More Thoughts on Digital Book Publishing

Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.

In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.

At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.

More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.

With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.

Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on  independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.

What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).

What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.

 

The Isaacson Paradox

isaacsonWalter Isaacson is one of the smarter people in the media industry. As a keynote speaker for this past week’s Digital Book World conference, he talked about the limitations of his most recent book, The Innovators. (You probably know him as the author of the spectacularly successful biography of Steve Jobs.) Nowadays, he’s the leader of the Aspen Institute, the latest in a series of senior roles that include, for example, the chairmanship of CNN and the various old and new media roles at TIME Magazine. Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the slow-moving book business, he encouraged the audience to think beyond the printed volume and its close relative, the eBook filled with the same words and ideas.

Fresh from a deep investigation into media and technology innovation, Isaacson told the story of Dan Bricklin, inventor of the spreadsheet, whose innovation story deserved more space and more attention than Isaacson’s innovation book could reasonably provide. Bricklin told Isaacson the story, and Isaacson was appropriately fascinated. Somehow, Isaacson wanted to extend the conversation with Bricklin, open the book (the whole concept of a book) up to to a broader discussion so that other innovators could tell their stories, and readers could gain a much broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter that so fascinates Isaacson. A book should be more than a book, it should be the beginning of a conversation, an interactive gateway to more information, a means to connect interested parties. Books don’t do that, but given the available technology and associated behaviors of the digital generation, maybe they ought to do more than they do today.

I like the way Walter Isaacson tells a story. I like to watch and listen to him on stage, and I enjoy reading his books. I enjoyed reading his biography about Einstein, and I know that I will read his book about Ben Franklin in 2015 (I bought it for my wife, as a birthday gift when it was new in 2004—so many books, so little time!). There aren’t many biographers or historians I would place next to David McCullough, but Isaacson is one of them. He is one of America’s finest authors.

Walter, you just published 560 words about innovators. You’ve made sense of the science and divergent thinking pursued by Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee and other technology heroes. The story is neither simple nor easy to tell, but you’ve managed to put the pieces together in a very appealing package that I can buy for 20 bucks (hardcover), or 10 bucks (Kindle). Two words for you: good job!

Seriously, you do a terrific job with every book. That’s why we buy your books. You’re a reliably strong author who finds just the right details, composes just the right stories, paints a coherent picture, and provides a satisfying experience. Not many people do the job as well as you do, but plenty of people try, and some come pretty close.

At the risk of typecasting, and at the greater risk of being accused of being stuck in the 20th (or 19th) century, I’m really happy with your work. If I want to know more about Albert Einstein and his world, I can pick up Ronald Clark’s biography, or read the scientist’s own books. If you suggest another book, or perhaps a documentary or a good museum, I’ll jot it down and follow it up. I don’t need or want an expanded version of “The Innovators.” I’m sure you’ve collected far more information than you could possibly corral into a single book, and if you feel there’s a follow-on book, I’m sure you’ll write it and I’m equally certain that it will become a best seller, too. But I would prefer that you moved on, as I will do. I’ve gotten a good and healthy dose of the innovators’ story. I want you to write another great book that illuminates a part of life that I don’t know I want to know more about. I’m sure you’ve got a list of a dozen new ideas for next books. You’re going to be 63 years old in March—and your pace tends to be a new book every 2-4 years (let’s say 3). Keep writing until your 93rd birthday, and we can look forward to perhaps 10 more Walter Isaacson books.

Better for you to explore the wild new worlds of digital publishing and invent some new forms? Sure, go ahead, but do not stop writing books, and don’t slow things down too much. We need more Walter Isaacson books.

So there’s the paradox. Although Isaacson is eloquent about the future, his great value to society is in the present (in fact, telling stories about the past). And if he spends too much time on the future, we lose something wonderful about the present and the past, which diminishes the future.

Same idea, different words: Mr. Isaacson is one of the best hopes in the publishing industry for credible, popular new directions for books. On the other, we simply want him to be a wonderful author. If the author’s job is to tell a great story, does it make more sense to mess with the medium or master the message? Or to just keep doing and allow the road to lead where it may?

