An Exuberant New Thing

Sly and Famly StoneA few months back, I found an old album by Sly and the Family Stone. They were a group I liked, but I never knew much about them. Next year marks fifty years (!) since Sly formed the multi-racial band, so now’s a good time to dig deeper.

By 1967, Sly (a boyhood friend misspelled Sylvester as Slyvester; the nickname stuck with him) was 26 years old, a San Francisco disc jockey on a soul station who played music from both Black and White artists. Sly had already produced several minor hit songs, formed and performed in several local band including the multi-ethnic Viscaynes. Times were changing very quickly—especially in the Bay Area—and Sly was well-connected because his influence via radio station KSOL was growing.

The first album by Sly and the Family Stone didn’t do much on the charts, but it’s clever, innovative, funky, and a whole lotta fun. The first single, “Underdog” starts out with a slow version of “Frere Jacques,” then rolls into a rap-like rhythm supported by power horns and a chanting chorus. There’s some gospel in there, too. Listen: this is fifty years old, but it sounds fresh, not at all dated. “I Cannot Make It” is the other popular track from 1967’s A Whole New Thing, and it opens with a vocal similar to “I am the Walrus” (same year). And then, the hits start coming—you probably know just about every one of them because they’ve never really left the world stage.

The fun begun with “Dance to the Music”—#8 on the Billboard Pop Chart and #9 on the Billboard R&B Chart—“listen to the voices!” with that screaming voice, the little bobbing a capella voices, the low down deep voice, the jumping back and forth between Stax, Motown, psychedelia, the big horn section, the get-up-and-dance, the complex jumping back and forth between musical ideas, in just three minutes. These guys are having such a great time making a new kind of music—and the public loves it! Black listeners (#9 on the Billboard R&B charts) and White listeners, too (#8 on the Billboard Pop Charts). The energy is so rich, so contagious—and still so free from the rigidity of corporate music production (that comes later). “Fun” from 1968 keeps the grove — “When I party, I party hearty, fun is on my mind, put a smile upon your face…there’s a sister there’s a brother having fun with each other”— driven by the kind of free-style audio production that looked beyond the traditional concepts of musical arrangements and formality. “ “M’Lady” sounds like a party going on. “Life” is a carnival that begins with a barker, then two, laughing at each other, big horns, a gigantic consciousness raising high—“Life – tell it like it is— you don’t have to die before you live!!”

Y4CDSS006The youthful exuberance is gone, the social awareness is increasing, the production is slicker by 1969’s “Stand” — “you’ve been sitting much too long—there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong!” – “there’s a midget standing tall, and a giant beside him about to fall!” It feels a bit dated, a golden oldie, a solid memory but the controlled chaos and the crazy audio production is a thing of the past. From the same album (called Stand), there’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People”— probably the group’s high water mark— and both of those songs bind the no-holds-barred past with the glossier, socially consciousness future. The same album’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (same lyric, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger”) is a sincere push toward revolution.

And the hits just kept on coming: “You Can Make It If You Try”— the band’s optimism was always a joy— and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are wonderful, timeless in their way. And now we’re having fun: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and the anthem, “Everybody Is a Star.” That’s all pre-1970. A lot happened in just three years.

With the 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On, The Family Stone reminds us of its roots with “Family Affair” — very AM-radio friendly, positive, bringing the community together in the best way: “One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn” “Newlywed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out” “Nobody wants to be left out” “You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there” — a warm, cozy number that feels dated, but, it’s sincere. That song reached #1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. There’s a similar song called “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” that’s more ambitious, kinda jazzy and bluesy, and although it charted, too, it’s not a song most people remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of the songs that followed on the charts from 1971 through 1975.

Those later songs are very good—some are vaguely familiar—but they lack the early energy. Instead, there’s a laid back funk, very appealing combinations of electric guitar and horns, a funky stoner groove that’s easy to enjoy time and again, decades after it was produced. It feels original, not at all derivative because the band always led, rarely followed. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the later material, and how nicely it has stood multiple plays while tooling down highways that did not exist when this music was made.

So what happened to Sly and the Family Stone? Trouble became evident as early as 1969 when a combination of influence from Black militants and the drug culture destroyed key creative relationships. By 1970, Epic Records gave up on the possibility of a promised (contracted) new album and released an early Greatest Hits album to keep the market alive. By 1975, the group’s fans had abandoned the possibility of Sly and his band actually showing up for concerts—a big show at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall left most tickets unsold. The downhill slide continued—the sad story is well-told in a Wikipedia article.

Certainly, music historians have written about the huge influence of Sly on several generations of artists, how rap and hip hop trace back to Sly and the Family Stone. That’s all fascinating, but the real story here is the freshness and magnetism of music produced fully a half century ago.

Can’t help but wonder. If it was 1967 today, and I was blogging, would I be writing about the amazing musicians of 1917? I’m guessing no. Sly was something special.

 

 

Backstage on Broadway

“No film has ever banked $1 billion at the box office, but three musicals–The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Wicked— have exceeded this benchmark on Broadway.” Globally, Phantom has earned twice as much as the most successful motion picture of all time, Avatar–$12 billion vs. $6 billion. The June 18 issue of The Economist goes on: “Hamilton may cement Broadways’s lead. For information about methodology–and this is fascinating–click on the chart below.

