Thirty-Five (20+15) Pieces of Pop Culture We Talked About in 2015

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Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.

Marcus Aurelius

When you work in digital marketing you spend a lot of time thinking about the future; thinking about new channels, emerging opportunities and forecasting & extrapolating campaign results based on data you’ve already acquired. When you run a business you also become kind of obsessed with the future; revenue projections, cash-flow considerations, new client acquisition, new hires and how to stay relevant as you drift moment-by-moment into unknowable tomorrows.

The thing is, if you want to get anything done, you have to periodically check-out of the future and zone-in on the moment, the present, the here-and-now and the task at hand.

I think, as a result, we sometimes don’t spend enough time looking back. 2015 was our first year in business, and its been really good to us. So today, we’re going to take the time to look back at 2015, and share some of the amazing bits of pop culture we discovered and devoured this year.

To be clear, we’re not going to restrict this list by excluding things that didn’t come out in 2015. No, this list is about all the things that we discovered this year: the things that got us thinking, talking and working. Most of the things we feature here did in fact happen in 2015, but there’s stuff from last year, stuff from the early naughts, stuff from further back even. The point is, for some reason or other, we connected with these cultural artifacts in 2015. Some of the books we mention started to surface on blogs we follow; some of the movies we mention made their way to Netflix. The point is, everything on this list feels contemporary somehow. Like they’ve slipped into the collective unconscious and become part of what we understand 2015 to mean, and how we’ll remember it.

So without further ado, here’s what made 2015 special for us folks at Fractal.

Podcasts
  1. Serial
  2. Limetown
  3. The Message
  4. Cracked
  5. Invisibilia
  6. Radiolab
  7. Reply All
Books
  1. The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman
  2. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman
  3. Children’s Books by Jon J. Muth
  4. Mindware
  5. The Works of Gabor Maté
  6. The Organized Mind
  7. Buyer Personas
  8. What Technology Wants
Movies & Television
  1. Bojack Horseman Season 2
  2. Life Itself
  3. The History of Future Folk
  4. Myq Kaplan’s Standup Special
  5. John Mulaney’s Two Standup Specials
  6. Creep
  7. Dope
  8. Mr Robot
  9. Better Call Saul
  10. Ex Machina
  11. The Martian
Music
  1. The Secret History Volume 1 by Pavement
  2. Songza Playlists that help us write
  3. Roland’s New JD-Xi Crossover Synthesizer
  4. The Noise Archive
  5. Compton by Dr. Dre
  6. Forest Hills Drive by J Cole
Online
  1. Brain Pickings
  2. Slack
  3. Wrike
  4. In a Nutshell – Kurzgezagt Video Series
Final Thoughts

Podcasts

Serial (Podcast)

imageSerial was launched in October 2014 by the same amazing people that make This American Life. In it, producer Sarah Koenig follows the case of Adnan Syed; a young man tried and convicted of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. The case against Syed is dubious at best, and over the course of 13 episodes Koenig follows a number of loose-ends that cast pretty tremendous doubt over the conviction. I think what was most compelling for me was that the podcast itself became this major cultural phenomenon. It was the first podcast in history to reach 5 million downloads. By the end of its run it was estimated that it had reached 68 million downloads. It legitimized podcasting as a viable medium and business. The Internet became obsessed with it. It’s success forced the Maryland Court to allow Syed to appeal his conviction. It spawned a spinoff podcast called Undisclosed which follows Syed’s defence team’s efforts to exonerate him. It became this major cultural touchstone that was referenced in countless other podcasts and even made an appearance in the Netflix series Bojack Horseman (in the form of the hilarious parody ringtone below).

So, while all of Season 1 technically happened in 2014, the cultural resonance of the podcast rippled right through 2015. But the thing I liked best about Serial (which I think might have irked most people) was its ambiguous ending. Koenig doesn’t draw any conclusions. The whole thing amounts to a protracted experience of the feeling of uncertainty. I think there’s tremendous social value in that. Serial made millions of us feel doubt. Doubt is a maligned sensibility in our age, where certainty is currency on social media. Where an opinion uttered in heat or haste is logged, and then has to be defended. What I liked about Serial is that it made me change my mind, a few times. I like that I am still left with doubt. The experience of doubting is an essential counterpoint to the experience of clarity. As we wade through a world entrenched in seemingly deeper ideological polarization, I want to be free to be uncertain, to change my mind, to be wrong sometimes. Serial helped us practice doubting. I think that’s useful.

Season 2 just started. It’s about Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured and held by the Taliban for nearly five years. Bergdahl will be facing a court-martial for his actions in Afghanistan. He’s been labelled a traitor by some, a stupid kid by others. Check out Season 2 here. It’s instantly compelling, and bound to be controversial.

Limetown & The Message (Podcasts)

On October 30, 1938 Orson Wells directed and narrated a little radio drama for CBS called War of The Worlds. Legend has it that it caused mass hysteria. The rest is history. Limetown and The Message are like the children of War of The Worlds and Serial. They’re radio dramas presented as real, they’re podcasts told over weeks. They’re both brilliant. Both completely contemporary cultural phenomena, only possible after the breakaway success of Serial. Serial really laid the template for a podcast drama told over several episodes, and the quality of its production, editing, interviews, sound design, amazing original score and pacing raised the bar for radio storytelling in a way we haven’t seen since Radiolab first appeared on the scene.

Limetown follows American Public Radio (a fictionalized surrogate for NPR) producer Lia Haddock as she investigates the mysterious disappearance of the people of Limetown, a small research town in Tennessee with a population of around 300. Limetown’s population vanished without a trace ten years ago, and while at the time it was a big media event, it eventually got lost in the sea of noise that is the 24-hour news cycle. Haddock picks up the story again, and like Serial, her reporting follows dangling threads that only became apparent after the passage of time.

The Message follows podcaster Nicky Tomalin as she works with a team of cryptographers trying to decipher a message of alien origin received back in 1945. Like Limetown, The Message is presented as fact, brought to you by Cipher Centers For Communication, the organization investigating the phenomenon. Like Serial, the telling of the story begins to influence its unfolding. The story builds patiently, with the tension steadily increasing every episode, and the listener is made to feel as though they’re uncovering the mystery right alongside Tomalin.

Both are exquisitely produced, borrowing stylistic conventions from Serial, This American Life and Radiolab. And the podcast format just makes it feel so much more believable than your average found-footage-horror film. Expect to see more serialized fiction podcasts in 2016. I think the coolest thing about these is that they let aspiring filmmakers tell epic, long stories on shoestring budgets. This is going to give a whole new generation of storytellers a way to put themselves out there.

