Oliver Stone’s Snowden – There Are Many Ways to Serve Your Country

Snowden 3.jpgTraitor or Whistleblower? This question might cross the mind settling in for a screening of Oliver’s Stone’s first feature film in four years; Snowden. We are steered to a specific message, nothing unusual for Mr. Stone. He provides his usual dose of investigative dramatic filmmaking; a style he owns. In short order we become less obsessed with passing judgement on the man and enthralled with this vivid and sweeping look at the long reach the NSA and CIA crafted in a post 9/11 world. The vast surveillance apparatus developed by these government departments to collect and analyze millions of messages from as many citizens was born out of fear, and hardened by a determination to block future catastrophic attacks.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Joseph Snowden. In his interpretation we see a person who made an irrevocable decision to expose a top secret government program. In his heart he’s sure he did it for all the right reasons. Based on what I’ve seen and read, Mr. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot right. His stature allows us to recognize Snowden, which is confirmed in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning and important documentary Citizen Four. Mr. Stone showed the real Snowden the script (co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald) and carefully reviewed his extensive notes. “Ed would help us get it right,” Stone commented in a recent Wired magazine interview.

Gordon-Levitt covers a lot of ground but is at his best in the later reels of the film when he has completed the transition from, by-the-book government man to someone who has drawn a bright, red line on behalf of all citizens who inhabit the planet. I was stuck by the sense of burden he displayed, as well as the calmness that was obviously required while living inside such a tempest.

Mr. Gordon-Levitt played Philippe Petite last year in The Walk. The story of the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers (full review here). There is an erie parallel between Petite and Snowden. Both were driven by strong passion, were immensely talented in their field and orchestrated an amazing performance, instantly captivating the entire world. Petite christened the Towers. Snowden made a choice to not let their falling lead to the death of privacy.

Picture opens unexpectedly with Snowden’s first pass at patriotism; becoming a member of the Special Forces. His attempt ends prematurely due to leg injuries suffered in training and not treated in a timely manner. When the doctor delivers the devastating news that he will never become a front line solder, he reminds Snowden, “There are many ways to serve your country.”

Soon we are thrust into assignments inside the covert walls of an acronym government. He rose quickly through the ranks, gaining more access and with it classified clearance. Over time he became increasingly entangled in the dark web of the CIA. There is no doubt that, despite being mostly self-taught he was wicked smart.

Snowden meets Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. They communicated through a dating site for certified geeks whose families are life long employees of the military or state department. Lindsay falls for Edward but their relationship is tested by Edward’s stress, his professional requirement for secrecy and his stubbornly revealed epilepsy.

One of the most interesting characters in the story is Corbin O’Brien, played by Rhys Ifans. O’Brien is a high ranking official at the CIA and takes Snowden under his wing. O’Brien epitomizes the CIA of the time. Super smart, experienced and full of guilt that he did not see 9/11 coming. He is given some of the script’s best lines and is purposely framed in cartoonish style. On a hunting trip with Snowden he says, “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” Snowden’s exchanges with O’Brien had a strong influence on him, and certainly weighed heavily later on. O’Brien believed he could control Snowden and used the digital dragnet technology to calm his fears about Lindsay. It didn’t work.

Snowden asks for field experience while in Switzerland and O’Brien grants it. For the first time he ventures to the other side of the computer screen; straight into the action. Snowden has trouble in this strange world written in a completely differently coding language. Lindsay comes to the rescue and uses her social skills to give him an opening. As the assignment evolves. Snowden is asked to do some things he’s uncomfortable with. In the process he sees a system that collects content about people. All people. Emails, Tweets, Facebook posts, text messages, access to their device cameras and microphones; everything. It can even be viewed in real time. Snowden is jolted and quits the CIA.

Eventually he makes his way back to the as a contractor working for Booze Allen Hamilton, this time from a concrete bunker inside a Hawaiian mountain. The film’s pacing picks-up and tension builds as he chooses to download classified documents and makes the decision he can never take back. Although the crucial moment is filmed to be a tough decision, we know that it was carefully and deliberately planned.

Stone begins to cross-cut scenes, injecting the interviews (seen in the Poitras documentary Citizen Four) conducted inside a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden meets with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian. He passes the torch directly to them, and only them, destroying his source material before checking out.

This is the first time Mr. Stone has filmed a feature completely on digital. I definitely missed that Stone / Robert Richardson (cinematographer) magic in the visuals, but there was no other way to shoot this story. Bits not celluloid for Snowden.

Mr. Stone turned 70 this year, and although he continues to pursue an active career, his approach to this material is less intense than in the past. He is very interested in character and the push and pull of power, but he doesn’t give us the bold grit of taking if one step further. I missed that, but perhaps he is just exercising discretion in a world where nothing seems private. But then again, as Snowden says in the film, “We all have something to hide.”

The production values take some detours, mostly for the good, but occasionally seem out of place. The editing evokes Nixon and at times even JFK. There is liberal use of quick-cuts, mostly to artifacts from Snowden’s past. They are not overused and succeed in providing just enough to keep us wondering; who really is this man.

When one takes on a film by someone still alive, especially some one so young, it must be interesting to meet and invite them into the storytelling. When the cinematographer on Snowden, Anthony Dod Mantle met him, his reaction was, “He’s like an old soul in a very young body. He’s got fingers like violins.”

In the final minutes of the film, the Gordon-Levitt Snowden is on screen alone in a small room, as he often is; telling his story via the internet. Stone slowly transitions to the real Ed Snowden, who offers the following.

“When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”   — Edward Snowden

The soundtrack mixes two styles. An original score and an orchestral score, both penned by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. The original is more like what we hear in Mr. Stone’s films; written to punctuate the on screen drama. It’s right inside the frame and has traces of digital cadence. The orchestral version is further away from the press of Snowden’s day, reminding, almost haunting him of his past which is rapidly changing.

The real gem in the film, something that no one seems to be talking about, is the closing song by musical genius Peter Gabriel. His song The Veil is vintage Gabriel. Sonic, deep, deliberate, moving, etc…The Veil Blog.jpgRecommended reading. A  New York Times piece that examines how Mr. Stone came to acquire the film rights and the filmmaking odyssey. Very good back drop material.

Real to Reel: The Oval Office on Film

unknownHere we are once again. The four year presidential election is nye upon us. I’m at a loss for writing anything about how this cycle is, shall we say, unusual. No matter which side you’re on, or on neither side, or are not sure. We can always count on the cinema to provide a retreat from the noise. I wrote a similar post in 2012, and so this is a reprise with some new entries.

Fire up your favorite streaming service, or put one of those 5″ shiny discs into your device. Here are my top recommendations. They are worth it.

