Darkest Hour: Nuanced Historical Flick or Meme-ish Schlock?

Darkest Hour is about the World War II events that took place in Great Britain from May 10 through June 4, 1940 — Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as prime minister, Winston Churchill’s ascension, France falling to Nazi Germany (including the siege at Calais), the miraculous evacuation of over 330,000 British troops at Dunkirk, all culminating in Churchill’s decision not to enter into peace talks with Hitler, which led to the Battle of Britain.

I enjoyed the movie. It was entertaining, well crafted, and beautifully acted, and I think the choice to focus on that single, eventful month was an excellent one. Gary Oldman is physically the exact opposite of Churchill, yet he absolutely disappears into the role. I also thought the movie was nicely and importantly nuanced until the end (where it devolves into a schlocky mess).

In particular, it highlighted Churchill’s spotty track record prior to his ascension, his politically precarious position, and the strategic, emotional, and moral complexity around decisions that will unavoidably cost lives. It offered a little taste of coalition politics, which I find especially fascinating these days as I wonder about the future of the two-party system in the U.S. I also felt more empathetic to the strongly differing viewpoints of the time, especially to Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax. It’s so much easier to judge when you have the benefit of hindsight.

I wouldn’t say the ending ruined the whole movie for me (a surprising sentiment, given that I knew what was going to happen), but I didn’t like it. It lost its nuance. First, there was an incredibly grotesque, entirely fictional scene where Churchill decides to take the subway to Westminster Station so that he can mix with the people. It’s a cheap, gimmicky device made even worse by the inclusion of the one person of color in the entire movie.

Then, all semblance of nuance disappeared, and it became a series of will-of-the-people, fight-until-the-end propaganda piece. Which, in some ways, was accurate. Churchill’s strengths were his way with words and his ability to inspire. Earlier in the film, they did touch on the difficult balancing act between looking disastrous reality in the face while also maintaining hope, which I appreciated.

I get why the movie ended the way it did. It would have been too complicated, for example, to try to explain that the Battle of Britain, while heroic and extraordinary, would likely have been futile had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. not entered the war.

I’m okay with the ending. I just didn’t like it. And I especially hated the fact that the movie ended with this inspirational “Churchill” quote:

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Here’s what the International Churchill Society has to say about this quote on a page entitled, “Quotes falsely attributed to Winston Churchill”:

We can find no attribution for either one of these and you will find that they are broadly attributed to Winston Churchill. They are found nowhere in his canon, however. An almost equal number of sources found online credit these sayings to Abraham Lincoln — but we have found none that provides any attribution in the Lincoln Archives.

Falsely sourcing quotes is a pet peeve of mine. I get why they might have created that idiotic subway scene. But why end the movie Internet meme style? It was lazy and unnecessary, and it summed up how the overall ending of this otherwise solid movie was for me.

This Is How to Advertise Your Impact

I had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Autumn Hays at Partnership for Working Families today. I was particularly struck by her email signature, which opens with:

The Partnership improved the lives of 1.5 million people last year!

This is so smart on so many levels. First, it shows that the Partnership has a clear impact goal and are tracking it in a compelling way. It’s just good storytelling. I’d love to see more transparency in how they’re coming up with their numbers, but I’m a geek, and I’m nitpicking. The fact that they’re doing this at all is great.

Second, they are intentionally drawing people’s attention to their impact in a simple, innovative way. I’m sure Autumn sends lots of emails, and every one of the recipient now has some sense of the Partnership’s impact. It’s the nonprofit version of the McDonald’s “billions served” sign.

I would love to see others do stuff like this. I’m totally planning on stealing this.

Richard Feynman on Explaining Things Clearly

My dad is a physicist who idolized Richard Feynman, which meant that I idolized him as well growing up. One thing about him that made a huge impression on me was how simply and clearly he explained things. Feynman was a genius. If he could explain physics clearly to anyone, then no one had any excuse to put on airs.

The Long Now Foundation recently republished one of my favorite essays about Feynman, Danny Hillis’s, “Richard Feynman and the Connection Machine.” (Hat tip to William Barnhill.) It not only shares many great anecdotes about Feynman, it also is an oral history of the early days at Hillis’s groundbreaking parallel computing company, Thinking Machines.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I like this excerpt about Feynman’s explaining prowess in particular:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.

Ten Days Into my 365 Photos Project

Toward the end of last year, I started contemplating doing a photo-a-day project. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Take a photo a day, and publish it, preferably on the same day. I pretty much decided that I already had too many commitments in 2015 and that I wanted to cut back, but I just couldn’t bear to scrap the idea entirely.

Then, on New Year’s Day, I woke up, and saw this nice light pattern on my wall, which I caught on camera. Then I decided, “Screw it. I’m going to post this as Day 1, and see how far I get. If I end up giving up, no harm done.”

