Appreciation: A Tribute to Poet Mark Strand

Mark Strand   April 11, 1934 — November 29, 2014

m-strandI first met Mark Strand in 1995 on a visit to small apartment in Hyde Park, a Chicago south side neighborhood. He was in town for the summer to conduct a master class in poetry at the University of Chicago and staying with a friend. My purpose that day was to ask Mr. Strand to write prose for a book project that was in pre-production.

The book was an inspired idea from the creative mind of Albert J. Nader, President and Executive Producer of Questar Entertainment where I was working at the time. Mr. Nader loved photography, nature photography most of all, and wanted to publish a book of all America’s National Parks shot by one photographer. No book like that existed and after some research we found a gem right under our noses; Stan Jorstad. Mr. Jorstad lived in St. Charles, IL. He studied photography for a time under Ansel Adams and was an accomplished filmmaker, photographer and commercial designer. He had already been on photographic journeys to over half of the parks, but his images were not the standard fare. He shot the parks with a seventy-five-pound 1902 circuit camera. A circuit camera turns in one direction while the enormous film, ten inches high and twenty-six feet long, moves through it in the opposite direction. When in the hands of a master like Stan the panorama images are, like the parks themselves, not of this world.

We signed Stan to do the book and sent him to the balance of the 52 parks (six more have been added since) and set upon the task to find a writer who could create words worthy of the images. Through my connections in the publishing industry, Mark Strand’s name came to me in an email responding to my broadcast query. I began to read his published poetry and was intrigued and excited. But the work that made him the perfect choice in my mind was his writings on selected paintings by Edward Hopper. The book was a slim volume appropriately titled Hopper. In it Strand deconstructs and explores twenty-three of Hopper’s most important works, his words moving through the layers of the canvas, describing the shapes and colors so distinctive of Hopper.

Wedged in between the short pieces about specific works are more manifold observations of Hopper’s overall approach.

Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narrative of what came before.

Hopper’s people seem to have nothing to do. They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company, with no clear place to go, no future.

In that small sitting room in Hyde Park I opened up a large valet and began to show Strand what Stan Jorstad creates with his circuit camera. He quietly took in each image as I revealed them in slow motion as he sat on a small sofa. Strand was immediately interested.

We wanted him to converge the natural, sacred environment of the parks with the wide moments Jorstad captured through the mind’s eye of his camera. Soon we had a deal.

Writing great poetry is an art that is perfected by so few and read by even fewer. In my bookseller days we would struggle to sell any poetry books that weren’t assigned by a teacher or professor. But the fire grows strong inside the bellies of poets. Their mastery of words paint images in our mind. Their personal experiences mesh eerily close with our own.

White

Reading poetry is tricky, for one must read it aloud. “How’s that poem? I don’t know let’s hear it.” I heard Strand read his poetry on a few occasions. His voice was not deep or particularly strong. It was pitch perfect. He recited his words with remarkable diction. Not dramatic. No. His voice did not overpower the words. He simply said it in that Strand way.

Et Cetera

I felt very strongly that these two talents needed to be together, so I sent Strand on a road trip to meet up with Jorstad where they worked together in the parks. Stan photographing and Mark writing. I only wish I could have been there to hear those conversations.

I spent days and days in Jorstad’s darkroom sorting through thousands of contact sheets to make the final image selections. Jorstad was so patient with me. He taught me so much about how to look at photographs. We had decided to sequence the photos in the order the parks were established. I believe that was another first.

I sent Strand color prints so he could hone his drafts. I let him decide which images he would write about. I didn’t want something for every park. Just a sprinkle here and there. The images were always meant to take center stage for the eye, while Strand’s words would spark the mind’s imagination.

16

This photograph of Death Valley was taken in the evening when the moon was small and low on the horizon, looking as if it were a marble held between two fingers of a cloud. Gazing at the rough, heavily eroded landscape with its tawny violet cast, we can say that what we see is beautiful, that Death Valley has been the subject of a remarkable portrait.

One evening over dinner, Strand took out his pad and started writing, his pen an extension of a unique stream of consciousness. He stopped and we picked up our conversation. I asked him if he would be comfortable showing me what he had written. He simply handed me this piece of paper.

Poem FragmentFor years I would return to his work and each time it immediately resonated with me. Transporting me back to those days in the late ’90’s when I had the incredible fortune to not only know, but work with Mr. Strand. I consider it a gift.

Mark Strand Signature

These Rare Lands: Images of America’s National Parks was published in 1997. Stan Jorstad passed away in 2013.

Photo of Mark Strand by Denise Eagleson

Poem White by Mark Strand from Selected Poems

Poem Et Cetera, Et Cetera by Mark Strand published in The New Yorker Magazine

Death Valley image by Stan Jorstad from These Rare Lands

Handwritten poem fragment by Mark Strand from Steve A Furman personal archives

Selected Poems signature page from Steve A Furman personal archives

Money 2020 Part 3 of 3: Tech Crime Takes Off

One of the most fascinating aspects of Money for me was sessions on fraud, security and of course hacking. I attended a keynote by Marc Goodman who started as a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles. He has been studying criminal behavior for years and has paired that knowledge with technology and of course the internet. He founded The Future Crimes Institute which is devoted to looking at where technology crime is going next. He painted a grave picture of what is happening and what could happen.

The evolution of crime was first low tech. A bad guy would come up to you, flash a gun or knife and you’d hand over your wallet. Pretty unsophisticated and hard to scale. One person at a time is a hard way to make a living. When trains came along the bad guys were suddenly able to rob two hundred people at a time. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Mr. Goodman recounted an event that took place in an undisclosed casino. The bad guys hacked their way into the casino security cameras and were now able to see what was happening at all the gaming tables. They sent in their gambling marks with ear pieces and directed them what hands to play. Before they were done they socked away $34 Million. Ultimate scale. The very system the casino owners installed to stop cheating was used for the express purpose of cheating and no one even knew it was going on.

Criminals

In Mexico, Cartel guys have set up a countrywide cellphone network. Cell towers able to cover all 31 states, fully encrypted and available only to their own. Imagine creating a Sprint or AT&T type personal network.

Folks, robbing banks is over, forever.

He then took us even deeper into the abyss, down to the Dark Web. Free and open software programs like Tor can block your identity from networks, traffic analysis for browsers instant messages remote logins and much more. Anonymity is almost completely attainable. With this cloaking device people peruse anonymous marketplaces like the famous Silk Road where you can buy and sell almost anything. Talk about Black Friday.

And if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Goodman basically said anything is hackable. We have learned that retail point of sale systems are very much prone to hacking. As are computers, financial networks, you name it. It’s extending well beyond that into the home. Someone hacked a home baby monitor system and began yelling at the sleeping child using inappropriate language. The parents barged into the room to find no human form. Only a shrill voice coming from the monitor speakers. Do you have security cameras around your house? Have you changed the password from password or 1234 to something harder to crack? If not, go do it now.

Most of the internet traffic runs on the IPv4 protocol. Essentially this protocol serves as storage for all the IP addresses, or devices that can connect to the Internet. It allows for 4.3 Billion IP addresses (devices) to connect. Thought at one time to be quite a lot. Brings back those Y2K days doesn’t it. It turns out that space is nearly depleted, so the internet gods have come up with IPv6 and it is in the process of being rolled out. At this time about 10% of the internet traffic runs on IPv6 with more moving there over time.

IPv6

If IPv4 can support 4.3 Billion devices, you may be asking how many IP addresses of devices can be connected to IPv6. An excellent question. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 340 Trillion Trillion Trillion devices. A number so big that can’t be grasped in any way. The point is everything that can be connected to the internet will likely become connected and it’s unlikely anyone will be turned down by the information superhighway because of lack of space.

 

Beyond theft there lies the growing potential that this amazing technology will be exploited by terrorists. This could have far-reaching consequences unless tougher safeguards and protections are developed. I’m very happy Mr. Goodman is on the case.

This ends my Money 2020 summary for 2014. Thank you for reading.

Read Part 1:  The Future of Currency and Payments

Read Part 2:  Mobile Payments and Crypto Currencies

Interstellar Extends Life as we Know it, Maybe

Interstellar 2It takes a while to get into the flow of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s latest film odyssey. But that’s not a problem because with a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes you don’t need to be in a hurry. Mr. Nolan combines a number of narratives and even more visuals into a celestial maze of chaos and hope that holds the survival of human life in the balance.

The story opens as Cooper, played with an easy intensity by Mathew McConaughey, is working his farm somewhere in rural America. It’s set in a world ahead of today and the climate, or blight as it is called, has infiltrated our atmosphere and has been systematically killing off all the food even as it grows in the fields. Things have become so dire that just about all that can be grown now is corn. Cooper lives with his son, Tom and daughter Murphy (Murph). Cooper was a pilot and I think an astronaut, but we don’t get a clear picture. He is a widower and relies on his father-in-law, Donald, played by John Lithgow to help raise his kids.

Murph is a bit of a prodigy and Cooper is an engineer; both are off the IQ charts. The space program has been shut down and funds diverted to trying to solve the food problem, so farms are the new “caretakers” of the future of human existence. Cooper turns his skills to making the farm equipment run autonomously with computer programs and sensors.

