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Almost Productive 10 min read

Almost Productive

A great collection of links on everything from threats to streaming services, why Millennials watch TV with subtitles, more good stories than you can count from The New Yorker, more A.I. doomsaying, a 70-degree road trip, UFOs and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I've been really into productivity lately. The concept, mind you, not actually being productive. (Hopefully, I can level-up at some point and be legitimately productive.) I've read books and articles and watched dozens of videos on Youtube by people who, in a circular fashion, talk about ways of streamlining their lives in order to pursue creative endeavors (usually making Youtube videos about productivity).

The Youtubers especially make it seem to appealing, this hyper-organized existence that allows so much more to be done the relatively few waking hours we have in a day. But watching them is also counterproductive in its own way.

This is a toxic trait of mine. Always has been. It's a form of procrastination. A safety blanket, if you will. In law school, I did the same thing. Instead of prepping from my notes and reviewing the case books, I'd buy another compendium of knowledge on the particular topic, sure that it was the key to helping me do well on an exam. But then, nine times out of 10, I wouldn't even read the thing. Or certainly wouldn't make it through enough of it to justify its cost.

Just having them with me, stacked around me on a table in the library like a little fort, somehow felt better. And the "felt" there is the key: It wasn't actually better. Just like "being into productivity" hasn't seen me actually be all that productive.

I'm not criticizing. Not the authors or Youtubers and not even myself really. Just noticing, reflecting, commenting on it all. Mostly, just recognizing the value of something that allows me to feel better.

I think it's probably natural, in the wake of a tragedy, for a person to say, out loud or as a tiny internalization barely reaching the level of conscious thought, "Things are different now, and thus so I am. Now is my time to make a change."

This newsletter is part of that for me. It doesn't represent something completely new, but my mindset around it is new. I want to write more, on various topics, in various styles, and this newsletter is a weekly deadline where none of the other types of writing have external deadlines. And therefore, productivity has seemed like a valuable thing to prioritize, with its focus on habits and organization and making room for the stuff one really wants to get done. It felt actionable and achievable.

So I guess I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being one in my stack of books in the library. Thanks for being a safety blanket. Thanks for helping me feel a little bit better, like there's some tiny corner of the world that I can actually control. In short, thanks for helping me feel a little bit better.

Ten Worth Your Time

1. There was a moment, apropos of nothing in particular, some time after my dad had passed, where I remembered something I had totally forgotten: Donald Trump had been indicted. The news broke while sitting in the hospital. It flashed on the TV screen in the room, which was tuned to Fox News. It was as if the universe wanted to punish me more than it had already chosen to: full of potential to be as uncomfortable as Thanksgiving dinner but in late March and in a north Mississippi hospital room. The entire four years of the Trump presidency had been practice (not in a good way) for letting the breaking news of his just wash over you; it came in such waves that it was difficult to keep your head above it all. Best you could hope to do was just tread water. Now we’re back this week, Trump Indictment #2, and with it a reminder of just how exhausting this upcoming election cycle will be. There’s a lot of news to come from this second indictment, but by far the most entertaining breakdown of it you will ever read is this hall of fame-worthy Twitter thread. For a less knee-slappingly funny version, the fine folks of the Slate Political Gabfest have a solid emergency podcast discussing the news. And for the truth completists out there, here’s an audio version of the indictment, read page by page, county by count. It shows just how vital good storytelling is to setting out a compelling narrative; this is an example of a very thorough and engaging set of facts.

2. This piece from Vulture is a great breakdown of what’s rotten in the state of Hollywood, where so much of the talent that would populate film productions has shifted to TV in this era known as Peak TV and now even that is collapsing as it was always built on a foundation made of sand. It’s related to the ongoing writer’s strike and their concerns over A.I., but it’s actually so much bigger than that. It’s a dollars-and-cents issue, and because of that, it’s not likely to last that long. This passage from the piece sums it up well:

Like cryptocurrency, which has created massive on-paper fortunes built atop 1 + 1 = 3 arithmetic, streaming TV has always seemed too good to be true but seduced a lot of smart people anyway. Over the past decade, Hollywood completely reorganized itself around the digital model, as once-mighty networks and studios turned themselves into apps and abandoned reliable income streams hoping larger ones would materialize. They tripled their output, overpaid Oscar winners to debase themselves in miniseries, and hired all of your friends to work in writers’ rooms. Viewers across every niche and taste cluster were inundated with more bespoke programming than they could ever realistically consume.

3. I am guilty of what so irks the author in this Atlantic piece: I'm one of those dum-dum Millennials who watches TV and movies at home with subtitles on. I was drawn to click on this one because it poses a question that, even though it’s about me in a way, I was genuinely interested in what the findings would be. It’s not a thing I associate with my generation. (For the record, my pet peeve along these lines would be the proliferation of people walking around on their phone on speakerphone, talking into the edge of the phone rather than holding it up to their ear. I sometimes wonder if the tried-and-true pantomime of a thumb and pinky held up to an ear to mimic a phone call will mean anything to coming generations, who must surely think all phones can only work in walkie-talkie mode. OK, digression over.) Nor do I particularly know why I do it. The piece is mostly about the back-and-forth mental wrestling match over what harm can subtitles possibly pose versus an undeniable reality that it does change the process of viewing, and a person would be safe to assume it was just a matter of different strokes for different folks. But then there was this nugget that truly seemed to explain a lot:

Specifically, it has everything to do with LKFS, which stands for “Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale” and which, for the sake of simplicity, is a unit for measuring loudness. Traditionally it’s been anchored to the dialogue. For years, going back to the golden age of broadcast television and into the pay-cable era, audio engineers had to deliver sound levels within an industry-standard LKFS, or their work would get kicked back to them. That all changed when streaming companies seized control of the industry, a period of time that rather neatly matches /Game of Thrones/’ run on HBO. According to Blank, /Game of Thrones/ sounded fantastic for years, and she’s got the Emmys to prove it. Then, in 2018, just prior to the show’s final season, AT&T bought HBO’s parent company and overlaid its own uniform loudness spec, which was flatter and simpler to scale across a large library of content. But it was also, crucially, un-anchored to the dialogue.
“So instead of this algorithm analyzing the loudness of the dialogue coming out of people’s mouths,” Blank explained to me, “it analyzes the whole show as loudness. So if you have a loud music cue, that’s gonna be your loud point. And then, when the dialogue comes, you can’t hear it.”

