Cowboys & Indians

Remington’s got the story right. See below.

Mortal enemies, right? The basis for zillions of all-American children’s games. And, more or less, utter nonsense. It’s amazing how thoroughly we buy into the distortions that media provides each and every day.

Nobody knows how many Native Americans lived in North America before the enemy showed up and killed most of them. In what become the United States, there were probably between 5 and 10 million native people. The vast majority of these natives were killed by European settlers, not “out West” (by which we mean, mostly, the Great Plains), for those deaths came in the 1800s, toward the end of the story. Far more were killed first by the European diseases carried by explorers and traders, and then, by a century of U.S. military actions. By 1871, the U.S. government no longer bothered with Indian treaties–they had already won the war and decimated the native population. Our images of cowboys on the open plains are circa 1880, and by that time, the “Indian problem” was mostly resolved by Manifest Destiny. (Prior to the final third of the 19th century, there wasn’t much of a cattle industry, so there weren’t many cowboys).

Remington had the story right: his painting, above, A Dash for the Timber, U.S. militia–not cowboys–shoot at the Apaches (see in the rear).

Sure, cowboys battled Indians (or, if you prefer, Injuns), but much of the action occurred courtesy of wildly imaginative Wild West Shows operated by the likes of Wild Bill Cody Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. As pure show business, these spectacles were extremely popular, and provided a nascent motion picture industry with the necessary creative impetus to produce “Westerns,” most often featuring some version of cowboys and Indians (not so much, “smallpox and Indians,” or “U.S. Army troops and Indians”–cowboys made more sense as entertainment). And with all of that, we’ve bought into this elaborate mythology: our native people were primitive, violent (when provoked with loss of land, family, and health, but that part is forgotten), a class of warriors who deserved no better than their present fate.

It’s a bit of a reach, but not too much of a reach, to wonder about a retelling of the Civil Rights movement through the magic of CGI, or a reconstructed version of Weapons of Mass Destruction emerging from a Jeb Bush White House in 2016 or so. The alternative truth is easily constructed, sold on the big screen and through immersive videogames, and if the stage management is effective, and the bits are in the right places, most people can be made to believe what they know not to be true.

We’re better than this. I sure wish we are smarter today than we were as kids playing cowboys n’ injuns. It’s not about getting the historical facts right–not a bad start, but not the point, either–it’s about teaching our children (and our adults) what really happened, why it happened, and why we might rethink the subject matter that becomes the basis for our entertainment or our children’s games.

Just in case you missed it, here’s a tale about The Battle of Little Big Puck, for thirty years an annual hockey game between Cree Indians and the local cowboy population. The referee is a local Mountie. Here’s the backstory:

“The roots go back to a hot summer day in July where a couple of cowboys and a couple of members of the Nekaneet band met in the old Commercial Hotel over a cold beer,” he said. “And as good friends do, they got to bickering good naturedly as to who could ride the rankest horses, and rope the quickest, and pretty soon it came down to, ‘We can darn sure beat you guys at hockey.’”

BTW: If you can figure out how to write the last sentence of this blog, please post your closing sentence as a comment below. I’m completely at a loss for the best way to close this one out.


Infographic: US Education Spending vs. Results

Doing some research, I came upon this colorful infographic that compares educational investment and results in a dozen different countries. No big surprises, but it’s easy to follow. It’s clear that Mexico spends a very small amount per student and achieves only modest results, and it makes sense to see France in the middle of per-capita spending and also in the middle of the results. Clearly, the US and the UK are out of whack–spending is high, but their results are middling. Why the mismatch? And why is the US’s purple circle so much larger than any other circle? Population accounts for only part of the reason why.

U.S. Education versus the World via Master of Arts in Teaching at USC
Via: MAT@USC | Master’s of Arts in Teaching

I Want to Watch TV on My iPad (The Plot Thickens)

Last week, a U.S. district judge provided Aereo with a go-ahead on TV that we’ll be able to watch on our mobile devices, but that oversimplifies an interesting story. Here’s the original article, plus an update that, I am certain, will be rewritten once again as the legal dust-up continues. Some of the issues are significant, and will resonate beyond this particular venture. Worth reading.

