Distance Learning Resources

On April 15th of this year, I received an email from Mercedes Bell. She identified herself as a writer who had a piece published to http://www.onlineuniversities.com entitled EdTech in the Third World: Distance Learning. She asked me to read her piece and share my thoughts with you, dear reader. I asked for her patience. I had, and continue to have, a lot on my plate as I recover from the TBI that I sustained last September. 

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She granted me my wish, but this did not stop her from following up five times over the next six days to ask me how I was coming along with the piece. I finally had time to get around to it this weekend since I’m staying home to rest while I wear an ambulatory EEG device. 

 I went to the site via the link which Ms. Bell provided and the article contains the byline “Staff Writers,” which to me indicates Ms. Bell is on staff for this website. However, her email address remains anonymously sent from gmail so this remains but a suspicion. I suspected that this was a sales pitch, but I was confused because my blog certainly doesn’t have the kind of circulation that a more noteworthy website has. Perhaps Ms. Bell has been denied by other, more mainstream blogs though so she’s feels this is the only viable option left on the table. 

 I will say that many of my readers are folks with strong educational backgrounds and admirable social status so maybe Ms. Bell is targeting quality readers over quantity. This is an trait that indicates decency in my book so I went ahead and gave the article a once over. 

 As I suspected, the article ends with a call to action to help make distance learning a more viable option for young people straddled by poverty in developing nations. While I think this is certainly a noble effort and one that I could have utilized during my service in Bolivia as a US Peace Corps volunteer, I think the focus is off. Many young people in the US – myself included – are burdened with financial debt from pursuing college and grad school degrees. This is financially crippling to us personally and it has a palpable effect on the national economy. If young people are still paying off hefty loans they took out to enable themselves to become educated, how are we to expect them to buy other things like houses and cars to infuse the economy with capital? I submit to you, dear readers that this is an impossible task. 

The bottom line here is that while I think Ms. Bell’s efforts are noble, I wish she and her colleagues would first focus on trying to alleviate the crippling debt of recent American collegiate grads. Once that problem is fixed, I’d be happy to turn my attention to the needs of the world’s poor.

Is Anonymity Becoming More Valuable Than Fame?

I recently spoke on the phone with both author Parmy Olson, and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger. I was quite moved by what they told me. I think it’s impossible to take a perspective because so little is known in these early days of the group’s existence, so I’m attempting to provide the insight I was given so that you may make an informed decision. I ask questions that occurred to me after speaking with Ms. Olson and Mr. Knappenberger. I think these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked right now so the general public may become more informed about what Anonymous stands for.

Surely you’ve heard about their recent attack on the folks at Westboro Baptist Church for the church’s intention to picket the funerals of those killed in the blasts during the Boston Marathon. This isn’t the first time they’ve been attacked either. Read on to learn more. I hope that it will do you good and shed some much needed insight on Anonymous.

Picture the early days of the Internet as pre-conquest America. Its vast, undiscovered frontiers are simultaneously awe-inspiring and daunting.

People are finding ways to get by. They are organized and flourishing. They live in balance with their surrounding ecosystems and have an unyielding respect for that which sustains them.

If this vision of a virginal, pristine land is the Internet, then I posit that hackers are the natives. Their survival skills are rooted in a deep understanding of and connection to the ecosystems which sustain them. However, like any collective, their cultural norms can be varied and difficult to interpret. We see in them only what our perceptions allow us to.

In her book We Are Anonymous, author Parmy Olson is at once journalist, anthropologist and documentarian, recording and recounting primary interviews with members of the hacker collective responsible for several high-profile online attacks over the last few years.

Parmy Olson                               we are anonymous                           we are legion

Beginning in 2003 and recently working to ban an alleged pedofile from Twitter, Anonymous has targeted the U.S. Department of Justice, the Chicago Police, India’s Supreme Court and Congress, the Church of Scientology, PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Westboro Baptist Church, Sony, Fox’s The X Factor, PBS, Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), British tabloid The Sun, the CIA, and oil companies Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP. With such an impressive list of successful attacks to its name, it’s no wonder Anonymous made it to the top of TIME’s Top 100 People public poll.

