My Pick of the Week: May 29-June 3

My pick this week is The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock.

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This much underappreciated modern classic follows a small monastery in medieval England. Their abbot, Peregrine, suffers an injury which leaves him helpless to care for himself, and he must learn to depend on the other monks in ways he hadn’t been able to before. This book is a must-read, particularly for those interested in good historical fiction.

Buy on Amazon

All Good Marketing is Storytelling

Marketing is a huge field, spanning nearly every industry. Everyone’s trying to sell a product or service, and businesses spend billions annually to get their products in front of as many eyes as possible. However, as markets become more and more saturated, traditional marketing strategies have begun to fail.

In the midst of one of the biggest industry upsets in history – the advent of social media platforms – many marketers have turned to these newer channels to grow an audience and build their brand. One of the most successful platforms, if utilized correctly, is YouTube. With YouTube ads, a targeted video ad pops up before a video. For the first 15 seconds, the viewer does not have the option to skip and must watch the ad, guaranteeing marketers a brief time to share their product without the fear that someone will click away. After the ad crosses the 15-second mark, however, most can be skipped. One of the biggest challenges YouTube advertisers face is figuring out how to keep viewers watching past the 15-second mark.

Enter Dollar Shave Club, a scrappy little startup that began in 2012 as a simple idea incarnated into a simple, 90-second ad aired on YouTube. Within weeks, the ad had gone viral all over the internet, racking up millions of views and 12,000 paying customers for Dollar Shave Club. What did this little ad do right?

Simple. It told a story.

The ad opens with a closeup shot of Michael Dubin, the company’s founder and CEO, who briefly explains the idea behind Dollar Shave Club as concisely as possible. The idea? Get quality razors without unnecessary extras delivered right to your door each month for a dollar. Just as the ad reaches the fateful 15-second mark that can make or break an ad campaign, Dubin does the unexpected: he drops a bleeped-out f-bomb. “Our blades are f***ing great.”

The abrupt switch from formal to casual catches the viewers off guard, and they completely forget to skip the rest of the ad. From that point on, they’re hooked. Each second in the remained of the video is more hilarious than the last, making fun of traditional advertising and just generally having fun. The ad doesn’t just provide information about the product; it frames a story about the company and its values. The final impression is that Dollar Shave Club is group full of innovators who are just regular guys who know how to have fun. The brand isn’t just a business, it’s a group of people (both employees and customers) who are “in” on the joke.

For another example, look no further than the ad which launched a thousand memes: the 60-second TheLegend27 ad campaign by the Game of War franchise, which was aired on YouTube in October 2016. This ad provides an even clearer example of using ad space to tell a story, and the video now has over 156 million views.

At the end of the day, people watch ads for the same reason they watch TV shows: for the story. Stories are memorable. They stick with the viewer much longer than a boring infomercial because they have a heart behind them. We tell each other stories every day, from that incident that happened at school to how we met our best friends. Story ads bring people closer to a brand because they portray the human side of the business. Everyone tells stories, and in this way, even multimillion dollar companies like Dollar Shave Club aren’t that different from each one of us.

Why Paris is the Pinnacle of Modern Pop Music

Is Paris (by The Chainsmokers) really the pinnacle of modern pop music? Okay, that’s a little grandiose of a claim. First of all, what do I mean by “pop music”? In recent years, with the polarization of culture, pop music has fractured and branched out in multiple directions. Paris heads up a newer branch that I call “minimalist soft pop” because of its distinctive soft tones, muted vocals, and stripped-down instrumentals. The duo only uses a keyboard, a guitar, and a collection of synthesizers to make their music.

Minimalist soft pop is a new phenomenon that evolved from a melding of two genres: indie rock/pop and EDM. Before their recent hits such as Paris and Closer, The Chainsmokers were responsible for such offbeat, electropop as 2014’s #Selfie (which I personally cannot stand). However, their style has evolved. Paris builds on the success and techniques of such songs as Love Yourself by Justin Bieber and Royals by Lorde, taking the genre to new heights.