Here’s the original story published on March 6, 2012:

You’re looking at an array of television antennas. These antennas are used to capture local broadcast signals that you can watch, if you pay a monthly subscription fee, on your computer, tablet, or phone. Aereo (formerly Bamboom) is the company behind the scheme, and, as you might expect, they’ll be spending a lot of time in the legal system as they argue with broadcasters regarding the rights and wrongs of live retransmission (that is, if Aereo is to survive, the broadcast networks want to see monthly cash–just like they receive from the cable operators).

Ah, the free airwaves, the ones that broadcasters use for the public good. Ah, the intellectual property that broadcasters carry over those airwaves, the IP that cable service providers pay to carry. Ah, the unresolved legal gotcha!! Any company that attempts to make those signals available via a secondary distribution scheme must pay for the right, or so say the broadcast networks.

The price for the service? $12 per month. The debut date? March 12. The place: for now, the New York metropolitan area.

For cord cutters, this may be a terrific deal. But it’s unclear whether the courts will block Aereo’s progress, as they have with and others who attempted to climb the walls of the castle without paying the required tribute (or, as I’m adding in my updated version of this article… others who attempted to challenge the current system of copyright and payments for distribution rights to intellectual property).

Slingbox? That’s okay. Over-the-air mobile TV? That’s not ready yet, except in a few markets on a test basis. Watch over-the-air TV? Sure. Watch via cable or satellite? As long as you’re paying for the privilege. Watch on another device? Nope, not yet. Or, maybe the answer is yes. We’ll find out in a few weeks.


Here’s the update that I wrote on March 12, 2012:

From Bloomberg: Predicting a “great fight” with traditional media companies, billionaire Barry Diller said he plans to expand his new Aereo Web-based television service to 75 to 100 cities within a year, reports Bloomberg.

Diller, speaking at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, noted that efforts by Walt Disney Co. and other media companies to cite copyright violations were “absolutely predictable,” since entrenched companies always protect their turf, the story says.

Want to know more? Here’s a bunch of links:

The tech explanation:

The consumer angle:

The business story:

The investment story:


Here’s the update as of July 17, 2012

Again from Bloomberg (July 13, 2012): “A U.S. district judge this week allowed Aereo to continue operating while television networks pursue a copyright lawsuit against the company. Aereo captures broadcast signals with small antennas and streams them to devices such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad, without paying for the programming.” As a result of the ruling, Diller is now planning a nationwide rollout.

As I pondered what all of this might mean, I read an essay on TV NewsCheck’s website, written by television executive Lee Spieckerman. I contacted him, and we spoke for a while about the ruling and its implications. In short, he believes that Judge Nathan bungled the decision:

“We see loopy rulings from Federal judges all the time, and I think this fits into that category… She misread the governing law!”

Spieckerman’s argument is based in part upon law and in part upon common industry practice. His legal argument tracks back to a 1993 law which requires operators of paid television systems to secure the necessary rights from local broadcasters. The concept is called “retransmission consent” and that ruling has proven to be something of a windfall for local broadcasters as a result of the fees paid by cable operators in exchange for this consent. According to  Spieckerman, these fees are now worth about $2 billion to the commercial broadcast network, plus an additional several billion dollars to local stations. This, plus the additional revenues from political advertising resulting from the Citizens United decision, provide the advertising base necessary for local television news to survive. (Seems to me, we should all understand the economics and consequences of this new approach to journalism funding–a worthwhile topic for a future article). Back to his other argument: “there is no tradition in this country for renting antennas–nobody rents antennas!”

Digging deeper with Mr. Spieckerman, and the real argument emerges. This is all about copyright infringement, and protection of distribution rights associated with intellectual property. Judge Nathan’s ruling begins to disrupt a system by which cable operators compensate owners of cable networks and local stations. ESPN receives $4.69 per cable subscriber–do the math and that’s about $50 per year per subscriber multiplied by 100 million subscribers, and that’s $5 billion per year in subscription fees. Spieckerman believes local broadcast station fees to be 20-50 cents, but acknowledges that these deals are confidential. (Consider that Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable operators charge consumers charge those 100 million subscribers over $1,000 per year–1o0 million x $100 = $100,0o0,000,000, or $100 billion, also good raw material for another Digital Insider article.)