But who comprises Anonymous? How is this collective structured? And how were some of the hackers caught?

Olson tracks the group’s rise and fall by delving into the online and offline lives of the major players and underlings who fill out the ranks. She pinpoints its genesis on 4chan image boards and traces its many splinter groups like AntiSec and LulzSec.

“I’ve always been fascinated by secret cultures and societies, underground groups of people, parts of our civilization that are not spoken of that much or understood that well, but can be a driving force in things that happen in our lives,” Olson explains to me.

Olson highlights one of the shining stars of Anonymous and LulzSec, Jake Davis. Before his arrest and unmasking, he achieved almost mythical status. Using the screen name Topiary, his clout gave him the platform to assert his beliefs about online ethics, digital culture and what the Internet should be — often in front of thousands of adoring online fans.

Through personal interactions with Davis, Olson learned that his coding and hacking skills weren’t as good as some of the other notable members. Instead, it was his writing prowess, raw wit and natural ability to create narrative propaganda that catapulted him into a leadership role. From the get-go, the group fully grasped the importance and power of well-crafted communication. They saw it as integral to recruitment and the dissemination of their ideals and plans.

“Jake Davis would probably be fine at a PR company or advertising firm somewhere, but he found it more fulfilling to use his talents for something original instead of doing it somewhere behind a desk,” Olson tells me. “Simply put, he didn’t want to work for the man.”

Davis and the other hackers associated with LulzSec instead felt more comfortable roaming the primitive lands of the Internet on image boards like /b/ on 4chan and the vast array of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. But, even escapades on the Internet cannot escape the adage, “what goes up, must come down.” Davis eluded American and European authorities for months, but was finally caught in his home in the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

Details are still emerging about what ultimately led to his capture. It could have been the culmination of a few tiny mistakes or a former friend’s betrayal. It could have been something as seemingly harmless as allowing his real name to appear briefly in an IRC chat, or a connection error with one of his many VPNs (virtual private networks) — all mistakes that would allow authorities to pinpoint his location. Rumors have also surfaced that a past friend may have recognized his voice during his notorious video prank of the Westboro Baptist Church, or that a former hacker colleague-turned-informant offered Davis up to lessen his own punishment.

“Among the things Jake noticed during his interviews with detectives was that the police seemed to see Anonymous as an organized criminal group. When the detectives questioned Jake, they seemed to want answers that fit that point of view. Jake tried to explain that Anonymous was not a group, was not organized, and did not have a structure. It was more of a culture or an idea than a group,” Olson writes of Davis’ experiences once arrested.

Olson continues, “[H]owever, hackers are known to occasionally share nicknames to help obfuscate their identities or even flat-out lie.”

Since Olson herself admits that the information given to her during interviews may be suspect, it’s important to corroborate the ideas disseminated from members of Anoymous to gain a better picture of their intentions and what they stand for.

Security strategist and researcher Joshua Corman essentially agrees with Davis’s assertion.

“Anonymous should be thought of more as a brand or a franchise. It can be used for good or it can easily be corrupted and used as a veil to disguise other unrelated hacks,” Corman explains. “In today’s day and age, it’s startling how much power is assigned to the individual. We’ve never experienced this sort of unbalance assigned to someone that may just want to see the world burn. The flurry of attacks over the last year or so from Anonymous and all its splinter cell groups should serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If we don’t do something to secure and educate ourselves, it could be only the first wave of online backlash towards a system that is viewed as corrupt.”

Some who follow Anonymous are concerned that the correct information isn’t reaching the public. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is trying to change this in his documentary We Are Legion.

“I think of myself as a foreign correspondent,” Knappenberger says. “They’re a community and I think it’s worth looking at them as a culture. There are plenty of aspects to them that you don’t hear about.”

Olson again. “Hackers don’t own the Internet, but they feel a sense of ownership of it. More and more people feel like a citizen of the Internet than they do a citizen of their own country. I think perhaps this only applies to a minority of people, but I think that number is growing. The internet is connecting so many of us that there is a real sense of belonging to it and a real sense of community. And Anonymous is a great example of that sense of community.”