The Cracked Podcast

crackedpodcastcoverI think many people in various smartypants circles (like mine) make incorrect assumptions about Cracked.Com. The listicle format which they so ardently follow smells like Buzzfeed-style clickbait. But it’s so much more than that. Over the years Cracked has evolved into a consistent, incredibly prolific publisher of long-form journalism and think pieces. Their mandate is ostensibly pop-culture, but they take the broadest view of pop-culture possible, extended to really mean our collective experience of media, history and events. Their forums are open to all to pitch stories, where Cracked editoral staff will work collaboratively with aspiring writers to get their articles ready for publication. They’ve trained a number budding writers, filmmakers and comedians, spawning a new-generation of grass-roots pop-culture critics. They’ve used their pop-culture mandate to explore racism in media, how pervasive sexism is in pop-culture,  they’ve tackled the hoopla around political correctness with grace and clarity (a nice antidote to the hysterical backlash we’re seeing, especially in right-wing media). Their personal experience articles give voice to people often ignored by media, like sex workers, victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, drug dealers, drug enforcement agents and addicts, convicts and criminals and people with severe health and mental health conditions. David Wong’s pieces on terrorism, and the suicide of Robin Williams are heartfelt serious explorations that elevate the dialogue around two complex topics often treated simplistically by mainstream media. The listicle format makes these otherwise heady topics easily readable, kind of a trojan-horse for big ideas. Editor-in-chief Jack O’Brien and Executive Editor Jason Pargin have steadily transformed Cracked into unlikely crusaders for social justice.

The Cracked Podcast basically allows the editorial staff to dig deeper into topics featured in their articles. It’s decidedly spartan, with no original score (Jack O’Brien curates an amazing selection of mostly contemporary hip-hop to score the show, so its also a good place to discover new music) and many interviews that happen over the phone. They tackle heady philosophical topics like human perception on a regular basis (frequently referencing the aforementioned David Eagleman), or how music is fundamentally just the repetition of sound. They take on endemic racial bias in media and in people, they talk about how those biases are reinforced by movies, they look at how pop-culture basically ignores poverty as a real thing, they tackle the free speech vs. political correctness debate deftly, bringing their experience as one of the most popular websites on the Internet to the table, the look at America’s shameful and incessant whitewashing of history. And those examples are just from this year.

It’s really good, well-researched and will often lead you to other readings. All to say, way better than you think it’s going to be!

Invisibilia

invisibiliaInvisibilia is a new podcast “about the invisible forces that control human behaviour – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions“. Its hosted, written and produced by Alix Spiegel  (who used to work for This American Life) and Lulu Miller (who used to work for Radiolab). It’s really the perfect blend of those two podcasts; long personal stories explored and unpacked scientifically. It feels so perfectly contemporary, so of the moment. In the first season they explore topics like obsessive-compulsive disorder, somatic therapy, blindness & echo-location, fear, synesthesia, categorization and transhumanism. They take their time with each topic, but never digress unnecessarily. They talk to ordinary people then bring in experts to help the listener understand what’s going on, and what the implications are. They aren’t afraid to ask big questions and they’re not afraid to leave them hanging in the air. Invisibilia is another wonderful NPR podcast, and we can’t wait for their second season to start. Check out the episode Entanglement, here:

The Best Radiolab Episodes of 2015

WNYC_Radiolab_logo.svgOver the years, Radiolab has become my go-to destination for new ideas, new books to read and ultimately, new ways of looking at the world. It’s arguably the most beautifully crafted radio program of all time; delicately scored, artfully cut-and-collaged without a wasted second, while still offering quiet, spare moments for reflection. It’s meticulously researched and makes ample use of found sound. The topics are always ambitious in scope, and yet hosts Robert Krulwich & Jad Abumrad have a knack from conveying heady concepts in a way anyone can understand, and ultimately relate to. Radiolab makes people think, it makes people cry, it zeros in on the things that make us unique, and connects them to the things that make us all similar. It is, in my view, the greatest work of secular humanism since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

This year was no exception. In no particular order, here are my top 5 Radiolab episodes of 2015:

    • The Fix is an exploration of addiction and how its treated. It’s perfectly current, following the slow-but-steady adoption of the medical model of addiction and recovery, in contrast to the mainstream willpower model, which is becoming discredited. They refer to the time, not that long ago, before Prozac, when depression was treated not as a medical affliction but a mood problem. They ponder whether addiction treatment is about to be revolutionized in a manner similar to depression and anxiety 15 years ago.

    • Staph Retreat tells the amazing story of medieval medicine, and how some ancient concoctions are being investigated to combat dangerous bacteria like MRSA today.

    • Remembering Oliver Sacks is Radiolab’s eulogy for the great neurologist, who died earlier this year. Sacks was among Radiolab’s first and most frequent guests, and is arguably responsible for the approach the podcast takes today. This episode features Krulwich’s last interview with Sacks. It’s much more personal than his previous appearances on the show. He talks about himself, his sexuality, his drug experiences, his passions and fears. Sacks’ compassion comes through loud and clear in this episode, as does his graceful acceptance of his coming demise. He’s a beautiful man. This episode will make you cry.

    • Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR explores new gene-splicing techniques that could revolutionize medicine and human civilization altogether. It’s perfectly timely, as the debate concerning human genetic manipulation begins to heat up. As always, their’s is neither a rah-rah-rah endorsement of this new technology nor is it a knee-jerk rejection of it. They explore the topic keenly, and delicately.

    • Patient Zero originally aired some years ago, but was updated this year to look at the recent Ebola epidemic. It’s just one of my all-time favourite episodes. They look at the historical Typhoid Mary and then dive deep into the history of HIV/AIDS, going much, much further back than you’d imagine to find its true origins. The episode references one of the best most chilling books on the AIDS epidemic I’ve ever read, And The Band Played On, by Randy Stilts. It’s just a really incredible story, and one has to marvel and quiver at all the chance events and institutional failings that needed to occur for HIV/AIDS to have become the global pandemic that it has.

    • Bonus: Darkode opens with a hilarious story that in no way should be funny given that it’s about an elderly woman who’s computer gets hacked, but the oy-vey, oy-gevalt, whattya’-gonna’-do? way she tells of her rigamarole is just too good.

Reply All

Facebook-ReplyAll2015 might go down in history as the year podcasting went big. Reply All is another new kid on the block. It’s interesting for a variety of reasons, perhaps chiefly because it is the biggest hit from the newly launched Gimlet Media. Gimlet is the brainchild of Alex Blumberg, who left his job as co-host of NPR’s Planet Money to found Gimlet, a startup focused on producing high-quality narrative podcasts. He launched his own podcast called StartUp, which follows Blumberg as he tries to build his brand, and business. But that’s a whole other story.

Reply All describes itself as “a show about the internet, hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. It features stories about how people shape the internet, and the internet shapes people.”