Well-tuned productions

These days, life on Broadway is sweet. Theaters are full. Shows are sold-out. Diversity is abundant. The situation is almost unimaginably different from the early 1970s, when a 60 Minutes report “showed a group of tourists from the South getting off their bus to see a Broadway show–and then getting right back on again because Times Square was so dangerous.” In 1972, Broadway’s largest producer was in a terrible way–J.P. Morgan turned down a $1 million loan, even thought all seventeen Schubert theaters were offered as collateral.

So what happened? It’s a story worthy of a Broadway musical. And it’s fun to read because author and theater columnist so relishes the opportunity to tell that story in his boffo book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.

razzle-dazzle-9781451672169_hrThe turnaround story begins, as it ought to begin, with a pitch from a creative professional to a producer. The two remarkable people in this particular scene are Public Theater producer Joseph Papp and choreographer-director Michael Bennett. Reidel: “Bennett arrived at Papp’s office at the Public Theater carrying a bulky Sony reel-to-reel recorder and several reels of tape. He had nearly twenty-four hours of interviews with Broadway dancers. He thought there might be a show somewhere in those hours and hours of tape. He played some of them for Papp. After to listening to the recordings for forty-five minutes, Papp said, ‘OK, let’s do it.”

In fact, those tapes–the best of them recorded after midnight on January 18, 1974– are still around so we know what was said by Bennett to the other dancers: “I think we’re all pretty interesting, all of you are pretty interesting, and I think there is a show in there somewhere which would be called A Chorus Line.”

In April 16, 1975, the show played its first preview downtown at the Public Theater, a few miles from Broadway. “At the end of the opening number–“I Hope I Get It”–the audience of 299 stood and cheered and cried. In theater circles that night, phones rang off the hook with the news that the Public Theater had a massive hit. (BTW: Decades later, Hamilton was  developed at the same Public Theater.)

Since the Public Theater lacked the necessary funds to move the show to Broadway, they made a deal with the Schuberts. A Chorus Line opened at the 1,400 seat flagship Schubert Theater on July 25, 1975.

In 1974, Broadway theaters sold 6.6 million tickets. In 1976, the number was 8.8 million. Now, Broadway averages 12 million tickets per year–with annual box office receipts exceeding $1 billion. “The Times Square of Midnight Cowboy, of drugs, crime, and prostitution, of crumbling theaters and peep shows, is now one of the world’s leading tourist attractions.” The Times Square neighborhood contributed 11 percent of NYC’s economic output.

Michael Bennett and Joseph Papp are gone now–we lost Bennett to AIDS in 1987 and Papp four years later. Did they “save Broadway?” I like the version of the story where the answer is “yes”–a guy with an idea connected with guy who could raise money, and together, they saved Times Square and helped Broadway to find its heart and soul.

Last week, Broadway responded to the dreadful slaughter in Orlando, Florida by doing what it does best–performing like there’s no tomorrow. If you haven’t seen the video, now’s your chance:

“Confidence in Government Was Abysmally Low”

“The rump end of the Continental Congress still wobbled along in New York City, where it had met since 1785, but it hadn’t achieved a quorum since October. Its secretary, Charles Thompson, buttonholed members on the street, when he could find them, and dragged them into his office so that he could claim in his records that they had technically, “assembled.”

The people had elected a President, but nobody was sure what the man was supposed to do. People from Pennsylvania considered people from New England to be their enemies, and the feelings were mutual. Southerners trusted no one except themselves. The states didn’t want to work together, not that this seemed especially likely given the “the yawning listlessness” and “over-refining spirit in relation to trifles” exhibited by Congress’s first members. Apart from a few clerks, the Federal government had no employees. And almost no money. There was no Supreme Court, and there no lower courts. There were more than fifty different currencies in use, plus plenty of counterfeit currencies. There no political parties, but there were Federalists, who believed in the potential of a powerful central government, and Anti-Federalists, who did not. The Anti-Federalists were ready to take apart the new U.S. Constitution and start over, this time favoring these States, not a unified nation.

And we’re only a dozen pages into the book, “First Congress” by historian Fergus M. Bordewich. As a modern reader, the dysfunction is almost beyond comprehension. Not only was nothing much done in preparation for operating a nation, there were almost no likelihood that  the First Congress would accomplish anything in particular. And the only guy who could pull the whole country together—George Washington—expressed tremendous apprehension about becoming the President, or the King, or whatever the leadership role might be called. George had his doubts, but he really, really wanted the job and needed to be careful about seeming too anxious. (Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography “Hamilton” on which Broadway musical is based, also wrote a great bio book called “Washington: A Life” which is heavy on George’s constant internal conflicts. Bordowich does not as deeply here because he has other territory to cover.)

So it’s James Madison—whose story ought to follow “Hamilton” as a Broadway musical—who convinces George to man-up, and run the country. Hamilton is also in a leadership role, convincing Congress that the new country ought to set up a bank, assume the states’s debts, and establish a meaningful credit rating. But everything in those early days seems more like an informal startup company than the beginning of the richest nation on earth. “There was also John Jay who ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox, who presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Look into his eyes. This is James Madison, a politically savvy man who convinced George Washington to lead the new nation.