During a recent hiking trip, I reflected on Olson’s book, and it occurred to me that my urban and digital survival skills are much better honed than my wilderness survival skills. A person living in New York City need only venture into the great outdoors overnight to remember the power of unbridled nature.

“That’s the main thing about life,” Davis wrote in a letter to Olson. “People think we are superior to animals. And they’re looking for this missing link, but what if we are the link to animals and real human beings haven’t evolved yet? It’s pretentious to think we’re superior in the universe because we can communicate with each other.”

Upon realizing the woods could gobble me up without hesitation, I felt a burst of deep respect and reverence for the unknown, and for those who thrive in nature’s organized chaos.

Maybe that same sense of reverence should be offered to hackers, or should I say, digital natives?

The Power of Human Connection – Kasasa Gas Giveaway

Kasasa Gas Giveaway from Brandon Smith on Vimeo.

Campaigns that help people connect with one another are right up my alley. When I first got in touch with Jenna from CSG PR in Denver, Colorado I knew this would be a great fit for my skill set. Jenna and her team were very well-organized and made capturing the mood and tone of the event a breeze. Plus, watching folks learn that they were going to be getting twenty bucks worth of free gasoline was quite a joy.

Since I already knew the strategy behind the piece, I just had to execute it on screen. It had to be lighthearted, but it also had to show the power of using face to face meetings in a branded way to create a memorable experience for potential consumers. I think the combination of warm smiles, a sunny day and upbeat music struck the right chord.

I shot this using my new Canon 5D, Mark iii set up and I enjoyed every minute of it. The workflow is easier than I’m used to with the Panasonic HMC-150 and the picture just jumps off the screen.

Do you need a video like this? Call me, let’s chat. I’m sure we can make it happen.

Internship Recap – charity: water

I applied to be the charity: water multimedia production intern for two reasons. One, I’m very passionate about doing whatever I can to solve the water crisis because of my experience drilling water wells in Bolivia with the US Peace Corps. Two, I’ve studied digital media and filmmaking extensively and I wanted the opportunity to be able to use my skills in a professional setting that would be both challenging and instructional. The charity: water staff ethos towards working with interns was exactly the experience I was looking for. I instantly felt like I was a part of the team and was given responsibilities that challenged me.


The first video I made while at charity: water highlighted a particularly noteworthy campaign that took a very creative approach to bringing awareness to the water crisis.

My first few days were spent working on an ambitious project to personally thank 250 past and current donors. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort. Each staff member was assigned a partner and together they were assigned 8-10 videos to make. The results were amazing and continue to fuel viral views on the web and spark conversation about an organization that is willing to take on this sort of herculean task just to say thanks.


The second video I put together followed my friend — and charity: water graphic designer — Greg as he attempted to complete his own fundraising campaign by embarking on a quest to eat 101 sandwiches.

After the Thank You Campaign was “in the can” so to speak, my main task shifted to fueling charity: water’s blog with posts about notable mycharitywater campaigns. It was a true joy to be able to communicate with the folks that were out there raising awareness for the water crisis. From learning about the trials and tribulations of Whitney Henderson’s run across the US to getting insight into a couple’s love for photography to meeting a boy with the compassion of ten thousand men, I was given hope that if we all do our small part, we can change the world for the better.

I also had the distinct honor of photographing the Fall 2011 Intern class, a group that I got to know well over the course of the semester. It was a blast asking them a bunch of questions — ranging from serious to absurd — and then curating their answers into one massive post. Not only were they an incredibly photogenic group, but they were all very kind and I’m proud to call them my friends. I’ll always reflect fondly on our days across from each other at the “Intern Table.” I wish them all great success in whatever path they take.

The culmination of my experience was the privilege of shooting the charity: ball, an event that raised more than $2.5 million in a single night for clean water initiatives around the world.

