Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

Paris as a way of seeing

Here is the view of the shop across the street from our flat in Paris’ Le Marais district early this morning, the day before Christmas, when I was the first one up and could watch the city come to life with a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPad-provided New York Times in the other:

LeMaraisMorning

As the white-uniformed chef or assistant arranges food on a tray in the background, the woman on the ladder scrapes dirt and grime from the windows and ledge above the shop.

A commitment to aesthetics — and how that commitment draws a special form of attention from the viewer — defines my experience of Paris this trip.

Summertime, back home in Oregon we have friendly, yummy Farmer’s Markets with sumptuous fruits and foods, and if you go to buy tangerines you’ll see overflowing boxes of them at every stand.

Here, at a market near the Eiffel Tower that emerged clanging and thumping during our first night at a nearby hotel (before we moved to Le Marais), the December fruits were ripe and wet, the fish was fresh, the breads warm and the cheeses— oh, the cheeses!… but it was the display that moved my heart above my rumbling stomach.

Instead of a random box of tangerines, we saw delicate pyramids. The meats were laid out with loving and artistic precision.

The high incidence of casual beauty in Paris amazes me: the only other place I’ve seen this is Tokyo. 

(Note: this is not to say that Americans are bad at aesthetics: we aren’t. But function and efficiency trump aesthetics in our priorities most of the time.)

For W (my nine-year old son) it’s his first trip to Paris. Yesterday the four of us went to Versailles. W and I talked a lot about aesthetics, as well as how Versailles was a remarkably conceited compliment that the French kings paid to themselves, enforcing a way of seeing their power. We haven’t had that conversation in the US, or in Vancouver, or in Bergen, or in Amsterdam, or in Krakow.

Paris invites aesthetic attention, almost demands it.

A few years back the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a remarkable book called “How Pleasure Works,” where he showed that how we approach experiences defines our ability to take pleasure in them.

Bloom deploys Gene Weingarten’s famous story about how violinist Joshua Bell didn’t get a lot of tips when he performed anonymously in the DC Metro — in contrast to his sold out performances at great concert halls — to show how cognitive frames make pleasure possible.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet anticipated this four centuries ago when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Paris is one big cognitive frame that flips my aesthetic contemplation switch to the “on” position and keeps it there.

Next stop, taking the children to the Louvre after brunch.

P.S. You can see a TED talk by Paul Bloom about how pleasure works here.

Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”

As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.

 

Why Avengers ROCKS + Top 5 Superhero Movies

Yesterday my almost-seven-year-old son and I took in a 3D matinee of “The Avengers” and had a blast. We loved it so much that we plan to see it again in iMax.

The movie has everything—Joss Whedon directing off a terrific screenplay he co-authored, a huge budget with huge stars, and, startlingly for a popcorn movie, emotional arcs for several of the main characters.

However, what has sent Avengers directly into my top 5 list of all time best superhero movies is how it culminates the previous four Paramount Pictures movies—Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor & Captain America.

Each of those movies seeded hints about this movies that followed and about Avengers, and fans like me stuck around all the way through the credits on each film to see the parting hints.

You don’t have to have seen any of the previous movies to thoroughly enjoy Avengers, but if you have seen any or all of the earlier movies your pleasure will be amplified by your memories of the earlier movies.

Avengers’ optional relationship to its predecessors makes this series different than, for example, The Matrix series where by the third movie nothing much made sense if you hadn’t seen the first two, played the video game and read the comic book (Henry Jenkins wonderfully describes all this in his book Convergence Culture.)

This amplification is the topic that I spent eight years of my life researching in a different context—Shakespeare’s audience. (See the top video on this blog or the summary of my doctoral dissertation under “Writing” for more.)

It’s a complicated trick to smuggle extra experience into a movie to thrill the fans that won’t distract the uninitiated. Similar to but different than pop cultural throwaways like — @CNNLADavid’s favorite line, “Better clench up, Legolas.” Said to Hawkeye by Iron Man as they zoom roof ward, it’s a one-second tribute to The Lord of the Rings’ elven archer from another fan-fave movie cycle.