Of course, the local station operators are anxious to negotiate with Diller’s Aereo. And Diller is anxious to go with the Judge’s ruling because it requires no fees. For now, according to Bloomberg,

We’re going to really start marketing… Within a year and a half, certainly by ’13, we’ll be in most major markets.”

To which Mr. Spieckerman counters:

Who is going to be next? This is a pandora’s box, and when you start circumventing and tearing down the few elements there are in the industry and inviting the destruction of an important industry. If I have any intellectual property that I want to distribute, I do not want anybody able to steal my material.”

Brooke’s Illustrated Guide to Media Theory

On the Media host Brooke Gladstone, in cartoon form, illustrated by Josh Neufeld for The Influencing Machine, “a media manifesto.”

Brooke Gladstone is a brave woman. In the interest of explaining why media matters, she loses her head, plays the fool, embeds an Intel chip in her skull, becomes the robotic vitruvian woman, takes on the whole American political system (from its start in the 1700s), allows herself to be drawn in a hundred goofy ways by cartoonist Josh Neufeld, and…while on the high-wire, without a net…attempts to tell the truth about media and its influence on the ways that we think, believe, and act. In the early stages of this graphic non-novel’s development, it was “a media manifesto in comic book form.” Close enough. (If you’re interested, here’s how they did it.)

The Influencing Machine is now a paperback comic, the equivalent of a graphic novel, I guess, but it’s not easy reading. It’s a well-researched, deeply thoughtful examination of why media behaves as it does, how media interacts with law and government, and the interaction of history and philosophy. Pictures and the graphic novel style keep things light, and concise, but this is not a book to be read once, and it’s not a book to be read quickly. The starting point is news and public information, which may seem appropriate, but for most people, most media consumption is not news or information, it’s entertainment. And in that domain–which should include children’s programming, scripted comedy, scripted drama, and the variety shows that keep the masses satisfied (and have for centuries)–media’s influence is powerful, but rarely mentioned here.

She begins with a Victorian era story about machines that control people’s minds–or the fears that such a thing might someday exist.

Then, she explores the ideal of a perfect balance between effective governance and free flow of truthful information…only to find that such a balance is always outweighed by the government’s need for control.

Quoting German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860):

Journalists are like dogs–whenever anything moves, they begin to bark.”

Most profound–and most evident in today’s journalism–is “The Great Refusal.” Simply stated, by Gladstone, “Few reporters proclaim their own convictions. Fewer still act on them to serve what they believe to be the greater good.” With pressure from government to suppress potentially important information (for example, think: embedded journalists and the trade-offs they must make), and lacking the necessary resources to provide information based upon research and time to consider the story so that it can be presented in context, most journalists simply parrot press releases or official statements. Along the way, they must steer clear of various biases, and play within what most people perceived as reasonable boundaries. This behavior gets everybody into trouble because the whole point of journalism should be uncovering stories that ask the difficult questions…but the system is not set up to encourage, fund, or accept that kind of journalism. Instead, posits Gladstone, we live within a comfortable doughnut. What’s more, any journalist who strays finds himself or herself either (a) famous, at least for a while, or (b) difficult to employ. The risk of the latter is very real, and so, the status quo rules.

And so it goes, as Gladstone attempts (and is drawn to be) a bird of a feather, flocking together in homophily while watching global warming destroy habitat–she calls the phenomenon of groupthink “incestuous amplification” and illustrates it with references to global warming and weapons of mass destruction. She considers reasons to be okay and reasons to panic. She wonders about dumbing down and frets about the half  of Americans who never read literature. She briefly touches on intellectual property laws, and G.K. Chesterton’s statement about journalism:

Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

And she wraps up with notions of globalism, and the ways that news is now a 24/7 global enterprise whose stories may affect us all.

