Tag Archives: Daniel Saunders

Minerva competition: coffee houses vs. food trucks, please explain

Coffee houses: the line in blue.

Food trucks: the line in red.  

One is falling gently (according to this picture from Google Trends).

The other rising sharply.  

The question: why?  

This is an official Minerva competition.  


One thousand words.

Point form ok.

Be imaginative, concise and interesting. Find your assumptions. Show off your knowledge and mastery of popular culture.

Winner gets a Minerva (as pictured) and a place in our Hall of Fame.


one month from today, i.e., September 19.

Submit to grant27[ATsign]gmail.com.

Judges for this contest:

Martin Weigel, head of planning, W+K, Amsterdam.

Linda Ong, President, Truth Consulting.

Piers Fawkes, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, PSFK.com.

Sam Ford, editor/author, Spreadable Media, Director of Digital Strategy, Peppercom.

Eric Nehrlich, Google, and author, The Unrepentant Generalist.

Cheryl Swanson, founder, managing director, toniq.  

Leora Kornfeld, Research Associate, Harvard Business School


The Minervas were created to encourage people to ask cultural questions and craft cultural answers.

Winners so far:

Juri Saar (for the “Who’s a good doggie woggie?” contest)
Reiko Waisglass (for the “Who’s a good doggie woggie?” contest)
Brent Shelkey (for the “Who’s a good doggie woggie?” contest)
Daniel Saunders (for the “JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon” contest)
Tim Sullivan (for the “Karen Black vs. Betty White” contest)
Lauren LaCascia (for the “Showtime vs. USA Networks” contest)
Diandra Mintz (for the “Showtime vs. USA Networks” contest)
Mark Boles (for the “Antique Roadshow vs. Pawn stars” contest)
Indy Neogy (for the “Nordic Noir” contest)

Judges so far:

Debbie Millman

Pamela DeCesare

Dan Formosa

Tom Guarriello

Scott Lerman

Richard Shear

All of the above are from the SVA branding program.


Rick Boyko, Director and Professor, VCU Brandcenter

Schuyler Brown, Skylab

Bryan Castaneda, Attorney At Law

Ana Domb, C3, MIT

Mark Earls, author, Herd

Brad Grossman, Grossman and Partners

Christine W. Huang, PSFK, Huffington Post and Global Hue

Steve Postrel

David Saunders, Minerva winner

Daniel Saunders won a recent Minerva for his answer to a Minerva essay contest. It’s a really good answer but for some reason I forgot to post it.

Here, then, is Daniel’s answer to the question: "JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon, compare and contrast."

I’ve figured out what’s special about JJ Abrams: he’s the master of taking things away. He makes the kind of stuff I love most, which is genre fiction that is not stupid and childish. Of course genre’s roots are in the simple-minded and child-oriented, e.g. pulp magazines, comic books and action movies, so the first thing you have to do is to clear out a lot of the crap that comes with it. This usually includes racism and sexism, depending on how far back you’re going, but also the crushing repetitiveness of genre that makes it easy to parody. JJ Abrams realizes that if the audience knows exactly whats going to happen next, why not skip it?

I really noticed this skipping past the boring in a clever scene in MI:3 where Tom Cruise is going to do a complicated, time dependent heist in a building. I could feel myself start to go to sleep, but then was grateful to realize we were just seeing the outside of the building from the van – and then Tom Cruise sprinting the hell out of there. And there are countless other examples of that in Abrams’ stuff. Not only does it make you feel smart, and not deadened, but you’re more engaged, because your imagination is doing a lot of the work. You do get quite a few glimpses of the monster in Cloverfield, but most of the time you’re imagining what it’s up to and what it’s like – things are rarely overexplained. This is closely related to JJ Abrams devotion to creating a sense of mystery, that is earned, which he talks about in his TED talk, something that has led to great rewards in his non-franchise works like Lost and Cloverfield.

