacularly. Tell me what went wrong?”

The CEO is creating an exercise in hindsight, except it’s in advance. The technique of the premortem was designed by psychology Gary Klein, but the idea was founded by the stoics thousand of years ago. Today it’s used by startups and Fortune 500 businesses.

Thinking about problems in unconventional methods such as this often quickly reveal oft-missed problems or challenges. This is just one described in the book.

Favorite Passages

Marus Aurelius truly saw each and every obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.

Every obstacle is unique to each of us. But the responses they elicit are the same: Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Depression. Anger.

An employee in your company makes a careless mistake that costs you business. This can be exactly what you spend so much time and effort trying to avoid. Or, with a shift in perception, it can be exactly what you were looking for— the chance to pierce through defenses and teach a lesson that can be learned only by experience. A mistake becomes training. Again, the event is the same: Someone messed up. But the evaluation and the outcome are different. With one approach you took advantage; with the other you succumbed to anger or fear.

You always planned to do something. Write a screenplay. Travel. Start a business. Approach a possible mentor. Launch a movement. Well, now something has happened— some disruptive event like a failure or an accident or a tragedy. Use it. Perhaps you’re stuck in bed recovering . Well, now you have time to write . Perhaps your emotions are overwhelming and painful, turn it into material. You lost your job or a relationship? That’s awful, but now you can travel unencumbered. You’re having a problem? Now you know exactly what to approach that mentor about. Seize this moment to deploy the plan that has long sat dormant in your head. Every chemical reaction requires a catalyst. Let this be yours.

A decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennium earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt very similar things, struggling with the very same thoughts. They had no idea that you would exist, but you know that they did. And a century from now, someone will be in your exact same position, once more. Embrace this power, this sense of being part of a larger whole. It is an exhilarating thought. Let it envelop you. We’re all just humans, doing the best we can. We’re all just trying to survive, and in the process, inch the world forward a little bit. Help your fellow humans thrive and survive, contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up, and be happy with that. Lend a hand to others. Be strong for them, and it will make you stronger.

Conclusion

This book is a very good introduction to stoic philosophy and how to re-contextualize the challenges that we are all constantly facing. The way in which we look at these challenges, and all things in life, defines their very nature, so the value and impact that learning to think of challenges in this way cannot be overstated.

Due to the writing style of this book, which reads like very many short but profound statements, it became slightly exhausting by the end. Most of the concepts are simple to understand, but difficult to develop into innate features of our psyche. But it’s as much a worthy pursuit as anything.

Amazon link: The Obstacle is the Way

Rating:

4.5 Stars

Published on October 25, 2014

Book Review #17: Zero to One

Zero to OnePeter Thiel is the billionaire entrepreneur and hedge fund manager who became Facebook’s first investor in 2004. In September of 2014, he published his first book, titled Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

Although Thiel is more famous for being a venture capitalist, this book is about how to think creatively, create value, and build a viable business. The book got started when a graduate student of Thiel’s named Blake Masters took detailed notes on the class and published them online, which you can read here: CS 183: Startup.

The Paypal Mafia & Expectations

Peter Thiel co-founded Paypal in 1998, which was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. The group of co-founders that he founded the company with became known as the Paypal Mafia, who after the Paypal sale went on to create seven companies valued over $1 billion (including Tesla, LinkedIn, and Youtube).

The first book published by someone with a list of achievements like this quickly becomes a big deal. Last month, when Zero to One was released, I started noticing a lot of my favorite podcasts, like Tim Ferriss and James Altucher, invite Thiel on as a guest.

I had very high expectations for this book. Fortunately, it is extremely practical, smart, and engaging. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Leaders & Followers

To find big success, you cannot follow. You must undertake the simple but difficult task of innovating. In the technology community, it’s popular to think in terms of the luminaries who’ve grown to become the face of the industry. Peter Thiel addresses this immediately and simultaneously explains the title in the first lines of the book:

Peter Thiel “Every moment in in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them. Of course, it’s easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1.”

