The Virtues of Daydreaming

From the author of a very good article (see below) about challenging our assumptions about learning:

Among its many benefits, daydreaming has been associated with longer attention span, increased resolve, creativity and even higher IQ.

To which I am tempted to add:

If a creative person does not spend at least a half hour a day, half paying attention to the world, lost in thoughts about what might be, how it might be done, and how everything could change, he or she is not doing what needs to be done. Drifting off, checking out from the “normal,” simply shutting out the real world for a bit… if you don’t do that, how in the world will you accomplish anything useful at all.


Now, consider these assumptions:

  1. Playing scary and violent video games help children master their fears in real life
  2. Practical classroom science lab work provides children little learning
  3. Gardening improves children’s desire to learn and boosts their confidence
  4. Teaching kids at a very early age is counterproductive to their learning
  5. Green spaces elevate children’s learning through discovery
  6. Learning is affected by classroom acoustics, artificial learning, and windows
  7. Young children learn about prejudice by instruction, older children by experience
  8. Laughing results in increased memory retention

Now, read the article from InfomED: An online commentary for the education industry.  And allow yourself a good half hour to further explore other terrific articles including “Can We Teach Compassion?” (an infographic); “Facilitating Collaborative Learning: 20 Things You Need to Know from the Pros” and “The Tyranny of Homework…”

Green, Blue, and Extremely Portable

One side is green and the other is blue. It stretches so your chroma-key productions have a lightweight, flat background. But it’s a good idea to stretch even more with clips.

Or: chroma-key, anywhere.

It’s amazing how easy portable video production has become. You can shoot high definition video with a smart phone, a tablet, a FlipCam (and similar products), an inexpensive video camcorder, a digital still picture camera… The list goes on.

Most of the time, the recorded video is real life… people in action, scenery, and so on. Sometimes, it’s interesting to explore new creative domains. Often, these explorations involve the placement of people or objects in imagined places, and this is often achieved through a technical miracle called chroma-key.

What can you (and some kids) do with chroma-key? Here’s a step-by-step example that’s fun to watch. (Click to watch the video.)

You know chroma-key: it’s the technology used to place your local meteorologist in front of a digital weather map. The subject performs in front of a green screen, and then, all of the green is (miraculously) dropped out of the image so that it can be replaced with your choice of alternative video. In fact, any color can be used as the chroma-key color, but most often, a deeply saturated green or blue is used because these colors are not (usually) seen in the colors of human skin or hair or eyes. The colored area is usually painted, or created with a cloth stretched very tightly and lit evenly. When using chroma-key, folds and shadows cause difficulty.

With these challenges in mind, I had very high hopes for the FlexDrop2 from Photoflex. The portable package is a big, lightweight fabric disc, not quite a yard in diameter. It sets up with not much more than the flick of a wrist, and opens to a taut five foot by seven foot panel. Very cool.

Mostly, the FlexDrop is flat, but the use of a small clamp here and there is necessary to eliminate all visible shadows and wrinkles. Unfortunately, it’s not a standalone device…it is designed to be attached to a lighting stand or other pipes or tubes (and these are rarely lightweight).

Hands on, FlexDrop2 really works. One person can stand in front of a field of nothing but blue (one side) or green (the other), and then, live or with a good edit application, the chroma-key process can be used to drop out the blue or green and drop in any video still, animation, graphic, or footage. Two people? Hang the FlexDrop2 horizontally. Another good use: as a background for stop-motion animation, but you will need to dress the tabletop surface with an additional green or blue cloth (exactly the same color as FlexDrop2).

At $165, the FlexDrop2 is a nice-to-have, a bit expensive unless you use it often. And, of course, there are less costly ways to make chroma-key happen: buy a cloth and stretch it yourself, paint a wall, etc. But this one is handy, portable, stretches nicely, stores without taking up much space, and does the job in a professional manner. One catch: it’s not so easy to collapse and pack away. This video shows you how to pack it up.

BTW: Thanks to Kristy and to Rebecca for their help with this article.

Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

Not White

When Mike Nichols was directing the Broadway musical, Annie, one scene that was supposed to be funny was failing to get laughs. He tried everything. Nothing worked. The audience watched the scene, but didn’t laugh. So, Nichols asked a fellow director, Jerome Robbins, to take a look. Then, Nichols asked Robbins how to fix the scene. Robbins pointed to a white towel hanging on the back of the set.