One day the field equipment goes haywire and they all head back to Cooper’s house and stop. This the first clue we get that magnetism and gravity will play a very large role in unraveling this interesting weave of a story. Murph claims there’s a ghost in her bedroom and indeed when a super dust storm comes through, a message is spelled out on her hardwood floor. Mr. Nolan has bridged us into an M. Night Shyamalan movie for a few moments. Common, everyday images and goings on, but very much askew. Quickly he moves on.

In a wonderful sonic transition we are launched into space with Cooper commanding the Endurance with three scientists on board, including Ameila Brand (Anne Hathaway). I have always been fascinated at how many people are not fans of Ms. Hathaway. In my opinion her performances are both fragile and strong, and she comes through once again. An interesting debate at a cocktail party might be who was the best space woman; Ryan Stone from Gravity or Amelia Brand. I know Ripley is seething right now. Despite a brief sidetrack, Brand, not unlike Ryan, finds herself being thrust into the role of keeping the mission on track, no matter what.

Interstllar 1

The Endurance mission is a follow up to the Lazurus Project, which years ago sent brave souls through a wormhole to investigate a number of potential planets on the other side for human colonization. Endurance was to also navigate through that same wormhole and then determine which planet or planets they should visit to see what their previous explorers had found. They are looking for a new earth. Their findings would be radioed back where Ameila’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) could analyze the data. He was preparing to make something quite amazing happen.

Murph has grown up, now being played by Jessica Chastain, and has turned her intellectual skills to helping solve the larger problem of re-colonization. She has teamed up with Professor Brand and they feverishly and tirelessly work to make his theory real.

As you can imagine, a variety of events occur on the mission and a significant amount of time has passed. The Endurance flight members are caught in a time warp thanks to the physics of the wormhole. One minute on the planet they first explore is equal to seven earth years. Things become more dire on earth.

Writing much more would require a spoiler alert notation, which I am always reluctant to do because I prefer my readers see the films. So I’ll leave the story and subsequent details about the ending here with one additional thought. Professor Brand recites a poem written by Dylan Thomas as the Endurance mission breaks through the gravitational pull of the earth.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The technical aspects of the film are nothing short of astounding. From earth to space to the wormhole to the depths of the horizon of a black hole known as Gargantua, our eyes are transported to new worlds. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has lensed a work of art. Mr. Van Hoytema brought us the deep digital look of Her last year and has now propelled film beyond escape velocity into a new dimension. One could compare his work to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights of the wormhole for example. Perhaps it was a homage.

Interstellar_3

The climax before the climax is fascinating. Mr. Nolan dips us into a condensed world. One where everything exists at all times. All realms of existence available in a single life moment. This story push makes us think harder while at the same time helping us believe what we are seeing. It helps us accept the core of the story.

Hans Zimmer’s score at times also evokes 2001, but he was challenged to score earth, space and a a third dimension wrapped in a dimension that already had five layers. It works, but the visuals overpower the score.

Highly recommended to those with a mind as open as the vastness of space and time.

Money 2020: Part 2 of 3: Mobile Payments and Crypto Currencies

At the close of day one my head was spinning. I managed to avoid all the trappings and temptations of Vegas and made it to my room at an early hour to review my notes and prepare for the next day. I chose to focus on two topics, Mobile payments and Crypto Currencies.

Apple Pay was announced not a month prior and so that dominated the conversation. How it would change the landscape of payments? Who will win? Probably the best way to start is to take a few moments to outline the four main attributes of Mobile payments. They are Near Field Communication, Secure Element, Host Card Emulation and Tokenization.

  • Near Field Communication (NFC) is essentially an antenna embedded in the phone that allows radio signals to exchange information between two devices at close range. It’s been around since the 1980’s and is widely used and often heralded as the future of payments. That promise has gone largely unfulfilled but now that the iPhones Six and Six Plus are NFC enabled we may see more adoption of NFC.
  • Secure Element (SE) is a tamper-resistant hardware that can securely host confidential and personal information on a mobile device. It’s built into the phone and is owned by the carriers (Sprint, AT&T, etc.). Until recently the only way to make payments using a mobile device was through the secure element, which meant the carriers had to be included in the ecosystem.
  • Host Card Emulation (HCE) allows software systems to manage mobile payments by creating an exact virtual representation of a smart card (SE) and storing it in the cloud. This deployment means the carriers can be by-passed by the OS owners. Google Wallet uses HCE in their solution.
  • Tokenization (sorry, no acronym available) takes the credit or debit card information such as account number, customer name, expiration date and replaces it with a surrogate called a token. This card information is not stored on the phone, only token. The merchant receives only the token during the mobile payment transaction and the token provider handles the translation from token to traditional account number for processing. Apple Pay uses tokenization which is stored in a SE on the phone. This protocol will likely be used to a larger degree in the future.

Anatomy of Mobile Payments Phone

It has been reported that over 1 million cards were loaded into Apple Pay within 72 hours of the software upgrade being made available. This is more than all other providers combined, including Google Wallet which launched in 2011. This is a testament to the brand power of Apple who has over 800 million payment numbers in their iTunes system. Google has gotten a bump from Apple’s launch, seeing their wallet transactions increase by 50%.

The question of who will win leads to many more questions. How quickly will merchants install point of sale terminals that will accept NFC transactions? Will consumers feel comfortable loading their cards into their phone and using them at stores? As referenced in Part 1 of this Money series, recent and multiple merchant point of sale breaches have heightened everyone’s awareness that the payments ecosystem needs hardening. Consumers in particular are even more sensitized to this.

One more thing comes into play here. EMV, which stands for EuroPay, Master Card, Visa who collaborated on developing a standard that embeds a chip into a credit or debit card. This chip when inserted in an EMV enabled POS terminal. So another question to add to the above list is will merchants go all the way and deploy checkout hardware that will accept both NFC and EMV? The technology will improve security but is only good for physical story transactions. It won’t help with online commerce because the card is not present. It will also require some new consumer behavior. On an EMV transactions the card is not swiped, but is dipped into a terminal and needs to remain there until the customer signs on the screen and taps accept. Think back to the first ATM machines. You inserted your card and the machine held it until the transaction was completed. Now we either swipe or dip the card but it’s not left in the machine.

Crypto Currencies

We are rapidly reaching the point where you can no longer look in your wallet or checkbook register and know how much money you have available to you. Technology, but increase of financial instruments and the ease of opening accounts has caused us to fragment our holdings across numerous places and spaces. If that wasn’t confusing enough, we now have crypto money being thrown in the mix.

BitcoinI was aware of currencies such as Bitcoin but I didn’t really understand it well. When I saw the amount of time dedicated to it at Money I stopped into a number of sessions to learn. I walked out fascinated by the concept. If you stop someone on the street and ask them to explain Bitcoin you will likely get silence. Technically these currencies are a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure transactions and control how new units are created. There is no financial or banking system and it is not regulated (yet) in the U.S. The safety and integrity of the currency is maintained by members of the currency community known as miners. They use their own computers to validate and timestamp transactions. Why do we need these currencies? Well, obviously we don’t need them but the developers of feel that there is significant friction in the payments and currency system that leads to fees, surcharges, fraud, processing fees and waiting periods.

They site the lack of a global standard for money and nation state specific proprietary infrastructure as primary reasons crypto currencies are the next logical phase of money. Simple, fast exchange with no physical currency.

Although most financial institutions don’t recognize Bitcoin at this time, a number of online commerce sites are beginning to accept them at checkout. Certainly this is will not play into the average consumer at this time, but it is something to watch. Part 3 up next.

Read Part 1:  The Future of Currency and Payments

Read Part 3:  Tech Crime Takes Off.

Money 2020: The Future of Currency and Payments: Part 1 of 3

Money 2020 GlassI attended the Money 2020 conference in Las Vegas this November. It’s a gathering of over 7,500 financial and technology professionals from over 60 countries. Essentially we all talk about the innovation of money and payments, both of which are undergoing unprecedented disruption. It was the forum’s 4th year but my first and I found it exhilarating and thought provoking.

The conference format is multi-layered. Big room keynote presentations, breakout sessions that are panel discussion style, live demos and an exhibit hall with hundreds of booths. I also found it to be a bit of a homecoming event as I ran into at least a dozen people I previously worked with or worked for me at one time. Nice to see friendly faces again and catch up on what they’re doing.

The breakout sessions are set-up in tracks; regulatory, security, e-commerce, retail banking, etc. My role in the bank is very broad, so I elected to pick and choose across the tracks and ingest a bit from each. The conference doubled in attendee size from last year but it occupied the same space in the Aria Hotel. Needless to say things were very crowded. Some people got shut out of sessions because they arrived on time or a bit late, only to find them already full. Standing room only in many of the sessions I attended.

Money Crowd

The content covered a wide range of topics so I don’t claim this post to be a summary of the conference itself. Instead it’s my perspective. What I observed through my lens of “convergence.” I gleaned four distinct themes of content and exploration.

  • Consumer Research: Who will influence change
  • Mobile Payments: Who will win?
  • Crypto Currency: The reinvention of money?
  • Fraud and Security: Will hacking impede progress?