What’s different about in-series amplification is that it lasts: 100 years from now a viewer of The Avengers who has seen the previous movies will have the amplified experience, whereas the Legolas throwaway is contingent on different knowledge.

For those of you (anyone? anyone?) who care about good old-fashioned aesthetics, this phenomenon is the cinematic version of what Stephen Pepper described as “funding” in his classic book “The Basis of Criticism in the Arts” (1949), only he was writing about painting and how the second time (T2) you see the Mona Lisa you are actually viewing both the painting itself and your earlier experience (T1), and the third time it’s T3 + T2 + T1, and so on.  (I’ve written about this here before: click the “Cognitive Funding” tab to the right to find those posts.)

Moving on to my top 5 list of super hero movies and why

Mystery Men (1999): Hysterical and brilliantly cast exploration of every comic book cliché and why they’re still powerful even though cliché. A passion project for everyone involved, it was probably the only superhero team movie to work well before Avengers.

Superman 2 (1980): Like “Empire Strikes Back” in the Star Wars series, and Spider-Man 2, the second movie with Christopher Reeve surpassed #1 in this series by light years when it came to the story. Although the first Superman had the inspiring flight sequences and John William’s magnificent score, it was in essence a two hour preview for Superman 2, which still blows me away.

Iron Man (2008): The movie so effectively deployed star Robert Downey Jr.’s real-life brilliant, charismatic bad boy persona into the Tony Stark protagonist that it took my breath away, and having both Downey and Jeff Bridges square off in the movie was like the Foreman vs. Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” back in 1974—two titans.

Dark Knight (2008): Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was so intense that it killed him. Unlike earlier portrayals across all media, Christopher Nolan’s movie didn’t try to explain The Joker or to resolve his paradoxes—each time the Joker explained how he came to be the story failed to match the earlier version. It’s a brilliant exercise in Keatsian “Negative Capability.” That paradox was the engine that drove the movie, poised in perfect tension with the equally powerful engine of Batman’s motivation to fight the evil that killed his parents. Batman is the only superhero whose origin story and motivation are identical, and it’s an inexhaustible supply of narrative.

Avengers (2012): See the first half of this post: it’s not just one movie—it’s five blockbusters tied together.

What movies are on your list? Please share in comments.

 

Simile Search: Please Help This Writer!

I’m looking for evocative comparisons that talk about how one thing so automatically comes with another that we take the pairing for granted. Like, “the juice comes with the meat” (except it often doesn’t) or “the warmth that comes with the fire” but preferably less flabby.  Something taste or smell related (for its Proustian oomph) would be ideal.  If you can think of any, please share in comments.

Here’s why I’m asking:

My new book length project (now that Redcrosse is here) is called “The Shakespeare Strategy” and is all about why Shakespeare’s working context helped to constitute his immense business and cultural success, and that leads to an argument about how we don’t pay enough attention to context — including physiological and psychological context — nowadays.  For frequent readers you’ll recognize some of this in my longtime fascination with eventness.

I’m still working on the elevator pitch, but you can see the seed of the thinking here:

 
Before we had VCRs, DVRs, DVDs, streaming video, individual songs on iTunes and, newly, individual articles sold independently of their magazines context came automatically with our experience of music, TV, movies, newspaper and magazine articles.  Even books came in context because we found them in bookstores, libraries or catalogs.

We now lack much of that formerly automatic context, which is why books like Steve Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation are so interesting and relevant.

So I’m looking for comparisons that convey automatic pairings… as well as comparisons showing formerly automatic pairing that — once detached — reveal how accidental and contingent the link between the two things really was. That is, “the commercials that come with the TV show” (before DVRs) or “the sting that comes with the angry bee” (except more positive).

Any ideas? Please help!

Super Storytelling Smackdown: “Smallville” vs. “Thor”

This is a post about the difference between experiencing a story and remembering it later, a distinction that we pay too little attention to in the media world.  I’ll talk about theater, movies, TV, Superman, Thor and Shakespeare, and there will be spoilers… lots of ’em about the “Smallville” series finale, but I’ll be careful when it comes to “Thor.”

