Ellen Rocks On

I am beginning to read what Ellen Willis wrote. Some of it is familiar, but I lost track of her sometime last in the last century. She wrote about the counter culture, and, apparently, continued on that path long after everyone else had moved on. Willisimage_mini was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter. That clarity, and her passion, and her just-plain-good writing are the reasons why I will spend the winter reading every one of about fifty articles and essays in a book that her daughter Nona put together. It’s called “The Essential Ellen Willis.” I’m guessing you won’t find it in many bookstores despite the best efforts of the University of Minnesota Press, but it’s certainly available online. For someone who enjoys smart writing with more than a small dose of social conscience, it’s an ideal holiday choice.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page. To go there, click on the picture.

Who was she? Ellen Willis was born in 1941 and died in 2006. She was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, a columnist who wrote regularly for the Village Voice, and an educator at New York University (she founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program). She was a feminist, and an authentic, long-term voice for what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement, and became, in the 1980s and 1990s, a reasoned approach to social outrage. Her daughter Nona, who caused Willis such consternation about her own feminist place as a mother, is the protagonist in one of this book’s best articles, a Voice column entitled “The Diaper Manifesto.” Grown up, Nona Willis Aronowitz is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, an author, and, now, the compiler and editor of her mom’s best stuff. (This is the second effort: the first collected Willis’s rock articles and criticism in a book called “Out of the Vinyl Depths” from the same publisher.)

I wasn’t sure where to start navigating 536 pages of a writer’s collected work, so I started with an article about Bob Dylan that she wrote for Cheetah in 1967. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” was a new release, nearly two years after his serious motorcycle accident. It’s been nearly fifty (!) years since she wrote the article. She starts at the beginning, assessing the emerging folk music scene and his place in it:

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s [Folk City] in the spring of 1961, fresh skinned and baby faced, and wearing a school boy’s corduroy hat, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he has been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie-cum-Elliot, Blind Lemon Jefferson-cum-Leadbelly-cum-Van Ronk, the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs—especially blues—were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and his cap, burlesquing his own mannerism and simply enjoying himself.”

From July, 1986’s “The Diaper Manifesto,” which begins with Willis exploring her conflicted feelings about hiring someone to care for her child so that she can continue to write…

Before I had a child, I had lots of opinions on the subject. Two years afterward, some of them have stuck with me: I’m still convinced that staying home full-time with a healthy, rambuctious kid would turn me into squirrel food, that child care should be as much men’s job as women’s, that communal child rearing in some form holds the most hope of resolving the collision between adults’ and children’s needs, as well as the emotional cannibalism of the nuclear family. But for the most part, figuring out what kind of care best meets my daughter’s needs has been—continues to be—a processing of disentangling prejudice from experience.”

Progress is made.

“In the end, we hired a Haitian woman who, as a friend drily put it, ‘fit the demographic profile for the job’ and quickly put to shame all my stereotypes. Without the benefit of higher education, middle class choices, or green card, Philomese had all the psychological smarts I could ask for and tended to the baby with love and imagination…Quite aside from our own needs as working parents, Nona was clearly better off having an intimate daily relationship with another adult.”

From September 2009, outrage and clear thinking about the drug war:

According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally,, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the 60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse….If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs. I can only argue that the cost of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question is which ones are worth fighting.”

 

Just Plain Folk

It’s a mighty long time ago. Her music might have been forgotten. Some songs, she wrote. Others, she collected, mostly in Kentucky and the Appalachians that were so close to her soul. You know some of the songs, if not by name, then by melody or chorus, perhaps from a long-ago campfire or maybe on an album recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary or Pete Seeger. Right now, I’m listening to Jean Ritchie singing in the Great Hall in Manhattan’s Cooper Union, recorded by WNYC in 1985. She’s singing with Oscar Brand, who was about as famous as she was, and perhaps as talented.

Jean Ritchie, from the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

Jean Ritchie, from the Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

On December 8, Jean Ritchie will be 92 years old. In her lifetime, she has been an activist, a folk singer, a song collector, a Fulbright scholar, an extraordinary dulcimer player (with the lightest touch), and a recipient of The National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship, our nation’s highest honor for a folk artist.

Her music is magical. The rounds on the last song on a new 2-CD tribute entitled “Dear Jean” testifies to it—“Twilight A-Stealing” is sung by “The Ritchie Nieces” in Berea, Kentucky, where Jean Ritchie now resides. Particularly the first part, when the harmonies are rich and timeless.

In fact, this is a family celebration, but Richie’s family goes way beyond her kinfolk. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1946, she found a job at NYC’s Henry Street Settlement, and used her family’s music to help the Settlement’s troubled children. Soon, she was performing in Greenwich Village’s coffee houses, and became part of the folk music phenomenon that grew there in the 1950s. She recorded several LPs for Jac Holzman’s new Elektra Records. As was common practice at the time, her songs were recorded by other folk singers and folk groups. This 2-CD set feels like a continuation of that tradition—a sense reinforced by Judy Collins (in very fine voice) singing “One I Love” with long-time folk guitar player Eric Weissberg at her side. The set opens with Suzy Boguss, John McCutcheon and Tim O’Brien on lead vocals, singing “Black Waters” with Kathy Mattea singing harmony; the remarkable Stuart Duncan (of Goat Rodeo fame) on fiddle.