So, what makes Paris so special? The melody is haunting, but it isn’t that different from other recent hits. The secret is in the lyrical storytelling. Paris opens with a bold statement: We were staying in Paris. However, as the song goes on, you slowly get the realization that “Paris” isn’t an actual place; it’s really a state of mind, an escape from everyday life. The lyrics tell the story of a young couple desperate to escape from their parents and from the world. The delightfully addictive hook begins with the lyric, If we go down, then we go down together. Songwriter Emily Warren joins in the chorus, providing a counterpoint to Drew Taggart’s deeper voice.

The lyrics, combined with the symmetry of the two unison voices on the chorus, becomes an extremely singable hit that is currently #16 on the charts. (Fun fact: another Chainsmokers song, Something Just Like This, is #1.) But what I believe to be the key to the success of Paris is how it holds back. It’s full of emotion, yet the vocals aren’t overstated. The chorus is so catchy, yet you only get to hear it a couple of times throughout the song. All these elements come together in a perfect storm that is bingeworthy and surprisingly deep.

My Pick of the Week: May 22-27

My pick this week is The Seventeenth Swap by Eloise McGraw.

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I consider this book a much underrated and underappreciated classic. Originally published in 1986, it seems to have fizzled out. I had to dig around on Amazon to find a good link for you guys, and I couldn’t find it on Audible at all. Regardless, I highly recommend it. The Seventeenth Swap is a touching coming-of-age story about Eric Green, a young teen who takes care of a disabled boy and really wants to be able to buy the boy a pair of boots he wants. The story is all about how Eric uses resourcefulness and entrepreneurship to “trade up” to the boots, discovering things about himself along the way.

Buy on Amazon, since I can’t find it on Audible. 😦

Books I Hate: Episode 1

First on the chopping block:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

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Quick Summary:

This book is about a dysfunctional family from Oklahoma who moves to California in the wake of the Dust Bowl. During this time, Oklahoma farmers could not grow crops, because the land was arid and dusty. The story follows the family’s journey to California and their gradual settling into their new home.

Things the Book Gets Right:

  • The historical time period
  • Realistically portrays the hardships experienced by farmers during the dust bowl
  • Characters are flawed and feel like real people
  • The tone of hopelessness is probably very realistic

Things the Book Gets Wrong:

  • Most of the action is in real time, which creates a feeling of drudgery and takes readers out of the story
  • The dialogue is very uneven: it’s good in places and also very bad in places
  • The tone of hopelessness is very depressing, but not in a way that increases thoughtfulness about issues or beliefs
  • Way too long of a book

Why I Hate The Grapes of Wrath:

This review might make you think I dislike John Steinbeck as an author. This is not true. I really enjoyed Of Mice and Men; in fact, I highly suggest reading it. It is a fantastic example of Steinbeck’s abilities as a storyteller. It gets right what The Grapes of Wrath gets wrong in tone and length. The main beef I have with The Grapes of Wrath is its length. In short story form, some of its faults (uneven dialogue, pacing, etc.) might not be so noticeable. However, because it is a mid-length novel, these flaws glare at me when I read it.

The Grapes of Wrath has some value as an insight into the plight of poor farmers in the Great Depression era who escape the Dust Bowl only to remain in poverty in California, the supposed land of plenty. However, it drags out its events in almost totally real time, which is off-putting to me and potentially to many other modern readers. Another fault I find in it is that the underlying theme of hopelessness, while fitting, has little redeeming value to readers. The book doesn’t try to get you to think about the tragedies experienced by the family, it just drags you through them. Perhaps some readers don’t mind this; I do. Anyway, these are my thoughts on the story.

 

Did you enjoy this new article format? If so, like, share, or leave a comment below with thoughts or suggestions. I appreciate your feedback.

The Hidden Meaning in Faust

In Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe subverted the traditional hero’s journey story structure. In the hero’s journey structure, a hero with all the archetypical traits of courage, virtue, and leadership embarks on some quest. He encounters temptations, difficulties, and ultimately, sacrifices something in order to complete his quest and learn some truth about himself or the world. This sacrifice and ultimate paradigm shift of the hero is meant to teach the reader some lesson or get them to ask and ponder some ultimate question. In Homer’s Odyssey, this structure is clearly visible.