Eventually, they got to work. Madison was the first congressman to propose a law so that the new country would have some revenue, and control its coastlines. And then, everybody argued, and protected their regional interests. And besides, nobody was clear on how these new rules could possibly be enforced.

With or without proper tariffs, Vice President John Adams “tirelessly repeated that Europeans would never take the United States seriously unless its chief executive was endowed with the trappings of sovereign grandeur…At minimum, he considered His Highness or His Most Benign Highness as the barest acceptable forms of address for its president. He…scathingly dismissed President as appropriate for ‘Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.’ Any member of Congress willing to settle for less he considered a ‘driveling idiot.” Everything was new, nothing was settled, and everybody carried a strong opinion of how things must be done. Still, they were not without humor: Ben Franklin, who was always good for a laugh, called Vice President Adams “Your Superfluous Excellency,” while others looked at his widening girth and favored, “His Rotundity.” (I found Franklin’s comment on the web, not in the book).

Did the First Congress get anything done?

The surprising and overwhelming answer is “yes!” In surprising chapter by chapter, Bordowich leads us through one astonishing accomplishment after another. Congress establishes itself as a powerful legislative body. They manage to keep the government running at a time when it appears as though George Washington will not survive an illness. They worked out the Bill of Rights. They figured out where to place the new nation’s capital—a  major political accomplishment because of the many competing interests. While busy complaining about how little they understood about finance, they did not stop Alexander Hamilton from establishing the U.S. as a viable financial operation—a capitalist one at that. They worked on a reasonable solution for slavery—but failed in the attempt. They—and Adams gets much of the blame for this—managed to make the Vice President an ineffective leadership role. They invented the President’s Cabinet and its various departments—and convinced a very reluctant Thomas Jefferson to leave his lovely Paris mansion and lovelier lifestyle to return home and establish the State Department. They learned to deal with lobbyists (Quakers were the first lobbyists).

“Men who had seen themselves primarily as citizens of their individual states had now mostly come to see themselves as the common citizens of a nation and embraced their new government as their own in a way they had never done before.”

“Public opinion now mattered. Newly emboldened newspapers brought the doings of government to the door of every citizen, including the illiterate , who gathered in urban taverns and frontier hamlets to avidly hear reports read to them by their literate neighbors.”

A new nation had begun.
the-first-congress-9781451691931_lg

A Fresh Look at the Cable TV Business

LeVarBack in the 1970s, most Americans thought television would be free forever. There weren’t many channels—just CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, and a few independents—but that seemed sufficient—so the audience looked forward to the addition of even one additional channel to watch reruns, baseball games, or old black-and-white movies. At that time, cable television was a sluggish industry for four reasons: (1) there was no wired infrastructure, no way to connect most households  to a local cable television system; (2) the principal value of cable was improved broadcast reception, which was an issue for a relatively small number of viewers; (3) cable systems mostly served small cities and towns, so the economics of scale were absent; (4) apart from the few low-budget, hyper-local cable channels (“local origination”), there were almost no cable-only television channels, and no economic model to support the idea; and (5) almost nobody was willing to pay to watch television.

It took about twenty years, but by 1998, there were 171 cable networks, and today, there are nearly 1,000. In 1998, there were nearly 70 million households paying a monthly fee to a cable television system operator. How much? Nowadays, that’s not a figure to calculate because internet services and cable subscriptions are bundled, but if that number is $500 per year x even 50 million households (assume severe cord-cutting), that’s $25,000,000,000 per year—$25 billion, plus advertising and other services that brings the industry closer to the $40-50 billion mark. That’s several times larger than our U.S. automobile industry, several times the size of our retail industry, and about the size of our energy industry.

This will not last forever. In fact, it’s changing very quickly because cable can no longer protect the near-monopoly that it constructed for itself in the 20th century. The problem is Google, the problem is Apple, the problem is the cable industry itself that has grown fat and happy by collecting those monthly fees. The cable industry did not, could not, or didn’t bother to protect its essential territory: the TV screen. Sure, it controls the DVR, but that’s not enough. With every HBO Now, every YouTube video watched on an iPhone, the traditional cable industry is cut out of the equation.

At the recent INTX conference (no longer called “The Cable Show” or the “NCTA” for National Cable Television Association) earlier this month, the emphasis was not on program services (though there were small booths from large cable network operations like NBC Universal and Disney), but on hardware that combines the cable and internet viewing experience into a single set-top box. If you want to watch HBO, or ESPN, or YouTube, it’s all in one place. And often, that box is made by TiVO (which still sells DVRs, but was aced out of that sector by the cable operators).

If you’ve been waiting for a decent YouTube search interface on your TV set, it’s coming, thanks to cable. And if you’re liking the idea of TV Anywhere—watch the program on your TV, then switch to your tablet—that’s the new iteration of cable, too.

