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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Somnec, Polls and a New Foundation

Can the pollsters adapt?  What does everyone who's depended on them to confidently provide prognostications do in the interim?

It's when we start questioning the premises we've clung to that we begin to realize we've been hibernating in an organizational structure stasis while the world evolves around us. 

How we do governance.  How we design the work day and manage transit flows.  Work-life balance.  Information flow - messaging vs communication, selling vs adaptation.  How we define value.

Lots has changed while we've been complacently going about our routines.  The hurdles we now have to overcome are daunting, but not insurmountable.

There's only one way to go the distance - and that's by pulling in the same direction together.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

#duffypickuplines: Social Accountability and the Meme Meat Market

Senator Duffy Repays Inappropriate $90K Gift from PM’s Chief of Staff (Received to Repay Inappropriate $90K Expense Claim)

"My place, or my place?"
"You compensate me."

Here's why the Conservative Party of Canada ought to love the Duffy meme - it's a perfect example of everything they used to stand for.  Social accountability? Check! Using highly critical humor to pillory someone you've identified as tax-dollar gobbler? I guess they still kinda do that, unless it's one of their own (but not staff, because they don't count).

Above all, though, the #duffypickuplines meme is a great example of how the free market really works: people are competing to come up with the funniest, most biting line.  Wanting to get public recognition for their wittiness, folk are tweeting and retweeting their lines, while the really catchy ones get mass-tweeted organically.  It also helps to have celebrity endorsements, like a retweet from Andrew Coyne.  Of course, some novel folk come up with the idea of posting rather than retweeting someone's line, trying to sound more witty than they are.  You get a lot of that in the free market, too.

Everyone is producing and consuming in a specific market space, generating demand for more of the same, creating more options for jokes to choose from.

It's the market place for ideas.  And it looks an awful lot like a meat market - the branding, the wingmen and sheer volume is what generates attraction, or failing that - originality.  Money isn't the goal here, as it never is - it's brand, klout, power that has ultimate appeal.  That's why so many people are dedicating unpaid time in trying to one-up each other; it's the status, stupid!

Is any of this useful in terms of economic growth? Perhaps not directly, but the decline of civility, planning and transparency in government hasn't been good either.  The whole meme movement is a modern-day shivaree, reminding the Duffys of the world that new House or not, it's OUR world he lives in and our money he's playing with.  The underlying theme is that of the collective holding an individual accountable.

There's an interesting parallel here; Anonymous couldn't exit without the Internet and is seen as a bit of an E-Vigilante.  Memes, on the other hand, equates to the mob - they don't need to be faceless because they are the face of society.

In response to all this free market of ideas tweetishness, the goal of Team Harper will be to change the channel by attacking something else or convincing themselves waiting it out will work.  Both, oddly enough, are limbic reactions to threat.  Laissez-faire, it would seem, doesn't work so well when accountability's involved.

Meanwhile, someone's sitting at a desk somewhere with a quiet smile, knowing that they got the ball rolling by coming up with the hashtag in the first place.  Everyone's had a laugh and pushed each other further, but by the very act of being selfish, they have promoted the basic message.

There's something in that.
Aaron Lynett / National Post

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Equal vs Equitable Opportunity

I don't want my sons to have the same opportunities as me.

In fact, I'm certain they won't - many of the opportunities I had, like being among the first to use a scroll-ball computer in small-town school would be of little use to them in their modern context.  While I enjoyed growing up in a small town, they will enjoy growing up in a big city - a different experience providing different value.  They likely won't know what they've lost any more than they'll know what they gained; such is the nature of experience.

The goal isn't to have my kids be a replica of me; the context of my youth simply doesn't exist any more.  If I had started off with the exact same opportunities as my parents had, I would have been at a significant disadvantage.  It's not about ensuring equal access for subsequent generations to horses and bayonets, but empowering them to maximize their use of tomorrow's tools.

For the same reason, I don't want a deaf child, or the child of refugee parents, or a child with severe OCD to have the exact same opportunities my kids have.  If I want my son to live in the safest, most opportunity-filled world possible, it's in my best interest to ensure all kids have the tools they need to succeed and offer meaningful contributions to the world.  Simply offering them all the same opportunities doesn't do that.

By ensuring the deaf child has the necessary supports to achieve their maximum potential; to help the child of refugee child bridge language, cultural and experiential gaps and ensuring the child with OCD has the internal and external supports they need to function at their best, I'm motivating them, empowering them and creating a better environment for my sons to thrive in.
At the same time, I'm exposing my own child to more diversity from which he can learn and daily examples proving that nothing needs to hold you back, given the right accommodations and support.

That's not about equal opportunity - truly, no two people are created equal.  It's about providing equitable opportunity, ensuring everyone has the accommodations they need to reach and contribute their personal maximum potential.

This isn't something people are instinctively good at - after all, our lenses on the world are shaped by our own experience.   If we aren't exposed to diversity (of language, culture, technology, differing forms of social interaction) we have precious little cognitive capital to start with - this is why I don't bemoan the fact I didn't grow up on a farm any more than my kids feel the loss of not growing up in a small town.  
If you aren't familiar with, say, the cultural depth of Cantonese, you might think a native Cantonese speaker is dumb for not getting your ironic jokes.  If you don't know how OCD works, the person suffering from it might seem to be annoying and stubborn - and you might not know how to look past your own feelings to find the value offering they present.