All the Way (2016) –  HBO and Amblin Entertainment have collaborated to tell the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), 36th President of the United States. The accidental, or tragically elevated, president was sworn in on Air Force One the same day John F. Kennedy was cut down by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas. That event has in some ways overshadowed LBJ’s accomplishments. This film does an outstanding job reminding us just how much he accomplished. Bryan Cranston (most recently of Trumbo) puts on a vivid portrayal of LBJ. This is deep tracks worthy from a consummate pro. The filmmakers attended to every detail, allowed Cranston to perform his persona magic, and laid out what people who attain high office, but have even higher aspirations face.

House of Cards (2013 – 2016) –  A Netflix original series based on the 1990 UK miniseries has done its part to prepare us for the 2016 presidential campaign. Dark, selfish, spontaneous and opportunistic describe Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). They stop at nothing to achieve power and influence. This one requires a significant time commitment, but the first two seasons and part of the third are all that is necessary to understand what’s going on. Let’s hope this is not a foreshadowing of things to come. But I digress. Just queue it up and enjoy some excellent acting, dialog and mystery. All fully sanctioned, because as Richard Nixon once said, “If the president does it, it’s not against the law.”

Lincoln (2012) –  If it were true that people actually did turn over in their graves, then Lincoln is the guy who would do it first. When you watch Daniel Day-Lewis become Lincoln, or at least the figure of what we imagine Lincoln might have been, you understand so much. You understand that politics has always been a contact sport, democracy is in the bottom of the first inning and old habits die hard. Steven Spielberg traded in his boyhood kaleidoscope with Schindler’s List and I for one am very happy. His position in the industry has allowed him to recreate everything in obsessive detail. This one should be viewed every year.

Frost / Nixon (2008) –  A searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. Frank Langella is the cold, calculating Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost, who bet a personal fortune that he would get the goods on Nixon as well as a big audience. Takes place entirely post term and captures the time and culture perfectly. Directed by Ron Howard. Full review here.

W. (2008) – A psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of President George W. Bush. It ultimately becomes a story of the entire Bush family and the presence of the elder President Bush is felt throughout. James Brolin plays W. pitch perfect, and surprisingly, Mr. Stone does not go off the reservation on this one. It’s toned down, compared to his other political outings. Worth a look, or another look to remind us of what things were like during the eight years under Bush. Full review here.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – An updated version of the 1962 classic. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are captured and brainwashed. An alternate takes credit for being a war hero and becomes a Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber). His commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) begins to think things are not what they seem. The details soon unravel for the master planners and they take additional actions to ensure their plan is carried off successfully. A high octane, paranoid thriller directed with precision by Jonathan Demme.

The Contender (2000) – Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson who is running  for Vice President to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The story line takes many twists as the characters fight for power and to preserve their view of the way things should be. Sexy secrets are found out about Hanson who refuses to discuss them as irrelevant to her qualifications for the office. Bridges chews the scenery and Allen is steely strong. Gary Oldman is superb.

The West Wing (1999-2006) – Highly acclaimed and popular TV series covering the lives of the President and staffers inside the White House’s west wing. 154 episodes were produced and aired. This series captured the attention of millions for it’s realistic portrayal, likable characters and its occasional wink. Created by Aaron Sorkin with Martin Sheen as President Josiah’Jed’ Bartlet. Quality scripts, acting and production.

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Wag the Dog (1997) – Wonderfully funny, oddly prophetic and highly entertaining. Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are over the top. Anne Heche swears like a drunken sailor and Denis Leary is, well Denis Leary. Barry Levinson and David Mamet scooped the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it even happened, with eerie parallels. The White House staff members create a fake war to distract from the president’s troubles. Hoffman, a seasoned Hollywood producer is hired to carry out the task.

Nixon (1995) – A biographical story of former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Oliver Stone follows Nixon from his days as a young boy to his presidency, which ended in resignation during his second term. Anthony Hopkins inhabits the persona of Nixon so thoroughly that you completely forget it’s not Nixon as early as the first reel. The Vietnam conflict was a major event during the Nixon presidency and Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, intercuts combat scenes into the political theater. He takes the filmic style used in JFK and pushes it even further, mixing eras and cultures freely across the screen.

JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s (again) telling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused quite a stir in many camps. Regardless of camera-reverse
what you believe about the murder, this picture broke new ground in filmmaking style. It plays more as a sonic mix than an edited picture. Based on the book Crossfire, it features an ensemble cast. Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones are stand outs, while Gary Oldman nailed Lee Harvey Oswald. Special nod to Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), as an absolute loon.

All the President’s Men (1976) – Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation. Perhaps the best explanation available on the Watergate scandal. A taught drama that combines intrigue, power and investigative reporting. Excellent work from director Alan J. Pakula.

The Missiles of October (1974) – Made for television mini-series about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, three years after Castro assumes power in Cuba. William Davane plays JFK in this tense, detailed and an up close look at the process of decision making for an American President in a time of crisis. Also stars Martin Sheen. A good history lesson.

The Parallax View (1974) – Another reporter vehicle. This time Warren Beatty uncovers some nasty things while investigating the assassination of a prominent United States Senator. Ultimately he finds a conspiracy net with a powerful multinational corporation behind it all. The ’70’s produced some of our most interesting films thanks to “director as auteur” freedom afforded many filmmakers by the studios. Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) directs.

Enjoy and please feel free to add your own favorites. Oh, and VOTE!

Career Opportunity for a Mobile Professional

Project Manager, Mobile Applications

Apply Here.

Discover. A more rewarding way to work. At Discover Financial Services, you’ll find yourself in the company of some of the industry’s smartest and most reliable professionals. And at a company that rewards dedication, values innovation and supports growth. Thrive in an environment that promotes teamwork and shared success. Build on a foundation of mutual respect. Join the company that understands rewarding careers like no other.

Seeking an experienced Project Manager to lead feature development and implementation for the Discover Mobile App. This individual must have proven experience managing large, cross-functional projects, he or she must be detail oriented, able to work autonomously and be able to pivot quickly based on changing needs of the business. This role requires strong people leadership across areas including marketing, customer service, business technology and third party agencies. This individual needs to have a strong focus on delivering results to meet business goals and deadlines, a strong desire to understand new emerging technologies and exposure to working using agile principles.
Promote a risk-aware culture, ensure efficient and effective risk and compliance management practices by adhering to require standards and processes.