Consumer Research

Lots of the latest consumer research was unveiled at Money and I carefully planned to attend as many of these sessions as possible. We know the world is big, but thanks to Social Media and the news cycle we tend to lose appreciation for that fact. Check out these insane numbers.

Global Stats copy

3.6 Billion unique active mobile phone users on Earth! People are saying they’d give up a lot of things in their life before they would give up their mobile device. You’ve see those studies. Indeed the mobile phone has been embedded in our lives and are neurally connected to our finger and hands. It’s happened in the blink of an eye. Steve Jobs released the first iPhone on June 29, 2007. Many think that the phone has materially impacted the way people pay for things, but the following chart reveals that the change began a decade and a half ago and the tectonic plates of payments has been steadily shifting ever since. The phone has not influenced nearly as many people to consider their payment options as debit and credit cards. Plastic still rules. Note: many of these slides were taken with my iPhone from audience seating. I apologize that some are of low fidelity or are not well framed.

15 Years Transactions

As we can see, while checks and cash dominated the transactions of choice for U.S. consumers in 1996, it has been forever overshadowed by credit and debit. Cash is not going away any time soon and if the security of credit and debit cannot be substantially shored-up, the never-ending rounds of retailer database hackings could keep cash and checks on life support for some time to come.

One study asked consumers how they will pay for things in the future. Every one of the presented forms of payment rose except credit, debit and cash. All three showed a decline, with cash leading the way. Certainly it’s very hard to be confident about a survey looking six years out. In the technology innovation mind it’s an eternity. Many disruptive species will be born in that time. But the scale and footprint of payments is vast and when you add in the generational and geographical aspects one cannot be faulted to remain skeptical.

Future Payments 2

Notice in the chart above that the green line (future) and black line (today) are not that divergent. People say they are expecting to pay in newer ways in greater numbers than now, but those shares are still small. Is this due to the momentum and the buzz around P2P money movement tools as well as the growth of PayPal? Is this how people will prefer to pay in the future?

The chart below puts a future date on the survey questions of 2020. When you look at the numbers by instrument they are not widely different from the above study. What’s interesting is the orange square in the bottom left. An overwhelming number of consumers prefer to use a familiar network provider (Discover, Visa, Master Card, etc.) to provide them with payments choices. Not Square or PayPal, or whatever Silicon Valley garage door opens, but the old guards of payments. Certainly the disrupters definitely have a head start on what attracts consumers. One could say however that it’s the Network’s and Issuer’s battle to lose.

Pay in 2020 2

The Emergence of the Millenial

When you wander a conference and keep your ears open you take note of the words or phrases that are repeated in nearly every type of content session as well as what’s said over a libation or two. One of the words that stood out without a doubt at Money was, Millenials. This generation is defined by most as a combination of Generation Y (25-34) and Generation Z (18-24). Seems like a very wide range, but when coupled with exposure to technology and shifting attitudes towards work and education, one can see why they can be coupled.

All camps that I observed lauded the Millenial population as one that brands − old and new − must attract and retain to ensure growth and to maintain relevance (otherwise known as survival). It doesn’t necessarily require a complete reboot, but it does mean we should guard against doing old things new and focus instead on doing new things that accomplish longstanding needs. This will be hard for financial institutions, but the future is all about change in relevance.

Millennials

Our young friends are absolutely adorable. They are confident and have an “I can” attitude. They are book smart and savvy, which means they carry a significant share of the $1 Trillion student loan debt now piled up in the U.S. As such, many live with their parents because they can’t afford a mortgage. An alarming share are under-employed, experiencing a large and confusing cognitive gap between their image of a job while in school and the reality of what they are doing Monday through Friday. This somewhat explains, at least to me, their zealous interest in getting promoted. Dues (literally) have already been paid in the form of tuition and they are looking for a faster track to pay back.

Research I saw at Money outlined an interesting persona of Millennials . They ike to have fun first then hard work next. They are close to their parents, many who have doted on them as children. They buy prestige brands and will spend more to design or customize a product to reflect who they are. As social natives they have more intense relationships with brands and don’t think twice about calling them out for either handing things well or dropping the ball. Their use of Social Media gives them an outsized voice that smart brands are addressing.

What is most fascinating to me is how they leverage technology to positively impact their financial position. We know they are getting their driver’s license later than previous generations, relying on Uber and public transpiration to get to where they want/need to go. Owning a car, actually driving a car is not at all important. They do not define themselves by the cars they drive.

When it comes to consuming content they don’t have a monthly cable bill the size of a car payment. They’re not cord-cutters because they never plugged in the cord. Television ownership is also much lower among Millenials . TV is on a grid. You have to be in the same physical space as a television to watch it. How barbaric! Why do that when you can stream almost anything to the glass surface of your smartphone, tablet or laptop? Oh yes, they don’t own desktop computers either (how mainframe of us).  Oftentimes they share Netflix passwords or Prime accounts so everyone can get on the same series. The CBS network recently announced “All Access,” a content streaming service. For $5.99 per month subscribers can watch full seasons of current primetime shows and leading daytime and late night CBS Programming. Others will likely follow.

Another bit of interesting research came from a study on values Millennials rated as important vs. Gen X’ers rating at a similar life stage. Millennials value enjoying life, having fun, authenticity and stable relationships much higher than their Gen X counterparts. They moved freedom, close friends and knowledge down in importance.

Millenials vs. Gen X

Y’s and Z’s were influenced by the internet in their formative years. Gen X is actually more closely aligned with the Boomers in that they were more or less adults before they were faced with the prospects of a digital world. One study drew closer connections between Millennials and Boomers than I would have even imagined. It seems the two categories to be reckoned with, especially among financial services are the Boomers of course (we have all the money) and the Millennials who will eventually have all the money. They will just interact with it in a much different way.

Understanding what your customers value, particularly a segment with this much power is critical to financial success. My next Money 2020 installment will cover Mobile payments and eWallets.

Read Part 2: Mobile Payments and Crypto Currencies

Read Part 3: Tech Crime Takes Off.

Image Credits:

Money 2020 magnifying glass: Money 2020

Crowd at Money 2020: Steve A Furman

Various Slides: Taken during live sessions by Steve A Furman

Image of Several Millennials: Mirus Reporter

“i” is for Jobs, “A” is for Cook, and Other Thoughts about Time

Two days after the big Apple announcement event in Cupertino I’m was just beginning to digest all of the content. One of the things that hit home was subtle, meaningful and very much Apple. Amidst the hundreds of rumors and musings about what would be coming, the iWatch and a wallet of some sort were the headlines.

As it turned out a watch was announced and so was a wallet, but they weren’t iWatch or iWallet. Steve Job’s owns the “i” and it’s sacred territory. The iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac all these inventions and ways of changing so much belong to Mr. Jobs. Was Apple making a conscious separation from the Jobs era and the Cook era? So we have Apple Payments and the Apple Watch. Mr. Cook and the design team took the iPhone to a new plateau as only they can. Engineering, materials, technology and assembly all combined to give the world the next generation of iPhones.

Then came the Apple Watch announcement.

Apple Watch

The Arrow of Time

I fancy myself a watch guy. A serious, but not showy watch collector, as in I own watch winders. Why? Well, the necktie is long gone (thank you), which means men have fewer accessory choices in our wardrobe. Actually that’s not the reason I like timepieces. Mostly it’s likely due to a hardwired XY chromosome thing. I own more than my share of watches. Most of them are very modest in price, but I do have a few gems. Watches are similar to wine. You can get a great one without overspending. But 99.9% of all watches do exactly the same thing. They provide a window into the arrow of time.

Sean Carroll, a senior research associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, studies dark energy and general relativity. He describes the arrow of time.

There’s something called “the arrow of time” and it is simply the direction in which time passes from the past to the future. There are many ways in which the past and future are different: things become messier toward the future; we remember yesterday and not tomorrow; actions we take now affect the future but not the past. All of those reflect the arrow of time.

Now, the origin of the arrow of time is a mystery. Based on the laws of thermodynamics, we understand how it works. But we don’t understand why there is an arrow. It comes down to conditions near the Big Bang; the universe started out highly organized and has been becoming more random and chaotic ever since. The universe is like a mechanical toy that started all wound up, and has been winding down for the last 14 billion years.

Watches don’t keep time, or track time, they simply tell the time. providing the illusion you are in control even when it’s obviously in question. They fix you in the time-space continuum and of course, remind you there’s yet another meeting to attend. According to the arrow of time, things are now more difficult today than they were yesterday. That’s somewhat true I suppose, but the arrow of time does not take into consideration we become smarter over time, even as things become more complex.

There are tens of thousands of watch designs, faces, bands, shapes and sizes. Despite varying features, they are all essentially built to do one simple, singular thing. Display the time.

It’s Time For a Smartwatch Conversation

A classic line from a Mad Men episode, slightly altered, but completely relevant today. The smartwatch began to gain momentum and my attention over the last few years. There are essentially two flavors of them. One is health related. It tracks steps, elevation, etc. and oh yes, it has some kind of timekeeping device inside. The other is a concept watch that tries to combine the utility of a smartphone onto the small but infinitely complex wrist watch.