This sums it up pretty nicely. Just as Radiolab is a show about how people shape science, and science shapes people, Reply All brings turns stories about the internet into personal stories, human stories, emotional stories. The hosts really put themselves into the stories too, and are unafraid to be vulnerable. For example, In Shine On You Crazy Goldman, Alex Goldman documents his experiments with surreptitiously microdosing LSD at work. The results are funny, and full of heart. Here are some episodes to start with:



Books

The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman (Book & PBS Series)

image (1)We’re unapologetic brain-science nerds here at Fractal. We like to think of marketing as a kind of applied group psychology. To be successful at marketing, you have to anticipate people’s behaviours, and make sure you’re meeting their expectations with the right content, on the right channel at the right moment in their lives, with the right conversion. David Eagleman’s Incognito (2011) was a mind-blowing dive into the inner workings of the brain, which taught us that so much of what we think and do is not governed by conscious thought, but by the neurochemistry of the brain itself. It taught us that the world as we perceive it is constructed by our brains; that what goes into our eyes and ears and other senses is computed, correlated with memory, compressed and reprocessed before becoming available to our conscious minds.

Incognito really puts the final nail in the coffin of Cartesian Dualism and shows us that we are not these solid, unchanging mystical entities piloting our bodies; we are our bodies, and every thing we do changes who we are. In Incognito Eagleman presents countless studies that demonstrate how weird (and fallible) perception, consciousness and memory are. The Brain: The Story of You picks up where Incognito leaves off but is a little less dense, and is more visual and accessible. The opening quote sets the tone for the whole book:

All the experiences in your life – from single conversations to your broader culture – shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry – and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patters in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an endpoint.

I think some people might find that thought disconcerting, but I find it really comforting. We’re different every day; we change from one minute to the next. That means that we don’t have to be stuck in our past regrets. It means our past actions don’t define our futures. It means we can (and do) always grow and change. It means we’re liberated to experience and savour moments for what they are; ephemeral, discrete points on a line. It means that we’re always a work-in-progress. He talks about how humans are the only species to really be born unsuited to our environments, and that’s why we’re so adaptable. A zebra born running is ready for the world, but only in the climate suited to their species. Humans get programmed primarily in early childhood rather than in-utero, which means we’re born helpless, and are formed by our environments. This makes us inherently more adaptable and innovative.

The book is a compliment to a PBS series that ran earlier this year. It’s by no means dumbed-down pop-science, but it is totally accessible. Eagleman is a beautiful writer too, and his enthusiasm about his subject matter is infectious. You can really feel his curiosity as you read his works. If you’re looking to change something in your life but worried you just don’t have it in you, Eagleman provides ample scientific evidence that you in fact do; you are always becoming.

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman

image (2)Another brain-book. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by Matthew Lieberman is centred on the neurochemical, physiological and evolutionary reasons we’re social creatures. Like David Eagleman’s work, Social takes us on a journey that demonstrates that there’s so much more to ourselves than ourselves. We’re not just wired to cooperate (an evolutionary advantage); our personalities are social constructs, defined and nurtured by the people around us. He talks about how, over millions of years of evolution, humans developed three innate social capacities that operate at a neurochemical level: connection, mindreading and harmonization. He contends that the very reason our brains are as big as they are and have the processing power to engage in rational thought is because managing social relationships is complex. Our intelligence is a by-product of our inherently social nature. The book reminds us that, for all the violence and conflict and polarization we see in the world, at our core we’re built to cooperate. As a species, we are here because we cooperate. Because we can take care of one another.

It’s a super-important book, especially in the age of constant social connection, feedback & reinforcement via social media. The ultimate takeaway I got from the book is the heartwarming thought that in each of us is all of us; we’re never alone. I also cite it pretty heavily in my post about The Egosystem, which is my pet theory about the new brain that we’re all growing while wired to social media. Oh, and Matthew Lieberman tweeted our Egosystem post earlier this year!

Children’s Books by Jon J. Muth

image (7)So, I’ve got a three year old, and its really really important to read to him every night, but its sometimes a struggle to find children’s books that aren’t a total bore for adults, or, in some cases, stories that are laden with fascist subtext. Jon J. Muth writes and illustrates absolutely gorgeous kids books with sophisticated stories, beautiful pacing and no heavy-handed moralizing. His Zen series following the lessons of an ostensibly Buddhist panda bear named Stillwater are just exceptional. He hand-paints (in watercolour) all the illustrations, and they’re simultaneously quietly still and vibrantly alive. He’s written a retelling of the classic fable of Stone Soup but instead of it being about a trickster exploiting a gullible miser, it’s about 3 monks who teach a village the value of sharing. Every time we read his Stone Soup to our son, with its vivid descriptions of all the tasty vegetables being tossed into the pot, he gets hungry. Muth doesn’t talk down to kids. The books are loaded with subtle wordplay. Stillwater teaches his friends lessons about patience, unconditional kindness, friendship and even duality. Truly wonderful stuff. If you’ve got a kid, I can’t recommend Muth’s work enough.

It’s important that children read to become, and not just to escape,” says Muth.

Mindware

image (8)Say what you will about the discipline, but if practiced correctly, economics affords us the ability to review a situation dispassionately, rationally and with wider context. The problem is, as humans, we come into the world with a number of hard-wired cognitive biases. We don’t behave rationally. We’re largely influenced by our social interactions, and almost always privilege information conveyed by word-of-mouth from a personal acquaintance, over large samplings of data. This was the central issue explored in the breakthrough 2008 social science book, Nudge.

In Nudge, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein draw a distinction between Humans and Econs. Econs are the imaginary, totally rational actors motivated primarily by self-interest; they are in short, what economists and policymakers typically conceive of when developing social programs. Humans, on the other hand, are far less predictable. We behave in surprising ways, often contrary to our self-interest and whatever the data is telling us. Nudge offers a framework for policymakers to develop programs for humans based on incremental, nearly invisible little changes, playing to the tendencies of the fast-brain, as defined by Daniel Kahneman. If you’re interested, we’ve written about Nudge before, here.

Mindware, by psychologist Richard E. Nisbett is interesting, because unlike Nudge, which seeks to make policy more human (rather than Econ), Mindware seeks to help us as humans think more like Econs. He draws heavily from philosophy, statistics, economics and psychology to help us identify how our experiences colour our perceptions and influence our decisions. At a fundamental level, it’s a guide to exercising reason, that elusive quality that hides somewhere in our prefrontal cortexes and has often been described as the thing that makes us humans.