Key Responsibilities:
Lead projects through full product development process cycle (creation of project proposal, requirements gathering, usability testing, design feedback & support, build, test support & coordination and post-install defect resolution).
Work with impacted Business Units to obtain their high level requirements; Work with Finance and Analytics to create cost benefit analysis when needed; Work with Business Technology (BT) and the Design Agencies to develop a project timeline that supports the mobile release cadence.
Act as a liaison between the Business Partners, BT Project Managers, Agency, Deposit Operations, Legal, Risk and Customer Experience team; Schedule and facilitate Business Project team meetings; Address and resolve project problems and issues, and escalate as appropriate; Create requirements documents and obtain necessary approvals.
Serves as a knowledgeable resource to obtain answers to business-related questions for the BT partners; Work with impacted business units to produce UAT test plan and test cases; Help resolve testing issues; Participate in daily checkpoint meetings, Sign off on UAT and get necessary business approvals.
Ensure all questions/issues/legal and risk requirements are resolved prior to release; work with BT to develop post-installation validation task list; ensure all business validation occurs successfully.
Effectively manage Agencies, BT, Business Partners, Legal, Security, Risk, Customer Support, Customer Experience and Sr. Management in order to achieve goals, reach delivery targets and to deliver high quality product within budget and on-time.
Develop the supporting marketing collateral to stimulate demand for application through cross-channel highly integrated marketing strategies (discoverbank.com, emails, Account Center, etc).
Be able to manage uncertainty, rapid change, ambiguity, surprises, and a less defined environment.
Takes immense pride in getting things done.

Required Skills/Knowledge/Experience: 
3-5+ years successfully managing large cross-functional projects and familiarity with AGILE.
3+ years Digital Agency management experience.
Strong problem-solving, resource management, and time-management skills.
Demonstrated ability to coach, manage change, collaborate across groups, develop people and influence the organization.
Demonstrated experience as a role model and leader.
Exceptional written, oral and presentation skills.
Advanced PowerPoint, Excel and MS Office proficiency required.
BA or equivalent experience required; MBA, MS or PMP recommended.
We are an Equal Opportunity Employer and do not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, status as a veteran, and basis of disability or any other federal, state or local protected class.

Discover Financial Services is an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, protected veteran status, among other things, or as a qualified individual with a disability. Equal Employment Opportunity is the law.

Please let us know if you require a reasonable accommodation to apply for a job. Examples of reasonable accommodation include making a change to the application process, providing documents or job listings in an alternate format, using a sign language interpreter, or using specialized equipment. Please email us 2-3 available times and the best method to reach you: HireAccommodation@discover.com.  Thank you!

Apply Here.

My 2016 Oscar Picks

Oscar for PostThe Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will will hold their 88th award ceremony Sunday, February 28th. I will not be discussing the over indexing of whiteness among the nominees, except to say it is something that certainly needs to be addressed. My interest here lies in the films, filmmakers and artists that were nominated by the Academy.

2015 brought us a raft of thoughtful, sometimes uneasy and exciting films, including pictures and performances that didn’t make the coveted short list. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq comes to mind. His films are always on a mission and he tackled a huge problem we have here in Chicago.

Overall I feel we seem to be on an upturn of quality out of Hollywood lately, potentially teetering on entering a period that blends eras, as excellent artists who have paved a path mixed with new, emerging talent. We got to see once again Charlotte Rampling, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Sylvester Stallone. All excellent performances that bring back the emotional memories only the art of film can divine.

The major film studios dominated the noms as usual, with Fox leading the way with 12 (see table below). Tech firms like Netflix and Amazon are trying to carve out their own slice of original content, but they seem better suited for the smaller screen format and have yet to master the vast drama needed for the main cinematic stage. Netflix did have 2 noms, both documentaries. Turns out some industries are harder to disrupt than others.

Hollywood is still holding on to the sequels/remake formula (Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed). They are doing a better job at selection than in the past. Mad Max: Fury Road certainly wasn’t phoned in. However, I’m thankful it was a small list, leaving more room for original stories. The material that made it into production was top shelf. A discriminating mix of stories derived from books (The Big Short, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn), journalism (Spotlight), culture (Straight Outta Compton), icons (Steve Jobs, Trumbo), organized crime (Sicario, Cartel Land), dystopian artificial intelligence (Ex Machina), complex relationships (CarolAnomalisa,The Danish GirlInside Out, Room) and finance (The Big Short). Then of course there’s that stand alone category called; Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).

We are seeing cinematic technology become more and more digital which lets filmmakers do things that were very difficult to do on celluloid. CGI dominates, but a number of films chose a more traditional approach to making their film. In Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle shot the first act on 16mm, the second act in 35mm and the last act on digital. Likewise, For The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino dipped deep into the Panavision vault for original 70mm lenses and had them retrofitted to the current camera format, complete with larger than normal film magazines. The result was stunning.

On the other hand, acting performances do not necessarily benefit from technology advances – in fact they can make it harder (Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina) to connect with the audience. Many of the performances this year rose above the project, escaping the gravitational pull of the story. Writers worked over time to give them this power and pitch perfect dialog. It was indeed a choice year for actors and they took full advantage of this prime opportunity to cultivate characters and perhaps, for a few moments, wrest the helm away from the director.

I’m changing my prediction format this year. Instead of listing my picks, I’m dividing them into who I think should win (my pick) and who I believe the Academy will pick. I wondered why so many are doing that, but then I realized it gives one wiggle room. It gets harder each year. Here goes.

Actress in a Leading Role

Should win and Will win: Brie Larson for Room. Space, time, parenthood and courage in the face of agony conspired against Joy to go on for years with her small son. Ms. Larson’s performance shattered that tiny skylight in the Room. By the way, the boy, Jacob Tremblay was amazing.

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Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs – Will win: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. The energy inside the inspired three part script of Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin was a marvel in word arrangement. Ms. Winslet took those words and never looked back. Then we have Ms. Vikander. When  you look at her versatility you are in awe. Her Ava in Ex Manicha was calculated and cunning; hidden away in the novelty of her artificial intelligence. In The Danish Girl she was exactly the opposite. Not made up of 0’s and 1’s, but deep emotions for her husband who lost his gender.

Alicia V The Danish Girl

Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs –  Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. Mr. Fassbender combined dialog mastery, comic timing, anger and crass genius in his portrayal, not of Steve Jobs, but of an inventor for the mind. Mr. DiCaprio will win and he deserves to be recognized for his growing body of excellent work. Go back and look at his portrayal of Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Exactly. I was not a fan of The Revenant, but I very much respect the work as a whole.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Christian Bale for The Big Short – Will win: Sylvester Stallone for Creed. I will not be that guy who denies Mr. Stallone another chance to be recognized, Rocky Balboa is a fixture of hope and victory done with hard work. Nailed it. However, Mr. Bale delivered something quirky and entertaining, while being smart and, oh yes, right under extreme pressure. And it was a true story.

Original Screenplay

Should win and Will win:  Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for Spotlight. Outstanding and courageous effort to revisit a coverup by the Catholic Church that impacted so many for so long. Mr. Singer and Mr. McCarthy recreated the time and temperature of Boston in an unflinching, but respectful manner. Their ensemble cast took it over the finish line.

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Adapted Screenplay

Should win and Will win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay for The Big Short. One would have thought it was impossible to turn Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations into entertainment. Turns out you need a lot of F-words. The screenplay extracts the essence of Michael Lewis’ book and spins it at a hundred miles an hour. It’s not perfect, but there is not a fraudulent bone in it’s body.