We have a society that's largely predicated on independent, individual achievement without sufficient thought given to context.  It was easy, natural even for Mitt Romney to decry the 47%; it validated his position of laissez-faire governance much as the same inaction was justified by those who dismissed Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement.

It is a great challenge for the disadvantaged of this world to get into the head space of society's Class of Success; were it easier, they'd be in that class themselves.  This is why it's so encouraging to know that people who have overcome personal challenges to find success - people like the Economic Club of Canada President Rhiannon Traill or Public Servant Katie Kilmartin, who is deaf - are driven to create equitable opportunities for success among their peers, helping to bridge the gap between their worlds.

There's another way to bridge this gap; those with resources are far better positioned to explore the world if the disadvantaged than the reverse.  By participating (not just donating) in charitable activities in marginalised communities, the well to-do of the world can see first-hand how great a chasm of experience and opportunity exists between success and far too many people in this world.  With that understanding and a sense of how success is achieved, these 1% can also serve to bridge the gap.
This is not idealistic, nor is it irrationally optimistic.  It's simply good planning.

Monday 13 May 2013

How Advertisers Can More Effectively Engage Consumers on Pinterest (Tony Zito)

At the end of last year, Pinterest introduced business accounts in response to the growing amount of companies that were making their presence known on the social media network. So if you're an advertiser that hasn't yet incorporated Pinterest into your digital marketing strategy, now is the time. Especially when you consider that, as the site continues to evolve, Pinterest is investing more resources in helping businesses get the most from it.
We've all heard the impressive stat that 47 percent of U.S. online consumers have made a purchase based on recommendations from Pinterest. What can advertisers do to boost that number and more effectively engage consumers on the site?
With this question in mind, here are some recommendations to help advertisers expand their Pinterest presence.
Build a community. It's a social network after all, so why not build a community with your biggest pinners? You can recognize and reward them through contests or sneak peeks at upcoming product lines while also getting valuable insight about your business and adding a human touch to the online experience.
Collaborate. Work within your specific business community as well as the Pinterest community at large by sharing, following, and repinning their images. For example, a home furnishings store may have a community of professional interior decorators as well as hobbyists who will exchange images that spark new ideas. When you authentically engage with other Pinterest users and recognize their efforts, you'll be able to attract them to your boards.
Create specialized boards. Go beyond simply posting images to your company's board. Instead, think about themes and events and create specialized boards that are specific to those themes or trends.
For example, a wedding board or a back-to-school board that groups related items would hold a consumer's interest as she considers making purchases. Other types of boards you may want to create are daily specials as well as boards that highlight those of your images that are most pinned by users.
Drive traffic through different sites. We all know Pinterest is one of the best drivers of traffic, but it doesn't happen on its own. Be sure to insert Pin It buttons throughout your website, on your blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and display ads. This makes it easier for fans and followers to repin your images.
Focus on fabulous images. Everybody says to make sure your images look great. But more specifically, here's a list of best practices to keep in mind with regard to your images:
  • Avoid pixelated images and make sure the images aren't too big, too small, or too tall, and don't exceed 554 pixels.
  • Don't take images from Google; instead, find and cite the original source.
  • Don't pin Flash content in your banners.
  • Test the images on your own Pinterest account first.
  • Always include descriptions.
  • Combine text and images if you're leading a visitor to a do-it-yourself guide. In fact, the click-through rates for tutorials and DIY pins are 42 percent higher.
  • Note that breathtaking locations and delicious meals are among the most repinned images.
  • Keep in mind that pins related to trending topics see an average of 94 percent increase in click-throughs.
  • If you're going to use an infographic, use an abbreviated version on Pinterest and then lead visitors to your site where they can see the full image.
Write as if your livelihood depended on it. It's easy to overlook the job of writing the descriptions that go along with the images. Yet this is exactly where you want to assign your best copywriters and make sure those descriptions sing with riveting and pithy prose.
Visualize through videos. A lot of advertisers wonder whether they should post videos on Pinterest. The short answer is yes. However, before you share your video library, keep the following in mind:
  • Be selective. You know from your website, YouTube, and Vimeo traffic data which videos are most popular, so only include those on Pinterest.
  • Include a great cover image and enticing thumbnails to go with the video.
  • Add annotations with clear calls-to-action. Interestingly, pins with calls-to-action see an 80 percent increase in engagement.
  • Remember that short, punchy videos are the key to attracting and engaging users.
  • Always accurately depict the video content in the titles, descriptions, and tags.
Track your reach and measure your impact. As your company's presence evolves on the site and your reach grows exponentially through pinning and repinning, you'll want to track your reach and regularly assess your progress.
Here are five ways to do this:
  1. Type in the following URL: (with your actual domain name inserted in place of This will bring you to a page that allows you to track activities including what's being pinned from your site, who is pinning it, etc.
  2. Work with a Pinterest analytics company such as Curalate or Pinfluencer as another source for measuring your reach and impact on Pinterest.
  3. Google Analytics is also a popular way to assess your performance.
  4. Use image tagging tools such as those from startup Stipple that automate the tagging of images as they travel throughout the web.
  5. Work with display and retargeting companies that have Pinterest expertise. Make sure they offer tools that ensure items in your product feed can be pinned directly to Pinterest without requiring any intermediary steps, and that those feeds and their associated engagement can be accurately measured.
While the advertising industry is still uncovering new ways to monetize Pinterest, those advertisers who invest in experimentation and mastery now will be poised for success as others struggle to play catch-up.