The book is divided into six sections:

  1. The first looks at how we think, and often how the world as we see it is by no means objective, but rather a contstruct of our past experiences, biases and hard-wiring. If you’ve read the aforementioned Incognito by David Eagleman, this section will be a breeze.
  2. The second section looks at how we make choices. Very reminicient of any of the behavioural economics work pioneered by Thaler and Sustein in Nudge.
  3. The next section explores correlation, causation and more generally, relationships between events; what relationships are real, which ones are inferred or imagined?
  4. This section is really important. In it, Nisbett deconstructs the metholodigies behind many experiments, and helps us understand their inherent weaknesses and biases (selection bias, for example). He points specifically to the problems with Multiple Regression Analysis. He explains how, counterintuitively, a lack of correlation does not necessarily imply a lack of causation. In an era of perpetual bombardment with health study after health study, this section provides much needed sobriety and clarity to counter the sometimes fantastic claims. Perhaps the most helpful part of this section is where Nisbett offers advice on how to conduct experiments on oneself, to determine how and if some activity is positively or negatively affecting us.
  5. The next section looks at logical and dialectal reasoning. Logical reasoning tends to operate in absolutes, demands precision, clarity and makes little room for exceptions. Dialectal reasoning functions in the more practical shades of grey, privileging consensus and holism. Both are useful. Nisbett provides some guidance on how and when to use either and both.
  6. The final section offers advice as to how to build one’s own theory of knowledge.

As a new business owner, this book has been tremendously helpful in allowing me to avoid getting lost in the exhilaration of a big win or the disappointment of a big loss. In many ways, it’s a work of modern philosophy; a guidebook to critical thinking in the information age.

In philosophical terms, Mindware teaches us how to identify our presuppositions, and how to circumvent them.

The Works of Gabor Maté

image (9)All of these books were published long before 2015, but we read (and in the case of In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, reread) them this year. Why? Because we had an interview with Dr. Maté lined up, but because of scheduling problems, it fell through. Either way, it was an absolute pleasure to read his works back-to-back; they form a sort of trilogy, that tell the story of the how the brain, the body and our experiences in early childhood all interact dynamically to shape the people that we become and in many cases, the health (and mental health) issues we might experience later in life. Maté is a family doctor, who’s worked extensively with children suffering from ADHD and with the totally disenfranchised people living on skid row in Vancouver.

Maté is a gifted writer. I put him right up there with Oliver Sacks (RIP), as one of those amazing, compassionate and gifted physicians, who also intuitively knows how to communicate ideas to the public. These three works take you on a journey, through life; through nature, then nurture, then nature again, showing us how our neurochemistry informs who we are, and how are actions reinforce our neurochemistry. He gently detours into the history of medicine, pausing frequently on long-forgotten research too easily dismissed by the medical establishment, or cutting edge interventions that tell us new but intuitive things about the brain. In a way, his approach is both dialectical and logical. He brings a gentle openness and humility to his work. He generously shares his own experiences, fears and desires. He is never dismissive. He connects the dots between clinical research and holistic practices, in an entirely evidence-based way.

His works are both contemplative and direct. He humanizes people often so far into the margins that we forget they exist. He teaches us to probe life, and ourselves, with a kind of compassionate curiosity, a sentiment that is on ample display in his works. Read them. We’re still hoping to interview him in 2016, so if you’ve got questions for him, let us know!

The Organized Mind (2014 Book)

image (11)Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind is similar to Mindware, in that it is intended to help you think more clearly so you might make better decisions and ultimately be more productive. It’s very practical, and gets right down to tips on how you should organize your home and workspace. The basic premise is that, high-performing-individuals tend to focus on one-task-at-a-time. There is no such thing as multitasking. In order to complete a task efficiently and well, you have to be totally present. But how do you do that in the age of constant information-drip? Many of the high-performing-individuals interviewed in the book are well-off enough that they can rely on personal assistants. But for those of us who can’t, Levitin outlines strategies for turning technology back into a productivity aid, rather than a distraction. Much of his advice is drawn from David Allen’s Getting Things Done program, but because Levitin is a neuroscientist, it has the added aspect of explaining exactly why our brains have evolved to be susceptible to distraction, and how to exploit the combination of neurobiology and technology to find focus, calm and ultimately expend less mental energy to get more done. He then builds highly actionable recommendations for how to organize many aspects of our lives, based on our brains’ natural pattern recognition and categorization schemas.

  • Organizing our Homes
  • Organizing our Social World
  • Organizing our Time
  • Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions
  • Organizing the Business World

Again, as a new business owner, this book been indispensable for me. Following his advice, I’m able to build systems and routines that allow me to offset some of my mental processing to external technology, which means I can focus on whatever I need to get done at that moment, without worrying I’m forgetting something. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re juggling dozens of active things-to-do every day, nurturing an organized mind is essential.

Buyer Personas

We wrote extensively about Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas book and methodology in another blog post, so to go deep on what makes it extraordinarily useful for marketers, check that post out. Put simply, it is the leanest, most straightforward market research framework we’ve ever come across, and it designed to yield actionable insight, with no distracting bloat. Revella proposes that if you want insight into your customers, just ask them. And be sure to ask the folks that have elected not to use your product or service. She offers a really simple interview format that aims to get you what she calls  The 5 Rings of Buying Insight:

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 12.32.55 PM

  1. buyerpersonasbook3dPriority Initiative: What changes trigger this buyer persona’s search for this type of solution? What about this buyer persona’s business environment causes this problem to be funded for resolution?
  2. Success Factors: What results or outcomes does this buyer persona expect from the successful completion of the Priority Initiative? Be specific and include tangible/logical outcomes as well as aspirational/emotional goals.
  3. Perceived Barriers: Why would this buyer persona be unlikely to purchase this solution? Barriers could relate to prior attempts to solve the problem, negative (and even inaccurate) perceptions about the suitability of your product or company, or the barriers could relate to internal factors (sales won’t let us change our CRM solution).
  4. Decision Criteria: Identify the top 3-to-5 factors that this buyer persona uses to compare alternative or competing options and make a decision. If this buyer persona is involved throughout the Buying Process, these criteria may change at different stages of the Buying Process.
  5. Buyer’s Journey:
    1. Buying Influencers: What role does this buyer persona play at each stage of the buying process? Who else in the organization will be involved at different stages, and what is their ability to impact the decision?
    2. Resources Buyers Trust: Identify the two or three most influential resources this buyer persona relies upon at each stage in the buying process. For each answer, be as specific as possible about the name of the resource (which conferences, blogs, websites, etc.) the buyer persona trusts as they evaluate options
      1. Phase 1: Awareness of new ideas and information.
      2. Phase 2: Research alternative solutions/approaches.
      3. Phase 3: Consideration/assessment of suitability.
      4. Phase 4: Internal approval of investment.

Incredibly powerful, incredibly simple, easy to implement and relatively low-cost.

What Technology Wants

whattechwants-coverKevin Kelly is the founding executive editor of Wired. He’s also a world-traveler, conservationist and photographer who got his start as one of the editors for the legendary Whole Earth Review, which itself could be considered a historical antecedent to the modern travel blog. What Technology Wants is the book I’ve been dying to read since I was in university. It’s a work of history, philosophy and anthropology that dispenses with the false dichotomy of technology vs. nature, and looks at technology as a force and expression of nature. As I young undergraduate, I often wondered, if we, as humans are responsible for bringing technology into the world,  and we, as humans are part of nature, how then, can technology be unnatural? Is it not simply an extension of our evolution?