I got sucked into the Tik Tok and Luna Tick hype. A Kickstarter project that created watch bands for the iPod shuffle. At first glance it was kind of cool, but the more you looked into it or wore it, the more you realized it was wrongheaded in so many ways. I have a smallish wrist and this solution turned out to be  larger than I usually wear. But still, I was drawn in by the concept and of course, the potential for exciting convergence.

Next I learned of the Cookoo connected watch. The makers said that “it’s a wearable extension of your smart phone that helps manage your connected life.” Sounded interesting. It was not usable for a watch person like me. I couldn’t read the watch face and couldn’t use it to tell time. A problem? Yes. They only updated their app features once over the eight months I used it off and on. It was not an “extension” of anything and completely “unmanageable.”

Then I got a Pebble watch. Much lighter and more comfortable to wear. It has a lot of watch faces but none of them appealed to me except the Text Watch. I felt like I was wearing a wanna be Smart Watch.

3 Smart Watches

Then I bought a Martian Passport. This one looked like a standard watch with a small window below that displayed texts and @twitter notification to my personal handle. It was the best of the bunch so far. The microphone / speaker integration with Siri worked seamlessly. I got excited about it in the morning. Alas, both these devices were battery hogs and required me to charge much more often than i wanted.

When you look at your watch, which, in the days before smartphones existed, occurred up to 50 times per day, your mind raced back and forward across that arrow of time. Take this test.

If you’re wearing your watch right now, close your eyes and answer these questions. Does the face of your watch have numerals? Are they at all twelve intervals? Are they Roman are Arabic numerals? Are there slashes instead of numerals? Do you have a calendar window? Does it also show the day of the week?

Chances are you can’t answer most of these questions with any confidence despite the fact your watch face never changes and you look at it so many times per day. We have been trained over our entire lives to use a watch in a rote fashion. Raise your wrist or steal a glance under the table to get a marker. Is time running out or dragging? The seconds tick away with consistent precision, but our state of mind swerves from guardrail to guardrail.

The Apple Watch

I predict that the Apple Watch will be the bestselling technology device of 2015. It’s light years beyond anything else that’s been developed and will only add to the genius and essential nature of the iPhone. Will you hand down your Apple Watch to the next generation to be cherished as an heirloom? No. We’ve got those analog models for that. What it will do is start others working on challenging and improving what Apple has done. That’s a very, very good thing.

The Counselor (Unrated and Extended Version) – Film Review

I first saw The Counselor when it was released in 2013. I was attracted to it because of the strong cast (Brad Pitt, Javier Bardhem, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender), a solid director in Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy as the screenwriter. Mr. McCarthy has reached esteemed status as a novelist and his screen adaption of No Country for Old Men in 2007 earned him an Academy Award. He has authored a number of original screenplays but none of them were every brought to the screen until The Counselor.

Coming out of the showing I found myself torn about how I felt about the picture. It was quite dark and intense (good things for me), but I felt it best to put it aside for a while. That “a while” continued. Eventually I did something I rarely do; read reviews of the film. This film evoked quite a lot of backlash. In my unscientific survey the comments were about 80% negative as in WTF did I just see, 15% were completely lost on all levels. If you dug for it, about 5% of critics found some merit.

This led me to a decision not to write a review because the polarizing nature of the reaction left me unsure that I could provide a thoughtful contribution. Time has passed and the Unrated and Extended Version has been released on DVD and Streaming services and so I gave it another longer look.

What I saw this time answered several questions that were hanging for me, even still a few are left open. But the the real power and narrative of this film is more clearly revealed in this longer cut and so, here goes.

The Counselor is a deep, dark odyssey that grabs the main character, The Counselor, played with mashed teeth by Michael Fassbender, and drags him into a world he could never imagine on his own. He is a public defender who has some kind of money trouble he wants to cure quickly so he partners with an old friend on a get rich quick drug deal involving the Mexican Cartel. His fiancee, Laura, is played by the beautiful Penelope Cruz. She unfortunately has the worst part in the film, as the Counselor leaves her completely in the dark even when things go very, very bad.

The director, Ridley Scott, has pretty much taken the entirety of Cormac MaCarthy’s script and brought it to the screen. It’s almost word for word, and those words are heavily stylized and heady. The screenplay is written more in the form of a novel than a script, with most of the ink devoted to dialog instead of atmosphere. You can download a copy of it here.

Javier1

The Counselor has befriended Reiner played by Javier Bardhem. Mr. Bardhem has black spiky hair, big tinted glasses and a flashy wardrobe. He juts into and out of the frame throughout the film spouting words that long for sentences but are very compelling to listen to with his deep voice and accent. He actually doesn’t deliver the lines. It’s more like his mouth is repeating a script he’s read to many partners over the years, right before they commit to being involved. Reiner always gets to the point by way of not getting there.

REINER  You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.

Reiner’s girlfriend is Malkina played by Cameron Diaz who approaches her role with a bleak coldness. Malkina is brilliant, has Reiner wrapped around her finger and is hatching grand designs to get her portion of the take on each deal. You never know what she’s thinking but you know it’s definitely not good.

Malkina 2

MALKINA  When the world itself is the source of your torment then you are free to exact vengeance upon any least part of it. I think perhaps you would have to be a woman to understand that. And you will never know the depth of your hurt until you are presented with the opportunity for revenge. Only then will you know what you are capable of.

The other key player is Brad Pitt playing Westray. He’s the middleman who brokers two sides (usually more than two sides) so a deal can be done, and charges his fee. Mr. Pitt is the clever street smart one and plays the Texas part with a white Stetson and tailored western suits. As with all Mr. McCormak’s characters he speaks in philosophical riddles that sound confusing, but with a second thought you realize he’s dead on. Here Westray is trying to communicate the seriousness of what they are about to set in motion to the Counselor.

Westray and Counselor

WESTRAY  Good word, cautionary. In Scots Law it defines an instrument in which one person stands as surety for another… The problem of course is what happens when the surety turns out to be the more attractive holding.

There are so many people involved in this deal it’s impossible to keep track. You see $20 million attracts a crowd. The meaning of the story lies in the fact that these conversations and events occur in another world. A world far away from the one we live everyday as law biding citizens. Reiner, Malikna and Westray have been inhabiting that world for years. It’s taken their toll on each one in different ways. The Counselor lives in an entirely different world. The world we live in. And thus, that’s why, in my opinion, so many critics had trouble accessing the altered reality that Mr. McCarthy has clearly written and Mr. Scott has so faithfully and rightly preserved in his translation to the screen.

The film propels itself and soon things go wrong, double crosses are set in motion and eventually the violence comes. It’s Coen Brothers style and extremely graphic. The Counselor’s world becomes a free fall into an abyss that we know has a bottom, we just don’t know how far he has to fall until he hits it.

In the end the Counselor gets a one to one conversation with the ultimate Kingpin, Jefe, played by Rubén Blades. Mr. Blades summons all his acting experience which is needed to explain the entire purpose of the story to a hapless and helpless Counselor.

 JEFE  I would urge you to see the truth of your situation, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to say what you should have done. Or not done. I only know that the world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made. You are at a cross in the road and here you think to choose. But here there is no choosing. There is only accepting. The choosing was done long ago.

…life will not take you back. I have no wish to paint the world in colors more somber than those it wears, but as the world gives way to darkness it becomes more and more difficult to dismiss the understanding that the world is in fact oneself. It is a thing which you have created, no more, no less… There will be other worlds. Of course. But they are the worlds of other men and your understanding of them was never more than an illusion anyway.

The Counselor is of another world. Not a film world we are used to seeing with the familiar and expected three acts of beginning, middle and end. This world is very different. It is dark and cautionary, but in it are meaningful performances and lessons.

The technical aspects of this film are top shelf all around. Camera, sound and editing come together nicely. The set decoration and production design deserve strong recognition. A new world needed to be created to offer a fitting stage for this unique story. It was handled skillfully.

I enjoyed Daniel Pemberton’s score. It is a layered and well integrated soundtrack. He ignores the choppiness and wild swings in the script and seamlessly stitches the various worlds together.

I cannot recommend this film to the general public. It is best served to stalwarts of cinema who crave a challenge. If you are one of those, then by all means spin it up. The Counselor official movie site relies heavily on an Instagram feed that was used on the run up to the release of the film.

Photos: 20th Century Fox

Dialog excerpts from Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor: A Screenplay (Vintage International Original). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The City of the Century

Chicago has been called the City of the Century, Nature’s Metropolis and a number of other things that are maybe not so flatteringMany of you are sick and tired about me talking about Chicago, so instead of writing about it again, I’m embedding this incredible time-lapse video crafted by Eric Hines. He calls it Cityscape Chicago. He captures the unique architecture, juxtaposition to water and the bustle of a thriving urban culture.We have our warts for sure, but we camouflage them better than most of our peers.

This video celebrates the beauty of this city. Put aside your politics and enjoy. Be sure to watch it full screen.

Career Opportunity at Discover Bank

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THIS ROLE WAS FILLED ON JUNE 13, 2014

I’ve recently changed roles at Discover and am working on building out my digital team. There’s already a solid group of professionals in place shaping a best-in-class banking platform, but we are rapidly growing and I need more help.

