Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Do you see yourself as a Patagonia or Prada person?

A brand is really only an idea. Strictly speaking, a brand doesn't even exist.  That said, a brand is much more than just a logo or TV ads.  If your airplanes fall out of the air all the time, that's what defines you, not your social media or those other things.

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is a book featuring conversations with marketing and communications leaders, and what it mostly boils down to is that brands exist in each person's mind whoninteracts with them.

The word brand originates from long, long ago. Ancient Egyptians branded their livestock with fire. But the phrase is much older than that even. The kind of mass-market branding we think of today really originated with the UK's trademark registration act in 1874 and now, a little more than a century later, there are more than 100 brands of bottle water alone.

Debbie Millman
While people like Naomi Klein in her legendary No Logo book may consider this a good or bad thing, Brand Thinking's interviewer/author Debbie Millman is most interested in asking why we behave this way, why we split into tribes who choose one water over another, and why we proclaim our various allegiances.

Conversations in the book include:

  • Design research and the inadequacies of branding consultancies
  • Procter & Gamble's move to purpose-driven brands
  • Why wit is crucial in branding
  • Smart Design's emphasis on creating cooking tools that work for all people, from experts to novices
  • The balance between enlightenment and commodity
  • How top brands embody archetypes
Whether we see ourselves as a Patagonia person or a Prada one is entwined in all sorts of cultural, economic, spiritual, and even mysterious processes. Stay tuned as I dig through this book and dig into some of the most interesting ideas.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Janis Joplin's emotional intelligence shines through in documentary format

Don Adams of Get Smart interviewing Janis Joplin in the middle of the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue is hilarious and a fascinating glimpse at a very different time in American pop history.

I have never been a huge Joplin fan on album. But this documentary, with Chan Marshall of Cat Power narrating Joplin's letters and words and Alex Gibney who has directed great docs on Enron and Scientology, is the perfect way to enjoy her brand of "emotionally honest" blues rock.

She's mesmerizing to watch, smart, and a good-hearted person who brought the clearly inferior Big Brother and the Holding Company along for a wild ride.

Although she was perfect for her time, it would have been very interesting to see how her popularity could have unfolded in any era, like the 80s or 90s, other than the hippie late 60s.

The main reason I've never put her among the greatest is because too often she would be so drugged out of her mind that her performances were just awful, like at Woodstock, when she was spaced out with her "enabling" girlfriend on too much heroin. As she got nearer to her death at age 27, she became more and more of a caricature of herself.

None of her friends thought Joplin was going to die, but she did one last little heroin blowout and died October 4, 1970, 12 days before I was born. "Me and Bobby McGee," her biggest hit, was released months after her death.

This film biography makes a strong case for how much of a powerful preacher of love she was.
4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The good old days in Virginia apparently weren't so good (according to Mislaid)

Nell Zink's Mislaid begins as a promising examination of what life might have been like in 1960s to 1980s Virginia, but when the main character and her daughter suddenly decide to become blonde black people, it tailspins into a mess of a second half.

It peters out with no satisfying conclusion, which is a shame, because many vignettes within the thankfully pretty short novel are page turning, intriguing, and laced with smart literary references.

The story starts off in the 1960s at Stillwater College in Centerville, Virginia, where student Meg meets poet teacher Lee. They have a baby and get married and separated several years later. She runs off with their daughter and leaves him with their son. She then changes her daughter's identity from white to black, with not a lot of really clear explanation as to why. Years later they finally meet again through a chance encounter that involves their son's drug bust at the University of Virginia.

Zink gives us very little reason to care about any of the unlikeable characters and there's really nothing profound within the tricks she tries to pull regarding race, sex, and class.

The first chapter of Mislaid appeared in The New Yorker and certainly played a role in getting many people to want to read this one. But really, besides the editors at that magazine, Zink's fanbase mostly consists of Jonathan Franzen, who "discovered" her. I should have known not to read this book based on that information because I really don't want to like (even if I frequently have) Franzen's intellectually stuffed writing either.

My favorite thing about the book, actually, is the excellent mid-century, Archie Andrews/Mad Men-like artwork.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 11, 2016

Communicating transportation options, on “Talking Headways” podcast

My colleague Adam Russell wrote this up originally on Mobility Lab, about this 40-minute interview with me on the Talking Headways podcast that aired last week.