Kelly would argue that technology is an expression of biology and an evolutionary force unto itself. He calls it the technicum, and describes it as a kind of self-perpetuating system that is steadily extending, integrating with and transforming biology, the trajectory leading to a place where the two are likely indistinguishable.

He’s neither alarmist or fervently in favour of the technification of the human enterprise, rather he largely sidesteps the issue by keeping his lens squarely focused on the macro; asking where did this force come from? Was it inside of us from the beginning? Is technology merely biological evolution guided by some conscious intent? Is further complexity, efficiency and interconnectedness an inevitable fact of nature? This book pairs really well with many of the brain books we’ve mentioned in this post, especially Social, by Matthew Lieberman and The Brain by David Eagleman. Check out Kelly’s TED talk here:

Movies & Television

Bojack Horseman Season 2 (Netflix Original Series)

Some years back I read an article that talked about the differences in two primary types of American television comedy: Jewish-American comedy and Irish-American comedy. The former is characterized by a kind of oy-vey (dismay) followed by oy-gevalt (incredulity) followed by a “whattya-gonna’-do?” (acceptance). Think Seinfeld. The latter is centered on the experience of the family, and often the struggles of the oafish paternal figure to adapt to his loss of stature in an ever-changing world. Think Who’s The Boss?.

The ultimate illustration (pardon the pun) of this dichotomy is Futurama (Jewish-American) vs. The Simpsons (Irish-American).

Bojack Horseman is one of the few shows I’ve seen that fits squarely in both worlds. Bojack is a masculine, ostensibly powerful man-horse, but he’s fallen from grace. He’s constantly trying to make himself relevant again in the digital post-sitcom world, in a world without canned laugh tracks. The whole second season follows his struggle to build a kind of family-unit for himself, like the one he had while on his 80s sitcom, Horsein’ Around. Very Irish-American.

Bojack (left, voiced by Will Arnett) and Diane (right, voiced by Alison Brie) in Netflix's "BoJack Horseman." Photo courtesy of Netflix.

But it’s also got that absurdist edge prevalent in Jewish-American comedy. I mean, the majority of the characters are animals and their animal natures totally inform their characters. Like Lenny Turteltaub, the longed-live turtle film producer who constantly makes references to arcane moments in cinematic history (he even references the Lumière Brothers), or Mr. Peanut Butter, a good-natured golden retriever who just wants everyone to be happy, or Princess Carolyn, who is a tough-as-nails agent but perfectly embodies all the emotional contradictions of a cat. It’s a totally weird show, and its characters wade through a bizarre world largely out of their control, and while nothing really resolves, the characters just kind of move-on: oy-vey, oy-gevalt, whattya’-gonna’-do?. Like the lead characters in quintessential Jewish-American comedies like Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bojack engages in cringeworthy behaviour. But unlike those shows which tended to not to dwell on their characters antisocial behaviour, Bojack Horseman follows the consequences of his actions, right back home, and often forces the titular character to learn something (even if often the lesson he draws from a bad event is the wrong one).

The character of Diane Nguyen (voiced by Allison Brie) is another totally rich and real person. They manage to imbue her with all the characteristic traits of an east-coast, NPR-loving, liberal, third-wave-feminist without ever reducing her to a stereotype. Her ethnicity is never used as fodder for cheap laughs, her feminism is never mansplained and her inconsistencies are never mocked, but rather used to drive the point home that she’s a real human being. She’s also the surrogate for millennials in the show, and is a refreshing antidote to the unfair accusations being lobbed at that generation (they’re lazy, entitled, too sensitive, etc…).

Long story arcs, multiple-layers of comedy happening simultaneously, real, believable central characters and lots of references to contemporary culture and technology that never seem forced or overwrought; rather they just help tell the story. It subtly skewers celebrity culture, talks about addiction and mental health issues in a frank way and in season 2, via the character of Hank Hippopopalous they even manage to reference Bill Cosby’s criminal sexual history. The voice talent is superb, the animation is great and both the opening and closing numbers are legit pieces of music that I’d listen to by themselves.

Life Itself (2014 Film)

Life_Itself_doc_posterWhen I was growing up, there were three celebrity film critics: Leonard Maltin, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. On a very basic level, watching those three as a kid made me appreciate film as an art form, worthy of critique and personal interpretation. Maltin, in his irrepressible need to harken back to classic cinema showed us what the basic conventions of cinema were, and where they originated. Siskel and Ebert taught us how to talk about films with our friends; to debate, boisterously agree or bicker bitterly. For my generation, they made talking about the movie as much of an event as seeing it.

Ebert’s great contribution to film criticism might be his “relative” approach to film criticism. Instead of weighing a film based on its absolute qualities, he’d try to put himself in the mind of the viewer who was going to see it. In a way, Ebert popularized a kind of end-user-centric form of film criticism.

Sounds simple, but it was kind of revolutionary. A critic joining a local paper with a PhD in cultural studies might not be able to find much value in a space-western like Star Wars, but Ebert understood how to review it for who it was for. In doing so, he democratized film criticism, liberating us regular folks to engage in our film criticism, at our own level.

The film depicts the life of Ebert, his coming up in working-class Chicago, his hard drinking days, his career ascent to the most famous film critic in history, the marriage that transformed him, his cancer, his surgery, his recovery, his relapse. Most importantly, it puts on display his humanism, his egalitarianism, his belief in social justice.

I think it was this, intrinsic sense of fairness in Ebert that helped him devise his ‘relative’ approach to film criticism; because ultimately he wanted cinema (and more importantly, discussion about cinema) to be accessible to all people, not just heady academic types.

The History of Future Folk (2013 Film)

Future Folk is a Brooklyn based folk duo who’s fictional backstory is that they’re two aliens from the planet Hondo who were sent to earth to kill all humans to make way for colonization. But, upon hearing music for the first time, they fall in love with the people of earth and become a roots folk band instead of conquerors. The film is the biopic/origin story of the fictional band; how they came to earth, started a band, struggled with the implications of their mission tried to ward off the forces of evil. Did you get all that?

It’s equal parts The Man Who Fell to Earth, A Hard Day’s Night, City Slickers, & The Last Waltz, told in an unassuming, easy, gentle mumblecore kind of way.

The music is incredible. Obviously, roots-folk with space-adventure themed lyrics is going to be funny, but they go way beyond clever. I can’t describe how good it is so just listen to some. This one is called Space Worms.

And here’s one called Over The Moon an unapologetically romantic ballad that features the couplets “from first contact, to marriage contract” and “from elation, to copulation“. So good.

The film is unlike any I’ve ever seen, not just because of the totally original premise, but also the understated way they tell the story. There’s urgency, and tension and all that stuff, but the movie still somehow proceeds at a human pace. They don’t use a lot of boring tension building devices like swelling string scores and those kinds of things. The camera hangs on its subjects in a dispassionate, vérité-lite kind of way.