Mostly, cable has successfully pivoted. On the surface, we think of the cable industry as the provider of television channels, and now, some VOD services, and we pay a monthly fee for those services. But that’s not the way cable operators see the future. In order to survive, they must control your screen, and that means, they must control your internet service because internet services are becoming wireless, and that will, in time, eliminate the need for the physical cables that defined the industry a half-century ago.

When all of this got started, the cable operators walked a path laden with gold. They would enter a small city, perhaps Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make all sorts of ridiculous promises to local government officials (building schools, swimming pools, new government buildings, senior centers, and so on), and sometimes ease the way with skanky business practices and celebrity appearances (famous Warner Bros. movie stars visit the city, kiss the Mayor, and dazzle the locals so that its cable division could sweep up the local rights—the franchise—to build the local cable television system). Now, things are different. It’s not the people of River City who must be won over. It’s the blaze of battle against some of the world’s wealthiest companies, and they possess a technology advantage far beyond the reach of most cable operators. So: if they cannot compete against Google or Apple, they do the next best things: they buy their competitors (Time-Warner Cable was just sold), and they attempt to control the content (Comcast owns not only NBC Universal but now Dreamworks Animation, too).

We’ve seen this play before. Gigantic companies buy the entertainment companies, and then, those companies fall into the hands of the finance people who make decisions that drive the creative community to smaller, more entrepreneurial companies.

So where does that leave you and me? Paying $1,ooo-2,ooo per year for combined cable and internet services, with a voice-controlled remote control and some artificial intelligence to recommend programs we might enjoy. We’ll watch John Oliver tell us everything that’s wrong, and we’ll do our best to forget that he’s employed by a $30 billion company, one of the few that controls what we watch, what we see and what we know.

And so, we complete the circle. There are far better toys in our house than there were in the 1970s, but our viewing choices are still controlled by a small number of big companies. The only real difference: those big companies are much, much richer than they were fifty years ago. Meanwhile, we’re still kicking back for 30 or 40 hours a week devoting our free time to the less-than-satisfying hobby of watching television programs and commercials.

BTW: The man in the picture is LeVar Burton who starred in ABC’s original version of ROOTS in 1977, and is now co-executive producer of a new version which debts on several cable networks in this month, around the world.

 

 

 

Chilling with the Fridge

I keep hoping my refrigerator would smarten up, but there it sits just keeping things well-organized and cold. For $600 or so, that’s what the biggest box in my house does all day long.

Ah, but what might $6,000 buy? (Ten refrigerators?) Okay, just one, but it’s pretty amazing.

Click on Flex Zone and you can turn the bottom drawer into either a fridge bin or a freezer bin, and adjust the temperature so it’s ideal for beer, veggies, fish or snowballs.

Adjust the humidity so that the cooling system doesn’t zap the life out of cheese, lettuce, radish greens and the like.

Watch TV. Yup, anything that you’re watching on a smart TV system in your house, you can now watch on the front door of your fridge. Not a big priority for me, but maybe for some people who spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen.

Check the weather. Again, doesn’t come up too often, but sometimes, when I’m scooping ice cream or cutting some bread, I think to myself, gee, I wonder what the weather is like, but my phone and my three computers are too far away, so thank goodness the info is on my fridge!

Listen to the radio, or to any music stream. Yes, this is a nice thing. I can do it with a $200 tablet, but if I’m spending $6,000 on a fridge, sure, why not? Pandora is a standard feature. So are built-in speakers, and if you’d like to spend a bit more money, you can opt for both a sub-woofer and surround sound (wireless surround speakers are best placed above the sink).

Control your automobile until self-driving cars come along. Just tell the fridge where you want to go, and it takes over your car’s computer system to assure a safe journey. Since the fridge is doing the driving, you can sit back and enjoy a cold drink which the fridge places in the accessory cooling chamber in any recent-model automobile.

There are refrigerator apps, too. One is called View Inside, and it allows you to peek inside the fridge using three video cameras. Another allows you or anyone in your family to post digital messages on the refrigerator door, or to add to a family calendar. You can turn the fridge’s panel into a family whiteboard, too. There’s a group shopping list, and a few other apps, too.

And, you can turn the whole thing into a picture frame for family memories.

Your new fridge comes in choice of color (stainless steel silver, or stainless steel black), and in two sizes, one for about 22 cubic feet and the other for about 27 cubic feet (the smaller one fits nicely into an upscale kitchen with counters).

Can all of this be true? Absolutely! I’m writing about Samsung’s just-announced Family Hub [TM].

Also true: I made up the part about the car. And the subwoofers and surround sound, but you probably knew that.

And I do wonder: this box seems pretty cool for 2016, but what the heck are you going to say in 2020 when everyone has something even cooler in their kitchen and you have to explain why you spent $6,000 for a device with features that are now widely available on a $1,200 fridge? Heck, that’s easy! You just buy a new model and ask the robot inside to take good care of the kids while you vacation for a few weeks on Mars.

See more!

fridge-mobile.png

 

In Praise of Sarah Cooper

I don’t usually post funny little graphics (okay, sometimes I do), but as a CEO of a nonprofit, I certainly recognized the truth in this graphic. It comes from a clever website called The Cooper Review.

I don’t usually repost cute little graphics, but this one deserved special treatment.

