The Spacey McTaggart Lecture

So here’s Kevin Spacey telling the truth about the television industry, the movie industry, and the new reality that places creative people in control of their relationship with the audience. He is harsh, realistic, funny, and deeply experienced–and full of wisdom and insight gained through his Netflix deal, his work with the Old Vic theater in London, and a career that began, with the help of actor Jack Lemmon, at age thirteen.

I especially enjoyed Spacey’s celebration of “the third golden age of television” that began, more or less, with Hill Street Blues, extends through The Sopranos, on through House of Cards. Just in case you’ve missed one or two, he runs through a dozen-plus excellent television series whose connection to the audience is the result of powerful creative risks taken by creative people, and by the small number of laudable television executives with the guts to protect those creators.

Spacey connects the dots in a pattern that’s  obvious to anyone who is willing to face the truth about the television industry–and devastating to those who still believe in the status quo, appointment viewing, watercooler conversations, and television networks as the fundamental organizing principle of the home entertainment industry. Time and again, he celebrates the creative people…and resets expectations for the next generation.

The new generation of creatives is different. We’re no longer living in a world where someone has to decide if they’re an actor, writer, director or producer. These days, kids growing up on YouTube can be all of these things…

The James McTaggart Memorial Lecture opens the Edinburgh Festival. This lecture is 49 minutes long. I encourage you to watch the whole thing.

Let me tell this another way: he tells a heck of a good story.

(Here’s a link to the text version.)

From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day

In connection with a large project that I’m developing, my office has been pleasantly cluttered with history books. In particular, I’ve been attempting to understand the broad sweep, which is, we all know, a fool’s mission. Stumbling from Mesopotamia to The American Dream has been great fun, far better than I remembered from anything I did in school, and, because of the latest cluster of colorful history books, a fun trip every step of the way.

Appropriately entitled History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day, the 612-page tour of the human story is presented with the full DK Publishing treatment: lots of images, interesting sidebars, full layouts about expected and some unexpected topics (The American Dream, Leonardo DaVinci, Queen Victoria, Science vs. God, The Ming Dynasty, many more). You know the visual style from so many children’s books, Eyewitness Travel guidebooks, and more. Two examples below; in both cases, the links take you to the Amazon “see inside” sequence of selected pages from the book:

DK-First-Harvest-layout

DK-History-Layout

At first, I picked up this book in hopes of finding lots of illustrated timelines. Instead, I found myself browsing a kind of magazine about world history with articles about topics that I figured I should know more about. (In fact, there are timelines, but the type is small, the layout is idiosyncratic, and, candidly, there are better historical timeline books than this one, including the publisher’s own Smithsonian Timelines of History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Events that Shaped the World, described below).

This book excels in by telling well-chosen stories in simple, illustrated form, always offering enough depth of information to satisfy the curious. So here’s a two-page spread about Mesopotamia that begins by placing it in the area that now includes Iraq, southwest Iran, east Syria, and southeast Turkey. The name is derived from the Greek, “between two rivers,” which explains the site’s early evolution, noting that similar sites developed in the Indus Valley, and later, in China. Unlike the city-states, Mesopotamia was more like a nation that included several large cities whose names were, in 3,000 BCE, impressive: Uruk, Kish, Akkad, and Ur among them. The society was hierarchical: even in this era, inequality was the norm. There was music; there is a picture of a lyre from the era decorated with the bull’s head that was popular at the time. And there was a mathematical system based upon the number 60. You know the Mesopotamian system: it is the basis for our circle (360 degrees) and the number of minutes per hour (60).