Here’s the band’s website.

Myq Kaplan’s Standup Special on Netflix

Myq Kaplan is a pretty smart guy; he’s got a master’s degree in linguistics which totally informs his comedy. Like the great Mitch Hedberg or Demeteri Martin, Kaplan jams with words, at an effortless frenetic pace. Where he differs from those guys is in his ability to take wordplay and weave it into long, hilarious narratives rather than just leave 1-liners hanging in the air. His approach to comedy involves deconstructing and reconstructing our perceptions of the obvious. That totally doesn’t sound funny, I know. So I’m just going to leave a couple of his bits here. He’s got a whole special on Netflix, and its amazing. Whip smart and absolutely saturated with jokes. He also isn’t afraid of taking pretty progressive stances on issues like racism, sexism & political correctness. He proves you don’t have to be a mean spirited dick to be funny.

John Mulaney’s Two Standup Specials on Netflix

Two of Mulaney’s standup specials appeared on Netflix this year, New In Town & The Comeback Kid. They’re hilarious. He follows the Richard Pryor school of comedy most recently perfected by Louis CK; long personal narratives peppered observations and deep dives into the weirdness of everyday life. His face is just exceptionally well-suited to convey incredulity. He puts it all on the table, his catholic upbringing, his alcoholism, his privileged life as a middle-class white kid in Chicago. He also dissects pop culture like Back to the Future or Law & Order with an obsessive kind of logic reminicient of Cracked.Com. He shares it all and bares it all with this irresistible boyish smirk. Check him out:


Creep (2014 Film)

Mark and Jay Duplass are quietly changing cinema. Their films are often pointed to as prototypical examples of mumblecore; a kind of quintessentially American-Hipster twist on the Dogme genre, known for quirky-but-believable characters, dealing with relatable problems, featuring authentic, only lightly polished dialgoue. Think Wes Anderson, without the excessive whimsy, or sentimentality, precocious children or annoyingly spectacular cinematography. Anyhow, Mark Duplass co-wrote (with director Patrick Brice) and stars in this super-weird take on the found footage horror genre. He really puts his body into the role, and his facial expressions are somehow capable of conveying both horror and hilarity simultaneously. I don’t want to spoil it, so just check it out.


Dope (2015 Film)

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was the first major coming of age film I’ve ever seen featuring minorities as central characters.  That was 2004. Dope is the first film I’ve seen since that looks at the perils of adolescence from a distinctly non-white angle. It follows three super geeky kids from the Inglewood as they try to get rid of some ecstasy that accidentally wound up in their possession. Think Superbad with slightly higher-stakes. The dweeby lead characters all defy typical kids-from-the-hood stereotyping. They’re in a punk band together. Malcolm is a straight-A student and 90s hip hop nerd. Jib is a slightly aloof kinda’-neo-nerd of refreshingly undisclosed brownish heritage (could be Middle Eastern or mixed race or Hispanic maybe) and Diggy is a confident feminist lesbian. A$AP Rocky plays Dom, whose stashing of the molly in Malcolm’s bag is the event that sets the plot in motion. Forest Whittaker, Pharell Williams and Sean Combs produced. Really good, and really important; minority kids need to see their lives reflected back at them in pop-culture. That said, characters are so well-developed and real that they’ll feel relatable to any kid, regardless of race, gender or orientation. The soundtrack is also, well, dope.

Mr. Robot

I think Mr. Robot appeals to the same part of me that Fight Club did, all those years ago. It’s angry, it’s got a revolutionary character to it, it’s all about dispensing with the bullshit of consumerism. It’s yelling at the viewer to wake up, and escape from our self-imposed exiles to the lands of conspicuous consumption. Somehow though, it doesn’t come off as angsty. Possibly because it humanizes everything, possibly because the corporate suits it portrays as antagonists are more than 1-dimensional characters, possibly because the way technology is used seems far more real than any Iron Man movie or CSI series. Anyhow, it’s good. surprisingly so. It’s also definitely the spiritual successor to Fight Club. In fact, I’d go so far as to call at an update of Fight Club. Here’s one of the sequences from the first episode which is a scathing takedown of modern media-obsessed-consumer-culture, and it doesn’t pull many punches:

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul is the origin story of Breaking Bad’s sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman. It traces his coming up, from his beginnings as a small-time hustler, his efforts to go straight, his discovery of his natural gifts as a litigator to his challenges convincing those around him that he’s truly legit. I don’t want to spoil it, so let me just say this: Better Call Saul is a refreshingly human take on the origin story and prequel genre, so ubiqitous in mainstream culture these days. Unlike so many prequels, Better Call Saul in no way contradicts the character we see in Breaking Bad, and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s the story of how an ordinary guy, doing his best, gets corrupted by forces beyond his control, how a person can become imprisoned by his past misdeeds. In many ways, it reads like a classical tragedy; it could’ve easily been titled The Corruption of Saul Goodman. The plot is strong enough that it doesn’t have to hang on the narrative of Breaking Bad, although it does make it that much more interesting to know where he’s going to end up. It’s set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the city itself takes on the role of a character; wide, spare, sprawling and nice enough on the surface, concealing an underbelly of quiet criminal entreprises tucked into unassuming corners of suburbia. Bob Odenkirk is also hilarious. The Mr. Show alum can’t help himself from bringing his characteristic cheekiness and quintessentially American comedic-ennui to the role. Anyhow, really really good.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina is smart, cerebral science-fiction. Like it’s contemporaries and precedents Primer, Coherence, Another Earth and I Origins, it proves that you don’t need enormous budgets, elaborate sets and excessive CGI to make good science-fiction; you just need good ideas, good acting and to ask difficult questions. Ex Machina fits squarely into the speculative category of science-fiction; the question it’s asking is what is life? when does life emerge in a system?. Many films have made use of the Turing Test since Blade Runner. This film is kind of an extended Turing Test, with the protagonist invited to meet an artificial intelligence, and determine if it meets the criteria for consciousness. It’s a very clean film, sparse and quiet, but it hits the key plot points effortlessly, and throws just enough twists in there to keep you off balance. The dialogue is strong, and the tension between the three leads is rich and palpable. Oscar Issac’s Nathan is the perfectly creepy, cocky, clever and contemptuous corporate overlord who sets the plot in motion. He’s just a startlingly weird character; displaying sage like wisdom at times, total lunacy at others, and manages to be both antagonist and comic relief at once. Check him out:

Anyhow, good stuff, and it follows in the recent trend of smart, independent science-fiction that proves that telling a good story is more important blowing up planets or whatever.