Witnessing the collaboration and dedication from all of the employees and the willingness from volunteers and interns to go the extra mile made it apparent that charity: water is here to stay. Scott Harrison, the CEO and founder of charity: water, had an immediate and mathematically resolute response when I asked him if the water crisis could be solved. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a matter of money and will.” It’s incredibly motivating to work along side a man so dedicated that he can see past the malaise of challenges certain to challenge him over the coming decades and straight to the end-game.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mo Scarpelli, my mentor during the internship. She taught me a great deal about div tags and f-stops. We had great conversations about media ethics and editing strategy. Mo, you are a true joy to work for and with. Cheers!

Check out Scott’s story about why he does what he does in an interview with Tech Crunch here>

Viagra and Semiotics — Reading a Cultural Artifact

An effective television advertising campaign aims to encourage a potential customer to become an actual customer. Advertising agencies enlist many different types of strategies to become catalysts in this effort. Because television advertising is confined to very short timeframes — usually one minute or less — these agencies are wise to be mindful of using symbols to quickly convey messages in order to facilitate faster delivery of their intended message.

Viagra’s recent ad campaign airing on network and cable television as well as the Internet features rugged men that confidently avoid difficult situations with ease. These men fit an archetypal denotation of the American cowboy as popularized by John Wayne. Using this coding structure as a basis for study, I’ll examine two of the ads from the campaign in detail. One advertisement found relative success, while the other seems to have all but disappeared. This is most likely due to a failure to accurately encode the intended message, thereby sabotaging the entire effort.

“Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality, situation, value or inference, which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational positioning.” (Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg 168)

The implied meanings and qualities of the John Wayne-like actors of the Viagra ad campaign can be summarized as toughness, confidence, and grit. The ads feature men close in age to the characters that John Wayne played in movies and associate themselves with outdoor ruggedness. Furthermore, the campaign employs correlating symbols that embody sturdiness and reliability such as well-worn pickup trucks, horses, sports cars, mountains and cowboy boots and hats.

little blue pills

Why have these images been chosen above all others to sell a chemically engineered supplement that requires a doctor’s prescription and whose sole purpose is treating impotence? Putting aside the ethical dilemma of inserting a paid advertisement between doctor and patient, the link becomes clear. Because the penis is inherently the most symbolic aspect of the male experience, any decline in its natural, biological functionality would lead to an impairment of feeling “manly.” Because our society places a great deal of importance on behaving in a way that adheres to mainstream gender roles, this impairment could have devastating effects on men, which could lead to any number of psychological ailments in addition to their physical condition.

A burgeoning population of the “baby boomer” generation and a statistical rise in divorce rates in the United States equates to men — and women — leading sexually active lifestyles later into life than before, which places a greater value of being able to perform in the bedroom even though the body may not be physically capable. Because American society has a sense of entitlement even in the face of natural decline, products like Viagra have become wildly successful.

Since the topic is still somewhat taboo, advertising agencies must be selective and resourceful when using imagery to convey feelings and beliefs about impotence. And because they have very little time to convey these feelings and beliefs, they must use symbols, codes and myths that are easily recognizable and “downloadable” to their target audience.

Thus it makes sense that the agencies have chosen the cowboy archetype as inspired by John Wayne because this is an image that is so deeply embedded in the minds of men that grew up watching him on television and in theaters. John Wayne himself has become inextricably linked to the characters he played in movies.

“Certain codes may, of course, be so widely distributed in a specific language community or culture, and be learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be constructed — the effect of an articulation between sign and referent — but to be ‘naturally’ given.” (Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg 167)

Viagra bulge

So it is only natural that in order to portray manliness, the agency sought out an actor that would instantly resonate with audiences as such. After the symbols are presented in the early moments of the ads, the audience has already decoded the meaning, which allows the brand to associate themselves with the visual representation of the feeling of manliness. The actor, while “only possessing some of the properties of the thing represented” (Charles Pierce, Speculative Grammar) is sufficient to trigger this response. It promotes the idea of individualism and that problems can be solved most efficiently when only one person is there to make the decisions.

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.” (Roland Barthes, “(i)Operation Margarine;(ii)Myth Today” 2nd principal figure, Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg. 101)

From this imagery a few questions arise: Does the cowboy have a Viagra prescription? If so, is the viewer in the target audience to believe that if it’s okay for the cowboy to take Viagra, then it’s okay for him to take it? Or is it saying, look at this idealized version of manhood. Are you matching up? Are you a problem-solver? Do you take challenges head on? Are you able to actualize the most primal urge of humanity?