4. The June 12 issue of The New Yorker was such a great collection of stories. It’s hard to identify a best, and I didn’t want the entire list of 10 to be just New Yorker links, so I’m cramming some together here: This feature on how Marvel devoured so much of Hollywood (perfect if you’re interested in the streaming TV article above); this short story from George Saunders is a real head-trip (plus this interview about the story is quite revealing about his process, though in his typically understated way), but mostly I want to recommend this latest addition to the “Is he a fraud?” canon. This time, it centers on an author who claims he knew Tennessee Williams and rode that claim to no small degree of notoriety. But it’s not entirely clear whether he might be making the whole thing up. (As I was reading, I thought it had a flavor of the profile of Dan Mallory, one of my favorite stories of from The New Yorker, and to my dismay, I realized this was not a novel observation, as the subject of this piece noticed the same thing.)

5. Who doesn’t love a nice 70-degree day? I know that, here in Missouri, long before the dog days of summer are upon us, I’m already missing highs in the 70s. It was my favorite part of visiting my brother in San Diego; the consistency of it there made it feel better than a random 70-degree day back in our native Tennessee. In search of that perfect daily temp, a climate scientist devised a road trip route that would take a person across the U.S. over the course of a year to line up the location with its part of the year when its average temperature is 70. Spoiler: The trek would take a traveler through Memphis in about April, where it is indeed about 70 about that time of year.

6. Another great road trip idea: All the Major League Baseball parks. But for this to be appealing, it helps to be a baseball fan. And it’s pretty clear from recent trends that new baseball fans are hard to come by. My own downturn in sports-watching included my beloved baseball, and one of the key reasons is the same one that keeps folks from flocking to the game: They're just too long. Mark Leibovich, writing for The Atlantic, tagged along as the MLB revamped its rules, the modifications designed to shorten the game times. While I was home in the aftermath of my dad’s passing, my mom reflexively flipped on baseball games, and it was so fun to return to the game, but slightly different from what I remembered: It was this streamlined, speedy version of its former self.

7. Sooooo, apparently there was huge news on the UFO beat this week, and I totally missed it? Thirteen-year-old me, the rabid X-Files fan who just wanted to team up with Mulder and Scully, would be so disappointed. I didn’t even know I had missed it until this Vanity Fair article which is actually the backstory of why you didn't see the story published in the New York Times or Washington Post. But the story was broken in a smaller publication called The Debrief, which covers science and defense topics. And the lede of the story is gripping:

A former intelligence official turned whistleblower has given Congress and the Intelligence Community Inspector General extensive classified information about deeply covert programs that he says possess retrieved intact and partially intact craft of non-human origin.

The authors of the story were the two who broke an A1 story in the New York Times in December 2017 about the government’s knowledge of UFOs, now called Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon (UAPs). Any way you slice it, this is a fun story. Like Mulder’s famous poster: I want to believe.

8. Two weeks ago, I wrote a handful of posts about the rise of A.I., its threat to jobs like mine, and its potential to lower the audience’s expectations. A delightful three-episode series of NPR’s Planet Money podcast where the hosts grapple with all of those issues by impressively setting up circumstances to allow ChatGPT (and other A.I. technologies) to create a podcast episode. The first two episodes give the background of the project by introducing the technologies and steps they’ll take to allow A.I. to have full control of the podcast script, interview questions, what gets included in the episode, and more. The final episode includes the completed project from all the A.I.’s efforts, produced with all of Planet Money’s great talents and resources, plus reactions from other staff members of the podcast team on how the A.I. did.

Listen to Planet Money's A.I.-Powered Series

9. Jason Isbell’s new album, Weathervanes, just came out, and he remains the undisputed best lyricist working today. Listen here on Apple Music or Spotify. While it’s not about the writing of this new album (which is fantastic), check out Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed, which is all about the creation of his previous album, Reunions, and is the latest installation in The Ringer’s HBO series, Music Box.

10. One of the biggest movies of the year—Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse—is in theaters right now, and it is a tour de force of animation. It is so inventive, so rapid-fire in its breath-taking images that it’s not hyperbole to say it’s all a bit overwhelming. The conceit of the film lends itself to this, because it’s a story that imagines there are countless universes with their own Spider-Man, and each universe can be animated in different styles. In the sequel, there’s a sequence set in a Lego universe. And it was animated by a 14-year-old who caught the attention of the film’s creators by animating a Lego recreation of the Across the Spider-verse trailer.

More From Me

Over on my blog , I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Ted Lasso’s Diamond Dogs IRL (Sort of)

PGA’s 180-Degree Turn on LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, /ALL CAPS ITALICS/ is a short film, /Italics/ is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

6/5: The Bear (2); /Straight Man/-Richard Russo
6/6: TOO BIG TO FAIL*; I Think You Should Leave (2)
6/7: I Think You Should Leave (3); SANCTUARY
6/11:The Power of Habit-Charles Duhigg; Justified, S1 (3)*