Many pages ahead, there’s a four-page layout on City Life as it transformed normalcy in just 100 years, from 18oo to 1900. By 1819, the city of London was, well, here’s what the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as early as 1819:

Hell is a city much like London…”

Creative Commons - Thierry Bézecourt

Boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Creative Commons – photo by Thierry Bézecourt

In 18oo, the largest city was Beijing (then, Peking) with not more than 1 million people. A century later, London was home to six times as many people, largely without the benefit of an extended period of growth and time to figure things out. Chicago’s population tripled in just fifty years. To move people around, the cities devised underground railroad systems, cable cars, and trolleys. In the 1850s, Napoleon III hired George Haussman to completely remodel the city, who “replaced entire medieval districts of narrow, cramped streets with wide boulevards…for which the city is now famous.”

Pages ahead, and it’s the Vietnam War, Raising the Iron Curtain, Superpower China, and Climate Change. A very comprehensive story, a terrific browse, a useful addition to the family or classroom library, as much fun as the old World Book Encyclopedia used to be, at least for those of us with a lot of time on our hands on rainy days after school.

The Smithsonian timetables book is more of a coffee table adventure, lavishly put together with artful two-page spreads about, for example, the Qing Dynasty, the Pacific Theater in WWII, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and, Edo Period, a personal favorite because it pictures a large picture of the Hannya mask (Hannya being a female Noh character turned into a demon by jealousy and anger). Mostly, though, this is a book with an extensive timeline that runs on the bottom fifth of most spreads for more than 450 pages. Explanations appear, in shorter story form, above the timeline. Right now, the book is open to 1780-1784. There’s an engraving, a color picture of a Montgolfier hot air balloon with seven passengers aboard, making their way across Lyons. In 1781, William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered Uranus (on March 13, in case you’re curious). On the following spread, Britain is doing what it can to eliminate the slave trade, including (and I didn’t know this) establishing Sierra Leone as a place for freed slaves (similar to our Liberia, years later). Skipping past the two page spread about steam power, we’re now in 1789, when, within months of one another, we find George Washington becoming the first U.S. President (February 4) and Fletcher Christian leading the mutiny on the HMS Bounty (April 28). The Bastille was stormed that summer (July 14, which you probably knew), and the U.S. Congress proposed the Bill of Rights (September 28).

This book is filled with interesting tidbits: Marie Antoinette was 14 years old when she married Louis XVI; tiny Portugal’s empire was 4.6 million square miles; 2,000 bathers could simultaneously splash around in the Roman Baths of Caracalla; and, for what it’s worth, the number of eunuchs employed by the Ming Dynasty exceeded 100,000. Or, if you prefer, the number of diamonds in King George’s crown: 6,000.

The abiding favorite tidbit is a quote from the President of the United States, then Rutherford B. Hayes, who watched Alexander Graham Bell demonstrate the telephone in 1876 and then said,

That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”

Amazon: Any Thing, Any Where, Any Time

Amazon-HiddenEmpireFaberNovel is a website filled with interesting, well, I’m not sure what to call these packages of visual information. They’re kinda sorta PowerPoint presentations, but they feel more like a new kind of business book.

Originally, I was going to tell you that there’s a good (updated 2013) story of how Amazon is taking over the world. The presentation, above, tells a compelling tale about how the e-commerce giant has grown, offering considerable detail on the business side, and lots of insight about Amazon’s likely future.

As I went through the 84 slides, I became curious about who was telling the story, and became interested in FaberNovel, the publisher who offers this material under a Creative Commons license. As I browsed, I found an All About Google FaberNovel, too. And another about Google, Facebook, HTML5, the list is both impressive and multi-lingual (that is, presentations are available in multiple languages).

The stories are well-told, simply illustrated, and rely upon diagrams and other simple PowerPoint graphic techniques (nobody will be impressed by the visuals, but the stories are good; Edward Tufte’s magic wand would greatly benefit this material).

I’d start with the Amazon story because it contains so many “oh, that’s why!” or “that’s how, that’s a really good idea” or “what an awesome story of business strategy.” moments. Some of it is likely to be familiar, but it’s unlikely that most people have connected the dots. Sure, 84 pages may seem like a lot, but it’s not more than a half-hour of your life, unless you’re a serious student of e-commerce business.