As the Buy Funnel Evolves, Here Are 4 SEM Metrics You Should Consider (Kevin Lee)

Admit it. You are a slave to your SEM direct response metrics, even when you use attribution models or assign an "assist" value within search - or across search and other digital media. However, an exclusive focus on direct response metrics may cause you to miss out on opportunities to invest in your business for the long term. As a savvy search engine marketer, you likely deserve access to branding budgets - not just direct response money. But if you're not factoring in SEM's ability to generate awareness and influence eventual purchase behavior, your chances of gaining access to these budgets is slim.
Most advertising dollars outside of search engine advertising are used to generate awareness and change brand preference at the product, retailer, or service provider level. Many folks call the metrics used to drive awareness and preference "branding metrics." In the old-school way of thinking about the buying funnel we have:
  • Awareness. In some cases advertising is as much about awareness of a problem as it is about awareness of a specific brand. Pharmaceutical advertising, for example, often educates consumers that there is a fix for a problem they are living with.
  • Familiarity/opinion (not always used or measured as a stage). This stage describes the fact that there is a recall of a brand or company in relation to a specific industry category, product category, problem, or solution.
  • Consideration (sometimes called refinement). Only a few make it into the consideration set. Search can play a major role in assuring inclusion in the consideration set.
  • Preference (brand, store, or service provider). At some point, the decision as to preference is made. This can be very proximal to the sale, and in retail can occur at the store (physical or virtual/online).
  • Purchase.
  • Loyalty (not applicable in every business, but applicable in most).
Google Analytics even has a "Goal Funnel Visualization" tool that assists you in understanding the portions of behavior that occur on your site. However, we know that lots of touch points the consumer has with your company and brand occur outside of your site, including the web, social media, the regular press, the online press/blogosphere, retail stores, the SERP, and any other place where your brand could be mentioned.
Clearly, the old-school marketing funnel has evolved over time. Recent changes have included the addition of feedback loops to illustrate any repeat purchase behavior that might occur at the brand, retailer, or service provider level. For example, McKinsey published a report titled, "The consumer decision journey," in which the company used an illustration of the consumer decision-making process as a "circular journey with four phases." The reality is that when one thinks about search engine marketing, online marketing, and marketing more broadly, one can still use the existing funnel but add the concepts of trigger events and the concepts of influencers. Sometimes the two can be one and the same. Triggers are critical because they are the catalyst that gets consumers off their butts and into buying mode.
The explosion of social media that has made more visible the phenomenon of influencers is causing a wave of research, testing, and strategy around the value and role of influencers in the purchase decision process. Searchers don't search in a vacuum: something triggers that search and that's why the search behavior lines up really well with the trigger event used in the newfangled marketing funnels and marketing ovals.
To succeed long term in search, it's helpful to not only use the new way of thinking about the purchase decision process and a more advanced funnel paradigm, but also to add success metrics to our SEM campaigns that reflect the reality of how consumers buy and make purchase decisions.
Even for the best performing sites, the vast majority of visitors don't convert using your sales or lead-gen metrics and KPIs. This means you need to serve the needs of the early stage researcher and visitor. Since you've set yourself up to do that, it makes perfect sense to allocate some branding dollars to the SEM campaigns.
Consider these four metrics:
  1. Pages per click: How many pages of your site do visitors see after visiting and how do these change based on keyword, time of day, day of week, geography, and any other targeting variables at your disposal? Make sure that your site is informational and serves the needs of those visitors in the early stages of the decision-making process. The more engaging your site, the more pages per visitor and therefore pages per click you'll get.
  2. Cost per page view: Once you know how many pages the visitors are consuming, you can also factor in the cost of the visitor from search (or, for that matter, other paid media).
  3. Cost per touch point: Visitors are registering using good old-fashioned email, and increasingly they are liking, following, and engaging with you via social media.
  4. Cost per influence point: Not all social media followers are equal. The tools that can assign influencer value are just starting to evolve. Klout and Kred are just two of them and my team actually has an influence score we are working on that is node specific (not everyone is influential in every subject).
If you are only managing search to direct response metrics but have long-term P&L responsibility - and even if you don't - perhaps it's time to help your customers move down the funnel, regardless of what shape it is.

What if the ‘mass media’ era was just an accident of history? (Mathew Ingram)

We are used to thinking of a “mass media” market made up of large newspapers and TV networks as the normal state of affairs in media, but what if that was just a historical anomaly?
When it comes to the traditional media business, there is often a pervasive nostalgia for “the good old days,” when a handful of newspapers and TV networks ruled over the media landscape and profitability was so taken for granted that huge family dynasties with names like Sulzberger and Bancroft were built on that foundation. Many media executives no doubt dream about magically returning to such a time. But what if those days were just an illusion — a kind of accident of history? What would that mean for the future of media?
This idea has come up before, but I was reminded of it when I read a Nieman Journalism Lab post about some research being done by Lee Humphreys, looking at the way that communication — and particularly personal communication, through letters and diaries and other pre-digital tools of expression. Although this doesn’t seem to have much to do with how we use ultra-modern services like Twitter or Facebook, there is a lot more to it than you might think.

