Archive for February, 2008

Eclipse

February 21, 2008

Hand held but clear enough to show what was happening on a very cold night, here are two views of the eclipse. The first shows the umbral shadow, the terminator between the blown-out normal moon brightness and the sharp shadow of earth cutting across. The illumination of the penumbral shadow shows how the earth’s atmosphere bends the red rays of the sun around the black disc of the earth (as seen from the moon) and puts a distinct reddish glow across the lunar landscape. It is this light that bounces back to us, revealing what would be in darkness if the earth didn’t have an atmosphere.

The second shot shows the moon just before the edge of the umbral shadow covers the moon entirely. Now the colors in the penumbral area are much clearer. I’ve brought Saturn and Regulus into the shot … they weren’t that close in real life.

Eclipse in progress

Eclipse almost full

Obama’s Logo

February 20, 2008

Here’s a postscript to my comments on how effectively the Obama campaign is resonating with Millennials, as well as a wide cross-section of older voters. Look at the logo and think about how well it communicates his brand:

Barack Obama logo

First of all, it is an O. Without any words, the O connects to his name.

Secondly, it’s a blue sky and a star-white sunrise. That says hope and a commitment to a united nation. The center or core of Obama’s graphic icon claims that ground. In a very tangible way the logo supports the Obama emphasis on ignoring race as a divisive issue, while embracing race as an inclusive issue. It reflects his penchant for making whites feel honored and unthreatened by his candidacy, and for making blacks and other minorities feel empowered in a way that is hopeful, energetic, and community-spirited.

Third, the red and white stripes convey a graphic impression of the heartland, hills with furrows or fields of grain. Thus for Obama the foundation of his vision of America is a midwestern ethos, a farmers’ and workers’ ethic.

The red and white stripes are also an emblem, of course, that taps the visceral afinity that all Americans have for their flag. And so another note in this chord is a subliminal feeling of passion, sacrifice on the field of battle.

The third note of the foundational chord is a rainbow. In fact, many of the unauthorized uses of the logo turn the lower sector into a rainbow with alternating fields of color. This resonates with the broader reaches of the Obama brand’s constituency — all the various hues and shades that people identify with in a multicultural pastiche like today’s young and yearning America.

The end result is that the impact of this logo, I believe, will be warm feelings, optimistic outlooks, a sense of inclusion and hope and high aspirations. It’s a brilliant example of iconography, and I’m sure it will help to strike a response with a wide swath of the electorate.

The branding point is this: a logo’s best hope is to support a brand… and Obama’s brand is beautifully and elegantly supported by this very effective graphic tour-de-force.

ObaMac

February 20, 2008

Millennial sensibilities appear poised to determine who our next President will be. All of the research has been showing us that Millennials are diverse, are brand oriented, are media savvy, and most importantly, public spirited and community oriented. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ll begin to flex those muscles in ways that will impact the culture in far more significant ways than clothing styles and music genres.

Several articles in the press recently underscore the arrival of this Gen-Y phenomenon in our political decision-making process:

Is Clinton a PC and Obama a Mac?

Clinton as PC, Obama as Mac

The important thing to emphasize here is that indeed Obama is a Mac. His website reflects his brand – cool, intuitive, imaginative, well-designed, interactive, respectful, authentic.

Hillary’s website, by contrast, lacks the Apple-esque human engineering, the sensibilities that show careful listening and an ethos that is comfortable with handing the keys to the Millennials to let them take the culture for a spin.

I concur with Noam’s assessment, as well as the article by Doug Kendall which triggered this current media stampede.

Not from a political perspective, mind you, but from the jaded mindset of a branding guy and marketer-to-Millennials. The reporters have done their homework, and their assessment rings true. I predict it’ll play out that way in the political process … though I claim no expertise in that arena.

Another incisive commentary by Frank Rich adds observations about the impact of Millennial ways of thinking on the McCain candidacy. He says,

Whatever the potency of his political skills and message, Mr. Obama is also riding a demographic wave. The authors of the new book “Millennial Makeover,” Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, point out that the so-called millennial generation (dating from 1982) is the largest in American history, boomers included, and that roughly 40 percent of it is African-American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed. One in five millennials has an immigrant parent. It’s this generation that is fueling the excitement and some of the record turnout of the Democratic primary campaign, and not just for Mr. Obama.