Film Editing

Should win: Hank Corwin  The Big Short – Will win: Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road. This is probably the most difficult category to call. Both Mr. Corwin and Ms. Sixel were faced with how to assemble the footage given them by the director. I leaned to Mr. Corwin because the way the film was shot offered many more possible ways the film could be cut. In a way they took the same path; orchestrated collision. Without their ability to manage the heartbeat, these films would have turned out less thirst quenching.

Original Score

Should and Will win: Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight. The ultimate composer/maestro gets better as he gets older. I listened to this score before seeing the film and my reaction was guarded. It didn’t captivate me. But once I saw the film with his powerful score supporting it, I was hooked. Cinematic orchestra does not get any better than this. His arrangements are complex and layered and lead the film’s sentiment.

Cinematography

Should win and Will win: Richard Richardson for The Hateful Eight. Here we have one of the greatest, working cinematographers who raids the Panavision vault of their 70mm lenses and adapts it to current day motion picture technology. The result is beyond parallel. If you missed 70mm Road Show you certainly missed a once in a lifetime experience. This large story and even larger dialog demanded a big window. Mr. Richardson gave it the biggest window available.

Hateful Eight Stagecoach

Production Design  Should win: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road – Will win: Jack Fisk for The Revenant. So many films could be in contention for this award. Mr. Gibson turned a dictatorship desert into something beyond belief. On the flip side we have Mr. Fisk who had the same task but with wilderness. This one is a toss up. It will depend on which landscape the Academy prefers.

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Costume Design Should win and Will win: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road. The Academy likes to award costume to period pieces. And yes, that’s very tempting indeed. In Mad Max we get a new period piece and it’s inspired. The reason this stands out is because of the sheer number of different tribes that need wardrobe.

FURY ROAD

Makeup

Should win and Will win: Makeup Department for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only way the Academy would not pick this is the sheer number of people involved in creating the amazing makeup. There were 53 professionals needed to pull off the many looks.

Animated Feature

Should win and Win win: John Lasseter, Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera and Andrew Stanton for Inside Out. Depth of story combined with a terrific script and voice performances make this a sure bet. The level of animation storytelling that can be achieved is startling these days. Fear, joy, anger, disgust and sadness are acted out in rich vignettes inside the mind of Riley who experiences change and awkwardness. Join the club Joy.

Inside-Out-Emotions

Director

Should win and Will win: Adam McKay for The Big Short. Sometimes it’s timing. Other times it’s timing. So timing is pretty much kind of important. Mr. McKay is all about timing. Certainly there are challenging moments in this picture where it drifts. Perhaps some of the choices are not exactly right. But taken as a whole this film is important. And importance is one of the things a director strives to deliver. Along with truth.

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Best Picture

Should win and Will win: The Big Short. An epic entertainment romp through the deep, dark underground of big bank greed. When you have smart people who only want money, everyone else is in for trouble.

Good luck on your picks. But remember, it’s about the films, not the Academy. If you enjoyed, select it.

Oscar nominations by Studio

Oscars by Studio 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credits: Thank you to the studios who allow images from their films to be shared throughout Social Media.

 

The Stakes are High in The Big Short

Big Short 1Adam McKay’s take on the bestseller by Michael Lewis is an investigative romp leading up to the financial meltdown that began in 2007. It’s full of colorful characters and even more colorful language. Mr. McKay uses voiceover and direct talking into an always moving, manic camera. He intercuts images, sounds and liberal use of the close-up in an attempt to show us that chaos was taking place, not simple financial transactions.

Picture begins by explaining that banking was essentially a snooze of a career. Boring, “comatose” and not very profitable. That all changed when Lewis Ranieri, bond trader at Salomon Brothers, invented mortgage-backed securities. Essentially mortgage loans, very stable and reliable, are packaged together and are sold as securities to buyers. When Mr. Ranieri did what he did, the Genie was let out of the bottle.

The casting was inspired. We get Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, an awkward but brilliant numbers guy who takes the time to read what’s inside the mortgage packages and takes a bold risk. Burry is not in New York, but California and Mr. Bale plays it laid back and barefoot. We often see him in his office blasting heavy metal music and banging drumsticks on his knees. He wears a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Thorn Guitars logo, a California-based custom guitar company founded by Pete Thorn.

Big Short 2

Burry wants to short the mortgage business and gets the big Banks to create an instrument that allows him to do it. He invests $1.3 billion of his small funds money, much to the dismay of his investors.

Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennet who works at Deutsche Bank in New York. He identified the loans were made without proper income verification and many of the borrowers have unacceptably low FICO scores. In short, they were going to default.

A wrong number call to Front Point Partners, a small hedge fund, lets the founder, Mark Baum into the game. Baum is played by Steve Carell who is in constant manic scream mode, fueled by his disgust of big Bank greed and a personal family tragedy that haunts him everyday. Mr. Carell is fantastic from the moment he learns the truth about what’s inside the mortgage-back securities from Vennet, right up until the final scenes when the meltdown unfolds before the whole world.

Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, a retired big time trader now living off the land somewhere in Colorado. He is contacted by Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two guys who started a hedge fund (Brownstone) in their garage and have also gotten wind of the possibility to short the system. They are too small to be taken seriously and don’t have access to the big boy trading desk. That’s where Rickert comes in. Through his connections he enables Brownstone to play.

Based on true events, there is obviously some poetic license taken to condense the events and make them fit inside the 2 hour and 4 minutes running time. The script works hard to weave in easy to understand explanations of complex financial instruments. Chef Anthony Bourdain uses his kitchen and fish to illustrate how bad loans can be magically transformed into something completely new, but still be bad. We even get a scene in a Florida strip club that turns out to be the tipping point for Mark Baum to pull the short trigger on the system.

Ultimately the dominos fall and slowly each of the players sells and makes amazing amounts of money. Especially Jared Vennet, who fondles a check for $47 million, how bonus for the sell.

The picture is often funny but also makes room for a few moments to digest just how much damage the behavior by the Banks and rating agencies did to the economy. Lost jobs, homes, pensions, savings. It all went south quickly.

In his desire to cover as many bases as possible, Mr. McKay hits a few flat notes. The Florida scene seems out of place and the so called debate between Baum and a rival in Vegas is nothing but a couple of personal comments. Despite these minor flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture.

If you Google Mark Baum, you won’t find him. And Mark Baum isn’t the only character in the movie whose name was changed from its real-life counterpart. Ryan Gosling’s character, Jared Vannett, is based on Greg Lippman, a Deutsche Bank trader; Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert is based on Ben Hockett, a partner at Cornwall Capital partners. The only main character in the movie with a non-fiction name is Christian Bale’s role as hedge fund manager Michael Burry.

View the financial crisis full timeline from the Federal Reserve Bank.