The Martian

martianThe Martian is easily Ridley Scott’s best film since Blade Runner (1982). It’s also one of the best, big-budget science fiction films of all time. It’s been hailed as one of the most scientifically accurate science-fiction films of all time, earning praise from notorious nitpicker Neil DeGrasse Tyson even. Matt Damon plays astronaut and biologist Mark Watley, stranded on Mars after being presumed dead. The film follows his incredible feats of problem solving, applying all his math, engineering, physics, chemistry and biology knowledge to keep himself alive long enough to be rescued. It’s so well executed that the two-and-a-half-hour runtime flies by, with you completely transfixed waiting to see what happens next. The cast is superb. While the film is thick with suspense and anticipation, its also full of levity. Where Interstellar (2014) promised real science but instead was an unrestrained, egomaniacal updating of Kubrick’s 2001, The Martian is truly it’s own thing. It’s also a great work of science advocacy. In the words of physicist Brian Cox:

Totally worth watching.

Music

The Secret History Volume 1 (Pavement Rarities on Vinyl)

Okay. Most of these songs were released on the Luxe & Reduxe album in 2002, on the 10th anniversary of Pavement’s seminal debut, Slanted & Enchanted. I know, this is a bit of a cash grab, but it’s Pavement, so I’m gonna’ fall for it. Some people collect every release, reissue & remaster of the Beatles catalogue, Pavement is my Beatles. I’d argue that they’re the best rock band ever, and the Secret History Volume 1 is the first time many of these songs have been released on vinyl. There’s something so thrilling about this early era of Pavement recordings. There’s this urgency, immediacy and cheekiness to their music. The songs simultaneously perfectly capture and completely subvert punk rock conventions. You can hear (for better or worse) the genesis of modern indie-rock in songs like Here, Kentucky Cocktail and In The Mouth of A Desert. The songs are dripping with secret sophistication and frequently defy rock convention. They’re performed with a total casual ease. There’s this confidence you can hear in these recordings, as though Pavement knew they were destined to become one of the most influential bands of all time. Malkmus’ lyrics are imagist and poetic, seldom forcing narrative on the listener, but rather throwing ideas at us and giving us ample auditory space to contemplate their meaning (and insert our own personal narratives into them). I can’t really convey how good this band was, so you should just hear Here, here:


Also, if you like Pavement and Jay-Z, be sure to check out DJ N-Wee’s 2004 Slack Album, a super clever mashup of the two.

Songza Playlists That Help us Write

Running a marketing company means my day-to-day is mostly writing. Proposals, plans, reports, strategy documents, blog posts and ad creative. Writing precisely and concisely requires concentration, and oftentimes, the right music can help with that. I tend to benefit from mostly instrumental music, with lots of changes and few bombastic hooks. I prefer writing to music that isn’t too familiar to me, that way I won’t get too caught up in it.

Songza has been an amazing source of music perfectly suited to writing. It was recently absorbed by Google Play and you can find it here. You have to be signed in to access Google Play so I can’t link directly to the playlists, but here are my top 5 picks for music to write to (just search them once signed in):

  1. Mellow Cello
  2. Classical Meditation
  3. Autumn Piano Sonatas
  4. The World of Chet Baker
  5. Avant Garde Classical

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Roland’s New JD-Xi Crossover Synthesizer

Little known fact: both Martin Horn and I are former musicians who got into marketing by way of, well, needing to make a living. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Being an independent musician means you’re a content creator, and you have to develop grass-roots marketing skills to get yourself out there. You need to know how to pitch media, engage on social media and walk that fine line between self-promotion and shameless self-promotion. Anyhow, we still dabble, sometimes creating sound effects or scores for clients. This year, Roland launched one of the best modern synthesizers we’ve ever seen: the JD-Xi. We bought one, and it’s made the sound design aspects of our business easier and more fun. This thing:

It’s a hybrid (crossover) digital/analog synth. It’s super compact. It’s got a programmable step sequencer. The analog synth is surprisingly powerful and meaty (and vintage sounding). It’s incredibly easy to use. And at $599.00 CAD, it’s an absolute steal. It incorporates all the best features of digital synthesis without the bloat. It’s got real knobs and dials that allow you to filter your analog or digital sounds in real-time, using your hands. It’s really a complete music-making-machine. The sample bank of digital sounds is enormous and most of them sound pretty good right out of the box. If you’re in the market for a new synth, I can’t recommend the JD-Xi enough. Oh, and it also comes built with all of Roland’s drum sounds from their famous TR series.

The Noise Archive

Before Spotify, or Songza, before iTunes, iPods, before FLAC, before MP3s, before the web, independent musicians still had to get their music out somehow. In the 1980s and early 1990s, compact disc pressing hadn’t really become widely available, and vinyl was really expensive. Back then, it was all about cassette tapes, especially for underground, DIY bands in Canada. The 80s and early 90s were something of a golden age for experimental music in Canada; unlike today, the cost-barriers to recording were high enough that you had have serious commitment and be well rehearsed before going into the studio, but they weren’t so high as to be inaccessible for all but the privileged few with major label deals.

In Canada, at the time, if you weren’t doing pop music or really really straightforward punk, you didn’t really have a chance in hell of getting a label deal. The infrastructure for independent labels just wasn’t as developed as it was in the USA. As a result, this become a period of wild independence, frenetic innovation all driven by a do-it-yourself ethos that was really the only option for many artists at the time. Without the constraints of labels and promoters, many artists were able to get totally weird, and push music into strange new places.

The thing is, they wanted to be heard, and back then, that meant college radio play. Bands recorded in budget studios (or built their own, hobbling together old reel-to-reel machines and mixers being sold off by bigger studious transitioning to digital) and distributed their music on cassette tapes. Many seminal indie releases wound up getting play on Mike Dyer’s show at CKLN (a now-defunct radio station out of Ryerson University). His tape collection was uploaded to archive.org this year, and its amazing. Over 30 Gigabytes of underground Canadian post-punk, post-rock, weird jazz, minimalist electronic, sound art & found-sound collage and all manner of low-fi experimental musics are available, for all to enjoy. There are rare live recordings, lost b-sides, compilations and unreleased works from all manner of Canadian and international artists. There’s names I recognize, like Andy Stochansky, Church of the Subgenius, Steve Reich (!), Rhythym Activism, Kronos Quartet and John Oswald. There are hundreds of bands and artists I’ve never heard of that I’m slowly discovering as I wade through the archive. Among my favourite discoveries, was a Toronto band called Sucking Chest Wound who combine the wildness of contemporaries Nihilist Spasm Band with the sound collage of Plunderphonics. I was shocked that I had never heard them before. Just before my time I guess. Anyhow, a 3-tape (6-side) mega release of the full album is available on the archive. Here’s their song “Who Shot the Pope?”, which features beats that could’ve been pulled right out of Paul’s Boutique. So, so good.

The archive is an incredible piece of musical archeology, a treasure trove of sounds that perfectly expresses a uniquely free period in Canadian music, that might have otherwise been lost to the annals of history.