Those readers who have been following this blog or my other work at all will know that I’m a lifelong superhero geek, and over this weekend I hit a rare caped trifecta, watching the “Smallville” series finale, taking in the new “Thor” movie and receiving a big box of comic books from the shop in Los Angeles where I’ve been going since 1998.  I’m chewing my way through the comics, loved Thor (a bit more on this at the end) and have had a weird response to the Smallville finale where the farther I get from it the less I like it.

Although I got bored with the Clark/Lana/Lex triangle a few years ago and skipped a half season, I’ve watched Smallville for 10 years through the births of my two children, big career changes and a move from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. The entire series has been a build up to the moment when Clark Kent puts on the blue costume and red cape and flies off to greet the world as Superman. I’ve spent a decade on this hero’s journey.

So why, in the much-advertised and long-awaited series finale did they deny us the money shot? Yes, we had Clark holding the costume, flying to the big battle while holding the costume, and then we had him, wearing the union suit, but in close up gazing lovingly through the round window of an airplane at Lois. Yes, we had a blue blur flying through the sky towards battle, and yes we had him – seven years later — (I did mention the spoilers, right?) running across the Daily Planet rooftop pulling open his shirt to reveal the big red S to show us that Clark now fully inhabited the Superman role.

But we didn’t have this:

or this:

or this:

Why not? At one point I thought, maybe Tom Welling got fat– the way William Shatner plumped up during every season of the original “Star Trek” series (they only took his shirt off during the early episodes each season), but a quick tour through Google Images suggests that this isn’t the case.

It’s a huge failure on the part of the series, one that got me mulling over the flaws in the finale with a microscope… and that’s usually a bad sign. Days later, I realized that in addition to the lack of a money shot we also never heard the word “Superman” as a name, although we did have a Nietzschean moment where a character referred to a superman in flashback.

The worst series finale in TV history was “Quantum Leap,” where in a bump shot at the end we learned that Sam Beckett never returned home, even though the entire series was predicated on that return. When I saw that I lurched forward clutching my stomach like I’d been stabbed. Smallville, in contrast, couldn’t resolve this season on its own terms, spending most of the two hours on the soap opera and only a few minutes on the heroics.

The show runners got distracted by a bunch of characters to whom the audience had said goodbye years ago, most particularly Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor and John Schneider’s Jonathan Kent.  Annette O’Toole’s Martha Kent made an appearance as well, but since her character hadn’t died a few seasons ago that made sense. Why the team didn’t bring back Kristen Kreuk’s Lana Lang (not that I wanted this) alongside everybody else has, I presume, more to do with Kreuk’s availability than anything else.

Yes, the mythology states that Superman will battle Lex Luthor forever, but we didn’t need to spend 10 minutes with Lex and Clark in conversation only to have Lex’s memory wiped in the final moments of the episode. Yes, the memory of Clark’s human father guides him, but we didn’t need to have the ghost of Jonathan Kent literally hand Clark the super suit.  Ghosts are not a key part of the Superman mythos.

Nor did we need to kill off Lionel Luthor (who oddly turned into Gollum between his last appearance and the finale) and Tess Mercer just because they have no place in the comic book mythology. One of the great strengths of Smallville was the tension between the comic book mythology and its own—the series stopped being consistent with the Superboy/Superman origin story in the pilot, so why care so much in the finale?

In the finale we got too much of the man and not nearly enough of the super, but that has always been the case with the series. The problem was that the emotional drama of the tenth season was abandoned in favor of the Clark-growing-up arc that the audience finished years ago.

However, when I watched the finale on Friday night I rather enjoyed it. The eventful-ness of watching it on that night, carving out time after the kids were asleep and my wife was doing other things upstairs, watching it nearly in real time (I got a late start but caught up via DVR), these things swept me up and gave me that special momentum of real-time experience… the tide that carries us through experience.