Photo Credit: Plan B Entertainment and Regency Enterprises

“The Martian” and his Earthlings

The-Martian-viral-teaser

Mars has long been the muse to writers, scientists and moviemakers. A wikipedia search for “films about Mars” will yield a page that lists 66 titles although many of them were television shows. The most common plot line that emerges when Mars and Earth are in the same script turns out to be mostly bad for Earthlings. We often survive in the end, but, on my, the destruction.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the novel by Andrew Weir with screenplay credit going to Drew Goddard, is all Hollywood. It’s playful and goes out of it’s way to be entertaining. But it should get noticed for something rare. A movie largely about Mars, science and NASA, completely devoid of little green Martians. Thank you Mr. Weir.

The film opens with a group of astronauts already on Mars to continue studies, presumably preparing for colonization. Suddenly a raging storm rolls in and the team must make an emergency launch to avoid their vehicle from tipping over. In their rush, Mark Watney, played with delightful snark by Matt Damon, is left for dead after a horrible accident prior to boarding.

The Captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is riddled with guilt at having left behind a crew member who was in her charge. Ms. Chastain has become one of my favorite actors to watch. Her ability to shape her characters with genuineness, display smartness, not smart-assness, and be an irresistible woman is a winning combination. Mr. Scott is keen on strong women roles and this tradition continues.

THE MARTIANMeanwhile, back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is left to tell the world that Astronaut Watney will not be making the return trip with the rest of the crew. He lies in state on the surface of the Red Planet. Mr. Daniels is as reliable as ever, sporting his wide vocabulary and the doing math in his head.

Mr. Weir has given us a futuristic shipwreck story. It’s a classic theme. A solitary survival tale of man vs. his environment against seemingly unsurmountable odds. But Mr. Weir has a major advantage; technology. In this new age much more is possible. Innovation and disruption for once provides hope of survival and not just monetary wealth.

When Wantey regains consciousness he takes us through a series of amazing feats of survival, physical exertion and some kick butt farming. He overcomes one obstacle after another, fulfilling his determination to survive until a rescue mission arrives. Through good old fashioned NASA trained ingenuity, Watney reanimates the Pathfinder hardware from a decades ago mission and uses it to communicate with NASA. The news that Watney is alive causes even more problems for Sanders, who eventually organizes a rescue mission.

The film frequently shows us Watney through the voyeuristic lens of a Go Pro camera, but with his full permission. It’s a video instagram stream that is expanded to include the left behind artifacts of his crew. The most prominent of which is Commander Lewis’ obsession with music from the 1970’s and ’80’s. The lowest rung on the music one hit wonder ladder. Mr. Scott uses those tunes to great effect, but my ears! He did redeem himself when David Bowie’s Starman came across the speakers while Watney gathered his things for another expedition away from home base.

flat,800x800,075,t.u3Eventually Sanders has to tell the crew that Watney is still alive, which brings into focus the other major theme of the story, being part of a team. A mission to Mars means you are going to adopt a new family while leaving your existing one behind. It’s a serious commitment. Nothing else matters but your knowledge, your team’s knowledge — carefully designed to fill in the gaps—and the Earthlings at the Johnson Space Center. Space travel is new territory and despite the fact we have been studying it since Galileo, it stands to reason that we are not close to being prepared for what it can bring.

The world is enthralled with Watney’s plight, including the Chinese who offer to help. Soon the United Sates and China are collaborating to bring him home. Eventually, Watney’s crew mates are offered a choice. Come home, or return their ship, the Hermes (The God who protects travelers) around and endure hundreds more days in space. Spoiler alert, yes they decide to rescue Watney.

The final reels of the film are filled with frantic action to capture a now floating Watney, who has launched himself into space with a vehicle placed on Mars in preparation of another mission. It’s all very unrealistic but so enjoyable to watch.

Top notch technical work all around matches the acting performances, all stewarded along by veteran Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. Many will remember the interspersed pop songs that help us laugh during the long, lonely moments. But it’s the deeply intellectual, sonic snippets by Mr. Greyson-Williams that reminds us of the seriousness of each day, while binding together the collective progress of both Watney and the Earthlings.

This is the third year in a row Hollywood has produced a high quality film set in space. Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and now The Martian. I hope this trend continues.

The Walk

Robert Zemeckis has given us The Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away and Flight. These are formidable works that strike a cultural nerve and straddle past, present and future. Indeed, Mr. Zemeckis has a way of transporting us across the space-time continuum with flair and style. He weaves humanism into his stories of adventure, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to simply entertain.

The Walk

His latest film, The Walk, seems to be a clear labor of love. It’s based on Philippe Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds. Mr. Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 stands as one of the most amazing human accomplishments ever, driven entirely by necessity, courage and the belief that art should play on a larger stage. His story becomes more important with each passing year we live in a post Tower world. This fact alone is more than a sufficient reason to bring the story back for a modern look.

Mr. Petit named his project le coup. it was by definition done undercover and on a budget. There was no investment put into capturing it beyond the amateur photographer accomplices who wore many hats that day, including archer. Hence we have only grainy and mostly black and white archive images of his amazing feat. James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar winning feature documentary Man on Wire was the first time we got an up close look at Mr. Petit and his carefully planned caper. His documentary is the definitive chronology of what happened in New York on August 7, 1974, and I watch it every year on September 11th.

The Walk borrows heavily from documentary style that includes frequent cuts back to Philippe, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perpetually perched on the torch of Lady Liberty. It leverages much of what was in Man on Wire, because that’s what’s written in To Reach the Clouds. It validates Mr. Marsh’s work allowing Mr. Zemeckis to focus his 3D, IMAX, big Hollywood budget on putting us on the high wire.

The early reels of the film seem to be from another story. We learn how Mr. Petit came to be drawn by the lure of the wire. There are sequences from his childhood that briefly include his parents and his early mentor, Papa Rudy, played by Ben Kingsley, who apparently can’t function without his hat or his dogs. He meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Both are street performers in search of a dream. Mr. Petit has his dream clearly defined and is now on a journey to attract the people and fortune to carry it out.

Wire Walking

Mr. Gordon-Levitt has taken some flack for his accent in many reviews. When I look at his performance on the whole, he delivers on the things that matter. Heart, passion, drive and art. He captured Mr. Petit’s ability to envision and then achieve something most of us don’t even think about. The quality of his accent is of little importance in my mind.

Philippe and Annie make their way to New York and emerge from the subway to the staggering sight and enormity of the Towers. Momentarily discouraged Philippe is given and opening. A door is left ajar and he runs through it, climbing the stairs to the top of the Tower. Once there. Once he looks at the void between the twins, his will is cemented.

A band of characters is assembled to pull off the caper, but there ends up being just a couple who are committed enough to Philippe’s dream to see it through. On the day they decide to carry out the feat, they face numerous obstacles, all of which are somehow magically disappeared. There was a moment when the cable had been hung and Philippe was ready to make the walk, when a businessman emerged from below, surveyed the situation and simply walked back down without saying a word. Perhaps the Towers themselves somehow intervened, seemingly longing what was likely the only above ground physical connection each would have with the other.

