The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Last-minute preparations

I pack in the morning, which means, five hours before my flight takes off, I have yet to dig my bags out of the closet. Everything to be packed is either on my desk or hanging in my closet; Parker's food is already in the car; and I have nothing else to do but get out of town.

One little niggle: why does British Airways not allow people to pick their seats more than 24 hours ahead unless they have the equivalent of American Airlines Platinum status? Not that I had any difficulties, as the flight doesn't seem full yet.

I got pretty much the seat I wanted. More important, it was in the cabin I wanted: the upper deck of a 747. Little kid moment coming: I've always wanted to fly in the upper deck of a 747, so, following my own oft-repeated advice, I now have the means and opportunity. I'm almost as excited about that as I am about going to Dubai.

All right. First flight leaves in 5 hours, 15 minutes...and 24 hours from right now I'll be lifting off from London on my way to Dubai.

Pack, read, repeat

The CCMBA Dubai residency starts in just over 3 days, and I'm leaving in 53 hours. I hope I've learned from the mistakes I made in the London residency, so I can make all new mistakes. Some observations so far:

  • I do not need the one-kilo power converter; I only need a couple of UK-US adapters. This is because, as I realized in London, everything I have with a plug accepts all international power characteristics. (The U.S. is 110 volts, 60 Hertz; the U.K. and U.A.E. both use 220 volts, 50 Hertz, with U.K.—style plugs.)
  • The weather forecast for Dubai calls for highs of 33°C, lows of 23°C, and sunny skies every single day. This should significantly reduce the mass of all the clothing I need to pack. Except, I'll have to get to and from O'Hare and I'll be spending two days in London on the way back. Packing for three different climates? Fun!
  • I won't have mobile phone service in Dubai. Oh, sure, my GSM phone will work in the UAE, but as T-Mobile would charge something like $5 per minute and $1 per text there, I'll just leave the thing off entirely.
  • But when will I have time to make phone calls? The program schedule has us running around up to 15 hours a day, starting at 8:00 the first morning we're there.
  • As an aviation geek, I'm particularly excited about the flight from London to Dubai. It'll be the first time I've been on a 747 in over 20 years. (American Airlines hasn't had them since the early 1980s.) I'll have a full report sometime in November.

In conseqence, I'm a lot more laid-back about this trip than I was for London.

London Culture Dash - the short version

Here's the Culture Dash video mentioned in the previous entry. I held off publishing it until I confirmed that the school had published all of the videos to the class. I have also cut two interviews out, as I mentioned before, as the subjects clearly did not want them broadcast. One even told us he didn't want the interview "ending up on YouTube." Unfortunately, he was the bulk of the video's entire first section, so it won't take Roger Ebert to detect that something is missing.

Here, then, is (about half of) Section 1, Team 4's Culture Dash London video:

Lessons learned from the London Culture Dash

I spent 12 hours this week editing video[1] into a 5-minute class project, which I think turned out all right, but which taught me a few lessons I hope help other people.

Shooting video looks easy. You point the camera, you push "record" to start, and you push "stop" when done. Voilà, you've got video!

If only. Shooting video you have to edit together into a cohesive, 5-minute package actually requires serious planning and attention. As a camera operator, you do not want your editor to curse you out loud with enough vitriol to make the dog leave the room, especially if you're the editor. And you absolutely do not want your classmates to say things like, "oh...that was...different..." when you're reviewing it in class.

First, some background on the project.

During each non-U.S. CCMBA residency, the teams go out for a five-hour block of time to shoot a video project. The assignment requires us to go to three culturally-significant locations (from a list of 12) and interview people about the locations' cultural significance. We also have to map each location to a list of "Cultural Dimensions" (from Cornelius Grove's 1995 GLOBE study) and, one hopes, find at least one person who can confirm on video the team hypothesis of which dimension the location represents.

The teams fanned out across London on August 19th with our Flip cameras and notebooks. My group chose to visit Crystal Palace, Westminster Abbey, and No. 10 Downing Street (which we believed represented "Performance Orientation," "Collectivism," and "Power Distance," respectively). We shot about 17 minutes of video, including about 2 minutes of my feet when I failed to press the "stop" button firmly enough at one point.