The only thing I noticed in the moment was the lack of the costumed money shot, and my dissatisfaction with that gap is what kept me thinking about the finale, probing it like a tongue searching for a missing tooth.  Then, to mix metaphors, the entire episode unraveled.

This phenomenon where time reduces satisfaction is well known in theater and makes a certain amount of common sense.  When we are in the middle of things, particularly things that possess a great deal of eventness, we are surfing a wave of experience rather than mulling it over. The critic Bernard Beckerman expressed it this way in his 1979 book “Dynamics of Drama:”

The memorial experience is not distinct from the theatrical but merely a continuation beyond direct contact with the presentation.  The form of action induces the theatrical experience directly but has an indirect effect upon the memorial experience.  When unable to return to the same artistic work, the playgoer must either avail himself of a facsimile, such as a second performance of the same production, or be content to recall the initial experience. Once removed from his fellow spectators, he gains a new perspective of the work.  Responses elicited in performance may seem alien in retrospect.  The process of rumination alters the work (157).

Rumination is key to the superhero genre because after seventy plus years of stories about these characters they are saturated with inescapable foreknowledge. Do a search on famous fictional characters and both Superman and Batman show up early.

Even people who don’t know much about superheroes – my wife, for example, before our son joined me in the cape-o-philiac club – approach the genre knowing that the stories are embedded in a network of earlier versions of the tales and will be followed by later versions. Deeply satisfying stories within these contexts are aware of all their predecessors and heirs.  J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, for example, was brilliant in its deft balancing of the old and new versions of the universe.

And this brings me to “Thor,” which managed to weave into its two-hour span allusions to the 1960s “Thor” comic books, to King Lear, the Empire Strikes Back, the Lord of the Rings, the Lion in Winter and embedded itself neatly into the other Marvel Comics movies of the last few and next few years.  This isn’t transmedia in Henry Jenkins‘s sense so much as a deeply allusive network of references and parallels that increases the satisfaction of movie going for the experienced viewer and gives her or him a qualitatively different evening than the newcomer to the genre.

I won’t perpetrate big spoilers for “Thor” because the movie is so worth seeing on the big screen in a top-notch theater with stadium seating. Visually stunning, charmingly acted and with an immense sense of scope, the combination of director Kenneth Branagh channeling his own Shakespearean movies (“Henry V,” “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) and story architect J. Michael Straczynski (who redefined the modern science fiction epic with “Babylon 5” and has spent the last couple years on Superman and Wonder Woman in comics) means that this movie understands and embraces epic.

“Thor” is a thrill ride (plenty of money shots with this one), and as my wife and I talked over the movie at dinner afterwards we found some things to pick apart (Natalie Portman joining Elizabeth Shue in “The Saint” in the ranks of brainy-sexy-unbelievable astro-physicists… although Portman is more convincing) but nothing that caused the experience to collapse in retroactive dissatisfaction.

Instead, we talked about how Loki echoes Edmund in King Lear, how this film links up with “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Iron Man” movies and the forthcoming “Captain America” and “Avengers” movies, and how Chris Hemsworth’s body is possibly the movie’s single-greatest special effect (as was that of Megan Fox in the first “Transformers” film).

Rumination, in the case of Thor, deepened engagement with both the story and the performance of the story, with the structure of the narrative and the way that the execution and casting (e.g., Anthony Hopkins as a Lear-like Odin) linked that performance to other stories.

Culturally, we tend to suffer from what I think of as the tyranny of the object when it comes to stories. We evaluate the thing itself and not the context in which we experience that thing. Our ability to buy just one song on iTunes means that we don’t think as much about an album, and the birth of new one-off journalism at Byliner (and see my previous post about Fortune) means that we don’t think about publications in the same gestalt way that we used to.

Both Smallville and Thor, though, are deeply contextual in their meaning-making and in the experiences of that meaning. Smallville is the end of the beginning of the Superman story. Thor is the start of that hero’s journey on earth and in the middle of the current Marvel movie epic.