This is a Senior Manager role with three direct reports, reporting to the Director which would be yours truly. I have worked at Discover for almost 15 years. We have a terrific culture and are recognized as one of the best run financial services companies in the country. We have a great credit quality portfolio, are well capitalized with strong profit and stock performance (NYSE:DFS).

We are located in Riverwoods, Illinois, just north of O’Hare airport and have a Chicago city satellite office.

Job Description

  • This position leads a team responsible for developing and enhancing a best-in-class banking web interface for Discover Deposit products. This person will work closely with a peer to drive the current and future state of the user interface across all digital platforms. It is critical for this person to steer and coordinate cross-functional groups that include Product Teams, Marketing, Business Technology and multiple external agencies to create and deliver innovative, simple, highly functional and aesthetically pleasing interfaces based on user-centered design principles. This person should be keenly aware and passionate about emerging design and usability trends across web, mobile and tablet, as well as the evolving digital payments ecosystem.
  • The Digital Experience team’s primary role is to understand business requirements and goals, and then work with external agencies to develop wireframes and design comps that will deliver the business results with a superior customer experience.
  • The Senior Manager must be analytics focused and able to leverage web tracking to inform design and enhance functionality already in production. It is important to be able to weigh quantitative and qualitative data before design begins.
  • Time to market is critical. The candidate must be comfortable operating in an agile development environment and make strong judgment calls based on the information and alternative scenarios.

Qualifications

  •  Bachelor’s degree required. Specialization in human-computer interaction, graphic design, product design or interaction design is a plus
  • 7-10 years leadership experience in user-centered design, usability and development, preferably with a Fortune 500 company or leading digital firm
  • Seen as a thought-leader in creating best-in-class digital customer experiences for full site, mobile and tablet interfaces
  • Experience leading and/or observing user research and usability testing and translating insights into design decisions
  • Demonstrated ability to lead cross functional teams in the development of scenarios, workflows, site architectures, interactions notes, wireframes and designs
  • Experience in developing processes to manage complex activities
  • Demonstrated ability to translate business requirements into meaningful interactive experiences
  • Ability to effectively prioritize project requests based on clear methodology
  • Strong analytic skills and experience with web site behavior tagging and tracking
  • Effective communicator and comfortable with presenting to senior managers
  • Lean Six Sigma would be a plus.

We are an Equal Opportunity Employer and do not discriminate against applicants due to race, ethnicity, gender, veteran status, or on the basis of disability or any other federal, state or local protected class.

If you’re qualified and want to work for a highly respected company you can apply here.

My Annual Oscar Picks – 2014

oscar-envelopeIt’s that time again. The Academy hands out their picks for best of every category. They can select 10 films for best picture, but apparently could find only nine worthy of the crown. The pictures span history, deep drama, AIDS, hijacking, swindle and a celestial exploration of the human spirit, untethered in space.

Observations. Although the themes are familiar and tightly bunched, the styles and settings are nicely varied. My overarching take is that Gravity overwhelmes all the others for technical achievement. I’m predicting a mini-sweep for Gravity in the technical categories and the film’s director for being able to successfully stitch it together. The softer, more artistic awards will be sprinkled across the vast field based on the individual effort and ultimate impact they contributed (screenplay, song, etc.) on the film as a complete work. Four of the nine best picture nominees have one word titles. with another two managing to use only two words. The Wolf of Wall Street has no chance.

A decade or more ago I was a whiz at picking these. I would have seen all of them in the theater, many twice. Read Variety each week and closely followed the pop discussions found in the likes of Entertainment Weekly. Much of that study time has been re-purposed by a busy career, fatherhood and being a husband. No complaints from me.

Since my extremely active involvement in film has been reduced, my record of wins has become uneven but that doesn’t deter me from making predictions. Let the annual ritual begin.

Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Director:  Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity

Actor:  Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club

Actress:  Amy Adams for American Hustle

Actor in a Supporting Role:  Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay:  American Hustle

Adapted Screenplay:  12 Years a Slave

Cinematography:  Gravity

Animated Feature:  Frozen

Film Editing:  Gravity

Visual Effects:  Gravity

Sound Editing:  Captain Phillips

Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Original Score:  Alexandre Desplat for Philomena

Original Song:  Let it Go from Frozen

Costume Design:  The Great Gatsby

One more thing. Can we please stop complaining about how long the awards show runs?

Six Years on Twitter. How Many More?

imagesI was contemplating whether or not to blog about why I’m on Twitter and how I use it. My first Tweet was February 23, 2008. For some unremebered reason I put it on my iCalendar that day with a perpetual repeat. The internal food fight of whether I should give it life here went on in my brain for days. Guess which side won? Just couldn’t help myself.

Twitter is now a public company that requires it to adopt a solid business mindset. Quarterly earnings calls, more scrutiny and less tolerance for missteps. The platform continues to evolve as do the people who use it regularly. I’ve been pretty strict about who I follow and I am unfollowing more than ever.

Some still miss the basics after all these years and numerous resources to help do it well. Some of the duh’s are; no profile description, no photo, no location, and on and on. I have begun to use a new measure for who to follow. Their photos and videos. These are the visuals of their feed. I find the selection of what images people share reveals perhaps even more of who they are. If the images are lame, I think twice. If I’m on the following fence after reading a sampling of their Tweets, a compelling image footprint can nudge me to click the follow button. Is it varied? Humorous? Interesting? Numerous? The eye matters as much as the hand.

Today I see less spam on the service and have grown new friends. I’m noticing a cycling of connections. There’s a group of people one engages with for a period of time, then they fall out of the river of characters. You check back and find they’ve unfollowed you. I don’t’ take it personal. Chalk it up to the natural flow of life.

The parody accounts are becoming more interesting. There’s a whole cast of Mad Men accounts that are hilarious to engage with. They take it seriously. I haven’t gotten into following celebrity or sports figures. Most of the people I’m interested in wouldn’t follow back or engage. Many may have their PR teams reply.

I have engaged in dialog with Tom Peters, the business genius who wrote “In Search of Excellence” and invented the term MBWA, Managing by Wandering Around. I’ve heard him speak and have learned so much from him about many things. He followed me back years ago and we connected from time to time. In one exchange he gave me real mentoring advice and challenged me to get better. That would have never occurred without Twitter. Mr. Peters continues to follow me.

I’m keen on film. Have you noticed? I became hooked in the 1970’s and ’80’s, which were the best decades for movies during my lifetime. One of the producers I admired was Robert Evans. He was the real Hollywood in my book. He ran Paramount Pictures and turned it into a profit machine for the then parent company Gulf+Western. During his tenure the studio turned out an impressive list of pictures including; Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Rosemary’s Baby, The Italian Job, True Grit, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, Save the Tiger, The Conversation and The Great Gatsby.

I responded to a random Tweet from someone that had attached a photo of Mr. Evans in his prime, sitting by the pool reading a stack of scripts. My response to that Tweet was followed up a few days later by a follow from Mr. Evans. He followed me! Another Twitter moment. Having that brush with history was a thrill. As of the writing of this post Mr. Evans continues to follow me.

Robert EvansThe longer one is on Twitter and maintains connections, the more of a view one gets into life’s passages. People get fired, start businesses, become ill, get married, grow older. You name it they express it on Twitter in 140 characters. I love the spontaneity. One’s true self comes front and center when they commit to Twitter.

I don’t spend much time thinking about how long I’ll stay engaged on Twitter. I’ll know when it’s time to fade away.

The Department of if You Care: Previous blog posts on my Twitter adventure: 2013, 2011, 2008.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

The Death of “Just in Case” Web Design

Just in CaseEver since the first web browsers were created in the mid 1990’s people have been endlessly debating on how to design a web site. Or more specifically their companies’ site. At first it was left to a small group of people to make the decisions, because it was probably a fad and why spend time there. Once the fad thing became the next big thing everyone wanted in on the gold rush. Opinions were as common as… Well, you know.

To see how far we’ve come, check out Evolution of the Web an interactive site that shows the progression of Internet technology and human adoption and integration in their everyday lives.

Usability science came along, disciplines were created and the work was put into trained hands. The problem lies in the fact that most corporate web sites, especially ones that are  C to C and have a significant traffic, must sometimes serve a dozen or more masters. That calls for scorecards, prioritization frameworks and, oh yes, a check back to what the objectives are.

I’ve sat in so many meetings where business partners want to put things in the interface “just in case” a user may be looking for it. They come up with all manner of wild use cases. They are very creative. Bring them back to reality. Search is what we use when we are looking for something. Navigation is for fast access to what you want or need to do during any given visit. Design is for connecting with a customer so they will want to know more.

The new design trend emerging, one of “Point Solution” is I think fantastic. It fills the digital canvas, is responsive to the device that beckons it to life and incorporates a storyscape of the functionality. It seamlessly combines high impact graphics, video, animation and interactive scrolling. When done well one doesn’t know if we are learning or accomplishing a task. And the doing becomes commerce, crossing an invisible line without being detected. It’s bulletproof for solving one or two use cases, but challenged when there are ten to twenty functions available for customers.