There are few answers here, and the questions, well, they’re often difficult to shape and impossible to answer. At least she’s asking the questions, and placing herself in the middle of a digital storm. Thank you, Brooke, for steering clear of the obvious text presentation (mea culpa here, I’ll admit, as I write another few hundred words of text). The visual presentation, and the illustrations by Josh Neufeld, bring important ideas to life. And if there’s any interest in continuing the adventure to explore the many unexamined territories in the media landscape, count me among your first readers.

We need to talk about all of this stuff because the forces that demand silence are both powerful and ubiquitous. Even if it’s complex, even though it’s difficult to form into digestible bites, even if most people wonder why we’re obsessed with the way that media works, ought to work, and, sometimes, doesn’t work at all.

Below, some sample pages:

Big Empty Boxes

Just in case you missed it, Slate published an interesting article about a new Amazon strategy that could turn the remaining big box stores into empty boxes. After a decade of placing warehouses in far-off places, Amazon is investing more than $1 billion in warehouses near large population centers, near New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, with up to ten warehouses in California, and more. With warehouses so close to large numbers of customers, Amazon will likely offer next day delivery for very low prices, and, perhaps most intriguing, delivery within just a few hours of online purchase. That’s the part that makes me wonder about the future of visiting, say, Staples or Best Buy, or, for that matter, my local supermarket. The term “complete domination of the retail industry” comes to mind.

Sure, it’s the natural evolution of business. The local hardware store is eliminated by Home Depot, and a few decades later, Home Depot is eliminated by an online service that requires no retail presence at all. Yes, it’s dismaying to see empty retail stores. And yes, it’s pretty cool to see the iPad that you ordered at 11AM in your mailbox at 4PM the same day. It’s consolidation. It’s progress. And along the way, we eliminate some local jobs, become cozier with a 24/7 consuming lifestyle, and lose just a bit of social interaction. I don’t know if any of this is good or bad or something else entirely, but I’m pretty sure we all ought to be discussing these ideas and what they mean. There’s something distinctly creepy about just having things happen to us, to lose little bits of our towns and our stores to a high-efficiency corporation reliant upon new forms of robots to do the pick-and-pack. In time, I suspect deliveries will be made not by men and women wearing UPS uniforms, but logistical robots who drive better, don’t get lost, and know what time you’re scheduled to be home so the delivery can be made “in person.”

21st Century Debate

Although the series has been on the air for over five years, I discovered Intelligence ² within the past twelve months. Last night, I watched Malcolm Gladwell argue that college football was a bad idea because it involved the bashing of heads, and that, surely, there was some other game these people could play that would not, you know, involve bashing the heads of students (or anybody else, for that matter). On his team: Buzz Bissinger (he created Friday Night Lights, a popular TV series about football). Bissinger (see in the screen shot below) was strident, fierce and passionate in his well-researched beliefs: (a) colleges and universities should not be in the business of entertaining the masses, and (b) they should not be in the business of providing a farm system for professional football. On the other side, predictably, were two articulate football players who have moved on to bright careers (presumably, they, too have been beaten on the head several thousand times, but seemed to be okay with the way things turned out). Both were associated with FOX Sports: Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. In the advanced game of debate, their arguments proved to be less convincing.

Football is not high of my list of things I care about, but the debate was compelling (and, having now watched several episodes, it’s fair to say that some are very passionate and others are not as much fun to watch). The series is called Intelligence Squared. There are two teams and three rounds. First round: each team member presents his case, his ideas in detail. Second round, they mix it up by arguing with one another. Third round: closing arguments. What’s the point? At the start of each show, the audience at NYU’s Skirball Center votes on a straightforward question: “Should college football be banned?” (yes, the question is black-white and there are grey areas, discussed during debate, but not a part of the ultimate vote on the simple question). Panelists answer questions from members of the audience. End of show: now that they have been presented with convincing arguments, the audience votes again. One team wins (Gladwell-Bissinger), the audience applauds, and we’re done for the evening.

The influence of Stanford Professor James Fishkin is evident here. Deliberative Polling also involves a baseline vote, then immersion in fact-based information seasoned by strong opinion, with a re-vote after the information has been received and processed.