Media has always been personal and social

Kid playing telephone
As Humphreys describes it, her research shows that if you look at human communication over a longer period than just the past generation or two, it becomes obvious that one-way, broadcast-style “mass media” isn’t the norm at all — instead, the norm is interpersonal or multi-directional communication that shares a lot more with social media such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Rather than creating a new communication style, we are actually returning to one.
“Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.”
For example, Humphreys says that the idea of diaries or journals as private things — which their owners hide underneath a mattress or keep in a secret place under lock and key — is a fairly new one. As recently as the late 19th century, it was common for people to read each other’s journals as a way of catching up with what they had been doing, and in many cases this was done with the author of the journal taking part in the discussion. In that sense, journals were a mix of private and public, in much the same way that social media is.
Although the Nieman Lab post doesn’t mention it, there was also the idea of a “commonplace book,” which was a kind of paper version of a blog, a place where people would keep snatches of text or ideas that they came across, and then share that with others. Famous writers such as John Milton and Ralph Waldo Emerson kept commonplace books, and the phenomenon is seen by many as a prelude to what would become the “remix culture” of today.

The era of mass media is over

Social media
The idea that mass media was a kind of historical accident has been raised by others as well, including Tom Standage of The Economistboth in his upcoming book, called “Writing on the Wall,” and in a series of pieces in the magazine about the nature of digital media. The latter described how the interconnected qualities of social media and “networked journalism” mirrored the way that media used to function before newspapers were invented, when the local tavern or coffee house was the center of the information ecosystem. The title of his book, Standage says, also refers to:
“The ominous implications of the rebirth of social media for mass-media companies that arose in the industrial era, predicated on the high cost of delivering information to large audiences. The conclusion of the book is that the mass-media era was a historical anomaly… indeed, it might better be termed the ‘mass-media parenthesis.’”
If this is in fact what we are experiencing — that is, the unbundling or dismantling of a mass-media infrastructure that was constructed to serve the needs of readers (and advertisers) at a specific time in history — then what can we expect? Among other things, probably further downsizing and layoffs and bankruptcies of media companies whose size and cost structure and print focus no longer corresponds to the needs of the marketplace.
And on the positive side, we are also likely to see the growth of new entities that take advantage of the networked, social and smaller-scale nature of the media ecosystem — startups like Circa, for example, or algorithmic players like Prismatic, along with larger entities like The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. In a very real sense, it is both the best of times and the worst of times.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Feng Yu and Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa

The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective: ‘The Fountain’

