Here’s my 4:24 of fame on Sunday, June 11, 2017.
Unidentified Israeli Object: my mother-in-law had this amongst her stuff. She travelled a lot, but never to Israel, though her husband one did.
In any event, my Israeli friend tells me Arad is a town in the south of Israel and it was a former Roman site. This thing appears to be a tourist geegaw, but I’m not sure if the coin is real — were there so many, they sold them as keepsakes? Is it Roman, or Byzantine, or just what?
My friend and partner Leon Segal decided to greet the crowd outside our hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru.
Okay, they were being nice. The reason all these young girls are here is because the hotel is also hosting the star of Soy Luna, a popular kids show on Disney Latino.
Longform.org put up a remarkable Rolling Stone article from 2000 by Rian Malan, “In the Jungle: How American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper.”
This is the story of the 1939 song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, a Zulu group who recorded in Johannesburg. The sang in a workingman’s style called isicathamiya that derives from a warning: “Tread carefully, boys”: that is, don’t ruin the stage with your traditional stomp-dancing. (Malan points out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s light-footed stage movements descend from this style.)
A 78 RPM record of “Mbube” landed in the hands of Alan Lomax, who gave it to his friend Pete Seeger, who misunderstood the underlying chant of “Uyimbube” and called his version “Wimoweh,” which became a 1952 hit for the Weavers just when they wer forced to disband due to Red Scare allegations.
“Wimoweh” was covered many times by many singers, eventually including a Brooklyn group called the Tokens, who had heard that the lyrics were about hunting lions. The Tokens’ producers didn’t want to record “Wimoweh” as is, so they asked for help from an orchestrator named George Weiss, who deconstructed the song. He wrote some new words and put the melody front and center. The recording included a tympanist mimicking “jungle drums” and an opera singer named Anita Darien doing that soaring countermelody. It became one of the biggest hits of all time, and still shows up in movies, cover versions, children’s records, TV shows, and more, all around the world.
And that’s just the first half of this article. Malan’s real goal is to follow the money from this megahit and figure out how much of it ever made it back to Linda’s impoverished family, which brings us to ideas about folk songs and copyright, public domain songs credited to fictitious songwriters (“Wimoweh” is credited to “Paul Campbell,” who also “wrote” “Rock Island Line” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”), and the wheeling-dealings of some real music-industry sharks. Eventually everyone gets into court on two continents, but all in all it’s an eye-opening account of the story behind a song that refuses to go to sleep.
This Slate review of a 2005 book on screenwriting is revealing and cleverly constructed. Peter Suderman uses the review to illuminate the way this book has infected movie plots in the last few years:
If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).
Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat goes beyond Robert McKee’s Story and other guides to creating screenplays. Instead of discussing general structural principles of good movies, he provides a beat-by-beat list of all the basic plot elements that must be hit, giving them names like Catalyst, Debate, Bad Guys Close In, and Dark Night of the Soul.
Even better, Suderman uses Snyder’s formula to write his article, even providing a nicely annotated version showing where the seams are. I know the next time I watch a formulaic movie (maybe I’ll catch Iron Man 3 again), I’ll be playing Spot the Formula Moment.
Yet once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs. Why does Kirk get dressed down for irresponsibility by Admiral Pike early in Star Trek Into Darkness? Because someone had to deliver the theme to the main character. Why does Gina Carano’s sidekick character defect to the villain’s team for no reason whatsoever almost exactly three-quarters of the way through Fast & Furious 6? Because it’s the all-is-lost moment, so everything needs to be in shambles for the heroes. Why does Gerard Butler’s character in Olympus Has Fallen suddenly call his wife after a climactic failed White House assault three-quarters of the way through? Because the second act always ends with a quiet moment of reflection—the dark night of the soul.
I write and edit texts of all sorts, and I will work with you to make your ideas and language clear and strong.
I work with people who need to communicate to clients, customers, employees, and others. I’ve worked in online media and in print, providing everything from concise, space-constrained copy to academic articles and book-length efforts.
I am available to speak to business and student groups on design thinking, innovation, and writing, as well as collaborate on workshops to introduce design thinking and the design process within organizations.
From 1987 to 2009, I worked at IDEO, a global design and innovation firm, in Palo Alto and San Francisco. During the last dozen years, my role involved writing, editing, speaking, and teaching about design thinking and IDEO’s history, culture, and process. Before that, I had been the firm’s first systems administrator and, later, its first IT manager. Before that, I spent eight years in various Silicon Valley companies as a drafter and junior designer.