Here, in descending order of importance, are the things I learned editing this video:

Outline your story before anything else. This isn't always possible, but the more planning you can do before heading out, the stronger your package will look. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end; identify these three things before shooting a single frame of video, and everything else will fall into place.

Get as much tape as you can. As all my Hofstra T.V. friends will remind me (Yak, my college roommate, especially), for a 5-minute package you need at minimum 25 minutes of raw tape—50 if you haven't outlined your story first. Really, you can't have too much tape: you can always cut out what you don't need, but when you're editing in Chicago you can't go back to London to get B-roll[2].

Shoot as much B-roll as you can, too, because if you have to cut an interview while the subject is speaking, having a 10-second shot of something else over the interviewee's speech can mask the edit.

Script the opening interview questions. Obviously you can't script an entire interview. But having scripted questions gives you two things in post-production: first, it allows the editor to cut in reverses[3] that flow seamlessly into the interview. Even though you'll want to shoot the reverses after the interview, it's incumbent upon the reporter to ask exactly the same question that the subject answered. Scripting also helps the reporter to be succinct, which makes editing easier; viewers want to see the interviewee, not the interviewer, but a long, rambling question can't be cut gracefully.

Plan your shots before going to the location. You need to know ahead of time the shots you must have to complete the package. Again, thinking to oneself, "I really want a shot of Victoria Station right here..." is kind of frustrating when you're editing video 6000 km from Victoria Station. Same with thinking of a follow-up question two months later: unhelpful.

Take your time at the shoot. There were a couple of times when I started or ended a shot abruptly. Fortunately, Yak's frequent rants in the dorm about the sophomores he was supervising were burned into my brain, so I took his advice to get at least 10 seconds of still footage at the beginning and end every shot. I also got the stand-ins to pause for a few seconds before starting to speak, and held on the interview subjects for several seconds after they finished. This helped immensely with transitions, fades, etc.

Similarly, when shooting B-roll, move...very...slowly. You can often speed up a shot subtly without making the audience want to hum "Yakety Sax." But slowing a shot down requires repeating frames, which makes it look jerky, and makes the editor call you names.

Leave captions up longer than you think you need, but keep them succinct. My initial cut had some captions going by so fast even I couldn't read them. Captions need to use a large enough font to be read; they need to stay on screen long enough to read them; and when captioning a speaker, they need to match the speaker accurately. On the latter point, it's perfectly ethical to cut non-essential words from captions if the speaker talks quickly, as long as you don't change his meaning or demeanor.

Get the subjects' names. Even first names help. This was a forehead-smacking oversight on our project.

Designate a producer. The team should have someone else take notes (see previous lesson), corral the subjects, keep the interviewer focused, watch for matching problems, mark interesting things the subject says, and so on. In short, the producer should constantly think about how the final video will look, while the camera operator concentrates on the current shot.

Hold the camera still. It's hard enough getting shots to match; it's nearly impossible to match "Blair Witch"-style footage. (Myrick and Sánchez planned each shot meticulously, by the way.) Similarly, interviewers need to hold themselves still if they're in the shot, otherwise the reverses won't match.

The operator shouldn't talk. Sound volume decreases with the square of the distance from the microphone. If you're holding the camera, you're right next to the microphone; anything you say booms out like the voice of God.

Finally, have fun. We had a great afternoon, and I think we put together a good product. Over the next four residencies the CCMBA December 2010 teams will produce another 80 Culture Dash videos. I hope this post can help make all 80 of them more enjoyable to produce and to watch.

[1] Unfortunately, I can't post the completed video, because we assured two of subjects that we would not publish their interviews. I can post some of it—but not before we formally present it to the class tomorrow morning. I apologize for posting an entry about a video that you're not yet allowed to see.

[2] B-roll is the footage of everything other than your interview subjects and reporters. B-roll includes shots of the location, shots of getting to and from the location, establishing shots, shots of people at the location...essentially, everything that can help you establish context or make transitions.