by Christopher Runyon

The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we are taking a look at the short, recent, yet incredibly distinctive list of films from Darren Aronofsky.
Where to even begin with this one…
The Fountain–what was meant to be Aronofsky’s splash into mainstream, Hollywood filmmaking–was originally supposed to be a hundred-or-so million dollar epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that spanned thousands of years, set everywhere from Mayan ruins to outer space, and with three intertwining stories depicting the eternal struggle between life and death.
A project this ambitious for a mega-budget studio film was simply not meant to be. Brad Pitt left the project to star in the safer, more generic Troy, and the film was subsequently shut down. But like all of the protagonists he’s written, Aronofsky doesn’t give up so easily, even if it means his downfall. He rewrote the script to accommodate a lower budget, got Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz to replace the original leads, and ended up getting the damn thing made.
And the result was one of the most divisive films of all time. When it premiered at Cannes for press and critics, it was met with a choir of boos. Meanwhile, when it was premiered in that very same festival for regular audiences, it received a standing ovation from the crowd. When it finally released for the public in theaters, it bombed at the box office and received none other than a 50% consensus rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And now, as more than 6 years have passed, it’s garnered something of a cult-following.
To many, it’s considered Aronofsky’s one true failure. To others, it’s a fascinatingly ambitious failure that’s more admired than enjoyed. And for weirdos like me, it’s a modern masterpiece. For today’s spoiler-filled installment of The Darren Aronofsky Retrospective, we take a gander at the director’s much-maligned, increasingly-loved, almost totally misunderstood gem, The Fountain.
fountain 5
“Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of confinement. But fear not. All flesh decays. Death turns all to ash. And thus, death frees every soul.”
In case you didn’t figure it out the last two times, the main theme connecting every one of Darren Aronofsky’s films is of obsession, with each one representing different types. Pi dealt with the direct obsession of mathematics and patterns, and how they related to the construction of the universe. Requiem for a Dream was about the visceral obsessions caused by drug addiction, and how those very desires and euphorias ended up deteriorating the mind.
Meanwhile, the obsession at the center of The Fountain might be the most outlandish one Aronofsky has ever put to screen: The three protagonists of The Fountain are each on an existential quest to defeat Death. No, not the Grim Reaper, but the very concept of Death itself. No more dying, no more grief, just the comfort of existence outside of the great beyond. And you thought Ellen Burstyn was off her rocker for trying to fit into a skinny red dress.
The film is broken up into three separate stories, each one intercut and connected with the others in a style that was definitely a clear inspiration for the 2012 film Cloud Atlas, and with each segment starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles. The one set in the 1500s follows a Spanish Conquistador named Tomas (Jackman) who is searching for the fabled Tree of Life so he could save his beloved Queen (Weisz) from the Inquisition. 500 years later, in the present day, a doctor named Tommy Creo (Also Jackman) is attempting to search for a cure for his wife Izzy’s cancer before she (Also Weisz) eventually succumbs to the disease. Another 500 years later, an unnamed astronaut (Credited as Tom, played again by Jackman) is floating in the far reaches of space in a biosphere holding the Tree of Life. As he journeys to the mythical nebula of Xibalba, he’s haunted by memories of a ghostly Izzy, who continually goads him to look back at the past and “Finish it.” Whatever that means.
When the film originally released in 2006, the main criticisms leveled against it regarded its ambition. That it attempted to tell this grand, epic story spanning a thousand years that dealt with the metaphysical and the existential, using a mixture of Judeo-Christian and Mayan religious texts to give the story a grand, majestic, mythological stature… and that the movie ultimately crumbled under the weight of its myriad ideas. And here’s the thing: The critics are, in a way, kind of right. At 90 minutes, there was no way it could really expand on its concepts in a way that would satisfy those hungering for something with a surplus of philosophical depth, nor would it be able to capture the full breadth and scope of a story set within a 1000 year time-frame.
And yet, the film is a masterpiece, at least in the eyes of this overly romantic critic with a penchant to deeply respect anything of enormous ambition. Why? Because even with all the religious and philosophical mumbo-jumbo weighing on the film, they are ultimately not the main focus. What appears on the surface to be an odyssey through time, the cosmos, and the cycle of life itself, is in actuality one of the most deeply personal films of all time, next to classics like The 400 Blows and 8 1/2, as well as modern works of brilliance like The Tree of Life, Synecdoche New York, and Holy Motors. What may seem at first glance like a 2001: A Space Odyssey quickly reveals itself to be something more emotionally rich: A profoundly personal depiction of grief and its effects on the human psyche.
fountain 3
To understand what makes The Fountain such a personal endeavor for Aronofsky requires a small tidbit of backstory: One of the inspirations of the film was actually Aronofsky’s own experiences with dealing with mortality. In interviews, he’s stated how, in 1999, both of his parents were diagnosed with cancer when he was just thirty years old. Upon this discovery, he was forced to come to terms with his own mortality at a relatively early age, and then got the idea of a man attempting to save a loved one from an illness. He shared his idea to Ari Handel, a college friend who would later earn a PhD in neuroscience and become Aronofsky’s co-writer for the film, and the idea eventually blossomed into the story of a man attempting to cure the ultimate disease: Death.
As stated before, the initial criticisms were that of a film that didn’t know how to properly convey its numerous ambitious ideas. In reality, what these critics didn’t know was that this wasn’t a film about unlocking the secrets of life, death, and the meaning of the universe. Rather, The Fountain is a film about how we process death, and the existential crises that happen not within the vast reaches of the cosmos but within our very own subconscious.
The film has three protagonists, each one attempting to stop the process of dying from stealing away a loved one. Tomas must find the Tree to rescue his Queen, Tommy must discover a cure to save his Wife, and Tom must reach Xibalba to restore the Tree. But the authenticity of the stories is constantly toyed with as the film progresses. At first, we seem to accept that there’s some kind of Cloud Atlas thing going on where the soul of the Conquistador passed down to Tommy the neuroscientist, who may in fact be the younger version of the Tom we see in the future storyline (given the flashbacks to his wife). But then, we see that the Conquistador story is actually part of Izzy’s book. So that leaves the present-day and future storylines as the “real” canon, right? Soon, it doesn’t seem that way when Tom the astronaut starts having visions of the Queen of Spain urging him to “Finish it” as well.
When trying to figure out what this all means as someone expecting a film similar to 2001 where there’s philosophical, cosmological subtext to be found, there will inevitably be disappointment. Upon seeing it for what it actually is, however, it’s an emotionally rewarding experience. Izzy’s book (Which is titled, what else, The Fountain) depicting Tomas the Conquistador’s search for the Tree is much richer when seen from Izzy’s point of view of writing it. The casting of Jackman and Weisz as characters in the story is key to this as well. Izzy is clearly writing the book as a means of coping with her own mortality, and leaves the last chapter blank so Tommy can finish it and learn the lessons she did himself.
This leaves the future storyline, which is much more enigmatic in its nature. There are many good theories on what the space-set story represents, but the one that makes the most thematic sense is this: The story of Tom the astronaut is the final chapter of Izzy’s book, the one that Tommy is “finishing”, in which Tom ends his journey by learning to literally give up his quest and find peace in death. The result is a multi-layered depiction of grief that creates a strong emotional arc for the central character of Tommy.