I became curious about what The Cooper Review was all about, so I found the source of this graphic and learned about Sarah Cooper. Here’s the start of her bio: “I was born a small blackish child in Jamaica. My mother is half German and my father is half Chinese, which is why I look Colombian. My family moved to Washington, DC when I was three. As soon as I learned to talk I was correcting my parents’ accents and grammar.”

No need to go on and on Sarah’s stuff when it’s only a click away. I did some exploring, and if every item from this former Google designer’s site doesn’t hit the mark, her batting average is really impressive. I especially liked her analysis of nodding behavior at meetings, a good place to begin.

Ms. Cooper’s first book will be published in October. I’m guessing it will become quite popular.

 

 

 

 

Being There

While I admit to not being here for about a year—apologies, but I’ve been having fun doing cool stuff—I tend to enjoy knowing precisely where I am at any given moment.

For example, about two weeks ago, I visited Bohemian National Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s an impressive old building, one of the few surviving ethnic community halls that provided comfort and culture to ethnic communities on the island. BNH has become the New York home of the Digital Hollywood conferences. This time, the focus was Virtual Reality, and its kin, Artificial Reality.

NYT VRThe New York Times now employs a Virtual Reality Editorial Team. They have completed about five projects, each involving high technology and a cardboard box. For the uninitiated, the cardboard box is used to house a smart phone, which, in turn, displays oddly distorted images that can be seen through a pair of inexpensive stereoscopic lenses. To hear the soundtrack, ear plugs are required.

VR is not 3DTV, but it shares some characteristics with that dubious invention. You are a camera with perhaps sixteen lenses. As you turn your head, the stitched-together video imagery simulates reality: you can turn from side to side, up to down, all around, and gain a sense of what’s all around you. (One of the new VR production companies showed off a home-brewed VR camera setup: 16 GoPro cameras set in a circle the size of a frisbee, with several more pointing up and down, all recording in synchronization, collectively requiring an enormous amount of video storage.)

VR provides is a wonderful sense of immersion, and a not-so-good sense of disorientation.

When there is something to explore, immersion is a spectacular invention. For example, diving in deep water and seeing all sorts of aquatic life. Or, walking in a forest. Or being in just the right place at the right time at a sporting event or political convention—you know, being there.

But where, exactly, is “there?” And precisely when should do you want to be there? I never thought about it much before, but the television or film or stage director makes that decision for you—“look here now!” And after that, “look here.” With VR, you can explore whatever you want to explore, but you are likely to miss out on what someone else believes to be important. There is freedom in that, but there is also tremendous boredom—that’s the point of employing a director, a guide, a writer, a performer—to compress the experience so that it is memorable, informative, and perhaps, entertaining.

Tidbits from the NY Times panel: “VR film is not a shared experience—each audience member brings his or her own perspective”…”the filmmaker must let go of quick cuts, depth of field, and cannot control what the viewer may see”…”how do we tell a story that may be experienced in different ways by different people?”…”there is far less distortion imposed by the storyteller”…”much of what would normally be left out is actually seen and heard in VR.”

In some ways, letting the viewer roam around and reach his or her own conclusions is both the opposite of journalism and, perhaps, its future. In an ideal sense, journalism brings the viewer to the place, but that never really happens. Is it useful to place the viewer in the observational role of a journalism, or does the journalist provide some essential editorial purpose that helps the viewer through the experience in an effective, efficient, compelling way?

Is all of this a new visual language and the first step toward a new way of using media, or a solution in search of a problem?

After a very solid day of listening to panelists whose expertise in VR is without equal, I left with a powerful response to that question: “who knows?”

Jenny Lynn Hogg, who is studying these and related phenomena, might know. “Imagine if the Vietnam War Memorial could speak.” Take a picture of any name on the wall, and your smart phone app will retrieve a life story in text, images, video and other media. Is this VR, AR, or something else? Probably not VR, not in the sense of the upcoming Oculus Rift VR headset, but probably AR, or Augmented Reality. What’s that? In essence, turning just about everything we see into a kind of QR Code that links real world objects with digital editorial content. Quicker, more efficient, and more of a burst of information that a typical web link might provide, AR is often linked to VR because, in theory, they ought to be great friends. As you’re passing through a VR environment, AR bits of information appear in front of your eyes.

Although AR was less of a buzz than VR, I think I could fall in love with AR—provided that I could control the messages coming into my field of view, I really like the idea of pointing my smart phone at something, or someone, and getting more information about it, or him or her.

VR, not so much, at least not yet. I’m not enthralled with wearing the headgear—even if it reduces itself from the size of a quart of milk to the design of Google Glass—but that’s not the issue. VR is disorienting, a problem now being deeply researched because the whole concept requires that your perceptive systems work differently. I certainly believe VR is worthy of experimentation to determine VR’s role in storytelling, journalism, gaming, training, medical education, filmmaking, but mostly, to discover what it’s like to be there without being there. We’ll get there (which there? oh, sorry, a different there) by playing with the new thing, trying it out, screwing up, finding surprising successes, and spending a ton of investment money that may, in the end, lead to a completely unexpected result.