Reinforcing the paradox: on the first day of Digital Book World, I learned about the new interactive exploration application that children’s author/illustrator David Wiesner is going to release through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s called “SPOT,” and I plan to write about it soon. Why am I so excited about a new interactive venture from one of our best children’s authors, but so conflicted about how I hope Mr. Isaacson will spend his next thirty years? ‘Tis a paradox.

 

The New Rectangle

The old rectangle turned out to be a pretty good idea. Take a stack of papers, imprint each one, on both sides, with words and pictures, bind it all up, and sell it at a reasonable price. Printed books for children date back about 500 years (a fine article from a January 1888 of The Atlantic tells the story of the early years). Today, children’s books account for 37 percent of all books sold in the United States. In survey after survey, reading books shows up as a top activity for children from one to ten or eleven years old. About 70 percent of children in this age group read books for pleasure—compared with about 20 percent of adults. For most American children, reading books is a wonderful part of childhood.

By age 14, many children find other ways to occupy their time. Out-of-date mandatory school readings don’t help matters—“A Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are dubious “must reads” for 21st century middle schoolers. Is the answer a newer rectangle? Perhaps a new style of novel with some sort of built-in social network? A book on an iPad with snazzy interactive features?

Roughly 1 in 5 books sold in the United States is an eBook. Parents are interested in seeing their children read—so they buy lots of books, encourage literacy at every opportunity, and justify investments in iPads because these devices could encourage children to read more books, and spend more time reading. For some parents, that may seem reasonable, but 66 percent of teenagers read for pleasure–and they strongly prefer printed books!

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether traditional books offer one type of experience, and iBooks / eBooks / digital books provide another. (The usual argument: when home video became popular, the movie theaters did not go out of business.) I love the idea of reading a non-fiction book and AFTER my time with the book ends, I love to do a bit more research to learn more about the concepts that the author failed to discuss in detail. Do I need all of that in one digital package? Not really—I am fine reading the book in my comfy leather chair, then meandering over to the computer, or picking up the iPad, to learn more. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of what a digital book experience might be.

scaled_OM-BookBeginnerCollection1-Screen0-w997L-(255,255,255)-iPad.jpgFor example, maybe a digital book is not a book at all, but a kind of game. Scholastic, a leader in a teen (YA, or Young Adult) fiction publishes a new book in each series at four-month intervals. The publisher wants to maintain a relationship with the reader, and the reader wants to continue to connect with the author and the characters. So what’s in-between, what happens during those (empty) months between reading one book and the publication of the next one in the series? And at what point does the experience (a game, a social community) overtake the book? NEVER! — or so says a Scholastic multimedia producer working in that interstitial space. The book is the thing; everything else is secondary. In fact, I don’t believe him—I think that may be true for some books, but the clever souls at Scholastic are very likely to come up with a compelling between-the-books experience that eventually overshadows the book itself.

And what of the attics of the future? Your child—a grandpa with a dusty old attic in 2085—ought to have a carton filled with Rick Riordan stories and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that he can pass on to the young ones. He ought not mumble through some lame excuse about how every one of his favorite books was digital, and how those books were zapped from the cloud during the great digital storm of 2042.

So do we leave it there? Children’s books ought to be printed and saved, placed on library shelves and in attic boxes for the ages? Not when there’s a new rectangle! Imagine a book that makes sounds and flashes pictures on command, that builds a bridge to the imagination in a way that enhances the experience of a parent reading a book to a very young child (or, an older one). Gee, this must be done carefully! We want to retain so much that is special and unique about the old ways—the ways that we have perfected over hundreds of years, and really managed to get right during the past fifty or one hundred—and yet, we’re raising a digitally native population. So far, 58 percent of children enjoy daily access to a tablet (often, an iPad). Much of what will be invented has been invented—at least until there is a massive new injection of innovation. Today’s tablet probably resembles the tablet of 2018, but it might be smaller, thinner, more flexible. What we have now is a reasonably stable rectangle. But what to do, for children, within its four digital walls?