fountain 4
Tommy must deal with the grief of his wife’s death by literally looking back into the past–both figuratively with Izzy’s book, and literally with the lesson Izzy was trying to teach him–in order to finish the pain of his grief. Meanwhile, in order to actually do so, he has to end it himself by finishing Izzy’s book and killing off Tomas, a character Izzy clearly meant to represent Tommy. But that wasn’t enough.
The creation of Tom the astronaut means many things to me. It’s ultimately the most direct visualization of the grieving process in the film: A single man, alone in the vast nothingness of space, with nothing else to keep him company but the Tree, a reminder of how he failed to save her, and a symbol of his unwillingness to let go of his lover’s memory. He traverses to Xibalba, a golden nebula where stars are born, its glow wrapping around Tom and his biosphere, teeming with a liveliness that he ultimately rejects in order to go further on his journey. As he ascends, he’s haunted by memories of Izzy & forced to confront the vastness of the cosmos and, as a result, the enigma of what lies beyond the grave. Finally, he reaches the star at the center: A dying star that, as Izzy pointed out in her research of Mayan culture, represents the Underworld in their mythology. To Tom, on the other hand, it’s the physical representation of the truth behind death that he must exploit to revive the Tree, and thus, defeat Death itself.
Instead of doing that, however, he sees the Queen of Spain, who was supposed to just be in Izzy’s book meant to teach Tommy his lesson, and in that moment he finally understands: He says, “I’m going to die,” with a sense of relief and deep satisfaction in his trembling, quivering voice. And through the lessons of the past, Tom can finally accept his destiny in the future.
However, the most fascinating thing about Tom’s journey is not how he comes to embody Tommy’s emotional arc. There’s actually more to it than just that. For example, if you were reading Izzy’s book, wouldn’t you find it odd that as you’re reading this fictionalized account of a Conquistador during the years of the Spanish Inquisition, you’re introduced to a character in the far future that’s never been referenced to before, haunted by memories of a character never seen before? But then, a realization: The memory that haunts Tom is Izzy, who is definitely not a fictional character in this movie’s universe. So imagine yourself reading this book, and in the final chapter, this character who you’ve never met before is mourning the death of the author of the very book you’re currently reading.
At that point, it becomes absolutely clear: Tom is not an embodiment of Tommy’s grief. Rather, Tommy literally wrote himself into the story. Think about it, in order to complete both the book and his emotional arc/grieving process, he had to insert himself into the narrative in order to externalize his grief and overcome it. If that’s not an apt metaphor for an artist like Darren Aronofsky making a deeply personal experience about coping with mortality, then nothing is.
The Fountain isn’t a film about unlocking the secrets of the universe. It’s a film, like his feature debut Pi, about learning to live without them. Search for order, and only chaos will infect your life. Embrace the chaos, however, and the world feels like it has more order than ever before.
fountain 2

So that’s ultimately what makes The Fountain something akin to Aronofsky’s 8 1/2, but how does the film employ his signature techniques?
If you’d seen just Pi and Requiem for a Dream, you’d almost be totally unaware that this was an Aronofsky film. Whereas those films were gritty and kinetic, The Fountain is vibrant, fantastical, and more gradual in its pacing. The film marks a huge evolution for Aronofsky’s style, displaying the first real proof of his incredible range as a director. He has a Danny Boyle-esque way of being able to assimilate into almost any kind of genre or style of filmmaking while retaining his own signature, distinct stamp on the project.
As different as the film feels at first, there are numerous techniques that remain the same. Matthew Libatique returns as Aronofsky’s director of photography for the third time in a row, saturating the film with a majestic, golden color palette. Meanwhile, the lighting and production design litter the film with little touches to each story that subtly connect the stories in interesting, visual ways. Some are much more noticeable, like a shot of a Mayan ruin turning out to be just a painting in the present-day storyline; while others are much more subtle, like a grouping of Christmas lights in the background that makes a present-day scene resemble the starry scenes with the biosphere in the future storyline.
This kind of attention to detail was what brought us into the mindset of Pi‘s protagonist and connected the stories of the four protagonists in Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain‘s aesthetic, on the other hand, accomplishes both. Much like the golden nebula that Tom must traverse through to confront his mortality, the colors give even the most mundane settings a kind of ethereal beauty and, in its own strange way, menace. It’s almost as if the world is being engulfed by the nebula itself, representing the protagonists’ ever-remaining fear that death is constantly encroaching towards all that he holds dear.
Aronofsky once again totally submerges us into the mindsets of his characters, while also simultaneously being aware of their flaws. As gorgeous as the visuals are, they actually represent a kind of paranoia for the protagonists. It’s almost as if Aronofsky is saying that death is not a dark presence, but a beautiful force that we as humans shun by default.
Of course, just a visual approach to the characters isn’t enough, and Aronofsky’s other staple of directing actors to their highest potential is evident here as well. This is easily the best performance(s) of Hugh Jackman’s career: Always sincere, always passionate, and effectively conveying that he’s playing the kind of men who are so single-minded in their pursuits that when one of them, in this case Tommy, finds a serum that can possibly prevent aging, he outright dismisses it because it can’t cure his wife’s brain tumor. And we totally buy into it because Jackman does not shy away from the fact that, as sincere and passionate as his three characters are, they’re almost reprehensible in their own way.
fountain 6
Instead of finding peace with the situation and comforting his wife during her final moments, Tommy constantly goes back to work so he could find a way to cure the incurable. On top of that, he seems outright dismissive of his own wife’s research. The scene that really brought the message home that Tommy is kind of an asshole was the one in a museum about Mayan culture, where Izzy is telling him about Mayan concepts of “Death as an act of Creation”, and he simply reflects them off, making candid, snarky asides rather than thinking on them like his wife clearly wants him to.
Further conveying this is in the scene of Izzy’s death, in which he continues to cling to his clearly-deceased wife. He performs CPR, repeats “Don’t die! Don’t Die!” as desperately as he could, and–in an almost cruel detail by Aronofsky–he performs mouth-to-mouth on her. This particular detail is not portrayed in a flattering light, as he’s almost slobbering all over her in his attempts to sustain her life. If scenes like that aren’t enough to convey that Tommy is completely imperfect, I don’t know what is.
And yet, Jackman’s Tommy isn’t totally deplorable either because of his aforementioned sincerity and passion. If he is acting purely on his own interests without regard for his wife’s own peace of mind, it’s solely because he loves and cares about her that much–almost too much–and it’s conveyed wonderfully in Jackman’s performance.
One of the best scenes in the film is the one after Izzy’s funeral, where Tommy is now alone in his home and remembers that his wedding ring is missing, a symbol of his own ignorance. Refusing to let go of Izzy, he literally tattoos a ring on his finger so that he can never lose it again. And when Jackman cries, he really goes for it. This isn’t the typical Hollywood sob where a single tear streams down the actor’s cheek. Instead, Jackman sniffles and wheezes through the scene in pure despair, his eyes turning completely bloodshot and his face whimpering like a baby that hasn’t been breast-fed in weeks. It’s a performance that comes purely from the heart, and the perfect kind for a project that’s as personal as this.
And before you ask me about the visual effects of the film, they pretty much speak for themselves. I mean, just look at these screenshots!
The Last Man
However, one of the few things that differentiates The Fountain from the rest of Aronofsky’s filmography is that Tommy might be the only Aronofsky character who doesn’t end with cruel punishment, instead reaching salvation and ultimately finding peace with himself. Much like Pi, The Fountainis ultimately about what we sacrifice in our search for coherence in a chaotic universe. Except whereas Pi‘s protagonist had to sacrifice every semblance of his humanity in order to gain peace of mind, Tommy undergoes a transformation and an arc that brings him to a literal embracing of death so he could regain peace of mind.
Looking back, this sort of development makes sense considering this is a story about personal introspection, and ultimately, an existential crisis doesn’t mean squat if the character doesn’t evolve from it. The same can be applied to Aronofsky himself, who clearly has a deep connection to what’s on screen. And the manner in which Tommy undergoes this realization is yet another virtuosic “montage” not unlike the one employed at the end of Requiem for a Dream.
Another staple of Aronofsky’s films is what I like to call “The Crescendo”, the final moments of an Aronofsky film in which everything continually builds and builds in intensity with the help of a Clint Mansell score and symphonic editing; bringing together numerous working elements into one cohesive whole. The final 10-15 minutes of The Fountain–set to what is perhaps the best track Mansell has ever composed, ”Death is the Road to Awe”–is one of Aronofsky’s best “crescendos” alongside Requiem for a Dream‘s finale. 
Much like how Requiem constantly cut between numerous different stories at completely different settings in order to unify all four protagonists’ misery, The Fountain accomplishes that feat on a much grander scale. As Aronofsky cuts between the three separate time periods in segmented fashion, Mansell’s music steadily amps up in rhythm and volume as the time periods blur together. A Mayan temple guardian sees a vision of Tom the astronaut, Tomas the conquistador sees the star of Xibalba as soon as he drinks of the sap of the Tree of Life, Izzy takes a seed from the newly bloomed Tree and gives it to Tommy, etc. But what’s just as effective is that the score contains a period of absolute silence right before maybe loudest, most sudden orchestral cue in the history of cinema, right when Xibalba’s star blows into supernova. Aronofsky’s films usually end in a manner much like an explosion; The Fountain is the only one of his films that ends with a literal one.
As disorienting as it this finale is, the formalistic grandeur is enough to wash over you and allow a sense of awe at what’s transpiring on scene. It’s so deftly directed that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether you really “understand” it or not. Just letting Mansell’s lucid tones and the evocative visuals do the work is practically all that’s needed to “get” it.