Through it all, sitting in that beautiful building, I couldn’t help but wonder what its original inhabitants would have made of our discussion—people who were already gone by the time we invented digital, Hollywood, radio, television, the movies, the internet, videogames and, now, virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring them back, to recreate their world, to allow me to walk down Third Avenue in 1900 and just explore? Yup. Fun. And in today’s terms, phenomenally expensive. Tomorrow, maybe, not so much.

 

 

 

West Coast Troublemakers, or the Naked Girl with the Big Clock

Ten or fifteen years ago, I read a really good biography of the photographer Ansel Adams. I’ve recommended it often, but somehow, I couldn’t find it on my shelves. A bit of curiosity and research led me to the author, Mary Street Alinder and her new book about Adams and his West Coast photography buddies and co-conspirators including Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston (Edward’s son), Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, and other notables. Sometimes formally, sometimes less so, they were collectively members of a group bound to change American photography. They called themselves Group f.64, which is both among the smallest lens apertures generally available (for extreme depth of field and its resulting sharp images) and the title of Ms. Alinder’s latest book.

UnknownWhen the photographers in Group f.64 started out, they found themselves in what, today, seems to be an unlikely situation. Photographers on the east coast followed a mostly European tradition anchored in painting. On the West Coast, the fad was pictorialism in which photographs were not considered viable unless they were altered to look like other forms of art. For example, the pictorial photographers often hand-colored their work, used soft focus lenses, and created faux brushstrokes during the photographic development process. Pictorialism found some rather odd expressions: one very popular West Coast photographer named William Mortensen was, according to Alinder, “the very vocal champion of the Pictorialists. He applied his expertise in set design and the latest in Hollywood makeup artistry: elaborately costumed historical portraits and tableaux. He staged each picture’s setting, building a fictional alternative universe, often of a teasing salaciousness or portraying scenes of horror, his models transformed into monsters with heavy makeup.” Mortensen was among America’s most famous photographers and easily photography’s most prolific teacher. In a series of well-described articles in Camera Craft magazine, he sparred with Ansel Adams who took the position of photography as pure art form that required none of the nonsense that Mortensen promoted.

From 1932—just a few years before those articles—the f.64 wrote a manifesto to explain its unique and somewhat radical approach to pure photography as an emerging art form. “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technic [technique], composition or idea derivative of any other art-form.”

What did that mean? For Edward Weston, in 1927, pure photography involved making perfect images of a single pepper or a shell. What’s perfect? Have a look.

weston - shell

Also from 1927, Ansel Adams provides this example:

Ansel-monolth

Time has not been kind to Mr. Mortensen, whose partial portfolio can be found on an Eastman House website:

Mortensen

Mostly, this is the story of perhaps a dozen fully engaged West Coast photographers whose clear vision redefined American fine art and serious amateur photography. In an attempt to gain serious recognition in New York City galleries—remember, the west coast was rather distant from the east in the 1930s—they solicited a largely unimpressed Alfred Steiglitz in what they believed to be photography’s future. You know Stieglitz’s extraordinary work:

The_Steerage_1907_Stieglitz_Corrected

In time, and with considerable frustration, the West Coast photographers found their way into the mainstream. The level of detail provided by Ms. Alinder may overwhelm casual readers, but it’s all worth reading to better understand the large aesthetic shift that occurred in what amounts to about twenty years, maybe thirty.

Where does the story lead? Clearly, Mr. Mortensen’s fascinations have faded from public interest, but the work of Ansel Adams continues to demonstrate the power of photography for the world to see (and for a great many amateur photographers to emulate). The shift from manufactured to realistic beauty is nicely expressed by this famous image by Imogen Cunningham:

Cunningham

I believe that the world is a better place because these photographers taught themselves to see, and then encouraged us to do the same. Dorothea Lange’s well-known work includes images of migrant workers, but I think I like this one best:

6a00d8341c10fd53ef01538df3b7c9970b

Or maybe this one. Ms. Lange gets out, grabs the camera, finds the angle, and creates a memorable self-portrait.

Dorothea-Lange-2

Time for me to re-read the Ansel biography, I think. Good news—the same publisher (Bloomsbury) has reissued the book with some new material and additional insights. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

In the future, we’ll watch TV

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.26 AMSure, there’s been a lot of hubbub about how television has changed and will change, but I think the conversation is over-rated. For seventy years, people have watched news, sports, comedies, dramas, movies by pressing a button and staring at a screen. We’ve added stereo, color, lots and lots of TV channels, on-demand viewing. Ask the average person about the revolution in the television industry and they’ll tell you that that they thought The Tonight Show was kind of funny last night. They probably would have said the same thing in 1954.

What has changed is the industry that provides the programs. Once, there were three or four. networks Now, the number is uncountable because nobody’s sure how to classify Netflix, YouTube, or HBO NOW. Kudos to Pamela Douglas for trying to make sense of a very messy industry. She wrote a book—a very good book, in fact—entitled The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World. We got to know one another, and talked about why she took on such an impossible project, how she approached the subject matter, and what she learned along the way. I should explain that Professor Douglas works at USC, that she has done her share of writing for prime time television, and that she is the author of a popular book entitled Writing the TV Drama Series for the same publisher (Michael Wiese Productions, a publisher also active in the production world).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.34 AMMoving from the old world of traditional broadcast networks through hybrid innovators including cable networks then into the new world of internet services and alternative funding models, she covers the waterfront. There are interviews with knowledgable leaders from Netflix, Kickstarter, HBO, and other companies whose work matters a great deal in 2015.