Odysseus is a traditional hero – virtuous to a fault, cunning and resourceful when necessary but refusing to use his abilities for evil purposes. His quest is to find his way home to Ithaka from the ruins of Troy. Along his journey, he encounters various difficulties: his men are attacked by Harpies, he nearly gives in to the temptations of the Sirens, Circe turns them into pigs, and a Cyclops captures him and his men before they escape through Odysseus’ natural resourcefulness. In the end, Odysseus makes it home to Ithaka, rids his home of piglike suitors, and is reunited with his wife and son.

The structural elements of Faust are similar. The story seems to have all the same beats as the Odyssey: a hero on a quest faces temptations and overcomes them all to live happily ever after. However, a more thorough analysis of the story reveals a very different message. In order to understand the true message of Faust, we need to look at the cultural context of the work and at Goethe’s own life. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived in Germany from 1749 to 1832, a time of great change in Europe. During these years, the Enlightenment was at its peak and was changing the way writers, philosophers, and scientists viewed the world. Instead of the light-hearted, feelings-based ideas of the earlier Romantic period, the Enlightenment put a stronger value on reason, logic, scientific advancement, and study. Many prominent Enlightenment writers and philosophers were not religious, or even anti-religious, and these themes come across in their writing. Goethe was not writing from a Christian or religious perspective, which shaped the way he wrote about the dangers of making a bargain with the devil.

As a hero, Faust has more flaws than Odysseus, making him a good candidate for a tragic hero, but Faust the novel is clearly a comedy. It has a happy ending, doesn’t really take itself that seriously from a meta standpoint, and in the end, Faust’s bad decisions don’t seem to matter at all. He still gets a happy ending because his entire life – from his studies to his temptations to even his bargain with the devil himself – was all just a game God played with Satan. This underlying theme that Faust’s choices didn’t matter is consistent with the ideas of determinism, the idea that the future has already been laid out by the laws of nature or an unseen hand, and no human actions will affect the outcome. The rise in a Western belief in determinism is strongly associated with the advent of Newtonian physics, which were a key discovery of the early Enlightenment. As a student interested in science and philosophy, Goethe would have been well aware of both Newton’s ideas and the idea of determinism.

Although Faust and Odysseus share similar “hero” journeys, they arrive at very different understandings of the world. Odysseus, in surviving all his dangers and trials through his cunning, learns that human resourcefulness and loyalty to family can triumph over even the storms and problems sent to him by the gods. Odysseus can outwit them all. Faust, by selling his soul to the devil and giving into temptation after temptation yet still being raised to heaven in the end, learns that his choices don’t matter. God had determined the outcome far in advance, and nothing Faust did would change it. These two similar yet vastly different stories pit two different belief systems against each other. Odysseus represents the confidence in human tenacity and in the power of virtue expressed by the ancients, such as Aristotle and Cicero. Faust represents the Enlightenment era skepticism of human importance in the face of the brave new world of science and the unfolding mysteries of the cosmos. Through his knowledge of ancient beliefs and current philosophies, Goethe was able to weave a masterful story that subverted the typical structure of the genre and remained a sparkling gem of Enlightenment beliefs even to this day.

My Pick of the Week: May 15-20

My pick this week is a book I’ve just finished reading: The Martian by Andy Weir.

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First off, a word of warning: this book isn’t for everyone. I’ve spent the last few hours sifting through bad reviews and op-eds trying to figure out why a significant portion of people don’t like the book. Much of the language is high-level and scientific, but at its root, it is a story of human resourcefulness and tenacity to survive. I would recommend this book if you can slog through the science talk.

St. Anselm and the Existence of God

St. Anselm, an 11th-century monk, developed a specific ontological argument for the existence of God. He began his argument by defining God as a “being than which none greater can be conceived,” or the greatest possible being. He then stated that this greatest possible being must exist in reality, since existing in reality is greater than existing only in the understanding. Anselm’s argument is ontological, since it argues from the idea of God to God’s existence.