As a writer and editor at IDEO, I worked closely with David Kelley (founder and chairman), Tim Brown (CEO and president), Tom Kelley (general manager), Bill Moggridge (cofounder), directors Whitney Mortimer
(marketing communications), John Foster (talent and organization),
Nancy Nichols (recruiting), John Ravitch (business development), and much of the design staff to create case studies, external websites, award entries, project pages, wikis, presentations, proposals, and a huge variety of internal communication pieces on websites, emails, and in physical spaces.
Much of my work resides within IDEO’s
intranet and contains confidential material. Any nonpublic snapshots
below are included with kind permission of IDEO.
The Ten Faces of Innovation
(2006, Doubleday), by Tom Kelley and Jon Littman
I worked extensively on both
books, from research to copyediting. Tom thanks me in both books; in
the second, he wrote:
Scott Underwood applied his encyclopedic knowledge of words in giving me advice on syntax, grammar, and elements of style. I have learned more about the nuances of language from Scott than I have from any professor.
Editing, copyediting, proofreading, and/or research for
The History of IDEO’s Logos: this is one of a series of wiki pages created on IDEO’s intranet, the Tube, meant to inform new employees and remind the others about the firm’s history.
Careers page: a link to the most frequently asked questions from people interested in employment and internships, striking a balance between friendliness and firmness. This grew out of my work answering the extremely random, humorous, or provocative emails IDEO started receiving after 1999 — each and every email.
Kraft Foods case study: one of a few hundred stories written to convey the company’s breadth and expertise concisely and without jargon or boastfulness. Written in a “just-the-facts” tone, many of these articles were informed by competition entry forms, which tell a deeper story meant for a different audience.
30 Years of IDEO: this limited-audience website communicated the 30th anniversary of the founding of David Kelley Design, and showcased much of IDEO’s surprising new work (in strategy, food, nonprofit, and other nontraditional design projects). I worked on concepts with founder David Kelley, then collaborated with a graphic artist and a web programmer to create the finished site.
2000-2009: coordinated and hosted 350+ Know How Talks and Lunches, which included a weekly, internal-only, lunchtime show-and-tell series for IDEOers to share their work and points of view, and an evening series for a variety of writers, thinkers, makers, and doers. The number of great speakers I hosted are too many to list, but include:
2003-2009: I led hundreds of tours of IDEO’s Palo Alto campus, essentially 30-
to 90-minute walking presentations on IDEO’s history, culture, and
process. My audiences included:
I have also given many talks, presentations, and workshops, most recently:
2006-2007: Led IDEO 101, a multiday orientation and education workshop for all new employees, from all offices, regardless of level or seniority. More than a typical orientation program, this event was designed to create an intercompany cohort and foster better connections among the offices. It included short talks and Q&As on everything from the company’s finances to the plans for the future from most of IDEO’s leadership; a day-long real-world design charette with off-campus interviews, prototypes, and presentations; a “round robin” dinner event, meant to encourage attendees to mix and mingle, and wrap party featuring an IDEO-led music group.
1998-2006: Managed annual design competition effort, comprising
400+ projects. Work included 1500-word entry forms, image selection and
captioning, video scripting, and more. During this period, IDEO won
the most awards each year in the IDSA/Business Week competition, and hundreds of awards worldwide.
2006: Working with curator Signe Mayfield at the Palo Alto Art Center, I drew together IDEO Prototypes the Future, the first exhibition devoted to IDEO’s work. Podcasts and photos are available on the website of Ross Mayfield (founder of SocialText and also a speaker at IDEO’s Know How Talks). I also worked with the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation on the communications materials for a major fundraising effort.
These are samples of writing I’ve done outside the constraints of my longtime employer, whether for money or amusement.
Housing Works: an article on Patrimonio Hoy, the microlending arm of the multinational cement corporation CEMEX, written for (and substantially edited by) Design 21.
In-progress Ideas for New Yorker Cartoons: a humor piece written for McSweeney’s.
Drift: an article on language, written for my blog.
The 10,000 hours of Steve Martin: a book review, written for my blog.
IDEO (Palo Alto, San Francisco)
D2M (Mountain View)
IMVU (Palo Alto)
Unnamed client (Calgary)