I knew she was on the right track when I read this sentence, part of an interview with longtime Writer’s Guild executive Charlie Slocum: “…some writers are introverts and they don’t want to deal with all the people who are production managers, accountants, location scouts and so forth. Fine, so partner with a producer who loves all that and doesn’t have the patience to sit down with a blank page. That’s the path to being an entrepreneur in a partnership.”

He goes on: “On broadcast, the priority is to be similar….The classic example…what they have on at eight they hope is compatible with what they have on at nine so they keep the audience. It’s audience flow programming strategy.”

And here’s the important point that informs not only the conversation, but the whole book: “…individuals pay for HBO and Netflix. So if your base is subscribers, your goal is to have as many different subscribers as you can. That means when you have one show like House of Cards, you want the next show to be as different as possible [italics mine]…On subscription TV the goal is to get as many different people as possible to be happy to pay the monthly bill. One series, maybe two, can lock you in for the whole 12 months.”

The strategy comes to life in a conversation with Dan Pasternak of IFC. “…our brand is silly and smart. Our tagline is ‘Always On. Slightly Off.’ I said let’s not try to be Comedy Central. Let’s not be Adult Swim. Let’s program content that feels uniquely like IFC. So one of the first shows I helped to develop was Portlandia. And fortunately it became brand-defining.”

(In the 2010s, brand definition is the major challenge for every cable network, and every subscription service. It’s the most effective way to rise above the competition.)

He goes on: “(Portlandia) doesn’t belong anywhere else. Sketch comedy has evolved in the era of the digital short. Essentially each episode of Portlandia is eight little movies. But it’s really one unified perspective, voice, look, and feel.

The philosophy that drives an IFC is vastly different from the strategy that drives NBC’s prime time schedule. Often—and this is the reason why Pam wrote the book—it’s about the writer’s vision. That’s confirmed in her interview with HBO’s Michael Lombardo, who explains, “HBO starts with great writing. There’s no cheat to it…that has been our mania since early on.”

In the new world, the starting place is Netflix. Pam writes, “My writer friends and I love Netflix because it provides (a) place for our best work. But this isn’t our first romance. At the dawn of the 21st century, we were sweet on HBO for Oz and The Sopranos; in the first decade of the century, we had a big crush on AMC for Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we welcome Netflix into the second decade.

If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re beginning to understand why Pam wrote the book. It’s all about the writing, the stories, the characters, the writer’s vision, and, of course, a place for all of that creative energy in a well-defined marketplace.

Netflix’s Ted Sarandos: “It’s about the product. Netflix was the only way to see House of Cards.”

So that’s the key for the subscription services—the only place to watch. This is a vastly different strategy from the one employed by A&E or TBS in order to achieve their current success (they used reruns to build audience).

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 11.51.21 AMNowadays, most cable networks are coming to the same conclusion: their future is going to be defined by original programming (scripted and unscripted, both have their place), and by events (which tend to work only sometimes, in part because they’re expensive and also because they’re difficult to construct with any frequency). So there’s the conundrum for the deeper future: as each cable network, and each subscription service, develops and markets their own unique programs, the audience becomes that much more fragmented. The pie slices become smaller, the ability for any individual player to make an impact becomes that much more challenging.

If you’re a cable programmer, or you’re responsible for one of the growing number of subscription services, your job relies upon your ability to generate programs that can be seen and heard above the crowd. If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, you now need to understand the nuances of the programming marketplace in ways that were never required in the past. Everything is more complicated. And it’s not.

In the end, nothing has changed. A writer has an idea, pitches it, somehow survives the development and production process, and connects with an audience. That fundamental formula has been around for a century (longer, if you dig back to the days when John Wilkes Booth was widely known as one of America’s most popular stage actors).

The message: be a diligent student, but spend most of your energy dreaming up great stuff.

To Many Teachers; Too Many Teachers

Basic arithmetic yields a surprising result, and some equally surprising insights. My working assumptions probably match those associated with the school years of about half of Americans; your results may vary.

After one year of pre-school (1 teacher), I attended grades K-6 (total: 7 teachers, plus an equal number of specialists in art, gym, etc.). Then, three years of junior high school (assume 6 different classes, so 6 teachers, plus specialists takes the total up to 9, then multiply by 3 years = 27 teachers). Similar math for three years of high school (assume 6 classes, 3 specialists, 3 years =27 teachers). Four years of college nearly completes my total (5 classes, 8 semesters = 40 teachers). Add a few post-graduate courses (5 teachers).

How many teachers were paid to educate just one person?

1 pre-K

7 K-6

27 JHS (7, 8, 9)

27 HS (10, 11, 12)

40 College (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior)

5 Post-Graduate (after that)

TOTAL: 107

Let’s round the number of teachers to 100 because there were probably a few teachers who taught more than one course.