How can cities and transit agencies better reach out to commuters and guide them towards modes that aren't driving alone? How is the transportation landscape changing to include a greater breadth of transportation options?
Mobility Lab's communications director Paul Mackie recently discussed these questions and more with host Jeff Wood on the transportation and urbanism podcast Talking Headways. Referencing a communications struggle raised by previous guest Peter Norton, in which automakers dominate the culture of transportation by making cars the default "cool" mode, Mackie said the transit and active transportation industry has its communications battle cut out for itself:
“Maybe public transportation can’t afford to have 20 Super Bowls [like the car companies], but it feels like we’re so defensive. [The industry] reinforces the idea that biking, walking, and taking transit are unsafe activities, maybe even unfriendly activities. Why don’t we tell more positive stories about public transportation?”
Catch this discussion on the below episode of Talking Headways:
Photo by Sam Kittner, for Mobility Lab (

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Brian Wilson finds "Love & Mercy" in the 1960s and 1980s

Somehow I've never actually listed my 100 favorite musical acts (could have sworn I had, but a search of this blog turns up zilch). If I had, The Beach Boys would definitely be in my top 10, if not bordering on top 5.

So of course the recent movie Love & Mercy can't do much wrong in my eyes - there's always room for telling more parts of the story of leader Brian Wilson's life.

This one focuses on the eras when Brian was beginning to hear voices in his head, putting together the masterpieces that would be Pet Sounds and Smile and the end of the 80s and early 90s when he was under the prescriptive spell of Dr. Eugene Landy (played as needed, with no trace of likability, by Paul Giamatti).

The movie starts slowly, perhaps overstepping its dramatic aims, literally journeying into Wilson's ear before he buys a Cadillac from Elizabeth Banks's character, Melinda Ledbetter, who goes on to marry Wilson.

But the many scenes with Paul Dano (as a dead ringer for the young Brian) pay amazing attention to detail and are surprisingly excellent considering it's all been told before. John Cusack's scenes playing the older version of Brian are not as plentiful and don't work as well (partly because Cusack's casting is such a stretch); however, that part of the story has been less documented, so it's interesting material.

Some of the best scenes are when Dano directs a magical symphony that would turn into "God Only Knows" and other late-60s classics. Likewise, Cusack falling in love with Banks's character at Griffith Observatory above L.A. is touching, especially seeing how Wilson could still love a little under Giamatti's spell of prescriptions for supposed schizophrenia, under which he stayed in bed for most of three years letting himself deteriorate.

One of my favorite scenes is when the actual Brian Wilson plays my favorite of his solo songs, the titular "Love & Mercy." Beautiful, and heart-wrenching (see the video below), especially knowing the circumstances in which he wrote it.

4 of 5 stars

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Mike and Dave may not be for critics, but it is for those who want to laugh

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is the perfect kind of movie to be panned by critics who are way too uptight to be caught approving of such low-brow taste.

That said, it's also the perfect entertainment to kill a couple of rainy late-afternoon hours in Johnstown, New York.

Zak Efron keeps up his muscle-assisted winning streak after Neighbors (like this movie, written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien) as a likable but self-admittedly dumb brother to slightly-more-annoying but still funny Adam Devine, who had a semi-funny 21-episode run on Modern Family.

Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed and Parks and Recreation) is always captivating. She and Anna Kendrick begin the movie as sleazeballs hoping to connive their way into a trip to Hawaii with the brothers, who have been forced by their parents to take nice dates in order to keep them from prowling the wedding for girls.

The girls turn likable, watchable, and funny after becoming nice. The movie has a surprising amount of laughs throughout, including an uproarious massage scene, an ATV ride in Jurassic Park, and a wedding speech/songs by the brothers at the end.

Perhaps what's most remarkable of all is that Mike and Dave is based on a true story about two brothers going to a wedding in Saratoga, New York who truly took out a Craigslist ad that went viral with hundreds of girls responding.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Friday, July 8, 2016

Bill Murray takes Kabul by storm as a loser music agent

The latest Bill Murray vehicle is directed by Barry Levinson, the Baltimore director of offbeat dramedies like Diner, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, The Natural, Wag the Dog, and now Rock the Kasbah.

A lot like Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm (which was OK, but which I failed to review here) going to another country to find a superstar baseball player, Murray goes to Afghanistan as a music agent who finds an amazing singer in a land where singing as a woman can end very badly. Being a Bill-Murray-style wisecracker isn't such a great idea either, but he talks his female singer's way onto the country's version of American Idol. Based on a true story, she becomes the first woman ever on the show and sings English, versions of Cat Stevens's "Wild World" and "Peace Train" that, respectively, stun and captivate the country.

Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, and Danny McBride have supporting roles but really don't leave much of an impression. It's Murray who remains captivating throughout, even if he isn't always working with the best material.

And while he's always highly watchable, there are also a smattering of hilarious moments, like when a soldier walks into a room to find Murray tied up wearing a diaper and says, "I ain't never seen anything like this. Murray responds, "Well, it's wartime son." Or when he sings Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" in the shower, or "Smoke on the Water" in front of unimpressed locals. Or his conversations with his disco-loving, Madonna-obsessed Kabul cab driver.