Perhaps more typical, more vintage, more classic Ritchie is Molly Andrews, a traditional singer who comes naturally to this kind of material, as on “Now is the Cool of the Day” with a sweet viola da gamba accompaniment from Tina Chancy.

“Shady Grove” is a traditional song closely associated with Ritchie, and it’s played here, based upon the “Richie family version,” by Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. What fun to learn about these musicians? (Rhonda plays a fine harmonica; I like Sparky’s voice, similar to what I enjoy hearing in Taj Mahal.) Looking them up on the internet…hey these guys are connected to Ronstadt Generations (Linda’s brother and other relations), also proponents of traditional music.

Another song that’s bound to tug at the heart, “My Dear Companion,” is a classic harmonizing folk duet about lost love. The intertwined voices: Cathy Fink and Marcy Marzer (14 Grammy nominations, famous for singing to babies—and the rest of us). They’ve been at the folk and bluegrass game for a long time. The years of experience wear so very well.

It’s fun to listen to the popular bluegrass voices of The Bankesters singing harmony beside Alison Brown on banjo and guitar as Dale Ann Bradley nails “Go Dig My Grave” with warm compassion. Bradley is one of bluegrass’s finest vocalists—winner of the IBMA’s best female vocalist award for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

UnknownYou may recognize “Blue Diamond Mines,” or may think it sounds familiar (the chorus is similar to to “In the Pines,” a . It’s a bluesy bluegrass tune performed by Riki Schneyer with a wonderful quiver in her voice.

Children’s songs are part of the American folk music tradition. They tend to be pure and innocent, or downright silly. “The Bluebird” is an example of the former, sung by John McCutcheon accompanied by his own banjo. “Take time for dreamin’ on a summer’s day… count your blessings with a bluebird’s song…”

Kathy Mattea gets one of the fun songs to sing—the musical equivalent of calling a square dance—recorded live with plenty of energy. Nice fiddle work by Steve Peavy, and fiddling by Eamonn O’Rourke. Better still is the slow-starting, pick-up-the-beat, start-a-chanting “Let the Sun Shine Down on Me,” a reverie that causes many an audience to dance and stomp in utter joy. The recording feels as though a dozen people are making music together, but it’s just a foursome: Kim and Reggie Harris, who do such a great job at folk festivals, accompanied only by percussion (Steve McAlpine and Charlie Pilzer).

 

 

 

 

 

The End of Television As We Know It

Chromecast_dongleWhen I first saw Apple TV, I wondered what it was, and whether it was worth $100. By the time I saw Google’s Chromecast, I thought I understood what it was, and why it was worth $35. Neither device looks like much. Apple TV looks like a square hockey puck. Chrome cast looks like a thumb drive. Looks can be deceiving.

These devices expand the capabilities of a TV set by connecting it to the internet. If you want to watch Netflix on a TV set, you can connect Apple TV, receive Netflix on your iPhone or iPad, then throw the signal over to the TV screen. Many devices now contain apps that allow you to watch specific TV brands (I hesitate to call Netflix a “channel” in the old school linear sense). At first, this seemed to be a clever stunt. In time, with the arrival of “House of Cards,” it became clear that Netflix, and these unassuming devices, were a pure form of disruptive innovation—taking place on the very same screen that NBC, CBS, etc. had owned for decades.

When Verizon FiOS pixelates the cable version of HBO GO so horribly that it cannot be watched—a very common occurrence—I must choose between “Last Week Tonight with John Stewart” on YouTube, the HBO GO app on my Samsung TV, the same app on my  iPhone, my iPad, and DVD player. Apart from “NCIS”—which we watch live Tuesday nights at 8PM because my wife enjoys texting with a friend as they watch the live broadcast—we mostly disregard the TV schedule. Mostly, we watch via DVR or VOD. The TV set is becoming a remnant of past behavior. Heck, we’ve been “time-delaying” TV programs and movies since the early 1980s.

The almighty TV set was the king of center of home entertainment, and information. For news, weather, entertainment, a movie, or a sitcom, the TV set was the go-to. That’s no longer true—which changes everything. Last week, the east coast of the U.S. was covered in snow—on the busiest travel day of the year. In the past, I would have learned everything I wanted to know by watching the detailed forecast on The Weather Channel. The night before the big storm, The WeFat Guysather Channel wasn’t at all concerned with weather forecasting. Instead, TWC was running an episode of “Fat Guys in the Woods” (in case there was any doubt that TV is in its pitiful final stages…). Nowadays, when I want a weather forecast, I no longer consult the TV; I find extremely local, extremely detailed, extremely up to date weather information on the internet.

Like most people, I prefer to watch TV programs on the largest available screen. We used to own six TV sets. Now, we own just two, and we could probably do with just one.

What I need is either a cable box and its built-in DVR, and a fast internet connection.

—–

The cable box is the source of hundreds of channels—local broadcasts, speciality channels (TCM, AMC, GSN, TLC, whatever)—an extremely crowded timetable that shows which program is airing which channel at which time.