The “Just in Case” design is too broad and the “Point Solution” is too narrow. Designers with the help of business partners must find the middle way between the two. Uncovering the dark data hidden in the click stream married with back end analytics is critical. Start with eliminating all of the use cases that are remote, then progressively work your way toward the desired outcome. Oh yeah, you need really, really good designers.

It takes courage to avoid the “Just in Case” design trap and to stave it off you must have hard data showing it’s the right way to go. It’s best to be able to bring a design to life that has absolutely no hierarchy, only a flow of perfectly quilted content.

The poster child for “Point Design” is the Pencil 53 product site from the company Fifty-three. I love the site but loved the product even more. That helps. Their singular objective is to communicate everything about the Pencil 53. What it is, what it does, why it’s better. My review of the Pencil 53 is here.

Pencil 53 Screen shot

Apple is great example of incorporating “Point Design” when they want to be bold about a product, then shifting to a  more traditional design for product comparison, shopping and support. Sometimes you need to tell the story on a deeper level. For Apple’s 30th anniversary they created a time line of their products and the people behind them. They allowed a user to click on their first Mac and let Apple know what it meant to them. Emotive memories. They have always excelled at closing that last mile between a person and technology.

MAC 30 Time line

Microsoft is also getting in the game. They are simultaneously upgrading their product design as well as their sites. Their Surface experience is excellent and they are working hard to put the brand back on track after years of being completely lost.

Surface

Samsung has a very difficult design problem to crack. Parts of their site are absolutely on point while others appear archival but are probably effective at selling, so it may not matter. Remember the data. The Apps and Entertainment section is outstanding at showcasing a breadth of products and covers a lot of ground without being overwhelming.

Samsung

We see people, read their stories, watch their videos and learn how technology works in their lives for convenience, efficiency and peace of mind.

Your Favorite Film of 2013 – Poll

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has the ability to nominate ten films for best picture in any given year. In the 1930’s and 1940’s eight to twelve films were nominated, but in the 1950’s  there was a conscious decision to limit it to five. In 2009 that rule changed, allowing ten films to be nominated. This has helped films that can’t afford to lobby the Academy members to be on the ballot for the top prize. Ever since that change ten films indeed were nominated each year up until 2013. This year’s crop consists of only nine.

The Academy has also evolved the category name several times outlined below.

  • 1927/28 — 1928/29:  Academy Award for Outstanding Picture
  • 1929/30 — 1940:  Academy Award for Outstanding Production
  • 1941 — 1943:  Academy Award for Outstanding Motion Picture
  • 1944 — 1961:  Academy Award for Best Motion Picture
  • 1962 — present:  Academy Award for Best Picture

Which one of the nine nominated films was your favorite? I’m not asking you to try and predict which film may win. Which one did you enjoy most?

Was your favorite not on the nominated list? Let me know what it was and why.

Pencil 53 – Product Review

Post Updated with writing image February 16, 2014 (Scroll Down)

One of the consistently read posts on my blog is Notability + Bamboo + iPad = Paperless Note Taking. I’m constantly looking for better ways to transfer necessary note taking from paper/pen/pencil to digital. Once we had the rise of the tablet it made sense to use the tablet to collect my thoughts created by our hands. The Bamboo stylus paired with the Notability app on my iPad has served me well and I still use that combination on nearly a daily basis.

Despite that use my search never ends and I recently got a hold of the Paper 53 Pencil. It’s from the makers of the simply amazing Paper App that is the standard for sketching, note taking, diagraming, etc. It was the App of the year in 2012 and deservedly so. I’m not an artist so I didn’t turn to this App very often. Once I discovered the Paper 53 Pencil, that all changed.

The first thing that’s different from other stylus’s is the shape. It’s modeled on the classic carpenter’s pencil that has been in use for decades by tradesmen on the job. The wider, flat surface is easier to hold and can be rotated to make progressively thinner or thicker lines. It’s rugged which is a requirement on an exterior job site and it won’t roll away if you set down on a uneven surface.

Pencil Toolbar

I’ve been using my Pencil 53 for about three weeks. It has encouraged me to open up my Paper App more often and begin the process of integrating it into my everyday life. The Pencil 53 and latest Paper App is really smart.

  • The lower part of the Pencil slides out and plugs into any USB port, charging in about 90 minutes.
  • Paper claims a full charge will last up to a month. I’ve not had to recharge it during my three weeks of use.
  • Pairing it with the Paper App is a cinch. Simply tap and hold.
  • Paper’s toolbar elegantly emerges and you have access to all the various writing, sketching and painting tools through Pencil, which means it’s many tools in one.
  • The screen knows when it’s the Pencil or your wrist or finger on the screen. It only records friction from the Pencil.
  • When you make a mistake, and I do all the time, you simply turn the Pencil around and erase it with the tip. No more tapping on an interface to switch to erase mode then back to write/sketch mode.

I opted for the graphite color. The wood Pencil 53 is $10 more. The weight and feel are very satisfying and I’m using it on other Apps like Penultimate and Notability. Very happy. There is one thing you really can’t do with this pencil. Rest it behind your ear. Too large.

Fifty-Three, Inc. packs an extra tip and eraser in the cool tube packaging.

Sample of Pencil 53 and Jot Script on iPad Notability app

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The Wolf of Wall Street – Film Review

Leonardo-DiCaprio-in-The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-+-585x389

Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street. Mean Streets, Wall Street, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.

It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.

I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.

Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.

Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.

Black Monday was Belfort’s first day  as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.

He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.

From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.

Script 1

Script 2

It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.

Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.

As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.

We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.

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DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.

Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.

Listen to the Podcast of this Review: 

Photo Credits:  Paramount Pictures

Download the The Wolf of Wall Street script legally here.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Film Review

Davis 2The Coen’s never make it easy on the audience. They weave their stories from the inside out. The very inner circle is deep with details and rich in emotion and meaning. As the circles swirl outward the fidelity of the details is dialed back. Occasionally they circle back to the inside but then come right back up, continuing to draw the circles but with dashed lines as they approach the surface of the film. That surface is what we see and hear on the screen. Their process is unique and always fascinating.

Inside Llewyn Davis is textbook Coen. Joel and Ethan leave it to us to color in meaning while they present us with one staggering scene after another. Most films today are cut, cut, cut; never allowing the camera to linger long enough to see everything in the frame. The Coens have perfected the exact opposite approach. They cut when the emotion of the scene says to cut.

Llewyn (Lou-in) played with solid pitch by Oscar Isaac is a wanna be folk singer now on his own after a break-up with his partner. He’s pretty much a despicable, irresponsible person that we have trouble drumming up even a smidgen of sympathy for. Llewyn does not have a home, or even a winter coat. He crashes at a different place every night, carrying his guitar and one bag of belongings. He sleeps on the floor, but on a good night he gets a couch.

He bounces from one bad experience to the next like the silver sphere in a pinball machine. The time is 1962 in the Greenwich Village poet/art scene. He rings the buzzer of Jean (Carey Mulligan) clutching a yellow cat with no where else to go. Ms. Mulligan has one of the sweetest smiles on the screen but can never show it off in this part. She constantly rails against Llewyn but has her own demons to wrestle with. Jean is with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who is connected to the record industry in a more orthodox fashion.

The story is a big circle, starting and ending in the Gaslight Poetry Cafe where folk singers take the stage in a dark, smoke-filled cellar space to perform. In between the bookends of the opening and closing scenes, the Coens take us through a truly realistic early 1960’s landscape. The clothes, cars, settings. All of it transports us back to the time of vinyl albums and big steel sedans, without the political statements. They are masters at conjuring up past worlds.

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Without a clear explanation, Llewyn gets into a car on its way to Chicago driven by Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a burned-out jazz performer named Roland Turner (John Goodman). The exchanges between Llewyn and Roland are rich and hilarious. It’s a stranger’s perspective designed to provide Llewyn with validation that everything everyone is telling him is truth. There is a very large gap between the functioning world and Llewyn’s world, but he cannot see it. He is completely disconnected while being completely connected. Look for Goodman to get an Academy Award nomination for this small but powerful performance.

The film is beautifully crafted from top to bottom. Most of the technical aspects, despite being solid, take a back seat, overwhelmed by the acting and scene choice. The soundtrack was produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett who previously collaborated on Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The music is the heart and soul of the film and if you listen closely and often enough, including dissecting the lyrics which were included by the filmmakers, you can fill in all those missing details.

Llewyn says, “If it’s not new and never get’s old, it’s a folk song.”

Davis Song List

Reviews of other Coen Brothers Films.

True Grit

Burn After Reading

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men Essay

A Serious Man

Photo Credits: Mike Zoss Productions

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age: Book Review.

j9941A search on Amazon of “Nikola Tesla in books” will repaint your browser with 1,872 choices. A Viemo search on Nikola Tesla will yield 552 videos across 56 pages. That’s too much content for me to absorb with my busy schedule so I did what I always do when faced with so many choices. I chose carefully.

My choice was Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. I selected this book because the author is a professor of science, technology and society and has a long history of being published and well regarded in the technology field. It was a bonus that his three areas of interest, science, technology and society are closely connected to my interests of society, media and technology.