Last week, I spent a day pondering this issue with a few hundred people in the children’s book publishing industry at a conference called Digital Book World—the special section being entitled LaunchKIDS. Mostly, it was populated by people who work within the old rectangles, but remain curious about the new. Here and there, we learned about newer ones. Blloon (yes, it is spelled correctly) is encouraging people 18-34 (typically, less bookish than other populations) to subscribe to their service by using the number of pages read as a kind of currency (consumers pay for a certain number of pages, and engage in social activities to earn more). Google wants to “massively transform” the space (Google seems to say that about everything it sees or smells). Amazon is trying to make sense of analog vs. digital books, comparing the paradigm to hardcover vs. softcover books, for example.

Of course, there are no easy long-term answers. Except one. Kids like books. And parents like to buy books for their kids. So far, that doesn’t seem to be changing very much at all.

The four most popular children’s books (based upon Amazon’s sales—bookstore sales may vary).

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And, a popular Scholastic books into multimedia project, Spirit Animals.

Spirit Animals

 

A New Discovery: Curiosity Stream

For many people, two of the most powerful words in the English language are “discovery” and “curiosity.” In fact, John Hendricks combined the two words to title his 2013 biography, “A Curious Discovery.” Now that he is no longer associated with the cable network that he founded—The Discovery Channel—Hendricks is launching a new venture, Curiosity Stream. Just as The Discovery Channel (now, simply “Discovery”) was precisely the right idea for a young cable television industry in 1985, Curiosity Stream sets the standard for special interest subscription ad-free video-on-demand in 2015. With HBO, CBS News and other new “SVOD” services available for an emerging marketplace.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_01_RobotsA monthly subscription fee buys access to a library of short- and long-form programs in four general categories: science, technology, civilization and the human spirit. Some programs are produced by Curiosity Studios—mostly, these are short-form interviews with scientists and other experts, often illustrated with animation. At the start, many of the long-form programs will come from TVO (that’s TVOntario, one of the best non-fiction producers in Canada), Japan’s NHK, France’s ZED, and of course, the BBC Worldwide. With two or three years, the service anticipates 2-3,000 titles; this year, subscribers will have access to about half that number of programs. Happily, John recognizes the challenges associated with VOD navigation, and I’m hoping to see Curiosity Stream reinvent the visual interface so that their programs are easy to find.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_04_MadagascarThe assortment of programs being assembled for the March 18, 2015 launch. Many are reminiscent of what The Discovery Channel used to be—before its prime time schedule began to resemble other cable channels (“Naked and Afraid,” etc.). Among the titles announced so far: “The Nano Revolution,” “Simon Schama: Shakespeare and Us,” “The Age of Robots,” “Destination Pluto,” and “Scotland: Rome’s Last Frontier.” There will be 4K programming, too—UltraHD for those who own the newer high-resolution TV sets—including a newly commissioned project called “Big Picture Earth” by the filmmaker responsible for “Sunrise Earth.”

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

For a look at Curiosity Stream’s demo site, click on the image above.

Hendricks and his team are deeply experienced in the acquisition, production, and marketing of these types of programs—so this is a startup with a high likelihood of success. The intelligence of their marketing model impressed me, and made me wonder why others don’t approach the market in the same way. For $2.99 per 01_BBC_02_Earthmonth, you can watch in standard resolution—a terrific on-ramp for viewers who are either new to SVOD or are more likely to be fairly light users, at least the start. At this price, it’s almost a trial subscription with an easy upsell to 720 HD resolution at $3.99 per month (which is all that most people probably need right now). For those with more extravagant viewing habits, 1080 HD resolution costs $5.99 per month; the 4K Ultra HD service costs $9.99 per month (but at the start, there won’t be a lot of 4K programming available—still, some is far more than most other services offer today).

When I first read about the service—it was just announced—I reached out to John Hendricks and his team. Mostly, we talked about strategy. The program acquisition and production strategy is firmly rooted in international cable deals. The right deal spreads the risk among several programmers and distributors. For 04_ZED_02_Nanoexample, let’s assume that a high quality outdoor production costs about $750K to produce. If one company foots the bill, their programming budget only goes so far. But if Curiosity, for example, puts in $250K to control North American rights, and finds two partners, perhaps one in Asia and another in Europe, and each of them also puts in $250K for their respective territories, then nobody is out of pocket for more than $250K. Rights beyond North America, Europe and Asia provide additional revenue, which is typically shared by the funding producers. This “split exploitation” concept has been around since the 198os, and it works. In the SVOD marketplace, there will be many opportunities for future exploitation, which makes the venture progressively more profitable, and steadily increases the programming budgets, which generate more and better programming, and more subscribers… the circle continues to grow.

JohnHendricks_HeadshotUnlike Ted Turner, whose approach to cable was mass market (TBS, TNT, and very broad-based news with CNN), Hendricks has always focused on nonfiction, documentaries, outdoors and reality (in the best sense, and also with many programming ventures way down market—Discovery owns TLC, so you can thank him for “Honey Boo Boo”). The point: he knows how to play the game, understands how to segment the market. His first pass: a three-bucket breakdown that includes (a) historically light TV viewers, the 1 in 8 of us, the 17 million U.S. households for whom TV is not a big part of daily life; (b) the connected world of perhaps 100 million cable and satellite homes, the ones that often complain that “there’s nothing good on TV” where he hopes to capture about 10 million households; and the rising 4K market, which he projects at 10 million households total and perhaps 5 million subscribers to Curiosity. By playing a more upmarket game from the start—he’s betting that there are enough documentary, adventure, curious viewers willing to pay at least a few dollars per month to see what Curiosity offers and to support what would seem to be a very promising future.

03_F-N-NHK-TN_06_AngkorCould he be defeated by Netflix hiring a former Discovery executive assigned to buying up lots of rights to Curiosity / Discovery -type programming from the short list of global suppliers? Sure, but it’s not likely that Netflix will zero-in on the nonfiction programs that Curiosity Stream plans to acquire. The nuanced understanding of programming for, and marketing to, this particular audience is not something that Netflix can easily replicate. Hulu probably won’t go there, and neither will Amazon. YouTube is interested in other aspects of the business, so it’s likely that John and his team will be able to build the same kind of success that they enjoyed with Discovery.

In some respects, John Hendricks is a smart guy who found the right long-term niche. Broadening the view, I suppose it’s possible that TCM will offer a similar service—a movie archive with a greater emphasis on old movies than Netflix or Amazon may offer. The days of exploiting an old Hanna-Barbera library (one of the foundation blocks of Cartoon Network in its infancy) are over, but I suppose an SVOD animation service might be able to support itself. Old TV shows are currently experiencing a nostalgic burst with over-the-air channels exploiting old libraries—I now record “Naked City” and sometimes waste a half-hour watching “F-Troop” on MyTV, or similar programs on Antenna and its competitors. Not much SVOD opportunity there. Sports wants to be live—so after-the-fact viewing of sports events doesn’t provide much marketplace power for SSVOD (sports subscription VOD?). Weather, news – same problem; neither is good SVOD product. Children’s programming works, and I’m sure some combination of Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and PBS Kids will fight it out in a battle for market share—a newcomer would find it difficult to acquire sufficient product in this brand-obssessed (“Dora the Explorer,” etc. marketplace), but the BBC’s CBeebies might move in that direction. History never found a large enough audience to sustain historical programming, so it became a popular mass appeal network. Food Network doesn’t focus enough recipe programs any more, and their competition series aren’t likely to generate large numbers of individual subscriptions. Clever marketing schemes aside, most other cable networks are mass appeal, or broad appeal, so they’re probably better as cable networks with some VOD than full-scale SVOD services. I think there’s some potential in BBC America—their airtime is focused on mass appeal but the BBC library—even discounting for rights limitations—is probably large enough to succeed in SVOD. Comedy Central has potential, but Curiosity Stream trumps comedy because it benefits from a higher degree of program scarcity (there’s no shortage of comedy product available). I certainly wouldn’t discount the potential of a music channel’s success on SVOD—perhaps from MTV, BET, or a country music source.

Which is to say: I think Curiosity Stream has chosen its niche wisely; packaged and priced its product slightly ahead of the market; that it benefits from the right visionary and management team; that is it among a short list of non-movie / non-sports programming franchises where 4K truly enhances the viewing experience; and that it promises some terrific viewing experiences now sorely missed. The idea of a truly global, any-platform, anywhere service in this programming space is extremely appealing. In short, I think Curiosity Stream is the right idea for a clearly defined audience that is probably underserved and ready to pay a reasonable monthly fee for the privilege of watching high quality non-fiction programming from around the world.

 

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.”

 

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.)

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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