[3] A reverse shot shows the world from the main shot's point of view. For example, if your main shot is an interview subject, shot over the reporter's shoulder, the reverse would show the reporter, over the subject's shoulder. When shooting reverses it's also very important not to cross the axis, the imaginary line connecting the two people. So if you shoot the subject over the reporter's left shoulder, it's vital to shoot the reporter over the subject's right shoulder, otherwise the edited video will make it seem like they're looking in opposite directions.

Some light travel reading

With 15 days and 9 hours to go until the CCMBA Dubai residency, the box of pre-reading materials just thumped onto my desk. The first term box weighed four tons and had to come up my apartment stairs by forklift and winch. This one only weighs 4 kg:

It doesn't look so bad open, either. Nor does it look like I'll have too much to carry this time:

Seriously, after the first-term box, I've dreaded receiving this one. So what do we have? Three textbooks (two paperback), two very thin course packets, three pages of notes from the program office, a CD, and my Duke ID card.

And "Managerial Economics" turns out to be microeconomics, which I just took last spring. Granted, in the spring I had four months and in Dubai I'll have four days, but still, now that I know what the textbook looks like, I'm not worried.

Listen closely for the sound of my stress draining away. Except, of course, for the part that still hasn't seen my accounting grade yet...

Cool things

A quorum:

  • After 8.3 hours of work, I finished my accounting final. I've no idea how well I did, but I'm already planning to ask the professor for a meeting when I'm next in Durham.
  • We had our first freeze today, about three weeks earlier than usual. We missed the record low (-3°C, set in 1996), but after two weeks of below-normal temperatures, it was a fitting reminder of this year's El Niño.
  • We also had the Chicago Marathon today, with a start temperature of 1°C. The cold start helped; Sammy Wanjiru (below, third from left) set a new course record of 2:05:40. As someone who can't run that fast over 100 meters, to do it over 42 km is amazing.
  • Wanjiru wasn't the fastest participant, however. The Chicago Marathon starts with the wheelchair race. Kurt Fearnley (below) won his third-straight Chicago title in 1:29:09, averaging 28.3 km/h—about as fast as a decent biker.

I'm still not done with the first term—we have two more assignments, plus an exam the day we start in Dubai—but I think for the remainder of today, I'm going to goof off.

Good thing I'm a Cubs fan

This may actually be funny.

My CCMBA class includes students from 30 countries, in every part of the world. Consequently, Duke has created a Flash-based Web portal, through which we take exams, submit assignments, attend classes, and keep in touch. The thing has worked more or less as advertised since we arrived in London two months ago.

By tomorrow at 23:59 EDT, we must hand in our Accounting and Management exams. We have 24 hours from download to complete the former, and 90 minutes to complete the latter.

Can you see where this is going? Of course you can:

See, as a Cubs fan, this doesn't bother me so much. There's always next year.

Update: Tech support just emailed me back. Apparently they had a hardware failure in one of the server rooms, and the infrastructure guys are on it.

Update, 13:30 CDT: The platform is back up. Here we go...let the exams begin.

Update, 13:35 CDT: They did a fu@!ing upgrade! During exams! Unbefu&@ingleivable.

Final update, 13:55 CDT: OK, it looks like they did a rollback to a known-working version of the platform, not a upgrade. That makes a lot more sense. I will just assume that, because it's exam week and I've had a little more caffeine today than usual, I might have some extra nervous energy that caused me to jump to hasty conclusions. I will now walk the dog, take some deep breaths, and start the first exam.

Unplugging for a day

After Parker and I get back from the walk we're about to take, I'll have two final exams and, immediately after, some Scotch. Since one of the exams might take me 24 hours to complete, you can imagine the quantity of Scotch waiting at the end of it.

In the meantime, via Andrew Sullivan, I leave you with this Spanish car advertisement that I can't quite wrap my head around:

They couldn't put us up at Motel 6?