Mr. Carlson is an academic with a strong research ethic and that seemed most appropriate to unpack some of the mysteries of Tesla. I wanted to read through the eyes of a historian who understands technology. I got that in this book.

The book is big at 500 pages including a thorough index. A good index is always a sign of a serious writer. If there is no index in a work of non-fiction then we have been given the right to label him or her as lazy.

I’ve come to realize through the reading of this book and the sampling many others, that Tesla had a magician’s flair trapped inside a brilliant, visionary mind of a meta-physical scientist. I’ll stop short of sorcerer, but part of me thinks he would have liked being placed in that category.

Tesla worked very hard his entire life, tirelessly pursuing his dream to bring wireless power to the world. He was his biggest fan, always looking for just a one more round of funding that would finally close the very narrow gap between his desire and reality. It’s been said that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps he even felt that way.

The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.

He had a rare condition known as Synesthesia. Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another sense (vision). Likewise, perception of a shape (number or letter) may cause an unusual perception in the same sense (color). This allowed him to fully design all the details of an invention in his mind and actually run the test or experiment. Since he was completely clear in his mind he often did not fully document his designs, and so the Tesla archive is not as complete as it is with other inventors.

It was an amazing life for sure, but not one any of us would likely want to lead. He made perhaps the biggest contributions to the world we share today with our indispensable soul mate, electricity. As I read through the book I jotted down a list of Tesla’s major accomplishments.

  • Mastering Alternating Current (AC). Tesla’s inventions drew interest from the likes of George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan toward him for investment purposes. Edison was not a fan of AC after seeing men electrocuted by its power. Today’s world is electrified by alternating current.
  • Tesla’s input into the Niagara Falls power project led to that team adopting AC as their power choice to send large amounts of power over long distances.
  • Invented the photographic process for producing X-rays (X for unknown) weeks ahead of Wilhelm Roentgen who is officially credited with the invention. Tesla discovered X-ray photography, but failed to realize it at the time.
  • Tesla was the first investigator of electromagnetic waves which was then furthered by Marconi and resulted in the invention of the Radio. Tesla devised circuits using capacitors and coils that improved Marconi’s invention.
  • Other inventions: Induction motor, rotary transformers, high frequency alternators, the Tesla coil, the Tesla oscillator.

The writing of this book is thorough, but dense. The material is very well organized and written in a consistent style throughout, which for a book of this length and a life this diverse is quite an accomplishment. It’s not an breezy read. One must be determined to learn about Tesla to make it through to the end.

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Tesla lecturing at the French Physical Society and International Society of Electricians (Paris, March 1892)

Mr. Carlson takes us back to Tesla’s earliest years. He recounts a difficult childhood that included the tragic loss of a brother and a challenging sickness. Later Tesla began to blossom while attending Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, and his first introduction to electricity and motors. One of his professors said of Tesla.

Tesla was peculiar; it was said of him that he wore the same coat for twenty years. But what he lacked in personal magnetism he made up in the perfection of his exposition. I never saw him miss a word or gesture, and his demonstrations and experiments came off with clocklike precision.

From there Tesla never stopped studying and experimenting. It was the age of the dawning of the magician and he fit right in. He would organize elaborate stage productions to showcase his latest inventions, captivating the crowd with his prestidigitation skills and the magic of electricity. He was viewed as a showman. People didn’t fear him but they did consider him a genius which carries with it a certain amount of eccentricity.

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Receiver used by Tesla to detect electromagnetic waves (1890)

To the end, Tesla always believed that wireless power was possible. His work at a Colorado Springs laboratory brought him as close as he would ever be to achieving his dream. But he was not a particularly good businessman and despite his abilities for showmanship, it did not translate well into a cogent story or proposal. His genius just wasn’t taken serious.

He was never rich, but his inventions over the years meant he had ongoing but modest royalties that kept him going through the last decade of his life. Sadly he died nearly penniless in room 3327 of The New Yorker Hotel at the age of 86 in 1943. He never married and there is almost no record of his being involved with a woman at any point in his life.

It’s fitting that Tesla Motors, maker of the pre-eminent electric sedan is named for Nikola Tesla. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is following in the footsteps of Tesla, but doing so with business smarts and Silicon Valley speed. If you want to know more about Nikola Tesla and have some time. I would recommend Mr. Carlson’s book.

Check out my experience as a Tesla Model S Driver here.

Parkland – Film Review

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If you’ve studied the Kennedy assassination or even had a passing fascination with the events of that fateful day, you will instantly know what the subject matter of this film is by the title alone. Parkland refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital of Dallas. On November 22, 1963 the trauma team at this facility received a wounded President Kennedy, having been struck down by assassin’s bullets in Dealey Plaza minutes before. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the slaying of President Kennedy. Every year around this time books, magazines, TV specials and movies about Kennedy and the assassination spring up. Most of them are not worth our time and are produced to cash in on a seminal historic moment and a public yearning for closure. But Parkland feels different. It’s ernest and when the final images fade to black we feel we’ve seen a genuine attempt to help us understand just a little bit more.

Parkland is at its best in depicting the utter chaos experienced by the entire country, and world on that tragic day. No one was expecting this, and I mean no one. Kennedy was beloved and soared to celebrity, almost godlike status His demise was not even in anyone’s consideration set. He represented a turning point in modern American life.

Writer turned filmmaker Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with Parkland. It’s an apt choice. Who better to take us through four of the most horrifying days in recent American history than a journalist. He is a stickler for details on every level. Landesman flawlessly directs the keen lens of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93) to deliver a shrewd mix of documentary style camera movement skillfully contained inside the framework of a taught drama. The film is based on the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi who shares the screenplay authorship with Mr. Landesman. There is no plot, only story. It lacks structure because all structure collapsed during those days. In other words. They nailed it.

The final product with a few exceptions is fine craft. Parkland strives to take a new approach on a topic that has been researched and debated beyond any single event in human history. Most of us think we know most of what transpired, but this film is told in a visual manner that makes us feel as if we are seeing it with fresh eyes. As the title foreshadows, we spend a lot of time inside Parkland’s trauma rooms. Most of the time they are a complete and utter mess. Residents, nurses, doctors, and a confused group of government workers struggle to do their individual jobs, all working for the same goal. To change what they know inside of them is going to be the inevitable outcome. No one summons superhero powers, and a modern day President is lost.

The cast consists of a collection of accomplished actors; Billy Bob Thornton, Paul GIamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, alongside some very strong players. Mr. Thornton (below, third from left) plays Forrest Sorrels, a veteran of the Secret Service and the guy in charge of protecting Kennedy. He is tough and experienced but must now make the transition from being a protection officer for the ultimate chief executive to an investigator of his murder. Sorrels works independently after the assassination, finding Zapruder and striking a bargain to ensure the precious film becomes evidence. Sorrels obviously feels a great sense of responsibility but only shows us once. While viewing the freshly developed footage someone in the room turns to him and says, “You blew it.” Sorrels explodes.

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Mr. Giamatti (above, left) plays Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Giamatti’s portrayal is deeply emotional and in some ways feels he is being used, but cannot put his finger on who or what. Zapruder was like any of the hundreds of citizens that day. There to get a glimpse of the President. The only difference was he had a camera and therefore instantly became the nation’s memory in this unthinkable shakespearean tragedy. He didn’t ask for that part, but he accepted it and reacted thoughtfully and respectfully.

Marcia Gay Harden (below right) is Doris Nelson, head trauma nurse in Parkland’s emergency room. She’s a rock and goes about her business strictly by the book. Despite this tough veneer she makes the emotional rounds of her colleagues, taking careful interest in their well being. Her presence in the trauma room while attending to a gravely wounded President Kennedy demonstrates her strength and devotion to her trade. When Oswald arrives after having been shot by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy, she redirects the speeding gurney away from Trauma Room 1 and proclaims, “No. He is not living or dying in there.” Oswald dies in Trauma Room 5, the same room Jack Ruby passed away in four years later. Clearly Parkland has some deep karma.

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Zac Efron (above left) takes the part of Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico, who drew the short straw that day by being the resident in the room. Carrico starts off the morning carefree, but the gravity of the day causes him to mature in record time. Essentially he is the leader of the treatment team and after a brief “oh shit” moment, he springs into action. He becomes the collective conscience of the entire country by refusing to give up on a flat lined Presidential heart.

The filmmakers liberally sprinkle subtle visual clues that punctuate the enormous pressure everyone was under. The trauma room scenes are filmed in super realistic style and are gritty and gruesome. When the doctors and nurses work on Kennedy they aren’t wearing gowns or masks. In fact the doctors take off their pristine white coats. When Oswald is delivered, everyone is in full mask, head coverings and surgical scrubs. It’s a disguise, not wanting to be recognized trying to save Oswald’s life.