I don’t have much interest in reading about investment or capital management, but this book is about so much more. In this way, it’s very similar to Creativity, Inc. which is one of the best books that I read this year. It’s a grounded, practical guide to creating value and distinguishing yourself amidst a landscape of followers.

ProgressIn the first chapter, Peter Thiel introduces the concepts of intensive versus extensive progress. Intensive progress, or vertical progress, is when a company does something new, like build a word processor when the market is building typewriters.

If you start with one typewriter and build 100, you’ve made extensive (or horizontal) progress. The best example for horizontal progress (in Thiel’s words) is China, which has been straight-forwardly copying everything that has worked in the developed world.

To the right is an image from the book which explains how this concept works.

Zero to One is about escaping this trap and embracing the principle of innovation to give your business a chance to grow large enough to change the world. But creating value alone isn’t enough – you also need to capture some of the value you create.

It’s simple but powerful ideas like this which fill this book.

Favorite Passages

Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing : “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

For Hamlet, greatness means willingness to fight for reasons as thin as an eggshell: anyone would fight for things that matter; true heroes take their personal honor so seriously they will fight for things that don’t matter. This twisted logic is part of human nature, but it’s disastrous in business. If you can recognize competition as a destructive force instead of a sign of value, you’re already more sane than most.

Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

For a company to be valuable it must grow and endure, but many entrepreneurs focus only on short-term growth. They have an excuse: growth is easy to measure, but durability isn’t. Those who succumb to measurement mania obsess about weekly active user statistics, monthly revenue targets, and quarterly earnings reports. However, you can hit those numbers and still overlook deeper, harder-to-measure problems that threaten the durability of your business. For example, rapid short-term growth at both Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges. Zynga scored early wins with games like Farmville and claimed to have a “psychometric engine” to rigorously gauge the appeal of new releases. But they ended up with the same problem as every Hollywood studio: how can you reliably produce a constant stream of popular entertainment for a fickle audience? (Nobody knows.) Groupon posted fast growth as hundreds of thousands of local businesses tried their product. But persuading those businesses to become repeat customers was harder than they thought. If you focus on near-term growth above all else, you miss the most important question you should be asking: will this business still be around a decade from now?

In philosophy, politics, and business, too, arguing over process has become a way to endlessly defer making concrete plans for a better future.

Conclusion

I loved every moment of this book and finished it in two sittings. It’s not just that it’s practical and insightful: it’s makes its point with remarkable clarity. I would consider this a must-read for anyone working in the tech industry especially, but is a fantastic read for anyone who wants to develop a better understanding of what makes some companies explode while others get crushed by the competition.

Amazon link: Zero to One

Rating:

5 Stars

Published on October 25, 2014
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Song of the Day #160: Kodama

20Syl – Kodama

Created by 20Syl, member of C2C and founder of the Hocus Pocus hip hop group. I especially love this because the Akai MPC 2000XL (a vintage drum machine that I’ve had since 2008) is featured so prominently.

Check out C2C or 20Syl on Youtube. Both of these channels have fantastic music.

Published on October 11, 2014

Game Review #6: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of MordorShadow of Mordor is an open-world action game developed by Monolith Productions, set in the Lord of the Rings universe originally created by J.R.R. Tolkien. The protagonist is a human who’s been possessed by a spirit and cannot die until he’s avenged the death of his wife and child. On his journey, he meets and faces characters from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, although the plot itself is loosely based on lore created by Tolkien.

Although this game didn’t receive much hype before release, it has been roundly well-reviewed and celebrated for its innovative artificial intelligence system which it calls “Nemesis”.

Story & Narrative

Firstly, I have no particular knowledge or interest in Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. In fact, I haven’t even bothered to see any of The Hobbit movies, so the fact that this takes place in that world isn’t something that led me to this game at all. But unlike Destiny, Shadow of Mordor not only has a competent narrative, but every action you take in the game has a purpose.