I've had only one difficulty with the Duke CCMBA (aside from the material—talk to me Sunday night after I hand in my accounting final, for example): travel optimization. Our next residency starts October 30th in Dubai. Getting from Chicago to Dubai has inherent difficulties, particular with the (self-imposed) constraint of flying only oneworld carriers.

I initially tried to go through Amman, and take a couple of days after the residency to visit Jordan and Israel. That fell through when Royal Jordanian dropped the only flight from Chicago that made the trip work, forcing me either to connect through Detroit or New York either two or three days early.

Plan B. British Airways has the largest network after my home carrier, American, so the logical routing takes me through London. And to avoid 16 hours in coach, I decided to stay overnight there on my way back.

Only, it turns out I made a slight error in planning the return. As the CCMBA program office mentioned to me when I posted my travel arrangements, my flight plans have me leaving Dubai the day after the residency ends. But this shouldn't be a big deal. I'll just stay in Dubai one extra night, right?

Well, that would mean one extra night at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, not Motel 6. Imagine the shock and horror when I called them and discovered that would cost AED 1,740 (US$474).

Result? After paying a £100 ($144) change fee to the airline, and booking an additional £96 ($138) night at the little hotel in Kensington where I'll be staying, I'm going to have my extra post-residency night in London instead of Dubai, and save $200.

All of this is completely boring, of course, and doesn't really add anything to modern American literature or journalism. But it is my last gasp of work avoidance before diving into 8 hours of financial accounting and 2 hours of management essentials today.

Full of sound and fury signifying...what, exactly?

A number of confusing changes occurred to the world while I slept:

  • President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I love the man; I voted for him; I gave lots of money[1] to two of his campaigns. I'm still confused. It might offend some of my fellow progressives to say, but possibly the prize means nothing more than "thank you for not being like the last guy, and keep up the good work." The President is, in fact, the second person who is not George W. Bush to win the Prize in the last four years.
  • For reasons which passeth all understanding[2], we crashed a rocket into the moon. We want to find out if the moon has enough water to make long-term habitation possible. Otherwise, we'll have to build a pipeline from the Great Lakes, which poses certain engineering challenges.
  • Both of these stories came to me during WBEZ-Chicago's pledge week, which started yesterday. Please, I beg all my readers in Chicago, please make a donation so they'll stop begging. The only glimmer of good news in the timing of the Fall pledge drive comes in the form of an exquisite torture perpetrated upon me and my 118 classmates by Fuqua. I won't be able to listen to much NPR this weekend because:
  • I have two final exams due this weekend, both take-home, one 90 minutes long and the other with 24 hours to complete. (The clock starts when we download the exams from the school's web portal.) The professor for exam #1 says it's relatively straightforward, everyone will pass, don't worry. The professor for exam #2, who served six years on the Financial Accounting Standards Board and who drafted important regulations of the accounting profession itself, says "someone who is reasonably prepared and who doesn't need to use notes should be able to complete it in 4 or 5 hours." So, a former FASB member who's taught accounting for 30 years will find it "challenging." One hundred eighteen people started crying. (One dude in our class is an accountant who got 117 out of 120 on the midterm.)
  • The U.S. dollar continues to slide slowly into uncomfortable depths. I got an alert while writing this entry that the Canadian dollar has risen against our currency from a low of 76c in March to 95c today. We're also slipping against the Euro and the Yen, but not, I'm happy to say, against Sterling or the Emirati Dirham, the two currencies I'm concerned about in the next few weeks.[3]
  • Finally, a dear friend from North Carolina sent a delightful finals-weekend care package to Parker and me, including doggie fortune cookies and human chocolate-chip cookies. And now Parker has the whole world in his paws (see below).

[1] Lots for me, anyway; NPR wouldn't have given me a mug for the amount I gave.

[2] Aaron Sorkin's favorite phrase, from Phillippans 4:7. Yes, athiests quote Bible verses sometimes.

[3] I'm concerned because I'm about to go to Dubai, via London, for school. The Dirham hasn't changed because it's pegged to the dollar...for now.