The Secret Service team suddenly find themselves having to care for a deceased President Kennedy. All of their training has been devoted to keeping him alive, not what to do once he’s dead. They don’t panic, but they become more human and less robotic. As they wait for the President’s body on the plane they suddenly realize they don’t know where to put the casket. Hastily they remove two rows of seats so they don’t have to fly the President back to Washington in the cargo hold with the baggage. In removing the casket from the hearse they fumble it and break off one of the handles. While struggling to carry the coffin up the metal gangway to Air Force One they must turn the coffin sideways to fit through the passage way. When the turn is obviously too tight, a saw is used to cut the bulkhead. They are all in shock but remain focused on “taking care” of the President. This more than any other aspect of the film illustrates just how surreal that day was.

The film pays particular attention to the Owsald family. Jeremy Strong gives it a go as Lee Harvey Oswald, but we will never be able to accept any other portrayal except Gary Oldman’s gripping channeling of the real Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Not in a million years. But Lee’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), turns in a fine performance. He has an unhinged mother and an obviously confused brother, but he is successful in balancing out the overwhelming insanity. The filmmakers give extra screen time to Oswald’s funeral that requires the enlistment of the press as pall bearers. Everyone else has turned their back.

All of the technical aspects of this film are strong. This is an independent film which typically gets shorter shrift in some areas. The producers, which includes Tom Hanks, were able to secure top talent in key skill sets that matter most. Ackroyd’s handheld camera as mentioned above, plays it raw and in the moment. Interiors are rich and focused, while outdoor scenes are tight but well layered. The era choices are solid and believably transport the viewer back fifty years. James Newton Howard’s score uses percussion, drum beats, pianos and a somber cadence that rightfully fits the mood.

Highly recommended.

Podcast version of this review:

Furman on Film podcast library on iTunes

Photo Credit: Exclusive Media, The American Film Company and Playtone

Rush – Film Review

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Rush, Ron Howard’s latest film, explores the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two go for broke Formula 1 race car drivers who competed in the mid 1970’s. The filmmakers go to great lengths to seamlessly transport us back four decades, with careful crafting of  locations, costumes and hairstyles. There is attention paid to every detail right down to the period logos of the iconic sponsor brands. Making period films (sorry, but the ’70’s now qualify as a period) requires a unique eye and keen observation for the vibe of the time. Howard has had considerable practice. Apollo 13, probably his crown jewel, forced him back even further in time. Frost/Nixon, another of my favorite Howard films was also about two vastly different personalities playing a cat and mouse game with extremely high personal stakes.

Hunt is British and played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor). Hemsworth sculpts his portrayal of Hunt as a playboy who lives in the moment and that moment is always about one thing and one thing only; driving. His reputation makes it difficult for him to “find a ride” after his primary backer makes a major miscalculation in his initial foray into F1. Eventually Hunt is taken on by the McLaren racing team. We are only allowed a glimpse or two into Hunt’s more introspective side. While preparing for a race he holds the wheel while lying on his back beside his car and visualizes each turn, how he will shift and when to dart through a fresh opening.

Niki Lauda is played by Daniel Brühl, a seasoned actor from Germany. If Hunt is the playboy, Lauda is the perfectionist and deeply analytical. Serious drivers are married to their cars and in Luada’s case it’s beyond an obsession. He knows engineering, physics and the composition of raw materials that make up a quicker machine. During a scene where Lauda hitches a ride with his future bride he critiques her car. He is able to to observe the fan belt is loose and one of the tire is low on air. How? Through his butt. God gave him an ok mind and a brilliant butt. He can feel a car. For Niki, the car is a living organism.

To bring the cars to life, Howard hired cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to go deep inside the back story. Mantle uses the equivalent of an electron microscope to penetrate the inner workings of an F1 car. Pistons flexing, torque bars shifting and tires blistering. He gives us an exploded view of the car being pushed to it’s limits.

Lauda’s superior car set-up and carefully calculated driving skills are rewarded with the most points on the F1 circuit. Hunt’s marriage dissolves but his desire to become world champion is emboldened. Lauda played the percentages. He was comfortable with a 20% risk, but no more. Hunt had no such scale and felt more risk mean higher reward. Not fame or money, but personal reward. More fuel for his hi-ocatane lifestyle.

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Archive photo of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash

On August 1, 1976 in Germany, Lauda’s Ferrari was into the second lap when it hit the wall, drifted back into the center of the track and was struck by another driver. His Formula car burst into flames, exposing him to searing heat for over eight seconds. His injuries were serious. A singed right ear and eyelids. Loss of hair and scorched lungs. His motivation to return to the driver’s seat was provided by a successful Hunt  on the track. Hunt closed the points spread at an amazing pace, and so, Lauda made clear recovery decisions to get back to his ride. Repair my eyelids, yes. The scars on my head, I can wear a hat. And so he was back on the circuit well before anyone had expected.

My personal roots to cars and racing can be  traced back to my childhood. A close uncle drove on the high-banked, dirt oval circuit and my father and I followed him around  the midwest tracks until a crash ended his racing career. Another of my uncles was his mechanic and my father taught me how to perform nearly every maintenance necessary at that time to keep a car in tip top shape. Howard captures the primal aspects of speed, racing and competition.

The mid seventies was a time when sex was safe, but driving was dangerous. On the first day of my classroom driver’s education class my instructor proclaimed  following. “I want everyone to look at the person next to them. One of you will die in a car crash.” In those days you were shown the crash films like “Mechanized Death.” Real footage of the aftermath of a serious vehicular accident. There were no simulators then and you were taught driving game theory. Most roads were two lanes and you had to pass the Sunday drivers or it would take you all day to go anywhere.

When you’re passing someone and you see an unexpected oncoming car stick to this plan. Do not veer. The car coming toward you will steer to the right. The car next to you will steer to the right as well, opening up a window to move back into your lane. If for some reason that oncoming car doesn’t veer, then hit the accelerator. The slowest car loses.

Production is top notch all around. Special nod to Hans Zimmer and his soundtrack. It’s hard to compete with the roar of a gang of highly tuned race cars. But he moves past his  orchestration comfort zone and accepts the challenge to go hi-ocatane.

The official web site is basic. Surprise, surprise.

Photo Credits: Universal Studios

World War Z – Film Review

WWZ 2Before I went to see World War Z, I asked a number of people what they thought of the picture. The replies varied greatly from, “It’s not a real Zombie movie, they move too fast,” to the standard, “Read the book, it’ s much better.”  The trailer intrigued me but what really did the trick was the word world. I absolutely love films that involve the entirety of the planet. And so I went, alone.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired special investigator for the United Nations. He now lives a quiet life in Philadelphia making pancakes for his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. Suddenly and without warning a typical big city traffic snarl is rocked with sirens, crashing trucks and people running madly around. From there things go downhill quickly and before you know it, Gerry’s old boss Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is on the phone begging for him to get back in the game.

Some horrible virus or bacteria of some unknown origin causes humans to become the “undead.” Once turned, which only takes a handful of seconds after being bitten, they blindly take up their mission to bite non infected humans. turning them into “Zeaks.” A term used by a soldier who enjoys mowing them down. These Zombies are fast. No I mean really fast. The filmmakers deliver a jolt to your pulse as you watch the power of millions of human bodies united in a single purpose. It caused me to think what the human race could actually accomplish if we were many in body and one in mind. But despite being world class sprinters, they are really stupid. They can’t even open a door. Instead they try to smash through it with their heads. They stop at nothing and it’s become a real problem for the planet, quickly spreading throughout the world thanks to the over 70,000 commercial airline flights each day.

After some close calls, Lane and family are extracted to a U.N. ship in the north Atlantic. He is persuaded to accompany a doctor to South Korea to follow up on a lead that has come across in an email. On the plane the doctor gives what is the single best instance of dialog in the entire film. It’s a powerful foreshadowing that sticks with Lane. However, the mission doesn’t work out. While planning what to do next, Lane comes in contact with an ex-CIA agent (David Morse) who is behind bars for selling guns to North Korea. Somehow this man knows lots about the Zeak problem and points Lane to Jerusalem, where they seem to have a better handle on things. Or at least we think they do.

Massive scale pictures like this one usually rely on the zoom, cut and hand-held camera work. Images, usually CGI created, wash over us like a raging waterfall. The hero or superhero shows a human side but always summons the special power in the end to take down the bad guys. Not so in WWZ. Pitt is not a superhero. Actually he’s not even a hero. He plays the part of  a regular guy with some experience and a knack for knowing what to do when things go off book. He’s tough, but not powerful. I found his acting choice to be refreshing and added some measure of believability to an otherwise unbelievable story.

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Nearly all of the technical aspects of this picture are amazing. The visual effects, editing, special effects and make-up work together beautifully to make what we are watching seem real. Marc Forster’s direction is tight throughout. He is a master of pacing which in this film is no easy feat. The cinematography by Ben Seresin and an uncredited Robert Richardson is crisp and appropriately moody. Marco Beltrami’s score fits nicely into both the action and the more calmer scenes. The fast-moving Zombies make this more of a horror movie than the slow motion ones we have come to know and love. At least you could out run those guys. With the new and improved models we see here, no one stands a chance.

The film is pulled down considerably by the screenplay. A single person, Max Brooks, authored the book, but it took five people to write the script for WWZ and it shows. There are lot of things that don’t tie together from the very beginning and the ending is a failure. We are left with some hope, but completely adrift.

Audio Podcast of this Review: 

Photos: Paramount PIctures

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