fountain tree
Perhaps it ultimately doesn’t matter what The Fountain means, because what matters most is 1.) What it means to Aronofsky himself, and 2.) If it still works as a stand-alone experience. For my money, The Fountain is Aronofsky’s most beautiful, poignant work, and my personal favorite of his films. Normally when discussing a divisive film, I’d tend to point out that many will most likely disagree, but the fact that more and more people are discovering The Fountain‘s true meaning speaks to how exquisitely layered and resonant the film is. The Fountain is utterly brilliant, and perhaps in twenty more years or so, it will be recognized for the utterly gorgeous masterpiece that it is.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that it was deemed a failure back in 2006. And as such, as misunderstood as the film was at the time, Aronofsky still needed something of a “comeback” film to pick himself back up from the commercial and critical failure that The Fountain brought. His solution for a comeback film: A film about the obsession of comebacks. Typical, typical, Mr. Aronofsky.
Stay tuned next time, for a look at Darren Aronofsky’s Mickey Rourke vehicle: The Wrestler.

Perceptive Irony

We take comfort from the frame - after all, knowing there's a box around us means the world can be kept at bay. 


The Disney Goliath Strikes Again

Princess Merida before and after

"Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value -- to be recognized as true princesses -- they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty."

First, they took their scalpel to Star Wars - now, Disney is retooling Brave's Merida for standard market appeal.  They have standardised her beauty, taking some of the individuality out of her face for a more "classic" look.  The curves are slightly accentuated, a fact highlighted by the new colour contrast between the dress (now dripping with glimmer) and belt.

Yes, Disney has sexed up Merida.  As they know well, sex and standardisation sell.  To a narrowing audience, though - with other, more realistic media models to look to, how much longer will the classic, Victorian-style (and very Caucasian) princess continue to appeal to the masses?  Given the rise in Asian demographics, is Disney pitching outmoded standards to an audience weaned on different expectations?

Enter this piece on Big Media (like Disney) being something of a blip in the long annals of human communication.  Disney Spinsters may tell us that audiences want standardised, predictable, formulaic, but is that really the case?  Or is it just possible that it's positioning on their part, trying to reduce pressure to think up new, out-of-the-mouse-trap characters and stories?