“The towel should be yellow,” Robbins explained.

“That’s it? That will make the scene work?” Nichols thought, but did not say aloud.

Nichols changed the towel. From then on, the scene got laughs.

When it comes to creativity, everything is subjective. Except when it isn’t.

(From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp)

1 in 25 Work as Creative Pros

Above, an elegant way to think about the global creative economy, as presented in a 400+ page United Nations report.

1 in 25 people–that’s the revised figure for 2010–work in creative industries in the U.S. More than doctors, lawyers, even accountants. Industry sectors above, details below.

In the United States, roughly 150 million people work full-time. Six million of us work in creative professions. We’re writers and performers; musicians and visual artists; marketers and strategists; architects and specialists who invent, improve, or bring ideas to life. In total, more people work as creative professionals in the U.S. than doctors (700,000), lawyers (800,000), accountants (1,300,000), and engineers (1,600,000) combined. The number of creative professionals exceeds the number of teachers (3,500,000 teachers pre-K through high school, plus 1,700,000 more who teach in colleges and universities).

Our output–which provides employment for lawyers, accountants, executives, retailers, and many others–is responsible for more than ten percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

A reasonable global workforce estimate would exceed 10 million creative professionals. Nations with significant creative economies include Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, China, India, Canada, Australia, and, among countries with developing industries, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Argentina, Singapore, and Chile. According to the United Nations Creative Economy 2008 report, the export value of creative in 2005 was over $300 billion, or about 2-3% of the global economy. (Yes, I am reviewing the 423 pages of the 2010 report to update these figures–overall, trends are up).

The long list of creative industries was nicely summarized in the 2008 U.N. report, presented at a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The orange version, above, makes it all that much more clear.

Within each of these clusters, the professional model is similar. Projects are developed, produced, and distributed. Mostly, revenues are generated through direct transactions with individual consumers (movie admissions; DVDs; iTunes downloads;physical goods such as jewelry), sometimes through subscriptions; or by advertising to consumers who receive goods and services by paying only a modest transaction fee (magazine subscriptions), or no fee at all (most internet sites; broadcast radio and TV).

You can download the 2010 UN report here. (Yes, I will update my 2008 numbers when time permits.)

Resume: DaVinci (no kidding!)

The iconic creative professional and proto-technologist looking for work. Comes complete with English translation and modern commentary:

From The, “the translation of this letter is quite remarkable:

“Most Illustrious Lord, Having now sufficiently considered the specimens of all those who proclaim themselves skilled contrivers of instruments of war, and that the invention and operation of the said instruments are nothing different from those in common use: I shall endeavor, without prejudice to any one else, to explain myself to your Excellency, showing your Lordship my secret, and then offering them to your best pleasure and approbation to work with effect at opportune moments on all those things which, in part, shall be briefly noted below.

1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, when a place is besieged, to take the water out of the trenches, and make endless variety of bridges, and covered ways and ladders, and other machines pertaining to such expeditions.

3. If, by reason of the height of the banks, or the strength of the place and its position, it is impossible, when besieging a place, to avail oneself of the plan of bombardment, I have methods for destroying every rock or other fortress, even if it were founded on a rock, etc.

4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.

5. And if the fight should be at sea I have kinds of many machines most efficient for offense and defense; and vessels which will resist the attack of the largest guns and powder and fumes.

6. I have means by secret and tortuous mines and ways, made without noise, to reach a designated spot, even if it were needed to pass under a trench or a river.

7. I will make covered chariots, safe and unattackable, which, entering among the enemy with their artillery, there is no body of men so great but they would break them. And behind these, infantry could follow quite unhurt and without any hindrance.

8. In case of need I will make big guns, mortars, and light ordnance of fine and useful forms, out of the common type.

9. Where the operation of bombardment might fail, I would contrive catapults, mangonels, trabocchi, and other machines of marvellous efficacy and not in common use. And in short, according to the variety of cases, I can contrive various and endless means of offense and defense.

10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

11. I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.

Again, the bronze horse may be taken in hand, which is to be to the immortal glory and eternal honor of the prince your father of happy memory, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-named things seem to anyone to be impossible or not feasible, I am most ready to make the experiment in your park, or in whatever place may please your Excellency – to whom I comment myself with the utmost humility, etc.”

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