Even by the low standards of his party, Mr. McCain has underperformed at reaching millennials in the thriving culture where they live. His campaign’s effort to create a MySpace-like Web site flopped. His most-viewed appearances on YouTube are not viral videos extolling him or replaying his best speeches but are instead sendups of his most reckless foreign-policy improvisations…”

Barack compared the Boomers to the Moses generation, and the Millennials to the “Joshua” generation which followed it — doers instead of idealists. Of course, this could all be empty rhetoric, and I’m not personally interested in the politics. I’m interested in the branding. The point is that the Obama brand does seem to fit the style of both the candidate and his helpers, while the attempt to fly a “change” flag appears ineffectual from a branding standpoint when either Clinton or McCain make similar claims. You can rely on the Millennials ability to interpret visceral media signals, in deciding whether a candidate’s message and person align with their stated brand. And it appears like Obama will definitely win that battle.

Whether the Millennials will display historic perspective, or political wisdom, is another question entirely.

For colleges, the lesson is clear. Make sure your brand is clearly and authentically implemented in your website and your use of media.

Unreason and me(dia)

February 18, 2008

This video is the latest YouTube example of what Susan Jacoby writes about in her new book, The Age of American Unreason. The question is, are Americans hostile to knowledge?

What do you think I am? A clique chic geek? How should I know?!!!

Inspiration – III

February 11, 2008

Enjoying some personal recharge time in San Diego, I met a couple of committed walkers who taught me some great insights into authenticity as a personal and institutional lifestyle.

I was climbing Cowles Mountain, the highest spot in San Diego county. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunrise — an hour up, 15 minutes down. While on the way, I stopped to rest and as Del (on the right) passed with his friend, we struck up a conversation. I asked him about walking as metaphor of life, and he hit me right between the eyes with, as Kenny Rogers put it, an ace that I could keep. Del’s formula?

“I have two feet. The first is rethinking/change. The second is confidence/assertiveness.” (I’m translating from more religious terminology – repentance and faith). Del went on (I’m paraphrasing): “When I start out, I have to listen and respond to my environment. I need to rethink, based on who I impact and where I don’t measure up. Then, I am free to confidently go forward, seize opportunities, be effective at what I can do and who I am. And then comes another step of listening, responding, rethinking.”

Del’s comments inspired me with a fresh insight into both personal and institutional authenticity. Being “me”, honestly projecting who I am, is not enough if I want to be perceived as authentic — if I want to be an organic and productive enterprise. I also have to respond to “you”. I must be committed to self-improvement, and work that out through a cycle of receiving and sending, give and take, listening and expressing.

The brand of an institution does not emerge from what it repeats about itself. As John Moore said in Brand Autopsy recently, it flows from being, not “branding”.

Being “me”, personally or institutionally, involves a recognition that if a “me” has value because of my story, my unique experiences and perspective, then every “you” has value, too. If one individual is golden, a diverse community brings infinite riches.

If there were only one university it would be a boring and provincial world of ideas. But Oxford has greater value because there is Cambridge. Harvard is interesting because it shares many qualities with the other Ivies, as well as because of the nuances which differentiate it.

Each “me” becomes actualized as an authentic brand because of its response to its environment. I can attempt to assert my independence from my peers, but when I do so it only cheapens my actual brand, the authentic “me” which is not what I think of myself, but what I actually am as an organic member of a community of interrelated, interdependent organisms. My ability to project a distinct perspective, a valuable set of values, tarnishes whenever I grow sluggish in my efforts to be accountable.

In fact, I would argue that if there is one foot more important than another in Del’s metaphor, it would be the rethinking foot. By rethinking and changing as rapidly as possible to changing conditions and needs, I earn the right to assert my identity as valuable, as useful, as worth consideration. I have a valid reason to hold forth my brand. And I have a decent chance, thus, of my brand being perceived as authentic.

Thanks, Del, for your helpful insight!

Archetypical Climbers

Taking out the good lines

February 6, 2008

Hillman Curtis is one clear-thinking web designer, who has evolved into video production. (I am a video producer, who has evolved into web design and branding). In his book, MTIV, he quotes Hemingway: “Write the story. Then take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.”

That’s the key to effective storytelling. The good lines too often get in the way of the story, and I think the main reason why “college video” has become a term of derision is that most of the videos focus on delivering “good lines” rather than authentic stories.

A video I really saw by Chapman University is a case in point. It starts with a long shot of the President, who addresses the camera and talks about the 4 pillars of Chapman as the camera pulls back to reveal the literal pillars of the administration building. There’s a good line that needs to be killed off because it is deadly to viewership. He’s followed by a student who’s obviously reading a teleprompter. More good lines that get the talking points in, but kill the authenticity and completely fail to establish a story.