Many years later, another monk named Gaunilo wrote an objection to Anselm’s argument. He attempted to prove that just because one can conceive of a “greatest possible something,” this does not mean it must exist in reality. Gaunilo gave an example of a hypothetical perfect island. One could imagine all sorts of amazing things on this island, but it would not necessarily exist. Gaunilo went on to explain that someone could say that this perfect island existed because existing in reality is greater than existing only in imagination. However, it would be absurd to believe that this argument proves that the island does exist in reality.

Anselm began his argument with a prayer, asking God for help in proving God’s existence. He quoted a portion of scripture in Psalms that says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” Anselm believed that, with God’s help, reason alone could prove God’s existence.

Anselm’s argument at first seems ridiculous; how could he possibly argue that God exists merely from the fact that one can imagine him to exist? On first glance, Gaunilo’s argument seems stronger. However, on closer inspection, we see that the two monks are framing their arguments about two different things. Anselm is arguing for the existence of a greatest being, while Gaunilo is arguing for the existence of a perfect island. By definition, an island has limits – it is surrounded by water. Of course it could not hold everything that would make it a “perfect island.” Such a thing could not exist. But, as Anselm argues, a being could possibly exist which was greater than all others. In this respect, Anselm’s argument seems to hold up.

The purpose of most arguments for God’s existence is to convince unbelievers to become believers. For this purpose, Anselm’s argument seems to be weaker than other types of arguments for God’s existence. A nonbeliever (and perhaps even some believers) would likely scoff at his argument and call it absurd. However, Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence does hold up under scrutiny and seems to be a pretty decent argument for God’s existence.

My Pick of the Week: May 8-13

My pick this week is The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare’s writing is beautiful and poetic, and I would recommend any of it, but The Tempest has to be one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies. It was the last play he ever wrote, and it contains a deeper storyline than some of his earlier, spoof-type works such as The Comedy of Errors or The Merry Wives of Windsor. This play explores dreams, betrayal, family, and human nature.

The Nerdwriter made a great video awhile back synthesizing The Tempest, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and how the theme of dreams played out in these works and in Shakespeare’s own life. Check it out here. By the way, if you haven’t heard of the Nerdwriter before, you should really check out his YouTube channel. He makes some of the smartest content I’ve seen, and his videos have helped partially inspire Watchful Dragons.

Corruption of Innocence: Lord of the Flies’ Disturbing Lessons

In most societies throughout history, children have been thought of as innocent and pure. Many religions believe that children who die young automatically go to heaven, since they could not have committed any sins yet. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies takes this popular conception of childhood and throws it right out the window.

In the book, a plane full of young English schoolboys crashes on a deserted island, killing the pilot. In the absence of adults, a few of the boys try to develop order through the creation of rules and traditions. However, many of the schoolboys decide to give in to their baser nature and live as savages, even going as far as hunting and killing their fellow classmates. Throughout the book, most of the boys believe an unknown beast is hunting them, represented by a pig’s severed head covered in flies. The boys eventually realize that there is no beast, only themselves.

Golding argues through the story that every person is born with the capacity to do despicable things. Even from a young age, without the civilizing presence of society, children will become corrupt and murder, steal, and lie. The idea of innocence is completely destroyed.

If you look at the events of real life, you can see how accurate Lord of the Flies is. According to available data for 1990, children under 16 made up nearly 10% of all murderers in the U.S. There are several famous cases of children as young as 10 killing other children or attacking police officers, and about 3% of all child murderers committed crimes severe enough to be sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole.

So what contributed to this false idea that children are innocent beings who lack the capacity to do evil things? It could be a variety of factors, from the fact that children are extremely dependent on adults in order to survive, to the fact that they are usually physically weak. However, this misconception about the innocence of children is dangerous and leads to around 1,000 murders by children under 16 each year.

Although Lord of the Flies seems to be just another book in the dystopian genre, it actually contains several important lessons that extend to real life. Children are no more naturally pure than adults are, the conventions of society help to deter crime and keep the peace, and no matter where they are or how old they are, people will always try to do whatever they can get away with.