The limitation of JJ Abrams is that when you clear all the boring the crap from old cornball genres, you should have something to replace it with. You should be doing more than they tried to do. In fact, you should use that free space to create art: something that expresses a little of your worldview and ideas about life. I’m not convinced that JJ Abrams has those. Lost is actually, scene for scene, very sharply written, largely avoiding cliches and letting us connect the dots. But it’s a failure (as of partway through season 3) because it doesn’t have much to say. This is especially clear in the flashbacks that occupy half of an episode, which are a perfect storytelling venue in a way: peek into the soul of someone, learn the secrets of their background they don’t want you to know. But in practice, though they are well acted and all have little twists and surprises, they are stultifying, because they don’t add up to anything, they have no perspective on human nature. Some broader themes are emerging in the series, to do with authority and control, but they’re out of focus, and the flashbacks rarely contribute to them. Those flashbacks are truly just killing time. And the emptiness is extremely apparent in Cloverfield and MI:3 whenever they slow down for a second (which, fortunately, they rarely do)

So I will never care about JJ Abrams half as much as I do about Joss Whedon. Whedon clears out the crap, and in its place puts in urgent convictions about the world. Buffy is about growing up, Angel is about guilt and vengeance and negotiating with evil, Dollhouse is about desire and the desire to control others. Among many other things. Everything he’s done is packed full of rich themes, even the 45 minute Dr Horrible. I just read this today about Speed, by David Edelstein:

"Remember: Jack and Annie are on a runaway subway train heading for the end of the line, and she’s handcuffed to a pole. He tries to free her but can’t. Instead of leaping to safety, as she pleads with him to do, he settles down and hugs her tightly as they hurtle towards certain immolation. This might be the most romantic moment in any action picture, and it’s only because Jack is a risk-taker who faces death with stoicism."

Could this also be the cause of the other obvious difference, that his characters are far more loveable and memorable? Maybe it’s not enough for a character to be "well written"; maybe there has to be a point to them. Even Jack – even a Keannu Reeves character! – expresses something interesting about how you might approach life.

JJ Abrams might actually have the edge on some measures – the lack of heart might make it possible to be more streamlined and surprising. I will certainly check out everything he makes, as one of our few incredibly talented and successful genre writers. And I’ll bet there are themes out there that he could speak to deeply. James Cameron doesn’t understand people very well but made some of the best films ever about technology and the techno-warrior mindset, two things he does understand. Until then I doubt JJ Abrams movies will be  more than skillful and creative amusement park rides.

Daniel Saunders grew up in Victoria, B.C., studied Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and he is now a graduate student in Cognitive Psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Minerva Contest

Squint your eyes, and the two shows look virtually identical.

In both, a stranger arrives bearing an object of uncertain provenance and, with cameras rolling, an expert offers an assessment of value.

Stop squinting, and the differences flourish.

One show is the Antiques Roadshow, the pride of the PBS system.

The eight-time Emmy® Award-nominated ANTIQUES ROADSHOW marks its 14th season in 2010. PBS’s highest-rated series, ROADSHOW is seen by almost 10 million viewers each week. In each episode, specialists from the country’s leading auction houses — Bonhams and Butterfields, Christie’s, Doyle New York, Skinner and Sotheby’s — and independent dealers from across the nation offer free appraisals of antiques and collectibles. ANTIQUES ROADSHOW cameras capture tales of family heirlooms, yard sale bargains and long-lost items salvaged from attics and basements, while experts reveal the fascinating truths about these finds.

The other is Pawn Stars,

At the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on the outskirts of Las Vegas, three generations of the Harrison family–grandfather Richard, son Rick and grandson Corey–jointly run the family business… The three men use their sharp eyes and skills to assess the value of items from the commonplace to the truly historic, including a 16th-century samurai sword, a Super Bowl ring, a Picasso painting and a 17th-century stay of execution. It’s up to them to determine what’s real and what’s fake, as they reveal the often surprising answer to the questions on everyone’s mind, "What’s the story behind it"? and "What’s it worth?"

Your assignment: to write an essay of 1000 words or less that captures the culture similarities and differences between these two shows.  Be exhaustive.  Be exacting.  Be brief.  Point form is perfectly ok.

Your essays will be judged by a panel of experts (and value will be assessed, no cameras rolling).  The winner will get a Minerva (as pictured).  One hint: what are the cultural worlds from which these variations come?  Another: what is value and how is it being assessed in each case? A third: Please examine stylistic differences.

Deadline: December 15.

Previous Winners

Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)

Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest)

Lauren LaCascia (for the "Showtime vs. USA Networks" contest)

Diandra Mintz (for the "Showtime vs. USA Networks" contest)


Members of the faculty of the SVA (School of Visual Arts) ‘masters in branding’ program, including Debbie Millman, Pamela DeCesare, Dan Formosa, Tom Guarriello, Scott Lerman, and Richard Shear.