The only way to tell a story is to let a person talk about something they care about — usually their own experience. If after a few seconds we sense that their story is interesting to us, we may watch.

That’s it. Take out ALL the good lines, and see if it works. Because in college video, it definitely WILL NOT work if the lines are left in there.

Inspiration – II

February 3, 2008

New York 17

New England 14

A concession to techno talk

February 2, 2008

So, yes, the thinking is what counts. But what about tools?

Well, I am a cameraman along with my other duties, and as a cameraman I like a camera that responds to my efforts and gives me a product that I can use. Lately, that has been the JVC HD-100 hi-def camera. It happens to be a very popular camera right now, for good reason. It’s got an amazing picture and it handles well, not like a lot of the other hi-def cameras that have crowded into the market.

And it happens that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, also happens to own and love this camera. You can see an interview of him talking about the convenience and utility of this camera as a documentary workhorse here.

Is it perfect? No. Is it the only camera I use? No way. But for a lot of what we do, it’s a very useful tool for the arsenal.

Inspiration – I

February 2, 2008

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.

Learning is the Teacher’s responsibility

February 1, 2008

This ought to ruffle some feathers….

Reflecting on the technology and boredom issues in the classroom, raised in Michael Wesch’s “A Vision of Today’s Student” (see previous post), I am not going to blame the student, even though they’re an easy target; nor the university system, where the economics pressure inexperienced teachers into the classroom; nor the fat, overindulged American society as a whole; I’m going to side with those who put the ultimate responsibility for daily engagement with students on the individual teacher.

Bruce Wilkinson, in his 7 Laws of the Learner, says the responsibility to communicate rests with the teacher, and lists a lot of excellent tips on how teachers can do that more effectively… even when students don’t seem interested. Though specifically directed to a religious audience I think the principles apply in secular settings as well.

Here are his 7 maxims with my own comments:

Maxim 1: Teachers are responsible to cause students to learn.

Here’s Bruce’s diagram to show that, yes, students must take responsibility for listening, but teachers have the power to unlock and motivate that action through their content and delivery and, most importantly in my view, their personal authentic passion for the material. Note that the “cause to learn” function is separate and distinct from the “Words” and content. Presenting the content is not teaching. Teaching is the process of figuring out how to establish the necessary motivation, attention, and human connection to bridge the synapse between the two parties, teacher and student.

7 Laws illustration

Maxim 2: (restated) Teachers are accountable for their influence.

For me this attitude was epitomized by Chauncey Veatch, the keynote speaker at the NACAC national conference last fall in Austin. His address was the most moving speech I have ever heard… and he spoke of how he entered teaching as more of a calling and obligation than a career. His description of the impoverished Latino community whose lives he has transformed was absolutely inspiring. You can read a similar address here.

Maxim 3: Teachers are responsible because they control subject, style, and speaker.

Mimi Chenfeld, one of my favorite people who happens to have lightened my life as a folk dance teacher a number of years ago, calls it “Teaching in the Key of Life.”

Maxim 4: Teachers should judge their success by the success of their students

Rafe Esquith, another legendary teacher who I heard at a CASE keynote a few years ago, points to the success of his students as the success of his students. That’s what he focuses on, and that’s what he wants to be judged by. In There are no Shortcuts my takeaway was the long-term impact on the kids who he prods, cajoles, and leads to excellence.

Maxim 5: Teachers impact more by their character and commitment than by their communication.

In addition to my personal observations of Veatch, Chenfeld, and Esquith, this concept reminds me of an interview I once did for Ohio Wesleyan. Philip Meek, a nationally-respected publisher, spoke to me about a prof way back in 1958 or so who had come to class and said (paraphrasing) “I always prepare at least 2 hours before class, and for a variety of reasons I could not do that today… you are dismissed.” Phil said, “That taught me more about commitment to excellence and character than anything else that ever happened to me.”

Maxim 6: Teachers exist to serve the students.

Just a few weeks ago I was interviewing Dick Lucier, an emeritus economics prof from Denison, and he said:

“Teaching is so damn time-intensive and labor-intensive… and I never found a shortcut that would work.” And then he goes on for 4 minutes, tossing off nuggets about valuing students and coming prepared and keeping the subject fresh in his own mind.

What a privilege I have had, working for schools like Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, and Cedarville, all of which prize great teaching and keep the classes small so that committed profs can get to know their students. It makes me wish I had pursued a doctorate and become a prof at a small liberal arts college myself….

Maxim 7: Teachers who practice the Laws of the Learner Teacher can become master teachers.

Well, I guess that one’s pretty obvious. Value the students, and the students will value the teacher.