A look at the website suggests that this is modern media done properly. Of course, you can watch or listen to the whole debate (or an edited version, audio+video or audio only). You can listen on about 220 NPR radio stations, or watch on some public TV stations. Or, you can watch on For each episode, the site features a comprehensive biography on each of the four debaters, a complete transcript, and a rundown on the key points made by each debater, along with extensive links to relevant research. In short, you can watch an episode, then read a lot more from the debaters and from the thought leaders who influenced the debaters’ opinions. It’s presented in a  clean, easily accessible (non-academic) way. You can easily dive right in, learn a lot in a short time (if you wish), or spend a few hours to deeply consider what was said, why it was said, and why the voting audience did or did not change its collective mind.

The topics are provocative (and always simplified so they can be stated as a yes/no question for voting). Some examples:

BTW: If you like this sort of thing, you should spend some time at, which features an abundance of intelligent, well-informed, well-researched lectures and discussions. Much of the material is free (advertiser and foundation supported). goes in directions that TED does not. And isn’t it interesting that there are now hundreds of these smart media outlets now available on the internet? In their way, they are taking the place of the 20st century dream of public television…with a broad range of ideas presented from every part of the world, abundant links to related ideas and research. Much of it is free, much of it is provocative, and very little of it is actually seen on television.

Music and Activism… A Master Class

In August, 1964, $70,000 was a lot of money (it would be worth over a half-million today). Harry Belafonte filled a doctor’s bag with small bills, talked his buddy Sidney Poitier into traveling with him, and they boarded a plane from New York City bound for Jackson, Mississippi, then hopped a small Cessna for Greenwood, then drove in convoy to the Elks Lodge where they delivered the secret cash. The money was needed to keep the volunteers on site in Mississippi to encourage the Black population to register and vote. The Klan and the local police wanted the volunteers to go home. Harry and his show business friends saved the day. Turns out, this was not an altogether unusual day for Mr. Belafonte.

When I started reading Harry Belafonte’s autobiography, My Song, I didn’t know much about him. His song makes for quite a story.

No surprise that the started out poor, and became quite rich. What he did with the money, and the power of celebrity, is remarkable.

And how things happened, even more so.

The first few chapters set the scene: an angry young man who discovers the magic of theater, then tries to become an actor in New York City. He talks his way into the Dramatic Workshop at The New School for Social Research, where his classmates include Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger, Marlon Brando, Bernie Schwartz (later known as Tony Curtis), and Brando’s motorcycling buddy, Wally Cox. His early acting adventures aren’t going so well, so Belafonte is crying in his beer at the Royal Roost, a Harlem jazz club. Saxophone player Lester Young asks, “How’s your feelings?” and Harry tells him, “My feelings aren’t so good!” and Lester says “Why don’t you ask (club owner) Monte (Kay) to give you a gig?” Kay says “yes,” and Lester gives his young friend a send-off by backing Belafonte’s little intermission gig with his buddies, including Charlie Parker and Max Roach. Belafonte becomes a pop singer, and later, a folk singer specializing in music from his native Caribbean Islands, and story songs. And the list of “firsts” begins–the first Black to play the Coconut Grove in L.A., selling a spectacular number of records (competing with Elvis for the number one records in 1956, etc.), appearing on Broadway and in the movies (he had a deep crush on Dorothy Dandridge, being the first Black performer to host NBC’s Tonight Show (which he did for a full week  in 1968 with guests including Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, the troublesome Smothers Brothers, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as with any celebrity bio, the list of famous names is vast), and tremendous success in Las Vegas, first at the Rivera, then at the then-new Caesar’s Palace, and with that success, friendships with the mob.

And, then, in his words, “One day in the spring of 1956, I picked up the phone to hear a courtly southern voice. ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King, Jr.” So began a fast friendship and a very deep lifelong involvement in civil rights and social justice. With Paul Robeson as a role model, and Eleanor Roosevelt as an early friend in social reform, Belafonte agreed to perform at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the Wiltwyck School, where “mostly black children who had committed serious crimes but were too young to be incarcerated” were taught. With the Kennedy White House, his reach grew, providing guidance and often serving as a conduit between John, and more often, Robert Kennedy and the movement. He marched. He served in Martin Luther King’s kitchen cabinet, which often met at Belafonte’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan (Martin stayed there, too, and had his own bottle of Bristol Cream liquor for relaxing evening chats). He was King’s confidant, a close friend, and a principal fund-raiser for the entire Civil Rights movement. He was deeply involved in the SLCC and SNCC. He worked on the strategy side, and the movement benefitted from Belafonte’s gigantic rolodex and his ability to raise funds or contact celebrities for favors, often granted. He became deeply involved in improving life in Africa, first helping to build a (never built) performing arts center in Guinea, and later serving as a UN and UNICEF ambassador (replacing Danny Kaye), also with an African focus.

He introduced performers to American audiences, and helped Mariam Makeba (already a South African star) to build a powerful career. Much later, as a result of his encouragement, Fidel Castro established a facility for Cuban rap artists. But before that, it was Harry Belafonte who came up with the idea for “We are the World,” getting Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones involved, then fading into the background until the hard work of distributing funds to Africa was to be done, and he supervised. He helped to free Nelson Mandela, and then served as Mandela’s personal guide for his first visit to the USA, where he answered so many questions about the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

With the help of co-author Michael Shnayerson, Belafonte is a very good storyteller with a very good memory. At 84, he’s candid about his show business successes and failures, attempts to tell his version of the truth about civil rights and entertaining personalities, family matters, and his half century of therapy and shaky love and family relationships (TMI). The showbiz story is fun, but the book shines as Belafonte provides context and backstory about the day to day struggles of the American civil rights story. For that, this becomes an essential accompaniment to the Taylor Branch trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the equally remarkable (but lesser known) The Race Beat by newspaper reporters Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts.

On Our Side

Ani DiFranco marching in DC for Women’s Lives in 2004. Her new album is entitled Which Side Are You On?

I love Ani DiFranco’s commanding version of Pete Seeger’s classic, “¿Which Side Are You On?” Her vocal is strident and scolding, hopeful and demanding. With each verse, she raises important questions, and insists that we, at least, think about the answers. The backup voices, percussion and increasing distortion suggests a dark revolutionary march; she’s in front of the angry crowd, instructing, inciting, leading the charge. She’s terrific.

She’s provocative when she sings about “Promiscuity,” offering a cool lyrical analysis with “promiscuity is nothing more than traveling, there’s more than one way to see the world.” She’s fully exposed on “Life Boat,” a song about a failed mom’s sadness and self-image featuring “red scabby hands” and “purple scabby feet.” She’s political and forceful when she proposes an “Amendment” to provide civil rights to women, a good song that promotes the “right to civil union with equal rights and equal protection, intolerance finally ruined.”

This is Ani DiFranco’s ambitious, righteous, significant side. She is a songwriter and a performer who thinks, and isn’t at all afraid to tell us what she thinks and why.

Then, there’s the other side, the side that confuses me, the writer who takes the easy way out, as on “Zoo,” where we’re treated to “I can no longer watch TV cuz that shit really melts my brain…” and “I go to do my food shopping and all I can see is packaging and a mountain of garbage about to be happening…” Sure, every record’s got its B-sides, but DiFranco’s good work is so strong, I wince when I hear work I wish she had done better. Moreso because her lyrics are both interesting to the ear and smart enough to be worth reading. And, even moreso because her songs quickly become old friends, worthy of replays for weeks on end. The more I listen, the more I like what I hear.

But I do keep coming back to the Seeger song. He plays some banjo at the start of it, but it’s Ani DiFranco’s power that electrifies the song and its meaning. And it’s that song that anchors this album, a nod from one authentic performer to another. Wouldn’t it be fun to hear her perform an album filled with Seeger songs, a female counter to Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, or maybe, even better, an album exposing lesser-knowns who took sides in their time: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, maybe Joan Baez, too.

Buy the album directly from the artist’s Righteous Babe label.

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