So I posted it. Ten days later, I’m still doing it. (You can follow my project on Flickr.) I felt ready to give up on both Day 2 and Day 3, but I didn’t. Instead, I got clearer about what I was trying to accomplish, and why.

I decided that my main goals were to document my life and to practice. If I had to choose between posting a mediocre photo that told a more accurate story of my day versus a gorgeous photo that was largely irrelevant, I would go with the mediocre photo.

This immediately raised several problems, the main one being that I don’t lead a very glamorous life. I’m usually indoors in front of my computer or in a meeting. I decided to take this on as a challenge. It would force me to exercise my storytelling muscles in a more creative way. At worst, it would encourage me to get out more — a very nice side effect.

Another problem was that I didn’t always have a camera with me. This was surprising, given that I feel like I’m always carrying my camera around these days. But within the first few days of the New Year, I found myself missing out on what I thought were good opportunities. I have a smartphone, but I don’t like its camera. Yeah, yeah, I know that the best camera is the one you have on you, but I was having trouble getting over this.

By Day 7, I had to confront this problem head on. I knew I was going to have court-side access during the pre-game warmup at the Warriors game, so I brought my camera and long lens, expecting to take some cool pictures of the players. But the arena wouldn’t let me bring my camera in, because the lens was too big.

I was disgruntled, but I knew I had to get a picture, so I got this one of my friends with my phone. And I love it. It’s technically unremarkable, but it means something to me personally. Maybe I would have taken a better one of the same subject with my good camera and lens, but maybe not. Constraints are good.

The last problem was that I had to get over myself. This could take an enormous amount of time if I let it. I’m not a professional photographer, and I’m not trying to be. I want to get better, but I have a bunch of other things going on in my life. I need to be okay with improving at a realistic pace.

When I started taking photography more seriously, I started getting more self-critical. This improved my photographic eye, but it also prevented me from putting myself out there as much. One of the reasons for my improvement these past two years is that I simply share less. That’s legitimate — curation is a huge part of photography — but I could probably improve even faster by putting myself out there more, even if that means exposing inferior work.

Furthermore, taking good photos requires a lot more concentration. Sometimes, I find myself giving up on taking pictures entirely, because I just want to focus on whatever it is that I’m doing, and I know that any photos I end up taking will be mediocre as a result. If you look at my meeting pictures over the past two years, you can gauge the level of my involvement in the meeting based on the quality of the pictures. When I was facilitating, the pictures ended up being mediocre (or sometimes nonexistent), because I was devoting 100 percent of my concentration to my job at hand.

I’m trying to manage my standards and just publish something once a day, focusing on the benefits of practice rather than worrying about my self-critic. I’m enjoying it! I’ve already started to notice key opportunities for improvement, and I’m looking forward to being able to see that improvement over time rather than worrying about not being there yet.

Most of all, I love having a journal of my life. I was never able to keep a daily written journal, even when constraining myself to bullet points. But a picture journal seems easier and a lot more gratifying, and it’s amazing how a single picture can trigger a lot of memories.

It’s also an incredible way to recognize life patterns. This past week, you can see that I was around lots of people, which was great, but not typical. Next week will be similar, but the week after, I’ll start bearing down. I’m curious to see what new patterns emerge and how this feedback mechanism changes my behavior (hopefully for the better).

White House Year in Photography

Pete Souza, the official White House photographer (who also served a similar role under Reagan) posted his Year in Photos on the White House website this week. I loved poring over these! As you might expect, Souza’s photos tell a powerful, insider’s story of President Obama’s 2014. They also serve as a primer on masterful photojournalism.

The photo above offered a brief look at Obama’s propensity to be present. Souza’s caption:

Surrounded by Secret Service agents, the President views the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Rather than immediately board the Marine One helicopter at Crissy Field, the President instead walked right past the helicopter to see a better view of the bridge on a clear summer day.

Here are some other nice examples of this.

Masterful photography and storytelling is nothing new. What I especially love is how the White House uses the Internet and social media to share these pictures. All of the pictures above (and many more) are shared more or less in real-time on Flickr. If you click through on any of the photos, you’ll notice that all of the camera metadata is there. (Souza uses a Canon 5D Mark III, often with a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.) Lots of professional photographers hide their metadata, a ridiculous, misguided attempt to maintain some kind of competitive edge.

You’ll also notice the licensing: U.S. Government Works. By law, federal work is not protected by copyright. However, that does not mean the work is in the public domain, as federal work is protected by other government statutes. For example, you cannot use government work to imply endorsement by a government official. No such luck with public domain or even Creative Commons.

I had never seen the U.S. Government Works statement before. It has very nice language around publicity versus privacy rights, an issue that has flummoxed me.

Souza also maintains an excellent Instagram account, where he shares iPhone photos and insider stories, including his thought process behind how he curated his 2014 photo essay. He also recently gave an excellent interview about his process.

This is what working openly looks like. This is what getting it looks like.

Happy New Year, everyone!