Compton by Dr. Dre

Compton is the first full-length studio release by Dr. Dre since 1999. That’s 16 years. I mean, he’s kept busy as producer and an entrepreneur.  And of course, it was released in time for the release of the N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton. With all that in mind, it’d be easy to dismiss the album as nothing more than a cash grab, hurried out of the studio after years of false starts to get out there in time to piggyback on the nostalgia around those early days of hip-hop in America. 

But Compton is no cash grab. It’s an incredibly slick and real and contemporary and nostaligic. It takes the best elements of old-school, like using raw, unvarnished funk samples and weaves them effortlessly into incredibly rich, impossibly infectious, deep-bass-shaking soundscapes that are utterly relentless. His guest list spans two decades of seminal hip-hop luminaries including  Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Cold 187um, The Game,Ice Cube, Xzibit, Anderson and .Paak. Their presence gives the album a subgenre-bending, time-spanning, feel. Compton almost feels like the end of the story started by N.W.A. back in the 1980s. It’s a jaunt through a generation of hip-hop, it feels like you’re listening to rap music enter adulthood, in a good way.
Here’s Genocide, featuring Kendrik Lamar. Just dig that gooey, sticky irresistible bassline:

Forest Hills Drive by J Cole

Forest Hills Drive by J Cole was released in December of 2014, but it took a while before it made its way into our ears. It picks up where 2013’s Born Sinner left off, but has a much more political and vulnerable character to it. I loved Born Sinner, and wasn’t sure he could top it, but Forest Hills Drive is at least just as good. It still features his characteristic super-smooth, fast, chill-storytelling, smartypants flow, but the production is somehow more urgent. The beats are more crisp, the melodies hang in your head for longer, the lyrics are cheekier but somehow also more real. Even though the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown only happened after the album was completed, it’s hard not to get the sense that J Cole is channeling the frustration and sadness of black America on this album. It certainly matters to him, as evidenced by his heart-wrenching performance of Be Free (not on the album) on Letterman shortly after the album dropped:

Anyhow, great album, another step towards greatness for one of rap’s freshest voices. He’s a gifted producer and is unafraid of drifting into vulnerable, personal, sometimes self-deprecating places in his chill, wordplay rich raps. Check out Wet Dreamz here:

Online

Brain Pickings

brainpickingsBrain Pickings accurately describes itself as an inventory of a meaningful life. It features neatly curated selections of writings from notable thinkers throughout history, philosophers, authors, scientists, poets, ne’er-do-wells and bon-vivants. It’s lovingly and meticulously authored and edited by Maria Popova, herself a gifted wordsmith. I follow Brain Pickings on Facebook, and it serves as a kind of regular source of inspiration. She shares unearthed letters, interviews and manuscripts from all manner of creative peoples. Just scanning her feed right now, I see pieces on, about or from Kierkegaard, Anaïs Nin, David Whyte, Georgia O’Keeffe, Leonardo DaVinci, Lewis Carroll, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolfe, Maurice Sendak and Bertrand Russell.

Popova tends to collect material from notable people that exists outside their established repertoires. She isn’t after what made them famous, she wants to know how they created it (process) and what it means to them. She wants to know what they think is important, and how they live their lives, with meaning. It’s all really gorgeous stuff and tremendously helpful, as inspiration & motivation.

Also, Brain Pickings seems to provide a fairly even balance of male and female thinkers, which not a lot of sites do. A lot of important female figures get buried in the patriarchal annals of history. Brain Pickings offers me a chance to see some of their works, and thought processes behind their works.

Slack and Wrike (Collaboration & Project Management Tools)

image (10)Digital Marketing works best when a variety of tactics are in play in tandem. The right mix of content marketing, web experiences, social media activity, promoted by multiple (A/B/C) advertising variants is the best way to reach, connect with and ultimately nudge your customers over to the next appropriate conversion. Then you’ve to to measure everything and refine, improve and optimize continuously. As a marketing company, this means that each of our clients has multiple streams of activities happening concurrently. Juggling client approvals, meetings, production and analysis can be overwhelming.
This year, we got a lot of mileage out of two different productivity tools:
Slack is an instant messenger, combined with a file uploader, category archiver, and general parking lot for ideas, watercooler conversations and cool discoveries. Because of the casual, instant-messaging interface, people are more liberated to use it, without feeling like they’ve got to craft full well-articulated emails that may just go unread anyway. If you’ve got a quick question, Slack it. In that sense, it picks up where the phone left off when it became weird to call people.
It integrates nicely with plenty of tools you already use, like Google Drive, Skype, Dropbox, Github & Zendesk. It’s nested at the level of the user (like a social network), meaning that one user can be part of several Slack teams, which is great when working with freelancers. The AI is super smart, and allows you to create shortcut codes to instantly surface information that you frequently search for.
wrikeWrike is more of a cloud-based project management solution proper. Create tasks, assign them to users, add dependencies and deadlines, get daily reports. None of that is particularly new, but the interface is just nicer than most PM solutions. It’s clean, free of a lot of bloat, and makes internal email obsolete. My favourite thing about it is that it integrates nicely with Google Drive, allowing you to add files to a task from g-drive, and collaborate on them directly through the Wrike interface.

In a Nutshell – Kurzgesagt Video Series on YouTube

Kurzgesagt is a Munich-based design and animation studio that launched their YouTube channel back in 2013. At first, it was intended to be a place for all their personal projects, but it quickly became a rich resource for wonderfully animated science (and science-advocacy) videos. These folks are incredibly talented animators, writers and storytellers. The series takes heady science concepts like black holes, the fermi paradox, quantum computing, the immune system, dark energy and breaks them down for lay people. They tackle topics currently occuping headlines, like the refugee crisis, ebola, the death of bees and nuclear energy. Their episode on addiction pairs well with the works of Gabor Maté or the Radiolab episode The Fix I mentioned above. They ask big questions like What Is Something?, Is War Over? and What Is Life? Is Death Real?. Their motto for the video series is nothing in this universe is boring, if you tell a good story.

They release one new video every month. Really impressive stuff. Here’s a couple, enrich yourself! Also, consider supporting them with a donation here, on Patreon.




Final Thoughts

It’s hard not to try to find patterns in all of these cultural artificats. What made them all rise to surface of our collective unconscious this year? What ties them together? To us, 2015 felt like the year of the brain. The year that the inner workings of the brain become a subject of popular inquiry. And peering into the brain seemed to open culture up to look at addiction, mental health, social structures and the nature of the self, in new and fresh ways.

I think that openness resulted in movies and television and music that was more introspective, more self-aware, more nuanced, more playful, lighter, more understated and less self-serious, less certain, less morally rigid.

If there was a zeitgeist to 2015, I think it is self-reflection. 2015 might be remembered as the year we started to look inwards, with compassion and curiousity, in the hopes of better understand who we each are, and how we all fit together.

And that bodes well.

-Ali

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