The last forty minutes will make you squirm as the wire walker performs. In the documentary Man on Wire, we don’t see any footage of Philippe walking the wire. Only stills. Mr. Zemeckis gives us that gift in The Walk. We are there for every step on the wire hastily strung and secured. It’s worth seeing in IMAX 3D and if you were ever in the Towers, or gazed up or looked down from the observation deck, be prepared for what you will feel.

WTC Pass

The technical aspects of the film are exceptional all around. Highly recommended and rated PG, so take your children and have that discussion. The official website is horrible. I’m so disappointed in how the studios uses their movie sites now.

Photo credits: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Magnolia Pictures

Vinyl Makes a Comeback

I used to be the owner of about 2,000 vinyl, long playing (LP) albums. Also known as records. As the 5″ optical disc (CD) grew in popularity, my CD collection followed suit and I began to pass along my albums to friends or sell them at garage sales. Slowly my music collection went from 12″ discs to 5″ discs. They were easier store and move, but required new playing hardware. I didn’t have a CD player in my car which meant I continued to make mix cassette tapes from CD’s so my music could travel. Soon a portable CD player was added to my travel bag, expending the possibilities even further.

Then Steve Jobs invented the iPod which signaled another shift for music; the conversion to digital and streaming. Yes, we had Napster and other music sharing sites, but use of them was limited to a sub-section of the music consuming public.

First iPod

We began to feed CD’s into our computer and transfer music into iTunes which was installed on the hard drive. From there we could load playlists onto the iPod. Just like that, the death of the Walkman. It was a time-consuming process to transform one’s collection to digital, but we did it anyway.

Music labels stopped placing orders for vinyl, which ended a generation’s cultural icon for the packaging of music and expression. CD’s filled stores and we bought them. Lots of them. But technology was not finished with music. Pandora and Spotify, along with dozens of other sites / apps  cropped up to curate and stream music for free or without embarrassing ads, for a small monthly fee. Streaming is how we listen, discover and share music. There are millions of Millennials that have never been in a record store and most no longer browse CD bins. Music comes across the Internet directly to the glass of their smartphones and into their ears via bluetooth.

But something has been slowing happening lately and I’ve seen evidence in my local Barnes and Noble store. B&N has replaced racks of CD’s and DVD’s and began stocking vinyl LP’s. Hundreds of them.

BN Vinyl 2

The industry has done away with the terms album, LP and record, and are describing this format of music as vinyl. We all knew it was vinyl when we were listening decades ago, but we didn’t much care about the material, only about the meaning of the music. Vinyl is a nice pithy term. A way to distinguish this format from digital or streaming. Seeing vinyl’s comeback makes me smile.

There are two headwinds facing vinyl and they may be too strong for it to be more than a passing fad. First, the factories who manufactured vinyl have been idle for years. Getting them back on line will take investment and time. The second is the hardware needed. To listen to vinyl properly you need a turntable, an amplifier and quality speakers. There are turntables with USB ports that can be hooked up to digital speakers or one’s computer, but this is not at all an acceptable or respectful way to listen.

record-player

I’m going to spend the rest of this weekend dusting off my Hitachi diamond stylus turntable, cable it to my Pioneer amplifier and set it to Phono. The diamond stylus will slowly descend onto the grooves of the thin vinyl disc and sound will flow from my Boston Acoustics speakers. I wonder what my ears will think. I also wonder if I will be purchasing many of those albums a second time on vinyl.

September 11, 2015

911_ large promoToday, September 11th, we will relive that nightmarish day of 2001. We will relive it no matter how hard we try to suppress it. We will read the stories and blogs. Call family and friends. See the photos, yet again. And replay that footage over and over.

What I will remember most about that day and the weeks that followed will be the people who lost their lives or were badly injured. I will remember their loved ones. I will remember how our country stood together and came together to help and heal. I wish we could come together in that manner again, but without requiring a tragic catalyst.

I am no stranger to New York, having visited many, many times across decades. I entered the Towers as a tourist and ate at Windows on the World in the North Tower as a client in the mid 1980’s. I can go back even further to the time Philippe Petit made his fantastical walk between the Towers in 1974. That act was a sort of a human christening of the Towers. A monumental, almost superhuman tribute to the trident based, colossal cuboids.

They were larger than life, and they were beautiful. The Towers are gone. Thousand of people were tragically lost. Neither will ever be forgotten.

Scan (2)Copyright ©1986, Steve A Furman personal photo archives

My 7 year old son experiencing the 9/11 Memorial first hand in 2012

Copyright ©2012, Steve A Furman personal photo archives

Related Post features a photo gallery of the 9/11 Memorial weeks after it first opened.

Oliver Sacks: June 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015 – Some People Can’t be Replaced

Oliver SacksOliver Sacks mattered much more than most people will ever know. He is not a household name, so here’s some background. Oliver Sacks was born in London and educated at Oxford, California and New York. He was a professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and author of numerous books, including Awakenings (1990) which became a film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

I’m not going to recount Mr. Sacks’ achievements or claim to have studied all of his work. This post is not about that. It’s about what came over me when I was given the stunning news that I was the father of a son who had a permanent neurological disability. This was back in the mid 1980’s and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to read and research everything i could to understand and learn of ways I could make a difference in my young son’s life.

Needless to say this was before access to digital content. I had to visit libraries, universities, and doctor after doctor. I was not happy with what I was learning or with any of the results.

Then I read Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, and I began to understand that things were not my fault. Nor my son’s fault. The brain is a complex organ. The muscle of thinking. When it’s not shaped perfectly as it grows, things can go a bit off the reservation.

Dr. Sacks demystified the brain, especially brains that work in unusual and sometimes fantastical ways. He did this through deep study and research. By spending time with his patients. By explaining things in stories. He wrote in journal style. Almost like a diary, in great detail. You were there and you began to understand and eventually appreciate people who processed stimuli in a completely different manner.

Mr. Sacks was diagnosed with cancer at age 81 and he faced it head on. My Own Life, which appeared in The New York Times is an amazing read.

His intelligence, creativity and amazing stamina has helped countless people better understand loved ones who are in a way, “out of this world.” He also inspired numerous people to take up brain practice. I always looked forward to his writings and insights, and found it interesting that he was frequently photographed with a hand near or on his head, seemingly trying to reach into his own grey matter for more answers.

He was rare. He will be terribly missed. But at least we had him for a short while. Long enough, I think, to make a huge difference. I know he did for me.

Near the end of his life he said, ” When people die, they cannot be replaced.”

Photo Credit: Joyce Ravid for Alfred A. Knopf publishers, 1995

Dip Your Chip Card like a Boss!