Successful shows ranging from Game of Thrones to The Big Bang Theory are playing with Joseph Campbell archetypes, giving us broader ranges of characters that are more human, more fallible and yet more relatable to normal, non-standard people.  Industry might prefer the professional soldier (they're easier to manage and more predictable in terms of results) - but audiences don't.     Anne Hathaway was derided for a very professional approach to Awards Season while the awkward Jennifer Lawrence won new fans with her rough but sincere approach.  It's this same approach that has helped maintain a functioning Ford Nation despite the numerous failures of the Mayor.

Of course, this isn't a message folks like Disney want to hear.  Much like Political Parties who ignore negative reaction to attack ads as a minor factor that can be ignored,  Disney is quite comfortable doing things the way that they do - it's worked thus far and requires no structural creative thinking on their part.  The growth process is always a painful one as each generation is doomed to discover.

Oh, and to the commentators who say the changes to Merida are "no big deal" - let us know if you're still smarting that Wolverine didn't wear yellow spandex in the X-Men films, then we'll talk.

Role of Meaning-Makers in Employee Engagement (Shawn Murphy)


Role of Meaning-Makers in Employee Engagement

For the past month, Ted and I hosted some extraordinary thinkers who ruminated on the value, application and future of employee engagement. First we want to thank all who participated. We learn from you and are honored to share your voice on this important topic.
This brings me to a question I want to explore: why does employee engagement matter?
Engaged employees has eluded many organizations, often becoming another management fad or meaningless surveys of which the results become shelf-ware. If it’s so important why do organizations, managers and employees fail to see the ascribed benefits of engagement efforts?
Certainly the answers are varied. Yet perhaps the most likely culprit is engagement is treated as an event. Let me explain.
Engaged employees, hell human beings, will put forth their best effort when they see they are appreciated
Each year or every other year an employee engagement survey is delivered via email to all employees. It’s arrival is trumpeted by an email from the CEO explaining the survey’s importance. This is the event. It’s followed by survey results disseminated to managers and some messaging shared with employees. End of event. Now go about your work.
Engagement is treated as some check-the-box-exercise on management’s long list of to-dos. It’s squeezed in between budget meetings, project status reports, committee meetings, blah blah blah.
Truth is engagement is not something planned if its done intentionally. Engagement is a leadership act. Not a management task.
Engaged employees has eluded many organizations, often becoming another management fad or meaningless surveys of which the results become shelf-ware
Engagement exists in the interactions between managers and employees. It’s where managers take on the important role of meaning-makers: managers help employees uncover and exploit meaning in their work all the while knowing that they matter. That their work matters.
This isn’t some group-hug moment. It’s where management, business and humanity intersect. Engaged employees, hell human beings, will put forth their best effort when they see they are appreciated. When what employees believe that what they do has significance to those whom the organization serves.
The role of meaning-maker is one that is woven throughout a manager’s daily actions, both planned and spontaneous
This does not occur when engagement is treated as event. When it’s an event it becomes unauthentic. The event is awkward at first then becomes annoying. Hopes are raised and quickly dashed when the event passes. Such an approach is void of meaning.
The role of meaning-maker is one that is woven throughout a manager’s daily actions, both planned and spontaneous. It’s planned when managers make time to know their employees’ hopes, dreams, plans for the future. It’s spontaneous when managers see an important teaching moment presents itself when an employee fails.
Employee engagement matters because it reveres the innate human desire to do work that matters, to do work that is meaningful. Without employee engagement the spawns of hierarchy, bureaucracy, command-and-control, for example, dominate and suck the humanity out of our workplaces.
Employee engagement will not thrive when its handled like an event. But when it is vigilantly cultivated and purposefully spread through the interactions between managers and employees, it becomes a way of working. It becomes part of a company’s culture.
Graphic by Shawn Murphy
Shawn Murphy (100 Posts)
Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Owner and principal consultant at Achieved Strategies. Co-founder of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked on Huffington Post and HR Examiner.

A Quantum of Divinity

Yes, I love this kind of stuff - seeking the points of intersection between points of view gets me thinking.  After all, it's in the centre that innovation gets sparked...

If space exploded out of nothingness to create the universe we inhabit now, this begs the question–Did the universe create God? –Gail S.
This is a completely unanswerable question, so forgive me for attempting anyway.
If you believe in a personal God—the kind of God who answers prayers, performs miracles, and speaks directly to people—then science has nothing to say on the matter. Such a God exists out of space and time and does not live within the laws of physics, so cosmological discoveries are irrelevant.
Einstein had a different view of God, one that is widely shared in one form or another by many other scientists who study the universe. “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings,” Einstein told Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in 1921. When George Smoot called his map of the cosmic microwave background “the face of God,” or when Leon Lederman refers to the “God particle,” they are speaking roughly in this context. Insofar as the laws of physics emerged at the time of the Big Bang, you could say that the God we know appeared then too. Then the question of “what came before the Big Bang?” becomes equivalent to the question of whether there is a deeper, more timeless form of God.
Recent theories about multiple universes that exist in infinite time (also described in my previous post) provide a place for God to exist before our universe—and after, if there is an after–if you choose to interpret them that way. Those theories could also explain how our universe began, and what came before the Big Bang. As yet these theories are untestable, though, so they still live in the realm of metaphysics as much as physics.