The critics didn't like Rock the Kasbah, but for anyone who loves Bill Murray like I do, there's really no reason to skip this perfectly enjoyable minor tale.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My favorite 18 Steven Spielberg movies

With The BFG now providing a decent opportunity to take the kids to the movies (despite early reports that it's a dud), this is the perfect time to take a look back and rank the films of one of the modern movie masters, Steven Spielberg.

Drumroll ...

18. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
17. "Kick the Can" from The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), with Scatman Crothers and Burgess Meredith in a joyous short that imagines the residents of a retirement home finding the fountain of youth.
16. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
15. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
14. Amistad (1997)
13. Minority Report (2002)
12. Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade (1989)
11. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
10. Lincoln (2012)
09. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
08. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1997)
07. Poltergeist (1982)
06. Jurassic Park (1993)
05. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
04. Schindler's List (1993)
03. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
02. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
01. Jaws (1975)

It's very difficult to pick Jaws over E.T., which is the one movie that makes me cry no matter how many times I've seen it. But then again, Jaws may be the scariest movie ever, and fear is a powerful thing. A case could be made that no director's best 10 films make up a stronger top 10 than these ones from Spielberg.

And then there are the many that I actually have to admit I've never seen (or possibly completely forgotten): 1941, Hook, The Adventures of Tintin, War of the Worlds, War Horse, The Sugarland Express, Empire of the Sun, The Terminal, Bridge of Spies, Munich, and The Color Purple. Of these, are there one or two I absolutely need to check out and possibly add to this list?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Could a little lake in the Adirondacks have the best fireworks show in America?

Every year, I vacation in upstate New York during the Fourth of July week. Doesn't seem like there would be much of a fireworks show on a lake in the Adirondacks, right?

Well, every year we end up marveling at the display put on by our neighbors (swimming-pool magnates), who entertain people partying at the house, watching from boats in the water, and along the stretching road in front of their house.

And every year I say that this private show seems every bit as big as the fireworks back home in Washington D.C. Sounds preposterous, I know, seeing as D.C. has what is routinely considered the best fireworks in the country alongside the Macy's event in New York City.

I don't know the actual answer, so I'll go on thinking we get the best personalized Fourth of July fireworks show, right up there with big-time shindigs in San Diego, Philadelphia, San Francisco and others listed by USA Today as the "top 10 fireworks cities in the U.S."

Saturday, July 2, 2016

UFO mysteries and Americana in Upstate New York for the Fourth of July

The village of Northville, New York may only have about 1,000 residents, but it knows how to throw a Fourth of July parade.

We took the kids there for the hour-long event today and the streets brimmed with people enjoying the height of Americana, with marching bands, bagpipes, muscle cars, fire trucks, and more from throughout the Sacandaga region of the souther Adirondacks.

Northville was once a high hill, but when the valley was flooded for the Sacandaga Reservoir in 1930, the new lake came right up to the village line. Today there were long lines of cars leaving after the parade to cross back across the lake and onto New York Route 30.

It's a really cute little place about 20 minutes north of my wife Rachel's family's lake house near Mayfield. We bought our Adirondack dinning room table set there, and it has a five-and-dime store (pictured) that overflowed with just about everyone from the parade, as streams of children filled the place to get candy and toys from their parents.

Northville even has a pop-culture claim to fame. Although the episode wasn't actually shot there, producers allegedly called town leaders to get factual details of how an X-Files alien abduction could be set in the town, with investigators in the story even finding a UFO at the bottom of Lake Sacandaga.

Galveston, Texas, even in the summer heat, has its charms

Houston and San Diego are the last two major cities in the U.S. that I have yet to visit. And despite flying into Houston last weekend, I still need to leave it on the list because the family hightailed it straight to a wedding we attended in Galveston, Texas.

I had always been intrigued by this city on the coast because "Galveston" is one of Glen Campbell's most excellent country cowboy pop tunes. There is admittedly not a lot to do in the somewhat depressed beach town with oil rigs parked offshore, but it oddly has some beauty to it nevertheless.
From a city-planning perspective, one major design that could make the place much much better is to remove the multi-lane thoroughfare from right alongside what should be prime beachfront property. Even though the sidewalks are plenty wide enough to bike or stroll down, it's unpleasant to walk alongside traffic congestion in what should be a much more attractive view.

However, when you have a fancy swimming pool at the haunted Gálvez resort next to our AirBnB, a boardwalk amusement park (somehow I'm much more nauseated by the small rides these days than the big ones), and lots of extended fun family members, Galveston is not a bad place to spend a 100-degree early-summer weekend. And in that kind of heat, walking between the road and the water isn't necessarily something worth doing for too long anyway.