Change is Only as Hard as One Makes it

It’s so very hard to change the behavior of a population as large as the U.S. Previously-held beliefs, resistance to change and just sheer inertia are but a few of the many forces that keep people on their current track. Marketers love to try to change behavior, but they rarely do. Technologies have had the most success over the past decade at getting humans to adopt new behaviors or shift their rituals to a new channel. Here comes another one.

The credit card dates back to 1950 and has never looked back. Paying with plastic has become commonplace among a large number of U.S. households. The Nilson Report states that there are over 1.14 billion general purpose, credit, debit and prepaid cards in the United States. That’s a lot, but we know many of them are cozied up in the sock drawer. Or as we call them in the business, inactive.

A plastic debit or credit card has a magnetic stripe on the back. That’s the grey bar you are used to swiping. Indeed we have perfected our “swipe muscle memory.” Walk up to the check-out, pull out a card and swipe it. That phrase has made it into the dictionary and lexicon many years ago.

swipe

We’re about to introduce a new definition to your Funk and Wagnalls. The next step change in how you pay with plastic is getting some new moves.
It ChipThis fall banks will begin replacing those magnetic stripe cards with new ones. They will still have the magnetic stripe but also come with a computer chip embedded into the plastic, easily seen on the face of the card. I will not go into the technical details here. All you really need to know is that the addition of the chip combined with systems changes at the merchant and the bank results in the use of cryptographic algorithms that communicate in a manner that does not reveal your card number. Bottom line: your card number will no longer be seen by the merchant and therefore cannot be stolen.

This protection is only available for offline purchases in stores that have the new card readers and software updates. If your store does not have these new hardware devices that can read the chip, your transactions are processed in the same way they are today. It also does not work with online stores, as your card is “not present.” The presence of your card and therefore your chip is required for this improved level of security.

Your Purchasing Routine is About to Get a New Move

Many of you have already received a chip card from your bank. Be sure to activate, sign and replace your non-chip card with the new one. You will now have to add a new move to your check-out repertoire. Keep those swipe muscles honed, as the changeover to the new hardware will take a very long time. But it’s time to acquire the “dip” move.

Old and New Transactions

It’s very simple. Insert your chip card into the reader and leave it. Sign your name on the plastic screen with that handy stylus that’s attached to the reader while the card remains in the reader. When it beeps, remove your card and off you go. Don’t worry if the cashier has never seen it before. Don’t be discouraged that they might not be properly trained. Dip like a Boss!

It’s like those first generation ATM’s You inserted your card. the machine swallowed it while you typed in your PIN and performed your transactions. When it was finished processing it spit your card back at you.

Please embrace the EMV chip card. It will improve security.

Swipe and Dip image courtesy of Sun Trust and the Wall Street Journal with minor edits by yours truly.

Review: Logitech Harmony Smart Control Universal Remote

Harmony RemoteIt’s been a thorny problem for years. Numerous electronics devices purchased across different eras mashed together to create your home entertainment system with no simple way to integrate or control them.

To connect the components you first need to navigate the maze of cables, inputs, outputs and converters. This is not an easy chore as there are no less than 15 different possible cable types that could be part of your array of devices. Next comes the number of input and output jacks which are always limited on equipment. For example, you may want to add an Apple TV but you don’t want to use your TV speakers. Instead you want the sound to be boosted by your Audio/Video receiver which doesn’t have any HDMI inputs nor an Optical audio in jack. So you need to get an Optical to RCA converter, which also needs a power source. There are numerous other things that can pop up. You get the picture.

One way around all of this is to purchase all new equipment that connects wirelessly and use a Sound Bar that incorporates both speakers and an amplifier. As an electronics-phile, I already have thousands of dollars of perfectly good equipment and a custom wired high end speaker system. It seems wasteful to sunset that amount of investment. Besides, what I have now sounds amazing and also controls my outdoor patio speakers which I would likely lose by installing a new system indoors.

Here’s a handy chart Radio Shack has published that is very helpful as you piece together the maze of cables and inputs.

Audio Video Hook-up Guide

Once you get everything connected you’re still left with a stack of remotes that cannot be wired together. The Universal Remote has always been the purported savior to that problem, but they present their own challenges.

I have owned my share of UR’s in my time. My set-ups require RF (radio frequency) not IR (Infrared). The differences is with IR you have to have clear line of sight to all your devices and point the remote directly at the equipment for it to work. I hate seeing wires and components so I hide them in cabinets. In my bedroom they are 40 feet away from the TV buried deep in a closet. I first went with entry level models that worked fairly well for a while but never lasted more than a year. Then I broke down and purchased a high end model that required a technician to program it; total cost over $800. It’s working well and solved the issue in my bedroom, but the media room remote recently bit the dust.

I didn’t want to shell out that much money again, so I went on the research hunt, which led me to the Logitech site. They make the Harmony brand of UR’s and have been at it for quite a while. After much thought I selected the Logitech Harmony Smart Control. The list price is $129.00, but you can find them for $98.00 at many online stores.

This modest looking remote is amazing! It is surprisingly small which turns out to be a big advantage. My high end model is very long and requires you to reposition your hand while using it. The Harmony fits snugly in your palm and you can reach all the buttons using your fingers. It’s thin and has a tactile back that prevents it from sliding in your hand or on a table.

It has dual activation, meaning both IR and RF, providing high flexibility for control. It comes with a very small hub that sits inside a cabinet, connects to your home WiFi network and an IR blaster that sits outside an enclosure to control your components. My other URs required wires that would connect to the hub and then stick on the front of the components over the IR sensors. The Harmony’s IR blaster emits the signals across your room and bounces off walls, finding their way to the sensors on your components. Very, very cool.

The Harmony Smart Control software is programmed to understand thousands of brands of electronics inputs and source settings. The key is you need to invest quite a bit of time to carefully document all your component model numbers and which inputs and mode settings have been used in your current working configuration. I’m pretty savvy and it took me a while to get it all down, including pulling the cabinet out and using a flashlight to record the precise model numbers of my 10 year old Denon A/V receiver.

The set-up was also a bit time consuming but worked seamlessly. One of the ways Harmony extends the utility of this remote is through an iOS or Android app for smart phone. No app for a tablet at this time. You are guided through an interface on the app where you type in model numbers and and select inputs for the connected components. I was truly amazed at how they got all the labels from my Denon exactly right. It found all three Apple TV’s and all of my Sonos bridges and speakers in under ten seconds. There are three activity buttons that act as go to shortcuts. There are only three buttons, but each one can control two activities using a long or short push. So you’ve got six, which works fine for me.

The most impressive thing is there is almost no lag between pushing a button and the activity on the devices. It’s instant. I highly recommend this remote and love that it saved me $700.