The story is driven by Talion, a ranger of Gondor stationed to protect the Black Gate, when he and his wife and child are executed by the Black Hand of Sauron in an attempt to resurrect a dead Elven spirit named Celebrimbor (pronounced kel-a-brim-bore). But when Talion dies, Celebrimbor’s spirit melds with Talion and the two become united in their mission to seek vengeance against Sauron. Throughout the game the identity and motives of Celebrimbor begin to unfurl, and they are not what they seem to be.

Shadow of Mordor

Because Talion is linked to Celebrimbor, you cannot die. When you’re killed, you return as Celebrimbor to a nearby spirit tower. This actually makes sense from a narrative and gameplay perspective, which is rare. In nearly all games you inexplicably have an infinite number of lives (as a side note, the movie Edge of Tomorrow has an imaginative explanation for this “start again” phenomenon).

The most note-worthy element of this game, the Nemesis system, actually contributes greatly to the story as well.

The “Nemesis” System

Shadow of Mordor is a single-player game, which means you won’t be cooperating with or competing against other human players in any capacity. In the gaming industry that’s becoming increasingly rare, especially for a major release, because introducing human players creates deep, dynamic gameplay in a way that pre-programmed characters cannot. But the nemesis system challenges that convention in a meaningful way by dynamically generating a colorful cast of characters for you hunt.

Enemies generated by this system are within a hierarchy of opponents with War Chiefs at the top. Below them are their subjects, who receive commands from above. When you dispatch units in the hierarchy, other orcs move into their place to assume their role, so you work your way to the top. Below is an example of an enemy generated by this system, with a list of attributes on the right. What’s not shown in this image is that each character generated has a unique name, appearance, and personality.

Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system

Especially in the beginning of the game, you get repeatedly killed by the same characters more than once. Each time they kill you, they observe and comment on the circumstances, which makes them feel very lifelike. They also level up and gain strength each time that they defeat you, which is likely where the Nemesis name comes from.

You will want to continue just to return and defeat the orc who is so convincingly crafted that he feels like a human rival you want to beat. This is a significant technical innovation because the system creates characters so persuasively lifelike that they elicit an emotional response. It’s amazing and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Morality of the Crusading Assassin

One thing that made me a little uncomfortable in this game was the context within which extreme violence takes place. Halfway through the game you learn the ability to execute foes, which is either impaling them with your sword or decapitating them, whereby the head slowly floats away from the body in slow motion. Later in the game you get the ability to perform an unlimited number of executions within a 15-second time period, which means that when you are surrounded by orcs, you can deftly dash between them, removing all of their heads one after another.

Shadow of Mordor

I understand that according to the lore of the Lord of the Rings, orcs are inherently evil, but the story says otherwise. For a portion of the game you cooperate with an orc who shows himself to be a nuanced and psychologically vulnerable character. Orcs look human-like and are portrayed as human-like (you even assassinate them at their own feasts), but on the other hand you assume the moral high ground while brutally hunting them down. This creates an ethnical quandary wherein it becomes a little difficult to genuinely believe that your actions are noble. At the end of the game the story addresses this somewhat, but I see games now entering an era in which violent deaths are disturbingly convincing.

Conclusion & Rating

One criticism that should be mentioned is that by the time you get to the late game, your character is too powerful. By the end of the game you are effortlessly slicing through groups of dozens of enemies. This leads to the game losing a bit of its luster after you’ve fleshed out the ability tree. But even then, the action and animation is so fluid and well done that it surpasses its similar contemporary, Assassin’s Creed. This game is supremely fun.

I believe that following the strength and success of this game, Warner Brothers will continue to publish open-world action games in this game world, developed by Monolith. This could be the beginning of a long-lasting series.

4.5 Stars

Published on October 9, 2014

Game Review #5: Destiny

Destiny PS4Developed by Bungie, creators of the Halo series which hugely contributed to the success of the Xbox, Destiny is an online first-person shooter that will take you across the galaxy as you fight to defend humanity with other players online.

This is most anticipated release in the lifetime of the Playstation 4 so far.

Although it’s available on other consoles, the version that I played was on Playstation 4.