Interesting discovery.

Moyers to Public TV: Reinvent Yourself!

These are some of my favorite excerpts from an inspiring speech by one of public television’s long-term heroes, Bill Moyers. He delivered the speech in November, 2010 at a gathering of public television programming executives…

“The core problem is that we still don’t have an expansive national vision of what we’re about, where we want to go and what we want to become. Until we are able to say clearly and comprehensively what it is we really want to do, how much it will cost, and how we intend to get there, we can’t blame Congress, the White House or even the foundations for not supporting us more fully.

…There’s a huge vacuum between the [public television] system, nationally and locally, and the big foundations and no one has yet been inspired or capable enough to link the two at the level of a consensus national plan.

There are always people who remain afraid of change or an unknown process, fearful of where it might lead.  But by contrast, the British and Canadians go through periodic charter reviews that invoke a national conversation; there’s a culture of discussion and planning for public media in those nations that help them survive even the worst assaults from detractors or vested interests. This could be a reason that public support for public media in nations like the U.K. exceeds $80 per capita, while we’re still limping along on $1.49 per capita.

…In the meantime, I’m here to tell you that even within the fiscal crisis public television currently faces, we have an opportunity to serve the public — to renew our bond to our communities.

You may not have money for in-depth documentaries or other high-end productions but you have cameras, microphones, studios and the trust of the community. You can be the ombudsman for the public within your reach, provide the venue for forums, teach-ins, town meetings, and debates over the issues that matter to people where they live, telecast in an atmosphere of openness and clarity without the mean and mindless rhetoric or cant that are so triumphant today. Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy and the bedrock of its legitimacy. No media can nurture, foster, and empower it the way we can.

…Meanwhile, let me offer just a few other ideas for you to consider:  Take a whole evening of primetime and give it to a forum for the fight in your neighborhoods over charter schools. Do the same for other distressed public institutions — your libraries, for example.

Or how about one week inviting as many social workers as you can get into your studio and asking them to share what they see every day — how people are coping each day with these worst hard times?  Do a series of workshops on Occupy Wall Street, pro and con.  Out there in Iowa, find the lady carrying the placard I saw last weekend on television that read: “I couldn’t afford to buy a politician so I bought this sign.” Bring her into the studio with her local member of Congress — have them talk frankly to each other about their different perceptions of money in politics. Do an evening of primetime on the fight going on right now in your state over redistricting — gerrymandering — the outcome will influence your state’s position and power for the next 10 years. Get folks aware and involved. If you don’t, who will? Certainly not the commercial stations in your market, that’s for sure.

…since David H. Koch of Koch Industries is on the board of both WGBH and WNET, I’d ask him to round up his billionaire buddies — and in a nonpartisan spirit reach out to civic-minded progressive billionaires like George Soros — and together create an independent, fully endowed, self-governing production center (free of any partisan strings or influence) for American drama that would bring our epic history and culture to the screen just like we’ve brought over the Brits’ Downton Abbey, make room for Jefferson’s Monticello! Now, there’s an Upstairs Downstairs story the public would make a pledge to see.

…What we need is a makeover of our own — a rebirth, yes, of vision, imagination, and creativity, but above all a structure and scheme for the 2lst century, one that uses the resources that the digital platform provides to realize the goals of our founders: diversity, public access, civic discourse, experimentation, a welcoming place for independent spirits.

The whole speech–including his idea for public television’s equivalent of a constitutional convention– can be found here:

http://www.current.org/pb/pb1122moyers-remarks.html

Maine School District to Buy Kindergarteners iPads

Here it comes. The first kindergarten class gets iPads. Watch how quickly the others come online–and how quickly school gets the same treatment as, say, photographic film or CDs or any of the other stuff that’s been digitized. Story in video form below, or, if you prefer, actual words written on the screen by PCMag.

http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2383362,00.asp

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