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.)

—–

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.

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.

 

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.

checkout-700x250

The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

Lincoln Wins! – The Story According to Fergus

220px-George_B_McClellan_-_retouched

Presidential wannabe George McClellan

Buried on the bottom of a back page in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, a fairly amazing story worth retelling. The author is historical Fergus Bordewich. The place is the United States, right around this time of year, 150 years ago. You may remember the name George McClellan. “Handsome and self-confident,” he had utterly failed in his role as the General in charge of President Lincoln’s Union Army. At the time, the charismatic McClellan was running against Lincoln in the 1864 election, and everyone (including Lincoln) was certain that McClellan would become the next president (Lincoln’s Republicans considered re-election “an impossibility”). According to Bordewich, “In practical terms McClellan’s victory would likely have led to European recognition of the Confederacy, Southern Independence and the forcible return to slavery of hundreds of thousands of former slaves who had fled to the Union armies for safety.” To make matters worse, the current Union General, Ulysses Grant, was making a habit of losing battle after battle.

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin

So here’s the staunch abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, then-current Vice President of the United States, a man who would have been President (after Lincoln’s passing) if history had played out differently. The party decides that what Lincoln really needs is a “deep-dyed racist” as his replacement running mate, and they choose a Democrat, the Governor of Tennessee (which was controlled by the Union), Andrew Johnson. Lincoln hoped that Johnson would swing some Democrats over to his side. Then, Lincoln got lucky. The North started winning his battles, and Union Admiral Farragut took over Mobile, Alabama (and said, “damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!). Sherman captured Atlanta. (Grant was still struggling, but generally heading in a positive direction).

Lincoln wins. He carries every state except Kentucky (makes sense, right?), Delaware (kind of southern), and New Jersey (huh?).

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its  governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

President Andrew Johnson, whose extensive political career included time as a Senator and Congressman from Tennessee, and its governor. He also reached the rank of Brigadier General in the Union Army.

The aftermath: Lincoln in April, 1865. If Hamlin had remained on the ticket, he would have become President and, according to Bordewich, he would have gotten reconstruction underway in a thorough and meaningful way, and probably would have ignited the Civil Rights movement some eighty years before it finally came together. Instead, we had the unexpected President Johnson, in place for purely political reasons—without him, McClellan would have won. Johnson did his job for his Southern friends—he did everything he could to restore the pre-war status quo, and “tolerated horrific reprisals against blacks to attempted to exercise their newly run freedoms.” Congress was so unhappy with Johnson’s defiant ways, they did something they had never done before: they impeached the President of the United States.

Here’s the original WSJ article written by Fergus Bordewich.

 

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

never-think-outside-the-box1

 

All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

- Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

- Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

- Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

Heads Up for Everyone

NavdyMaybe twenty years ago, I remember my friend Harry, who knows a lot about cars, telling me about a magical idea called a “heads up display.” Harry explained that data and images would be projected on every car windshield, and if I understood him correctly, instrumentation would move from the dashboard to an ultra-simple visual presentation directly in the driver’s field of view. No more looking down, no more looking away from the road. I became vaguely aware that some truck drivers were using this technology, but I wondered whatever happened to the consumer side of the idea.

Next year, we can all buy a dashboard mounted video projector called a Navdy. It costs less than $30o, and it does what Harry promised, and more. Navdy projects very simple graphics and just a few words directly on the windshield, directly above the steering wheel. The projector is set up so that your point of focus on the data is also your point of focus while driving, so the information is always easy to see (I’m curious how those with bi- or trifocals will respond).

We all know that picking up a phone while driving (or stopped at a light) to read a text message is a bad idea, and that sending a text is an even worse idea. So now, the text shows up immediately in front of you, perhaps with a little iconic picture of your texting buddy (who is, hopefully, on a coach, not driving a big rig while texting). To reply, you either speak (Navdy will recognize what you have to say) or gesture (a favorite but simple way to interact with Navdy).

You can use your existing cell phone (Android or iPhone). There is no monthly service fee. You only need to buy the device.

So what else does Navdy do? It can display your fuel level, speed, and other information about your car. It allows you to make phone calls and to respond to them without touching a telephone. Ditto for text messages. If your phone is playing music, you can stop and start the stream. It responds to voice control, just as Siri does (hopefully, it’s better than Siri).

New idea? As an add-on, sure. But those who follow the car industry report several million HUDs (Heads-Up Displays) already in cars that are on the road, and have been for several years.

Although there are lots of questions about what we should and should not be doing while driving, whether Navdy is a help or a hindrance or something else entirely, whether this sort of thing will become standard in every vehicle, and, of course, whether most of us will actually be driving a car in a future where cars are probably going to be driving themselves. In the mean time—there’s at least a ten year gap between today and the future—this is a device that will become a buzz item in 2015.

Do watch the video. It’s irreverent and fun.

 

 

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