How much time did I spend with each teacher?

  • Pre-K: probably 20 hours per week for about 40 weeks (summer off) = 800 hours = the equivalent of 100 8-hour days
  • Each of the K-6 teachers: 6 hours each day x about 180 days = about 1,200 hours = the equivalent of 150 8-hour days
  • Each junior high and high school teacher: 3/4 of an hour each day x about 180 days = about 135 hours = a bit more than 3 weeks
  • Each college professor/instructor (per class section): 3 hours per week x 12 weeks = 36 hours = just under 1 working week
Teacher

Being a teacher remains one of the best jobs in the world. The best teachers make direct connections with students. Elementary school students spend lots of time with students, so these connections occur more naturally and more often. High school teachers spend far less time with individual students. To learn more about why you, or someone you know, ought to become a teacher, watch the video by clicking on the image. The video comes from a wonderful site called Teach.com.

I remember the names of every elementary school teacher, but few of my college teachers. Now I understand why: I spent the equivalent of about 30 weeks with the former and the equivalent of about a week with the latter.

That got me to thinking. What’s life like on the other side? A high school teacher is seeing perhaps 150 students per year. Divide that by a 40-hour work week, and if each student’s needs were addressed individually, each of us would receive an average of 15 minutes of instruction per week.

Efficiency

Of course, we don’t distribute resources that way. Instead, we mass produce junior high / middle school and high school education. One teacher, 150 students per 9-month session, managed as 5 groups of about 30 students. The most efficient way to manage this process would seem to be standardization and extensive testing to assure an acceptable degree of effectiveness. In college, this system stretches the extremes: more than 100 people in lecture halls during the early years, and perhaps fewer than ten people in a senior seminar. The underlying premise: people who teach in college ought to be specialists, allowing undergraduate students to learn about Shakespeare from one teacher and Chaucer or John Steinbeck from another. Certainly, no reasonable college educator in an institution with sufficient resources would consider the possibility of one professor teaching both Introduction to Psychology and Environmental Geology.

And yet, that’s precisely what we require of our K-6 teachers. Most elementary school teachers are able to cope with more than half a dozen school subjects, and probably closer to a dozen of them. They manage the same students for the better part of a working year. As teachers, they spend enough time with the students to develop one-to-one relationships, and to craft lessons so that they are effective for thirty individual, naive, developing minds. One teacher spending a lot of time on a lot of topics with a few dozen students makes intuitive sense. It seems as though that would be a good way for a teacher to operate, and it seems as though it would be a good way for students to learn.

The Switch

So why do we change modes in junior high school? Why do we replace one teacher with nine people? Do we believe that students in sixth grade require no specialized instructors, and that students in the seventh grade require each teacher to be an expert in his or her field? Certainly, middle schoolers are coping with all sorts of challenging changes in their lives. Why not offer the stability of a single teacher for the entire day, one who is reasonably well-versed in a half-dozen school subjects?

Let’s take the argument into high school. Our high school model encourages students to interact with many adults who teach, but the amount of time that each student spends with each teacher is so modest, the argument is easily dismissed. Maybe the answer is not 9 high school teachers in 45 minute sessions, but 3 high school teachers in 2 hour sessions. Parse the subjects any way that makes sense—our current system of math, science, social studies, English, etc. is no more or less of an arbitrary way to organize the world’s knowledge as it applies to a tenth grader. Fewer teachers, more time with each teacher, more time for each student-teacher relationship.

What about college?

As an English major who was required to read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and other works in two semesters [24 weeks] (I recall some of the names of his works, but not much more), I’m thinking there are probably too many courses, and not enough time spent on any one of them. Perhaps it would be better to provide freshmen with a breezy introduction to many topics in preparation of in-depth explorations in subsequent years. I want to be a freshman experiencing a parade, a dozen topics that may interest me: Shakespeare for the first two weeks, geology for the next, Gender Studies for the third, then comparative religions, law for the fifth, and robotics for the fourth, fifth and sixth. Let me spend fifty or sixty concentrated hours on each of these topics—without the silly distraction of four other classes that have little to do with one another—and I’ll feel as though I’m learning something. By the end of my freshman year, I may be able to participate in an informed conversation about infrastructure, fractals, the future water needs in Sub-Saharan Africa, the economics of Brazil, and Joseph Campbell’s ideas on primitive mythology. (Sounds like TED on steroids.)

After an invigorating freshman year, college students choose what they want to learn. Maybe they spend half of their time in a deep concentration of their own choosing, a quarter of their time learning what others insist they must know in order to graduate, and a quarter exploring topics unrelated to their major. If they want to enter a profession with specific requirements—engineering, medicine, law, etc., maybe that specialization follows a solid general education.

Reducing the Total

How does that affect the number of teachers involved in a students’ life? Reduce the 60+ teachers in K-12 to 2o. Students spend more time with each teacher, and teachers spend more time with each student.

Not a perfect solution. Just musings on the one-hundred people who educated me. To those teachers, thank yo! To the many, perhaps too many, we ought to work together, as communities, to determine whether there might be a better way.

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 330 other followers

%d bloggers like this: