West Coast Troublemakers, or the Naked Girl with the Big Clock

Ten or fifteen years ago, I read a really good biography of the photographer Ansel Adams. I’ve recommended it often, but somehow, I couldn’t find it on my shelves. A bit of curiosity and research led me to the author, Mary Street Alinder and her new book about Adams and his West Coast photography buddies and co-conspirators including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston (Edward’s son), Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and other notables. Sometimes formally, sometimes less so, they were collectively members of a group bound to change American photography. They called themselves Group f.64, which is both among the smallest lens apertures generally available (for extreme depth of field and its resulting sharp images) and the title of Ms. Alinder’s latest book.

UnknownWhen the photographers in Group f.64 started out, they found themselves in what, today, seems to be an unlikely situation. Photographers on the east coast followed a mostly European tradition anchored in painting. On the West Coast, the fad was pictorialism in which photographs were not considered viable unless they were altered to look like other forms of art. For example, the pictorial photographers often hand-colored their work, used soft focus lenses, and created faux brushstrokes during the photographic development process. Pictorialism found some rather odd expressions: one very popular West Coast photographer named William Mortensen was, according to Alinder, “the very vocal champion of the Pictorialists. He applied his expertise in set design and the latest in Hollywood makeup artistry: elaborately costumed historical portraits and tableaux. He staged each picture’s setting, building a fictional alternative universe, often of a teasing salaciousness or portraying scenes of horror, his models transformed into monsters with heavy makeup.” Mortensen was among America’s most famous photographers and easily photography’s most prolific teacher. In a series of well-described articles in Camera Craft magazine, he sparred with Ansel Adams who took the position of photography as pure art form that required none of the nonsense that Mortensen promoted.

From 1932—just a few years before those articles—the f.64 wrote a manifesto to explain its unique and somewhat radical approach to pure photography as an emerging art form. “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [technique], composition or idea derivative of any other art-form.”

What did that mean? For Edward Weston, in 1927, pure photography involved making perfect images of a single pepper or a shell. What’s perfect? Have a look.

weston - shell

Also from 1927, Ansel Adams provides this example:

Ansel-monolth

Time has not been kind to Mr. Mortensen, whose partial portfolio can be found on an Eastman House website:

Mortensen

Mostly, this is the story of perhaps a dozen fully engaged West Coast photographers whose clear vision redefined American fine art and serious amateur photography. In an attempt to gain serious recognition in New York City galleries—remember, the west coast was rather distant from the east in the 1930s—they solicited a largely unimpressed Alfred Steiglitz in what they believed to be photography’s future. You know Stieglitz’s extraordinary work:

The_Steerage_1907_Stieglitz_Corrected

In time, and with considerable frustration, the West Coast photographers found their way into the mainstream. The level of detail provided by Ms. Alinder may overwhelm casual readers, but it’s all worth reading to better understand the large aesthetic shift that occurred in what amounts to about twenty years, maybe thirty.

Where does the story lead? Clearly, Mr. Mortensen’s fascinations have faded from public interest, but the work of Ansel Adams continues to demonstrate the power of photography for the world to see (and for a great many amateur photographers to emulate). The shift from manufactured to realistic beauty is nicely expressed by this famous image by Imogen Cunningham:

Cunningham

I believe that the world is a better place because these photographers taught themselves to see, and then encouraged us to do the same. Dorothea Lange’s well-known work includes images of migrant workers, but I think I like this one best:

6a00d8341c10fd53ef01538df3b7c9970b

Or maybe this one. Ms. Lange gets out, grabs the camera, finds the angle, and creates a memorable self-portrait.

Dorothea-Lange-2

Time for me to re-read the Ansel biography, I think. Good news—the same publisher (Bloomsbury) has reissued the book with some new material and additional insights. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

To Many Teachers; Too Many Teachers

Basic arithmetic yields a surprising result, and some equally surprising insights. My working assumptions probably match those associated with the school years of about half of Americans; your results may vary.

After one year of pre-school (1 teacher), I attended grades K-6 (total: 7 teachers, plus an equal number of specialists in art, gym, etc.). Then, three years of junior high school (assume 6 different classes, so 6 teachers, plus specialists takes the total up to 9, then multiply by 3 years = 27 teachers). Similar math for three years of high school (assume 6 classes, 3 specialists, 3 years =27 teachers). Four years of college nearly completes my total (5 classes, 8 semesters = 40 teachers). Add a few post-graduate courses (5 teachers).

How many teachers were paid to educate just one person?

1 pre-K

7 K-6

27 JHS (7, 8, 9)

27 HS (10, 11, 12)

40 College (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior)

5 Post-Graduate (after that)

TOTAL: 107

Let’s round the number of teachers to 100 because there were probably a few teachers who taught more than one course.

How much time did I spend with each teacher?

  • Pre-K: probably 20 hours per week for about 40 weeks (summer off) = 800 hours = the equivalent of 100 8-hour days
  • Each of the K-6 teachers: 6 hours each day x about 180 days = about 1,200 hours = the equivalent of 150 8-hour days
  • Each junior high and high school teacher: 3/4 of an hour each day x about 180 days = about 135 hours = a bit more than 3 weeks
  • Each college professor/instructor (per class section): 3 hours per week x 12 weeks = 36 hours = just under 1 working week
Teacher

Being a teacher remains one of the best jobs in the world. The best teachers make direct connections with students. Elementary school students spend lots of time with students, so these connections occur more naturally and more often. High school teachers spend far less time with individual students. To learn more about why you, or someone you know, ought to become a teacher, watch the video by clicking on the image. The video comes from a wonderful site called Teach.com.

I remember the names of every elementary school teacher, but few of my college teachers. Now I understand why: I spent the equivalent of about 30 weeks with the former and the equivalent of about a week with the latter.

That got me to thinking. What’s life like on the other side? A high school teacher is seeing perhaps 150 students per year. Divide that by a 40-hour work week, and if each student’s needs were addressed individually, each of us would receive an average of 15 minutes of instruction per week.

Efficiency

Of course, we don’t distribute resources that way. Instead, we mass produce junior high / middle school and high school education. One teacher, 150 students per 9-month session, managed as 5 groups of about 30 students. The most efficient way to manage this process would seem to be standardization and extensive testing to assure an acceptable degree of effectiveness. In college, this system stretches the extremes: more than 100 people in lecture halls during the early years, and perhaps fewer than ten people in a senior seminar. The underlying premise: people who teach in college ought to be specialists, allowing undergraduate students to learn about Shakespeare from one teacher and Chaucer or John Steinbeck from another. Certainly, no reasonable college educator in an institution with sufficient resources would consider the possibility of one professor teaching both Introduction to Psychology and Environmental Geology.

And yet, that’s precisely what we require of our K-6 teachers. Most elementary school teachers are able to cope with more than half a dozen school subjects, and probably closer to a dozen of them. They manage the same students for the better part of a working year. As teachers, they spend enough time with the students to develop one-to-one relationships, and to craft lessons so that they are effective for thirty individual, naive, developing minds. One teacher spending a lot of time on a lot of topics with a few dozen students makes intuitive sense. It seems as though that would be a good way for a teacher to operate, and it seems as though it would be a good way for students to learn.

The Switch

So why do we change modes in junior high school? Why do we replace one teacher with nine people? Do we believe that students in sixth grade require no specialized instructors, and that students in the seventh grade require each teacher to be an expert in his or her field? Certainly, middle schoolers are coping with all sorts of challenging changes in their lives. Why not offer the stability of a single teacher for the entire day, one who is reasonably well-versed in a half-dozen school subjects?

Let’s take the argument into high school. Our high school model encourages students to interact with many adults who teach, but the amount of time that each student spends with each teacher is so modest, the argument is easily dismissed. Maybe the answer is not 9 high school teachers in 45 minute sessions, but 3 high school teachers in 2 hour sessions. Parse the subjects any way that makes sense—our current system of math, science, social studies, English, etc. is no more or less of an arbitrary way to organize the world’s knowledge as it applies to a tenth grader. Fewer teachers, more time with each teacher, more time for each student-teacher relationship.

What about college?

As an English major who was required to read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and other works in two semesters [24 weeks] (I recall some of the names of his works, but not much more), I’m thinking there are probably too many courses, and not enough time spent on any one of them. Perhaps it would be better to provide freshmen with a breezy introduction to many topics in preparation of in-depth explorations in subsequent years. I want to be a freshman experiencing a parade, a dozen topics that may interest me: Shakespeare for the first two weeks, geology for the next, Gender Studies for the third, then comparative religions, law for the fifth, and robotics for the fourth, fifth and sixth. Let me spend fifty or sixty concentrated hours on each of these topics—without the silly distraction of four other classes that have little to do with one another—and I’ll feel as though I’m learning something. By the end of my freshman year, I may be able to participate in an informed conversation about infrastructure, fractals, the future water needs in Sub-Saharan Africa, the economics of Brazil, and Joseph Campbell’s ideas on primitive mythology. (Sounds like TED on steroids.)

After an invigorating freshman year, college students choose what they want to learn. Maybe they spend half of their time in a deep concentration of their own choosing, a quarter of their time learning what others insist they must know in order to graduate, and a quarter exploring topics unrelated to their major. If they want to enter a profession with specific requirements—engineering, medicine, law, etc., maybe that specialization follows a solid general education.

Reducing the Total

How does that affect the number of teachers involved in a students’ life? Reduce the 60+ teachers in K-12 to 2o. Students spend more time with each teacher, and teachers spend more time with each student.

Not a perfect solution. Just musings on the one-hundred people who educated me. To those teachers, thank yo! To the many, perhaps too many, we ought to work together, as communities, to determine whether there might be a better way.

 

 

 

A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

Hoping for the Ultimate Lightweight Apple Notebook

Yesterday was Apple’s spring event. I was pretty sure we would not see the rumored 12-inch lightweight portable. I was surprised to see Apple’s new a 2-pound, 12-inch MacBook today. I was ever more surprised about my not-so-impressed  reaction. So: I’m trying to wrap my head around what I was hoping to see. Here goes:

  • Two pounds is good, but that’s twice as much as the iPad I carry every day. The 11-inch MacBook air weighs 2.4 pounds. I want the new–let’s call it the Mac Book Air 3—to weigh about 1.5 pounds.
    • Today’s model: still too heavy for me!
  • 4G and Wi-Fi–if Apple can offer 4G on the iPad, why not on the thin portable, too?
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A 12-inch retina display is the right thing to do. Lots of visual information in a small space. Good call, Apple.
    • Today’s model: yep!
  • One cable that fits into one connection jack that does it all.
    • Today’s model: yep!…but…
  • I don’t want to deal with a multi-adapter. If we’re going down the adapter path, let’s instead include one connector for power and another to connect a device—but I want some sort of a snap-on dock that’s not going to get lost. An SD card slot would be welcome, too.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • A keyboard that flips away so I can use the device as an iPad. With a sweeter design than Lenovo’s Yoga or Microsoft’s Surface.
    • Today’s model: nope!
  • $999 price point for the basic model, $1199 for the better one.
    • Today’s model: starts at $1,299—and the better one costs $300 more

Air ThinWhat’s a guy to do? Keep using the new iPad Air 2 until Apple catches up with me? Shift to Windows or Android?  (Nope, not for me.) Make my own? (I wish.) Buy the existing 11-inch Mac Book Air for $899 and get most but not everything I want, or the new 12-inch MacBook thin edition for $1,299 and still not get everything I want? Or wait ’til next year?

Return of the Teacher

uc-book
Scott McCloud is on my short list of heroes. If you work in media, or education, or you’re curious about storytelling, you should read Scott’s book, Understanding Comics, at least once every five years. And if you happen to notice that he’s speaking nearby, change your plans and spend the hour watching his on-stage presentation (he posts his schedule here). During the past several years, Scott has been phenomenally busy—we’ve gotten to know one another a bit. He’s been writing, drawing and otherwise building a rather massive graphic novel (487 pages long) called The Sculptor. This is one of those one-person creative enterprises that completely dominates a professional life, where the plan is clear but the day to day execution becomes a kind of parallel universe. It’s a remarkable life: to be completely wrapped up not only in story but in visualization, too. No other medium demands this level of commitment from an artist, and no other medium affords so much creative control.

ScottIn book, lecture and conversation, Scott McCloud has taught me a lot. But it’s one thing to be a teacher and another to be the creator of the material. The expectations become unreasonably high. The student wants to see every lesson incorporated in exquisite elegant prose and picture. The story must be perfect. The storytelling, better than perfect.

His new book is not perfect. That’s an unreasonable demand. It is a very good book, well worth the $29.99 cover price (a lot for a graphic novel) and the two-and-a-half pounds of paper and binding (it’s a heavy book, both physically and metaphorically).

At the start, we meet the character pictured on the cover, the plainly-named David Smith, an artist who seems to have burned out early, speaking with his favorite uncle, Harry. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. David is miserable. His life is not working at all. He says, “My dreams keep growing, Harry, even while my options keep shrinking. It’s like they’re demanding that I make them, demanding to be seen, demanding to exist…and now I’m scared that I’ll never finish a single one.”
sculpt-bookAs David tells his story, the evidence of Scott’s visual storytelling skill propels the sense of reality. There are extreme close-ups and wide streetscapes, frames without dialog that communicate more than those with words, and an interesting isolation technique in which David is fully inked against a world that is rendered only in sketch form. There’s a girl, of course, an angel of sorts, and as in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, a difficult-to-fathom big city art scene (Scott and Stephen wrestle with some similar themes.) Main character David tells us that he hates parties and by extension, the whole scene, but those pages are among Scott’s very finest: a crowded multi-page sequence where you can feel the energy of a noisy large-scale party and the frustration in coping with the idiots who won’t leave you alone while you’re trying to keep some girl within your visual range, while you’re trying to chase her before she’s gone forever. (Gee, he does this well!)

In time, the world becomes malleable. David, the sculptor, can sculpt whatever he wants. He can reshape roads and bridges. He shouts, with truthful glee: “I am the master of the universe!” Physically, that’s true, and the graphic novel form is ideal for showing us what he can do. It’s not long before he reshapes everything in sight, and becomes one of our most prolific artists (the process is astonishingly fluid, and fast). The room is filled with sculptures of giant hands, strange totem poles, the girl (a girl, that girl, which girl?)—unbelievable creative output! But along the way, his soul may not emerge intact—a deal with the devil that every creative person somehow encounters and, to some extent, masters (or doesn’t). He may be running out of time—another deal with the devil (in this case, Uncle Harry).

If you’re getting a sense that Scott’s latest work is cinematic in the scope of its story and deeply personal in a way that only a hand-drawn graphic novel can be, then I’m interpreting what he did with a degree of accuracy. Sure, there are scenes of sex and violence, trippy explorations of time and space curving around one another, gut-wrenching sadness, extreme anger (nothing like a graphic novel to screech and blast anger with words, pictures, abstractions). And a ticking clock—actually, a ticking calendar marking the number of days that David has left in his life. Or so it seems. There’s no requirement for closure—the book is more interesting because it doesn’t quite lend itself to a complete understanding of what happened or why. It takes about two hours to read, maybe three, and after complete immersion, your mind is likely to be so connected to David’s mind, it’s okay to think in terms of possibilities, not a singular ending.

photo-texasFor me, that’s the treat, same as reading Understanding Comics, same as watching Scott lecture, same as spending time with him. We’re living in a world filled with stories and ideas, and clever ways of communicating. If it’s all as simple as A-B-C, then the magic isn’t so magical. Life’s more complicated than a straight series of logical events—and that’s the beauty of a well0-crafted graphic novel. No shopping mall cinema audiences to satisfy with a clearly articulated happy ending. No need for extreme helicopter crashes or uncomfortable explosions punctuated with graphic violence. The story can be personal, it can be told by a single storyteller (provided the storyteller is willing and able to spend several years writing and drawing his epic), and it can be somewhat nonlinear. With that, a reader’s note: do it in one day. That is, find yourself a good stormy day, turn off the cell phone, and just lose yourself. Don’t think too much—just allow the storyteller control your mind for a few hours. We do this for movies all the time—with this book, you don’t want to disengage. You want to pay attention, and grab the ideas as they’re unfolding, then return to study the craft. Last weekend, I read the book. Today, a Saturday, I returned to study the construction of the visual sequences, the use of characters, my favorite scenes and how they were put together.

My next step: start recommending The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to others. That process has now begun.

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I want to go to Provence. In 1970.

There was a secret shared, and in time, the secret was widely shared. It was beautiful. Tasty and life-affirming, too. And many of us benefit from it every day of our lives.

Before 1970–give or take a few years either way–we ate frozen and canned foods, modern conveniences for the busy family. Fresh food wasn’t on the radar (and certainly not on the Radarange). Restaurants weren’t modern, not yet focused on locavores, or for that matter, shared cuisines beyond, say, a local pizza or Chinese restaurant.

What changed? Lots of cultural norms–greater awareness, shifted sensibilities, a focus on nutrition and fresh foods. This didn’t happen magically. It may have begun, in earnest, in 1970, when several iconoclasts gathered in nearby homes in the south of France. They changed the way we think about food, and if food is life, they changed the way we think about life, too.

They were Julia and Paul Child, whose rough contours were sketched in the film Julie & Julia. And, to a lesser degree, Simone Beck, who co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Julia, and whose insistence upon classic French tradition emboldened Julia to think more clearly about the real world of American moms (few American dads cooked–except outdoors). There was the travel / food / free spirited writer M.F.K. Fisher and the American food expert  James Beard, struggling through an extensive survey of our unique and sometimes inexplicable cuisine. And several others who cooked together, argued, and savory the good life that was making its way to Sonoma and Napa.

Their story is told by Ms. Fisher’s nephew, Luke Barr in a book that’s becoming quite popular. It’s called Provence, 1970, and it provided a  winter weekend’s entertainment. There are menus, and they lead into wonderful stories of friends building meals together– serious cooks experimenting and showing off for their foodie friends. It’s loose and informal, and I kept fantasizing about what it might have been like to join them, if just for a night. Few nonfiction books draw me into the story in quite this way, and it was fun to be a part of it, if only as an observer nearly fifty years later.

It’s now available in paperback, but there’s something about the hardbound edition that’s even more appealing.

Enjoy!

BTW: The complete title is “Provence, 1970: M. F. K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of NPR.

M.F.K. Fisher, clearly enjoying life.P.S.: I think I need to read more by M.F.K. Fisher. One intriguing title is a 1942 book called “How to Cook a Wolf.” I found a review of the book when it was new in the digital catacombs of The New York Times. They wrote:

Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her books creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.”

Meet the Ozobots

I first met the Ozobots last year, right around this time, at Toy Fair. I thought they were the coolest thing at the show.

What’s an Ozobot? It’s a tiny robot, about the size of a ping-pong ball. You can dress an Ozobot in one of several rubber helmets, and that allows you to tell them apart. (Once you own an Ozobot or two, you will almost certainly want more.)

An Ozobot gets its power through a mini-USB that plugs into its back. Where its left ear might be, there’s a power-on/off button. On the base are two tiny wheels and the most important Ozobot feature: the color sensors.

Ozobot sensors read four colors: black, blue, red and green. Ozobot rides along a color path, sensing the colors below by scanning them. You can draw the path yourself, and Ozobot will respond to your commands.

Ozobot Path

If you click on the above, you’ll see Ozobot first moving forward, then encountering the blue-red-blue pattern, which is a coded command that instructs Ozobot to flash color blue, then flash color red, then turn 180 degrees.

Ozobot knows lots of commands. Here’s the chart (click to enlarge).

Ozobot-OzoCodes-Reference

With these commands, you can do all sorts of fun things with Ozobot. Most people probably start, as I did, by drawing lines on papers with the four broad-tipped colored markers, and simply enjoying the ways in which Ozobots follow them. The experience is not unlike watching electric trains in motion (it’s definitely more fun with at least two Ozobots, and even more fun with a whole bunch of the little guys). Of course, electric trains can’t spin around or pretend to be a tornado—so when you add the color signals, as above, Ozobotting becomes a lot more fun than model railroading.

There are plenty of pre-designed Ozobot paths and games now available on the Ozobot website, but that’s just the beginning. For curious kids, Ozobot is a hands-on introduction to computer programming. By employing a limited toolset (four colors in lines and patterns), children quickly come to understand that they can cause Ozobots to obey their commands—and that programming can be a lot of fun.

And then, we move to the tablet. There are several iPad apps — remember that Ozobot reads colors, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be able to read them from an iPad screen instead of paper. This makes the Ozobot so much cooler! There are several starter paths that allow you to see how Ozobot responds—and these come with color tools and pre-defined spot combinations that you can place anywhere so that Ozobot moves very slowly, very quickly, and makes other moves. A second app, called Ozogroove, includes digital dance floors, allowing Ozobot to really show off. (What fun!)

Back to the website, there are paths ready for download (to a flat horizontal screen) or paper (which always lies flat). For example, here’s a game called Mazerunner.

mazerunner

 

Intrigued? Here’s a closer look at an Ozobot:

ozobot-work1

 

An Ozobot costs about $50, but I would suggest that you buy a duo set because it’s way more fun to play with two Ozobots than just one. You can buy them directly from the website or from various toy stores listed on the site. I kinda wish they were selling them in sets of three or four, and I hope the prices will go down. Watching a dozen or more of these guys racing around a hand-drawn track, spinning around, speeding up, slowing down, blinking their little colored lights was so much fun at Toy Fair last year, the onesy-twosy experience pales a bit by comparison. But that the for the future. For now, get started with one or two, have fun, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Watch, Smile, Watch, Read

Brawley GirlfriendThis is going to take about fifteen minutes, but I think it’s worth the time.

First, you’re going to watch a very nice music video that was shot with Olympus’s just-announced OM-D E-M5 Mark II (several of them, in fact). It’s a fine piece of work by DP John Brawley. It’s here.

Second, you’re going to watch a making-of video.  It’s a behind-the-scenes video with a music track, so you can see what he did without getting lost in the details. It’s fun to watch, and it’s here.

Finally, read the detailed article about Mr. Brawley’s impressions of a camera that he likes very much. If you’re intrigued by the video potential of the still cameras, this essay will help to clarify your understanding of the state of the art.

It isn’t often that a creative professional reveals his process so completely—and so joyfully! It’s a fun read—and don’t be surprised if you go camera shopping immediately afterward.

Enjoy!

A Blended Book about Blended Learning

bookThere is no DVD sewn into the back of “Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools,” a new book by Clayton Christensen’s acolytes, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker. Instead, there are QR codes and URLS. If I’m reading with an iPhone or an iPad nearby, and I happen to have a QR reader installed, I can watch Clip #15, which shows how the Quakertown Community School District produces A La Carte courses to provide students with flexibility.” Sometimes, the QR code reader doesn’t do it’s job effectively, so it’s helpful to have the URL printed below the bar code. In fact, I am writing about “Blended” on an iMac, which does a lousy job reading QR codes with its built-in camera (too hard to bring the book up to the camera, then focus, etc.) So: what we have here is a blended solution, a book that relies upon videos to tell its story in an era when books lack any means to display a video except via an external device. And a free chapter to read.

Add a whole lot of scale, and many more people, and the problem of blended schools begins to take shape. We still have school buildings and classrooms, and millions of students making their way through a traditional curriculum, but many of those students now use digital devices to pursue their own interests, and most of these pursuits are individual activities, not collective learning experiences. So we do the best we can with a hybrid situation that will probably last a long while. The authors attempt to classify, codify and otherwise organize what we know and what it means, but they’re fully cognizant of the strange situation they are describing. And they are trying to make the best of it.

Quite reasonably, they begin with the now-commonplace thoughts on “Why Factory-Model Schools Fall Short Today,” and “Why Schools are Reaching a Tipping Point,” the latter detailing desire for personalization, desire for access and desire to control costs as three significant discussion points. They describe four common K-12 blended learning models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual, then drill down on several Rotation models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. Huh? To explain this not-so-helpful taxonomy, they break a rule of book publishing. They follow each chapter with its own appendix! Brilliant! I flip the page at the end of the chapter, and there are more pages to explain the concepts in more detail.

After reading the definitions, I was unimpressed with the current state of the taxonomy. Pretty much, some work is done online, some is done in the classroom, some involves more teacher interaction and some involves less. Lots of diagrams attempt to explain these very basic ideas—which aren’t all that different from learning during the 20th century, as some students were allowed more or less freedom based upon their own initiative and the teacher or school’s flexibility. (Important not to overthink these ideas, and also, not to rely too heavily on what seems to be impressive technology circa 2015).

The authors are Christensen people, so they tell the best stories about innovation and obsolescence. My favorite one—clearly told to agitate the laggards—goes like this:

…seeing steam’s potential, the old sailing-ship companies that specialized in wind-powered transoceanic travel did not completely ignore the new technology. The only place they could even think about using steam power, however, was their mainstream market—to help them build ships that would cross entire oceans even more efficiently. They had little motivation to refocus on inland waterway customers, given that they had the opportunity to build even bigger, more profitable ships to cross the oceans. Not wanting to dismiss steam power entirely, however, sailing-ship companies searched for the middle-ground. They ultimately pioneered a hybrid solution, one that combined steam and sails. In 1819, the hybrid vessel Savannah made the first Atlantic crossing powered by a combination approach; in truth only 80 hours of the 633-hour voyage were by steam rather than sail… The wind-powered ship companies never made a true attempt at entering the pure disruptive steamship market—and ultimately they paid the price. By the early 19o0s, the steam-powered ships, which started in those inland waterways that looked so unattractive to the wind-powered ship companies, became good enough for transoceanic travel. Customers migrated from sailing ships to steam-powered ships, and every single wind-powered ship company went out of business.”

And so, the authors ponder, “What will become of schools?,” how to design teams to innovate, “The Cost of Getting It Wrong,” and so on. This is a practical book, a companion or “field guide” to a previous book called “Disrupting Class” that is filled with the theory that makes these practical approaches work. Both are worth reading, both for educators and parents, and for those in businesses or other situations that are not yet equipped with the large-scale change that the 21st century seems destined to spread to so many of aspects of daily life.

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