Or, I can search for the programs that I want to watch, whenever I want to watch them, and just click a button. This is the on-demand approach used by Nmarquee-promo-apps-deviceetflix, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, YouTube, and a hundred other 21st century channels.

While their interfaces are not the best, the newer approach makes more sense than the 20th century EPG (electronic program guide) that has become so bloated, and so ineffective, that it reminds everyone why TV Guide no longer arrives in zillions of U.S. households every week.

(The TV tuner, which receives local broadcasts, offers far less than cable or the internet, but, it’s free. For the most part, that TV tuner is ignored by 80% of Americans. More on that below.)

—–

Consider the broadcaster, the network, the local TV channel. The scheduling viewing part of business is rapidly fading. The idea of watching scheduled television is becoming old-fashioned. Ratings now include post-scheduled viewing, and will eventually be dominated by it. Today, more than half of TV viewing occurs off-schedule. The large broadcast networks are desperate for appointment viewing, but there aren’t enough mega-events to keep the viewers on a regular schedule. Sure, The Super Bowl, and lots of sporting events are best enjoyed live, and there’s the occasional awards show, or special event (like NBC’s updated live theater-on-TV version of “Peter Pan”), but that’s not enough reason to keep television schedules intact as an industry standard, not by a long shot.

Consider this: Netflix has more U.S. subscribers (37 million) than Comcast (30 million). Netflix costs less than $10 per month, or just over $100 per year. Comcast costs ten times that amount (but includes a internet connection needed to watch Netflix on television). At the same time, prime time viewership continues to drift downward—for broadcasters, the audience is 1/3 the size that it was in the mid-1980s. Of course, Netflix is not a television channel, not in the 20th century sense.

MtvstationidAlthough many business leaders proceed with a comfortable pair of blinders that protect their minds from digital interference, every 21st century broadcaster, network, local TV channel must assume that the business of scheduled television is not a long-term proposition, and must also also assume that their job is to promote viewership of individual programs anytime anywhere via any device that the viewer wants to use. Apart from QVC, almost none of the original 24/7 cable experiences remains intact (MTV no longer shows music videos 24/7, CNN no longer shows news 24/7, The Weather Channel no longer shows weather 24/7, etc.) Still, the old TV channel brands face a bright future—on many platforms, not as TV channels.

We’re no longer watching “broadcasts” in the old sense (an antenna feeds lots of people within a Federally-designated geographic area, or one set up by a local municipality for cable service). Instead, we’re watching video files that are accessed, one by one, from servers all over the world.

—–

Final piece of the puzzle: As citizens, what do we need from our television and internet systems? Local TV stations, and their related licenses, and broadcast networks are no longer as useful as they once were. There are better technologies available today than there were in 1949 (when the current TV system took shape), and in 1980 (when cable TV got started in a big way).

Family_watching_television_1958The broadcast spectrum is free, but we allowed, and encouraged, the likes of Comcast, to replace the use of free TV spectrum with a service that now costs more than a thousand dollars per year. Quite reasonably, the U.S. government figures, why reserve the spectrum for television broadcasters if so few people are watching those broadcasts over-the-air. In fact, why not sell off the spectrum for other purposes? That’s starting in 2016—probably about 10-15% of the TV spectrum will be sold by local TV stations to the government, which will flip the spectrum and resell it for wireless internet use.

What about the other 20% of us? About half of that remaining 20% subscribes DISH or DIRECTV satellite services—comparable to cable TV system. The remaining 10% includes  many seniors, those under the poverty line, and some clever hipsters who do what their parents never could (live without TV). If we are going to TV away from those in need, we should provide a FREE alternative (that should include the internet).

The change is upon us. Its impact is evident at home, on the road, in government and corporate offices, in TV stations with large amounts of empty office and studio space. It’s been a long time coming, but the future is here.

 

Flying

If you read this article before the live show airs, you’ll find a countdown clock on NBC’s “Peter Pan Live” website. At the moment this article was published, the countdown clock read, precisely, 6 days, 8 hours, 0 minutes and 0 seconds. In live television, countdowns matter. Every second is precisely measured.

On Thursday, December 7, at precisely 8PM, NBC will broadcast one of the most ambitious television productions ever attempted. While the world focuses on just how wonderful Brian Williams’ daughter Allison can be, how fetching the young Darling children, how cleverly Christopher Walken dances and turns into a monstrous pirate, how great a real Broadway cast can be, it’s worth a moment to consider just what these (crazy!) people will be doing for very nearly three hours, live, on national television.

Peter Pan Live! - Season 2014They’ve been planning for at least year, rehearsing for months, and spending endless hours in a 37,000 square foot soundstage in a former, and notable, manufacturing plant (Apollo’s Lunar Modules were built there). This is the largest studio space on the east coast of the United States, and, I suspect they’re overflowing from Stage 3 to add another 14,641 square feet. (A good-sized suburban house is 3,500 square feet—so picture enough space for 15 or 20 houses—that’s their workspace!) Stage 3 is 33 feet high—which is probably just high enough for Peter, Wendy, Michael and John to fly.

Apparently, there is a company that specializes in stage productions of Peter Pan. Flying by Foy, founded, appropriately, by a man whose first name was Peter. They’re the people to do the job: “With global headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada, locations in the Eastern United States and the United Kingdom, Foy provides flying effects, Aereography® and state-of-the-art automation for Broadway shows, London’s West End, professional and not-for-profit theatres, ballet and opera companies, high school and university theatre programs, churches, theme parks, cruise ships, concert tours, industrial events, feature films and television productions worldwide.” Apparently, they’ve done quite a few productions of Peter Pan.

So, we’ve got actors flying around. Including two boys who are not yet teenagers, and two women who in their twenties.

And there’s a dog. A dog who must perform on cue, bark on cue, on live television in the midst of a phenomenally distracting production environment. Nana is very well trained, and by all counts, Nana will be fine.

Tinkerbelle adds a bit of digital puppetry to the mix. In the midst of a production that relies, in part, upon well-placed shadows, Tink adds an interesting challenge for the actors. They won’t be able to see Tink. (She’s digital, added to the live stream.) Executive Producer Neil Meron told Entertainment Weekly: “Tink is going to be computer generated and manually guided around the screen by a technician. The actors won’t be able to see her, but that technician will be able to move Tink with the actors and change her size and color to indicate what she’s feeling.”

PeterPan-NeverlandMapThere is an enormous stage set—again, think in terms of a dozen houses or more, each one a ranch-style so that everything is on a floor that measures about 120 feet by 120 feet. On that floor, the Darling family’s home will magically (mechanically, electrically, digitally) split in two to show the vista below flying Peter and the children, with an appropriate nightside townscape below. On that floor, a pirate ship that rocks back and forth, a gigantic fantastic Neverland, the Lost Boys’ home, and a vast amount of technical equipment. There will be 17 cameras—up on fake hills, hand-held roaming about getting close-ups of actors as they’re dancing (lots and lots of dancing in this production), on jibs, on pedestals, everywhere. And they must remain out of sight for two hours and forty five minutes, lest the fantasy be broken. There are two directors and many assistants and associates, stage managers, production assistants and more. Everyone has a job. The job of Glenn Weiss is to direct the television production—you know him because you’ve seen him accept more than one Tony Award while directing the Emmy Awards. You probably know the name Rob Ashford, too. Glenn WeissHe’s a theater director and choreographer with a list of impressive, and recent, credits. This extreme form of live television began with last year’s “The Sound of Music,” which was directed by Weiss (for television) and Ashford (staging). In fact, many of the people working backstage this year also worked together, in the same facility, last year. How many people? I don’t know the answer off-hand, but I would guess the number is between 200 and 300, perhaps more. Camera operators, audio engineers, lighting directors, makeup artists, wardrobe dressers, production assistants, video engineers, dancers, nurses (just in case somebody skins a knee), scenic painters, stage hands who do carpentry, stage hands who do electric, stage hands who do props, dog handlers, stage flight specialists, (no doubt: stage fright specialists, too), network executives, producers, associate producers, Tinkerbelle’s digital team (a digital designer/puppeteer and a live musician to give her voice)—and all of these people must get it right the first time. There is only the first time.

Every one of those people is acutely aware of: (a) the countdown clock, (b) the fact that no matter what happens, good/bad/otherwise, this insanity will be over in precisely 6 days, 10 hours, and 45 minutes, (c) there are thousands of things that could go wrong, but few of them will, and almost nobody will notice anyway, (d) the fact that this will happen only one time and only for less than three hours, (c) they will never experience anything so unbelievably cool in their professional lives. Until next year, when, if the announcements are true, we’ll be watching one bass, trumpeters improvising a full octave higher than the score, bassoons, copper-bottomed tympani, double-bell euphoniums, one-hundred and ten cornets and seventy-six trombones marching all over the small city of River City, Iowa, lovingly recreated in Stage 3 in Bethpage, Long Island, not too far from Hicksville.

On Wednesday evening, NBC ran a delightful “making of” hour to promote the special. Be sure to catch the videos and the energy before the pre-show promotion site goes away!

Behind the Scenes

 

 

A Thousand Moments in Time

The image is not entirely white. The paw prints — very big paw prints —are indigo, the color of the surrounding sea. Apart from the burst of white light near the sun, the sky is rendered in various shades of indigo, too. Most of the remaining ice floes are  pure white, tinged with indigo’s inky blue. The ice seems to be melting by the minute. It is no longer a solid mass. A polar bear sits on one of  larger ice floes, polar bear looks to the sky. His or her coat is faded yellow, the color of a baby chick.

That’s the second image in the new 478-page compact coffee table book by one of my favorite authors of photography books. This one handsome volume is entitled, “Photography: The Definitive Visual History,” and it’s a wonderful way to make someone very happy this holiday season ($50, but less than $40 on the internet).

The first image is very familiar: “Migrant Mother,” also called “Prairie Mother,” created in March, 1936, the heart of the Depression, by Dorothea Lange. At the time, Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that became a part of the Farm Security Administration a year later. The location: a camp of pea pickers in Niporno, California. Lange: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn to a magnet.” The family had recently “sold the tires of their car to pay for food.” The woman in the picture’s name was Florence Owen Thompson. She knew her own name, but she couldn’t do much good with that knowledge. Thompson was a poor Native American woman, and at age 80, when she was dying of cancer, she won an appeal and received $32,000. In 1998, the “Getty Museum paid $244,500 for a print.”

Here’s the image from the U.S. Library of Congress.

8b29516r

The image above is the one that became famous, but, as Ang explains, it was not the only one. “Using a Graflex camera…Lange made a total of six exposures…within a mere ten minutes or so. For each image, Lange moved in closer. The first image was wide, to show context. The final one is above. The second image below was a step along the way.

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8b29523r

Ang goes on to explain how the famous photo is constructed: the “careworn face,” the way the each of the older children frame their mother, the sleeping baby, so apparent in the mid-shot, so nearly absent in closely-cropped image.

Way back in the book in the section labelled “2000-Present: The Digital Age,” this is a small but striking picture of four lions. They seem to be heading directly for the photographer (his name: Chris McLellan). It was shot in 2013—last year. He used a Nikon D800E with a very wide angle lens to take the picture—and many more like it—but the camera was not in his hands. Instead, the camera was mounted on a remote control buggy, and the 18mm lens was installed in order to capture the images of the lions that it passed by, or got curious.

Chris-McLennan_buggy_011-780x520

According to Ang, “the resulting shots were viewed more than two million times within three days.”

For me, the heart of the book is the (mostly) black-and-white middle section where Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” is followed by the remarkable Zeiss 80mm Planar medium format lens (Ang mostly features photography, but also devotes some spreads to important equipment innovations, the likes of LIFE and LOOK magazine, and other parts of photography’s long story), and Andreas Feininger’s “Midtown Manhattan Seen From Weehawken, New Jersey,” and Edward Steichen’s “monumental” (a good word for the project) 1955 book and exhibit, “The Family of Man,” fashion magazines and their aesthetic, and just before the spread on the Nikon F 35mm SLR camera, a few photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who worked for 36 years as a LIFE magazine photojournalist. A few pages later, there is the famous quote by Lennart Nilsson:

Patience is the most important tool. Patience. Patience. Patience.”

And, Lennart’s 1965 photograph of a human fetus. “The first time he saw a fetus sucking his thumb, he was ecstatic and took a picture.” But nothing happened—the flash was broken (remember, he’s shooting inside a human body with an endoscope. The image shown below is his most famous. Sadly, the child was easier to photograph because the child was no longer alive.

Lennart-Nilsson-100

Others survived, thrived, and were photographed by Nilsson along the way.

Lennart Nilsson

This collection of Lennart Nilsson images comes from another fine book about photography, “A Child Is Born.”

Photography can take your breath away.


 

Here’s the book cover, just so you don’t pass it by when visiting your local bookseller. It’s a very special holiday gift.

Photography-History_cover

BTW: On final note. If you’re even remotely serious about digital photography, Tom Ang’s your man. He’s a wonderful teacher, and his many other books about digital photography are among the best in the industry.

 

An Old Master

Kudos to Jules Feiffer for creating, writing and illustrating a graphic novel in a fantasy space that he clearly adores. Why the kudos? Who cares that the guy is in his 80s—he tells a helluva story.

FeifferobamaOkay, more about Jules before begin. Actually, you get a fair sense of him from his 2008 cartoon for NYC’s Village Voice. I found it on Wikipedia. He won a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning, was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Writer’s Guild of America, and he’s got his place in the Comic Book Hall of Fame. And now, he’s got this new book.

It’s called “Kill My Mother,” and I like this description: it’s a “noir-action-romance.” It’s a story dominated by powerful, smart women—a story where men are rather foolish, easily misled, or weak. The plot winds through 1940s Los Angeles, and through a World War II battle zone—it looks and feels like a cross between a graphic novel and a rough storyboard for a post war-time black-and-white film, one that has its doubts about what happened and why. In fact, it’s the sort of noir tale that works best when it makes it way through dark and ambiguous questions. Annie is the protagonist (and the gal on the cover of the book). Her dad is dead. He was a cop. Somebody killed him. She wants to know who did the deed and why. Her mother, well, Annie despises her mother, in Annie’s eyes, a coward of a woman who deserves the worst.

Feiffer bookIn theory, it’s the book that drives the story, but in practice, here, it’s the pictures. Actually, it’s the whole page, the whole well-designed, elegantly organized duotone watercolors and pen-and-ink that feel so dark, so thick with intrigue. Most of the book is rendered in sepia—not the old tones of photographs, but lively, contrasty, vaguely seedy renditions of what otherwise might have been black. The accent is usually a very pale green, the color of a Hollywood swimming pool on page, a cadaver on the next.

It’s vengeful and bluesy, jivey and filled with songs sung way too late at night by a tall woman with a long past. It’s not jokey—this is serious work by a serious creative pro whose resume is dates back before most of the people who will read this article, or that book. There’s nudity and violence, crude language and tenderness, idiotic situations that feel quite real, and a wonderful sense of place and time.

What works best for me? Just scanning every page, considering the creative decisions that a long life are capable of producing. This isn’t just a good graphic novel. It’s a late stage work by one of our twentieth, and now, twenty-first century masters. I love the way he sets up a page, brings his print characters to life on the page, uses flowing line and dabs of color to fill my head, and feed my imagination. Gosh, he’s good.

Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-4-1000-580-BPages-from-KMM_feiffer-2-1000-580 Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-1-1000in-kill-my-mother-erzaehlt-jules-feiffer-von-seiner-jugend-in-einem-amerika-dessen-werte-er-noch-nachvollziehen-konnte

 

 

 

The Bathypelagic Zone, or Where the Sperm Whales Go

The most experienced freedivers manage to go no more than a few hundred feet below the surface—they play in the Epipelagic Zone. Dolphins are good to about 1,000 feet m the heart of the Mesopelagic. After that, the Bathypelagic Zone is home to electric rays, sperm whales, and a lot of unfamiliar creatures. Terms unfamiliar? Think about a bathysphere—the spherical submarine for deep exploration.

deep_cover-u2245Freediving is “the most direct and intimate way to connect with the ocean.” During a three-minute freedive, “the (human) body bears only a passing resemblance to its terrestrial form and function. The ocean changes us physically, and psychically.” Unfortunately, “sometimes you don’t make it back alive.” Those words were written by James Nestor in his new book, “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, an introduction to a part of our world that is unfamiliar to nearly everyone on the planet, and an adventure story, too.

Continuing. “At sixty feet down, we are not quite ourselves. The heart beats at half its normal rate. Blood starts racing from the extremities toward the more critical areas of the body’s core. The lungs shrink to a third of their usual size…” And, “at 250 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of fist…” Human freediving is a story in itself, a dangerous way to explore because, often, one emerges from the water with blood coming out of the nose and mouth, and sometimes, if the pace of re-emergence is too rapid, blackout is common and, drowning, implosion and death are distinct possibilities.

As grossly fascinating as the extreme sport may be, the magnetoreception used by sharks, who can dive below six hundred feet, is more compelling. Sharks are tuned to “the magnetic pulses of the Earth’s magnetic core.” Echolocation seems less magical—it’s the basis of sonar and sonograms—but the coded language used by sperm whales, or dolphins, as they echolocate, well, that’s something extraordinary. Going further, cetaceans (including, for example, dolphins) possess brains that differ from the human ones that we are just beginning to understand. “…dolphins…could hold two separate, simultaneous conversations with two separate modes of communication, clicks and whistles—the equivalent of a human talking on the phone while chatting online” (to which I would add: we pretend to do two things at once—texting while driving, for example, but do neither well when multitasking).

Way down in the bathypalegic zone, the author and some compadres are watching the burning sea—bioluminescence—“chemical production of light by living organisms” in a inky-black sea so far from the surface that it exists in darkness (“night never becomes day”). “The grotesque-looking anglerfish uses a little light on the top of its head to attract prey. Giant squids—which can grow more than sixty feet long…use bright flashes to communicate with other squid using something similar to Morse code.”

He becomes fascinated with bioelectricity, and explains that “every cell in your body contains an electrical charge…the electricity travels by way of a series of circuits called ion channels, tiny proteins in the membranes of cells.” Nestor goes on to discuss electric rays, animals whose design concentrates this electrical power so that it can “emit a shock of more than 22o volts.” He considers the body’s energy that the Chinese call chi, and wonders what we can learn from the ocean in order to control and maximize the use of our power.

WhaleBack, for a moment, to sperm whales, “the loudest animals on earth.” He explains, “at their maximum level of 236 decibels, (their) clicks are louder than two thousand pounds of TNT exploding two hundred feet away from you, and much louder than the space shuttle taking off from two hundred and fifty feet away. They’re so loud that they cannot be heard in air, only in water, which is dense enough to propagate such powerful noises.” They could “vibrate a human body to death.”

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This is a spectacular journey, written so that the reader goes deeper and deeper into the depths of the ocean, then emerges with newfound knowledge and appreciation of earth’s wonder.

I could go on, but it’s late, and there’s not much more to say besides, “buy the book.”

 

 

 

 

A Concert Evening at Home

Unknown-1New CD + DVD set: “Jazz & The Philharmonic,” recorded in Miami, dozens of performers doing a lovely job with jazz, classical (with a modern twist), traditional music, beautifully produced and engineered. You may have seen it on PBS—last February—but if you are among the many millions who missed out, this is a gift that you might consider for this year’s holiday season. Notably, it is one of the last recorded works supervised by Phil Ramone, whose list of credits is among the most impressive in American music history.

Want a sample? Try “Simple Gifts,” a theme that you will recognize from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” The performance (Mark O’Connor on violin, Dave Grusin at the piano) and the recording are spectacular.

 

SimpleGiftsAlso on the web page (click on above), a straight ahead performance of Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” by Bobby McFerrin with some solid scat. (Later, on “Soloings,” McFerrin plays with his voice and the audience.) Backing McFerrin on “Autumn Leaves” is Grusin, Chick Corea, and The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra (they are the “Philharmonic” in this concert). Corea returns for “Spanish Suite,” based upon the familiar classical work by Joaquin Rodrigo, “Concerto de Aranjuez.” It’s easy to forget how terrific Corea can be—this is a lovely setting for his piano work. The wonderful trumpet player Terence Blanchard (he is the Mancini Institute’s Artistic Director) contributes an interesting duet with vocalist Eric Owens on Bach’s “Fugue in C Major.,” then joins in on “Spanish Suite,” and later, on “Solfeggietto” by C.P.E. Bach. It’s great to hear this work performed with soloists and a full orchestra—reminds me of the good old days when the Boston Pops showed up with celebrity soloists on public TV.

For me, this concert was an introduction to a modern classical piano player named Elizabeth Joy Roe. She performers with Blanchard on “Solfeggietto,” and with Mancini director Shelly Berg on a piano duet version of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Curious, I looked her up. Roe records classic music for Deutsche Gramophone, but she’s unique because she often performs duets. Not  just any songs—an intriguing combination of Michael Jackson, ragtime and classical. Her version—on her website, not on the Jazz & The Philharmonic CD/DVD includes an all-out duet with Greg Anderson on Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The video is as much fun as the piano work. Watch this (now)! She’s someone I want to know more about.

Okay—sorry—easily distracted by great music—back to the main story. What have I missed? Actually, one track, and it’s terrific. It’s called “Mountain Dance,” and it’s performed by Grusin and O’Connor with the Mancini Orchestra. Why terrific? It feels great, especially on a fine-tuned stereo system where the bass is as clear as the high notes. Again, a tribute to a recording that sounds much better than most.

There’s more on the DVD—a second McFerrin “Soloings”, another piece by Chick Corea entitled “Armadas Rhumba,” and, why not, a rousing version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (you know, the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme).

What fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Digital World of Enchanted Objects

StockOrb-150x150To begin, think not about the objects, but about our desires. We want to know it all—but not all of the time. Sometimes, we just want to know whether it’s cold outside, or whether the dog has been fed. We don’t know the details, don’t really need to know the precise temperature or the moment in time when the dog’s bowl was filled with food. So instead of a thermometer, or, more intensely, a digital thermometer that reports temperature to the tenth of a degree, how about a glowing orb? Or, as author-scientist-innovator-professor David Rose describes his invention, an Ambient Orb. He writes, in his new-ish book, Enchanted Objects, “They aren’t disruptive. They have a calm presence. They don’t require you to do anything…They are there, in every room of the house with the exact information you expect from them.” So he reimagined a crystal ball that contains LEDs that change color, and report the information you need by glowing in your choice of hues. “As the colors change, you glance and know if the pollen count in the air is higher than usual.”

GlowCap-150x150Why not a jacket that hugs the wearer every time she receives a “like” on her Facebook page? (This, from one of David’s students.) Or a toothbrush that knows it is being used (and being used properly), and recognizes your good work, rewarding you with a discount at the dentist? (Oy. The gamification of dentistry! Nah, not in David’s hands. He’s smarter than that—check this out.) One of his entrepreneurial firms was hired by a big pharmaceutical firm to bring some life to the little plastic pill containers. Hoping to change the behavior of the the many patients who do not take our prescribed meds, David’s company, Vitality, changed the cap. The cap glows when you’re supposed to take a pill. Even better, the GlowCap texts you when you’ve forgotten to take a pill, and automatically sends refill messages your local pharmacy. The “adherence rate” is up to 94 percent, far better than the 71 percent achieved by a standard (boring, non-glowing, non-internet connected) vial. It’s information at a glance, again non-disruptive.

UnknownDavid’s vision of the future: whatever the device may do, it must be affordable, indestructible, easily used, and, when it makes sense, wearable. Lovable, too—his clever illustration of interactive medicine packaging are based upon faces that transform themselves. They’re happy when you’re doing the right thing, grumpy if you’re not.

I love the idea of a Conversation Portal, an expansion of the telepresence office conferencing systems that allow people in different physical places to sit at the same half-digital, half-physical conference table. It uses large screens to display flat versions of real people’s bodies so that they feel as though they’re in the room. The Conversation Portal places that concept, more or less, into an informal lunch table setting. Virtual workers—perhaps five percent of the workforce, with more to come—can enjoy human interaction during a morning coffee break.

I also like the idea of a smart bus stop. It’s a digital sign that tells you how long you will have to wait for a bus to arrive. By connecting to the bus system’s GPS system, it provides a convenient visual answer to the inevitable question, “when is the bus going to show up?” His research found that “by eliminating the uncertainty of when the bus will arrive, people become more patient—and they don’t give up on the system i if the wait is longer than fifteen minutes…This enchanted system changes the perception—and behavior—of an entire city of riders.” (In this case, San Francisco.)

DavidRose_headshot_200x200David dreams of on-demand objects, and objects that learn and respond to personal needs. Vending machines, for example, that customize their offerings based upon “a prediction of what the person will like.” He envisions “digital shadows” for objects—information associated with physical objects enhanced by digital projection.

For those who intrigued by technology, but don’t want to dig into the technical details, David has written a marvelous, positive book about a future that he is actively creating with his colleagues. Nice to get a first person account, nicer still to be in the presence of someone with such boundless enthusiasm (and smarts).

Catch David’s 2011 TED Talk, too.

 

Stuck in the Middle

100bannertransIt might not mean much to people who don’t buy paint to create artwork, or ink to make prints, but Dan Smith’s company went ahead with a big decision this month. They stopped selling art supplies. That is, they stopped selling art supplies made by others, and decided to bet the farm on the paints, inks and other supplies that they make and sell under their own name.

Leisel Lund PrimTek Paintouts by LiesalPutting this another way, Daniel Smith Art Supply decided to leave the business of being a middleman. The company didn’t have much to say about the change, apart from the warehouse clearance notices that now arrive in my email box every day. On their website, one statement clearly expresses the company’s purpose: “Daniel Smith is a leading manufacturer of superior-quality lines of watercolor paints, sticks & grounds, acrylic paints & gesso, oil & water-soluble oil paints. Our products are available worldwide.” This is not a new idea: when Brooks Brothers has been selling its own clothing, in its own stores, Zachary Taylor was our 12th President.Brooks-Brothers-History-600x270

And that made me start wondering about Ken Burns, and a guy who worked for me twenty years ago who just showed up with his own documentary. If the connections are not immediately clear, please bear with me.

UnknownThis week, millions of Americans are spending their evenings with the Roosevelts. That is, they are watching a series of documentaries made by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films staff, a series that tells the story of Theodore, Franklin, Eleanor, their families, and their political careers. Burns is closely aligned with WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, but neither Burns nor WETA is the distributor. Instead, that job first falls to PBS, and then, to nearly 200 local television stations. That’s the way it has worked since The Civil War, or, at least, since around 1990. I didn’t think much about that until someone I know ranted about missing the first half hour of one of the episodes. I figured the episode was available online, did a bit of exploring, and found that all of the episodes were available online, even before they were released on television. And that made me wonder about the chain of distribution. Quite reasonably, there is a website devoted entirely to The Roosevelts. The site’s logo is the show’s logo. The top menu items seem to be focused on the project, not on the distribution. Scroll down to the bottom and the site is copyrighted by WETA and Florentine Films. In fact, there is a modest PBS presence, and in fact, there is no real need for a middleman here at all. Ken Burns has made a fine series of films, and now, with the miracle of web distribution, he can distribute those films directly to his (admiring) public. Something feels right about PBS’s relationship with Ken Burns and his work, but look closely, and it’s clear that PBS, Burns, Florentine, WETA, and PBS’s member stations are taking this new digital distribution idea one step at a time.

And that made me think about the guy who used to work for me who produced an independent documentary. It’s a lovely documentary about the nasty behavior of a big company, and, of all things, a public passion for a particular soda pop. The produce and I were exploring how this documentary gain some exposure. In essence, the producer was seeking a middleman, a Netflix, an exhibitor to bring the film to the public. Old habits die hard. New thinking would probably involve, somehow, contacting every person passionate about the soft drink, and encouraging them to (a) watch the film, and (b) tell their friends. This is a new kind of magic, and it only works sometimes.

And that made me think about a friend who is wondering about the future of the music business. In times past, record labels signed and marketed artists. Now, artists communicate directly with fans, and many record labels are struggling to find their way. At the same time, authors are publishing their own books while dreaming of the money and marketing clout that a large publisher could provide (no more crates of books in the garage, no more handling every detail).

neon051-580x326UnknownSo here we are, caught between two ideas, two eras. In the former, large fortunes were made by the middleman. In the latter, there is no middleman. Make what you sell—the old American way (and, in fact, the way that many people in undeveloped nations continue to operate, with no clear path to a digital future). And then I think about Macy’s, Wal-Mart, and going back a bit, the much-criticized market domination of A&P and Rexall Drug. All of them hawking their self-branded merchandise, all of them making a fortune by selling other companies’ stuff.

Usually, I finish an article with a sense of direction. This time, it’s more complicated. Kudos to Dan Smith for doing something that makes sense instead of doing too many things that don’t. Kudos to the musicians and the authors and the documentary producers who have figured it out, and to Ken Burns and WETA for working within and beside and around the system as they invent a future that sustains everyone in their food chain. Let’s not pretend that this is easy, and let’s accept our era as the mass of contradictions that our world has become. In fact, some of our greatest internet success stories have been stories of middlemen with eBay and Amazon leading the way, and plenty of successful companies including Pinterest, Etsy, and Netflix populating a very long list of middleman enterprises.

At first, I thought I’d be writing an article entitled “Death of the Middleman,” but as I wrote, I realized that my initial approach was naive. Now, I suspect there will always be a role for the middleman. That’s the reason why the altogether excellent Brattleboro Food Co-op exists, to create a marketplace for local farmers and small time operators who make, but cannot directly market, their local cheeses (imagine visiting every creamery for every block of cheese, every week). And thank goodness for the local artisinal ice cream makers who have opened small shops nearby, more than compensating for the closing of the century-old country dairy that closed before its time (and sold only its own ice cream).

Has the digital revolution washed over the middleman? Nope. Not yet. He’s still traveling from town to town, still making the same sales calls he did a century or so ago. Looks a bit different now, made and lost a few fortunes along the way, but he’s still a part of the landscape, not about to give it up any time soon, near as I can see.

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