The Story & Myth of Destiny

When you begin playing Destiny, you select a race and a class and begin as a Guardian, shooting things to save the human race.

Seven hundred years in the future, the human race is under attack by a vaguely described group of space bad guys, divided into four groups. I won’t bother describing them because they are completely forgettable, much like virtually every aspect of the story and setting in Destiny. You are fighting to suppress alien invaders and recapture glory for the human race, even though by virtue of having your choice of race to play, you are very likely not even human yourself.

Although shockingly little is described or explained in the game, the broad strokes painted by the storyline are reasonably fun. A moon-sized object called the “Traveler” hovers visibly above earth. It’s never really explained how it got there or what it does, just that it played a role in the rapid expansion of space travel technology.

To be blunt, the story in this game is garbage, which is especially surprising and disappointing for two reasons:

  1. The promise and potential of this game was so grand. It sold itself as being a galactic world populated with people and places to explore, on a grand scale. What it actually turned out to be is a “shared-space” first-person shooter which means it completely lacks any kind of exploration. The characters and themes that are there are vague and undeveloped.
  2. The game is developed by Bungie, who has rightly built up a lot of credit over the last ten years through development of the Halo franchise. Although Halo has always been an action game, it has a significant story component that crucially supplements the frenetic action with a thoughtful narrative. No one thought that Bungie would drop the ball like this.

I was hoping for a story along the lines of Mass Effect, which is like interactive space opera in the best way possible. This is nothing like that. Instead, it feels like you are pointlessly shooting everything that moves, almost without pause. The protagonist never asks any questions nor goes through a single journey that involves anything but incessantly shooting enemies.

Graphics & Presentation

The presentation in this game is simply phenomenal, from both a technical and artistic standpoint.

The user interface is pragmatic and pleasant to use, and everything looks and feels extremely slick and next-gen. One of the highlights of the experience of playing Destiny is the first time that you’re introduced to each new planet. They all have their own distinct feel and appearance, and are incredibly detailed and well designed. When you first play on the Moon, you can see earth, slowly but noticeably rotating in the distance.

Destiny

The soundtrack is equally amazing, from orchestral ambience to the pulsing music that accompanies boss fights.

Visually and aurally, this is a showpiece.

When Hype Hurts

The legacy of this game has been significantly tarnished by the expectations that it would be a great leap forward for the genre of shooters. Instead of being a leap forward, it turned out to be a decent game, but certainly nothing to challenge the status quo. Is this the fault of the developer and publisher, or of people with unrealistic expectations? In my opinion, there is no question: it is the fault of the developer and publisher, whose misleading propaganda led to this becoming the highest grossing pre-sale game of all time. Upon launch alone, this game recouped $500 million, which is an absurd sum.

Destiny logoOne major factor in the story and narrative being Destiny’s obvious achilles heel is that the lead writer of the game, James Staten, quit Bungie in the fall of 2013. I still fail to see how it resulted in such a catastrophe, but it doesn’t seem that they were able to mount any kind of successful rescue mission for the piddling narrative that this game half-heartedly put forth.

An interesting point is that the three most-hyped AAA games of this year were all cut-down immediately upon release: Titanfall by Respawn Entertainment, Watchdogs by Ubisoft, and now Destiny by Bungie. All three were commercial successes. This paints a distressing picture of the supposedly triple-A game market, which is evidently unencumbered by mediocre actual games when it comes to accruing record-breaking profit.

Conclusion & Rating

I finished Destiny in about 20 hours and see no reason to go back and play it again. There are no characters to empathize with, no distant planets to explore, and no new experiences to be had. Before release, the Bungie Community Manager said “You may never finish Destiny”, clearly implying that the game has an astounding amount of content. The release of this game has proven that to be an outright lie, regardless of what events they periodically add to the game at this point.

Destiny isn’t bad. In fact, in some ways it excels over all of its peers. The presentation and action is phenomenal. But in terms of living up to its potential, this is a dismal conclusion to the long-awaited release of Destiny.

3.5 Stars

Read about Destiny on Wikipedia

Published on October 9, 2014
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Song of the Day #159: Adventure

Disasterpeace – Adventure

Fez OSTFez is an independent game released in 2012 that I never got around to playing. Now that I have, I am blown away by the soundtrack, which was entirely produced by a guy from Oakland working under the moniker “Disasterpeace”. Video game soundtracks are almost always entirely forgettable, but there are some notable exceptions like Fez and Hotline Miami.

With the game Fez featuring a colorful pixel-based art style, you would expect the soundtrack to conform to a retro game aesthetic. But it comes closer to sounding like a video game interpretation of the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis, with bright synths and heavy reverb which gives the overall sound a dream-like quality. It also sounds like Boards of Canada.

Two other songs which I really enjoyed on this soundtrack are Flow and Beacon, also on Youtube along with the full album. This is a game I have really enjoyed so I expect that I will write a review of it when I’ve completed the game.

Check out the Fez official soundtrack on Spotify or read the Wikipedia entry on the music of Fez.

Published on October 8, 2014

Event Flyer Designs #1

Chengdu event flyer designs
Recently I’ve been designing some event flyers optimized for mobile sharing. They are all to iPhone 5 resolution (640×1136 px) and made to be shared on mobile social networks like WeChat. I experimented with some animated gif flyers at this size which had moving parts or text that changes color, but the animating process was slow using Photoshop, so I went back to static designs.

When I first started doing Disco Death in 2010, I designed and printed meter-tall posters for each event. It was exciting to embrace a new format which came with different challenges, and recently I feel the same way about designing for mobile first. Although the lack of a physical flyer feels like something may be lost, the viral potential of a digital flyer is far unparalleled.

Published on September 30, 2014

Movie Review #16: Wild at Heart

Wild at HeartWild at Heart is a shockingly violent love story released in 1990 and directed by David Lynch, starring Nicolas Cage.

The story is about Sailor, an Elvis admirer who’s imprisoned for killing a man in defense of his girlfriend, and Lula, the girl he has killed for. When he’s released, his girlfriend greets him at the prison gates with a snakeskin jacket whereupon he drops this spectacular line which sets the tone for the first half of the film:

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

Love & Hate

Wild at Heart fits nicely into a small group of seemingly contradictory love stories that feature excessive unpleasantries. The format was pioneered by the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde which depicted the infamous depression-era couple traveling across America, robbing banks and leaving a trail of bodies behind them.

Wild at Heart was released in 1990 and inspired a string of other movies which received more recognition, including True Romance (Tarantino), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone), and Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott). Some of the best movies of the 1990’s.

This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.

But you don’t need to look at the chronology of these films to feel how on-the-edge Wild at Heart is. In the David Lynch tradition, this movie is sublimely disorienting, and is an emotional roller coaster. Like Bill Paxton in Lost Highway, the protagonist in this movie is impossibly slick (Nic Cage belting out “What do you faggots want?” when surrounded by gang members is one of the most brilliant lines of the film). Like Blue Velvet, its sheer weirdness will discomfort you. And like Mulholland Drive, you will probably struggle to understand what’s going on and feel like you’ve been unknowingly dosed with a hallucinogen.

Wild at Heart

David Lynch, like Wes Anderson, has developed a distinct storytelling methodology and you will see these common characteristics throughout all of his work. Although it hasn’t received the kudos or recognition of Blue Velvet, it’s impressive to stand back and see how influential Wild at Heart has been.

Willem Dafoe is one of the most terrifying villains imaginable in this movie. One of his best roles.

Conclusion

This isn’t an easy watch, but no David Lynch movie is. If you’re looking for the best work from Nicolas Cage, or for a movie that had a big impact on Quentin Tarantino and gritty love stories of the 1990’s, put this on your short list.

Nic Cage does a good Elvis impression. Even better, I’d say, than when Christian Slater has a daydream conversation with Elvis played by Val Kilmer in True Romance.

Rating:

4 Stars

Official Trailer:

Published on September 30, 2014