The television medium can be associated with narrative works, but also has been increasingly associated with “reality-based” shows that feature real people. Clearly, the ad company has agreed with Viagra that they are best served by featuring a “real man.” Again the representation is far from real, the scene is constructed and shot with cameras also found on Hollywood movie sets and it uses an actor that fits a profiled definition of attractiveness and grittiness.

Multiple advertisements for Viagra were produced as a series with the same cinematic language, color tint, and semantic ideology.

The next ad in the series follows the exact same pattern, but the John Wayne archetype is thrust into the world of solo-sailing. This time, Viagra stumbled in their attempt at authenticity and ruined their chance to connote an effective coding so as to transmit any tangential association that would trigger purchase. Sailing forums lit up with myriad critical assessments of the ad. The error was so offensive that sailing enthusiasts flocked to the blogosphere and Viagra wisely removed it from the airwaves before more negative press assailed it. (No pun intended.) Would they have pulled the ad if they thought these sailors were not part of their target demographic? It’s an interesting debate.

The point is that the men in these commercials are actors. They are playing a part that is intended to perpetuate myths about the capabilities of wise, older men like that of John Wayne’s fictional, tough-guy characters. It is the advertising agency’s job to ensure there are no holes in the play that would deflate the myth and thus leave the viewer/consumer on a cold, empty plateau of their mind without any symbology to decode and identify with.

If the series of TV ads are to be taken as a story or object that is part of the fabric of reality as the pharmaceutical giant intends, then the final paragraph of Barthes’ writing sums it up best:

“The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation: we constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a state which is still mystified. It would seem that we are condemned for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality. This is probably because ideologist and its opposite are types of behavior which are still magical, terrorized, blinded and fascinated by the split in the social world. And yet, this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.”(Roland Barthes, “(i)Operation Margarine;(ii)Myth Today” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, pg. 106)

So what do you think? How do these archetypes affect your self image?

Image courtesy of Coloribus

Occupy Wall Street

I had to go down and see what all the hubbub was about so I walked out of class and joined the #OccupyWallStreet protestors. Here’s what I saw.

#OccupyWallStNYC

The march was very peaceful. Strangers were commenting to each other about what a great feeling they were experiencing. The energy was palpable. It reminded me of running a marathon. People were on the sidewalks cheering us on. They had wry smiles that definitely urged us to keep at it. It was pretty powerful — electric. Folks were coming out on to their balconies and watching. Workers were standing in their storefronts cheering us on. Construction workers and cabbies high-fived us as we flooded around their cars.

#OccupyWallStNYC

Overall things seem to be organized, calm, and collected. During our pre-march brief we were instructed to respect the cops and remember that they are there to protect us. The protestors’ beef is not with the NYPD.

#OccupyWallSt

It was interesting to see the Labor Unions join forces. It’s a little late in the game — already into the third week — but, I didn’t get the sense they were trying to co-opt the movement. While there were obviously some that were leading the charge, there was no one person guiding us.

#OccupyWallSt

Finally, I found the crowd to be what you’d expect in New York. Courteous, respectful, and diverse. And when I say diverse, I mean age, sexuality, race — there was a little bit of everything represented. I think the MSM is getting it wrong when they say it’s all “crybaby kids that don’t have anything else to do.” Everyone there was passionate about what they were doing and well aware of the risks.

#OccupyWallSt

Reid This: Unplugged and Unserious




Collaborating with old friends on new projects is always something that A Table For One Productions takes a great deal of pride in. Reid Kirchhoff will be rolling out his newest one-man comedy show at Duplex on August 5th and 6th should not to be missed.

In order to help drum up support and offer a glimpse into the preparations behind such an epic performance, Reid asked me to follow him around for a day. What ensued was nothing short of the Beatles first setting foot on American soil or man landing on the moon. You’ll have to watch to understand.

Tickets for Reid’s upcoming shows can be purchased by visiting reidthis.com