The growth of digital media and distribution has eroded the easy context that came with analog media the way “Cheers” came after “The Cosby Show” to create NBC’s anchor Thursday night.

I believe that in the next few years we will pay more attention to context, and that in doing so we’ll also be more aware of the gap between the memorial experience and the in-the-moment experience of storytelling.

Good storytellers deliver on the in-the-moment experience. Great storytellers do that and also think about memorial rumination.

The take-away? Go see “Thor” while it’s still in the theaters.

Interesting Tidbits for March 16th

Things worth reading for March 4th through March 16th:

The State of the News Media 2011 – Here’s the direct study from Pew that Reuters summarized in the next link.

Online readership and ad revenue overtake newspapers | Reuters – Reuters Summary: “For the first time, online readership and advertising revenue has surpassed that of print newspapers.

“Online advertising revenue in the United States is projected to overtake print newspaper ad revenue in 2010, according to the latest report, the State of the News Media, from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.”

LivingSocial in Talks to Raise $500 Million – WSJ.com – “LivingSocial Inc., a website offering daily coupons, is in active talks with investors to raise around $500 million to help fuel its expansion and keep up with rival Groupon Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

“The move comes just three months after LivingSocial said it had raised $175 million from Amazon.com Inc. It isn’t clear what valuation LivingSocial is seeking or which investors are involved in the talks, but one person familiar with the matter said the company would like to raise $100 million from handful of marquee investors.”

Groupon Nightmare: Small Business Posie – Truly interesting article about the perils of using Groupon without proper planning.

All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate – NYTimes.com – The NYT’s Bill Keller on today’s journalism, including this ZING on HuffPo: ‘Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff — what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call “content.” Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company’s announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.’

When Shakespeare Goes Disastrously Wrong – Funny Videos | Cracked.com – Very cute and worth a look.

What today’s brand marketers can learn from William Shakespeare — iMediaConnection Blog – Check out Gretchen Hyman’s kind coverage of my iMedia Brand Summit talk on Monday!

Facebook Users to Get Warner Bros. Movies – WSJ.com – The biggest part of this story is here: “Warner Bros.’ move also indicates that, at least for now, Facebook prefers to simply allow other companies to use its popular platform to set up their own virtual screening rooms, with Facebook taking a cut of sales.”

How To Do Propagation Planning – Really interesting deck.

If you like this, please follow me on Twitter as @bradberens for more!

 

The Shakespeare Brand: Yesterday’s iMedia Talk now UP on YouTube

UPDATE: More of the talk now embedded below.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking at the iMedia Brand Summit– an event that I’ve been intimately associated with for years but at which I’ve rarely presented while wearing my research hat.  This talk is the seed of my next book length project, and I was delighted to see that most of it is already on YouTube this morning:

 

Here’s the handbook description:

On February 11, 2011 Disney released a new kids movie called “Gnomeo & Juliet” based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Why? What made Disney think that an animated love story about lawn gnomes would somehow be better – or, at least, more marketable — with a connection to a play first performed in London in 1595? The answer is simple: Shakespeare created one of history’s most powerful brands. Allusions to and adaptations of his plays permeate our culture, and not just in movies and TV. In Corpus Christi in 1845, while serving in the infantry, bored and waiting for the Mexican War to start, future President Ulysses S. Grant killed time playing the role of Desdemona– the female lead in “Othello.” Imagine George W. Bush or Barack Obama doing that! We don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a successful brand story, but we should because the way Shakespeare created, bonded with and nurtured his customer base has actionable lessons for marketers today. Don’t get distracted by the tights, skulls, swords and iambic pentameter: what really distinguished Shakespeare was his longitudinal and economic relationship with his customers. In today’s insight address, iMedia’s own Chief Content Officer (and a bona fide Shakespearean) will unpack this economic relationship and explore how deploying the Shakespeare Strategy can empower marketing in today’s digital media landscape.

I’ll post when Part II comes live or repost the whole thing to YouTube once I get the files.

Please let me know what you think!