My set-up:

  • Samsung PN60E7000 Plasma TV
  • Motorola DAC224 Cable DVR Box
  • Denon AVR-3802 Audio/Video Processor
  • Onkyo 2 Channel Amplifier M-282
  • Samsung BDP-1500 Bluray Player
  • Apple TV A1378
  • Sonos Bridges (2) and a Sonos Play Speaker
  • Monitor Audio Radius 225 High Performance Speakers
  • Monitor Audio Radius 90 Compact Wall Speakers
  • Definitive Technology ProSub 1000 Subwoofer

Image Credits: Harmony remote courtesy of Logitech, Hook up chart courtesy of Radio Shack

Radio Shack Nurtured a Culture of Everyday Technology

UnknownWe knew it was only a matter of time. We just didn’t know how much time. It appears as if that long dreaded day has arrived. By “it” I mean Radio Shack filing for bankruptcy. Radio Shack has been a staple on 4,000 American streets for decades. It was founded in 1921 by the Deutschmann brothers and was the destination of millions of dads, and moms, who walked into their local Shack in search of everything from batteries to diagnostic equipment to an additional cell phone charger. It was not a retailer that emerged because of a fashion trend or a personal hobby. No, no, no. This franchise was in search of a much more noble purpose. It provided a place where Americans could go to see, touch and purchase electronics and home technology. It was the first of its kind and the last of its kind.

The Shack was a savvy retailer—correction, merchandiser—that figured out long ago our country was headed for a serious case of addiction to the magic of technology. The tech then was radio and television waves broadcast across the landscape, captured by antennas and transformed into audio and video that arguably, had more to do with shaping this countries’ culture than almost anything else.

My father was an electrical engineer. He was constantly tinkering with the insides of radios and televisions. Capacitors, transistors, resistors, rectifiers, vacuum tubes; his workshop was full of them. I knew what a printed circuit board was when I was 8 years old. He used a slide rule to compute equations, not a calculator, and wired a Color Bar and Dot Generator to an early color television to troubleshoot problems.

IMG_5981

My Father’s Slide Rule

There’s a generation today that cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a Radio Shack, let alone consider entering one. I’ve heard some bid a happy farewell, while others never even noticed. The demise of Radio Shack is not like what happened to Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster relied on late fees to prop up revenue which is never a viable long term strategy. BV was unable to weather the digital tsunami and were completely lost when it came to the internet.

Radio Shack is not the Apple Store, not by a long shot. But it paved the way for Jobs and Cook to enjoy stunning success. How? By making electronics familiar, approachable and affordable. The Deutschmann brothers likely had no clue that their desire to bring radio equipment to the public would be laying the tracks for the digital world.

OriginalRadioShack

The Original Radio Shack Store

In contrast Radio Shack did embrace the Web and shifted lots of their sales to eCommerce. But it’s very difficult to keep a single brand relevant for decades when you’re being drowned out by new and more interesting messages. Best Buy and Circuit City came along with more ad muscle and bigger stores, further squeezing Radio Shack into smaller spaces in strip malls. Then Amazon came along and soon the American public was trained to shop by Web search and picking up their packages off the porch instead of driving to a shopping destination.

Over the years, Radio Shack saved me many times. The need for a USB extension cord, a liPo Battery voltage meter, but most often it was their small electrical parts that I needed to keep my tinkering habit fueled.

They are not going away forever. Many stores will remain while others will be taken over by the cell phone provider Sprint who will maintain some items from Radio Shack.

Another page is turned.

Decoding The Imitation Game: It Wasn’t Hard

The Movie The Imitation Game Delivers and Disappoints

THE IMITATION GAMEI was drawn to this film because of my keen interest in history and technology. During WWII Germany created The Enigma machine that coded and then uncoded messages to their military machine around the world via radio signals. The communications carried intelligence and war strategy directions, and ultimately strike orders. This code was instrumental in giving Hitler a vast head start in his desire to overtake as much of the world as possible, and it was working.

Knowing that breaking the code was critical to winning the war, the British assembled a small group of cryptographers and mathematicians, tasking them to break the Enigma code in a small facility south of London. Among them was Professor Alan Turing, a brilliant but strange mathematician and puzzle prodigy.

The Imitation Game was directed by Morten Tyldum and based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges first published in 1983. The film does indeed tell the code-braking story, but it’s through the lens of Alan Turing who was the mastermind behind the effort and architect of the machine that did so. The choice to make Turning the central story element meant the filmmakers had to veer away from the military drama and focus their storytelling on the arc of Turing’s life.

Turing is played with fine control by Benedict Cumberbatch. He delivers on the challenging task of displaying clumsy genius. He is clear in his objectives, but those goals do not compute in any society. I think he has an outside chance of being nominated for an Academy Award.

In between the fascinating bits about how the project at Bletchley Park, camouflaged as a radio factory, we learn far too much about Turing’s painful and tortured life. He was clearly “on the spectrum.” In other words not a neurotypical (NT). He could not understand how people did not speak the words they meant, instead relying heavily on subtle body language and a secret code that sent the real messages.

This plagued Turing his entire life. That coupled with his homosexuality in a culture where it was illegal, he never had a chance to find a comfortable place in society.

The film’s characters are as expected. Turing’s team at Bletchley, the crusty Commander Denniston (Charles enigma-machineDance) and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) the head of Britain’s spy organization MI1, all fulfill their duty that leads to the success of the decoding project.

Keira Knightly plays Joan Clarke, a female with a math brain who answered a newspaper ad designed to attract puzzle solvers. Once she gets past the usual hurdles, Clarke becomes Turing’s muse (term used loosely) and contributes in meaningful ways to the project. It’s not a challenging role for Ms. Knightly, but without her, this film would be even harder to watch.

The best part of this picture is the crisp pacing of the film, which I believe is largely due to the great work by William Goldenberg (editor extraordinaire). He weaves three distinct phases of Turing’s life into a seamless montage that makes this a true biopic. The director, Mr. Tyldum, has worked extensively in television and that severely handicaps him here. There is repetitive use of static shots throughout and an uninspired camera. The result is disappointing. A huge story filmed in small format.

I can appreciate wanting to be true to the times and not overuse CGI, but in my opinion, this was an opportunity missed. This could and should be two films. One about the breaking of the code, and the other about Alan Turing.

The soundtrack was composed by Alexandre Desplat, who seems to write all film scores these days. It’s his usual outing, but this time he levels his tracks, which is diametrically opposed to Turing’s personality. No matter, I believe Mr. Desplat is a genius in supporting images with music. He regularly composes twice the number of pieces per film as almost anyone else in the business, except for perhaps Hans Zimmer.

A couple more comments. How can anyone make Keira Knightly look ordinary? And. Those Brits can really keep a secret.

The film’s official web site is, like most movie digital homes, a total mess. You learn nothing new about the movie or Turing, and are subjected to navigation that requires an Enigma Machine to decode.

The-Imitation-Game-Poster-3

Images from the film by Black Bear Pictures and Bristol Automotive

Enigma machine image found on Google images. Thank you interwebs

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.