Archive for March 2009
I have been rereading the book Seabiscuit, for the fun, the inspiration and the history.
The fun is reading a great work of cultural history, which is like taking a ride in a time machine, or at least in one of those amazingly life-like attractions at Disneyland. When writers ask for examples of non-fiction writing that sings and sells, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit is a book I point them to.
The inspiration and history is the story of America’s greatest hero during the Great Depression. An unlikely hero who overcame obstacles and odds so great that almost nobody gave him a chance. A hero who in tribulation and ultimate victory, allowed those he touched to find the hero within themselves.
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 was not even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
In the latter half of the Depression, Seabiscuit was nothing short of a cultural icon in America, enjoying adulation so intense and broad-based that it transcended sport.
So in these times, the question came to mind: Where is our Seabiscuit?
Here are some thoughts.
First, you can’t really expect or look for a phenomenon like that. Nor can you concoct it. The circumstances just have to align a certain way.
Second, maybe times have to be even more challenging than this for everyone from every walk of life to be both leveled and pushed together into such singular focus on one person (or animal), one phenomenon.
Third, our hardships may be great, but our times are so different, at least for celebrity. How could one person attract such unprecedented and transcendent attention and commitment in such a media diffuse country.
Then I realized that a Seabiscuit-like phenomenon may already be here. In the White House.
It’s true that right now, Barack Obama looks like anything but (metaphorically) “an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse.” Obama has looked like a talented comer for years, and it seemed only a matter of time for his big victory.
On the other hand, the long and familiar list of obstacles he has faced are an essential part of his career, and of the way so many people embrace him and his achievements. Some of the obstacles are unchangeable aspects of who he is. Others are circumstances, like his running against the political version of the seemingly unbeatable Man o’ War.
Obama seems to have transcended politics just as Seabiscuit transcended sport. More than 70 years ago, millions who couldn’t care less about horseracing became fanatics. Not because the game was suddenly more interesting, but because in Seabiscuit they sensed that someone bigger than the game was playing, and was making the game bigger by his playing. In hard times, when the stakes couldn’t be bigger, and the likelihood of winning seems compromised, we want to know that someone plays big enough to beat the odds.
Is Obama our Seabiscuit? Maybe not. But for a number of people, he’ll do until the real thing comes along.
I call it a seesaw. You call it a teeter-totter. I say shopping cart. You say buggy. It’s all a matter of where we come from.
These are the kind of language differences that make American English so colorful and so much fun. George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” America is a country both joined and divided by thousands of regional words and expressions.
The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is the ultimate compendium of the local differences that make American English the most lively and fascinating language in the world. The first of the five volumes of DARE (covering A to C) was published in 1985; the most recent (P to Sk) came out in 2002.
For those who use, study, or just plain love and enjoy our language, this is something to celebrate.
How useful is DARE in the real world? Among other things, police have used it to analyze the vocabulary of messages, trying to pinpoint the locale and identity of writers.
How important is DARE? When the first volume was published, Stuart B. Flexner, the editor-in-chief of the Random House Dictionaries, wrote:
Our country and the American language finally have the long-awaited, definitive and fascinating Dictionary of American Regional English.
The publication of the first of this dictionary’s five volumes is an astounding achievement, a landmark for the American language and of American scholarship. The result of years of research, compilation and editing, the completed project will be a major reference and sourcebook for lexicographers, linguists, social historians and folklorists for generations to come, and one of the layman’s most interesting and revealing books about our language and our country.
Here’s how the process of compiling DARE works:
The Dictionary is based both on face-to-face interviews carried out in all fifty states between 1965 and 1970, and on a comprehensive collection of written materials (diaries, letters, novels, histories, biographies, newspapers, and government documents) that cover our history from the colonial period to the present. These materials are cited in individual entries to illustrate how words have been used from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century…When completed, DARE will be not only a record of the language of the American people, but also a reflection of all the richness and diversity of our culture.
Maybe the best part is that as a speaker of American English you can get involved in the creation of this final volume. DARE editors continue to posts queries asking for your own experience of regional English:
Want to help us?
DARE staffers continue working on Volume V, which will contain the last part of the alphabet, from Sl- to Z. We sometimes need help on various entries, so new queries are posted here periodically…
Do you call the strip of grass and trees between the sidewalk and the curb boulevard, curb line, grass plot, parking (strip), parkway, terrace, or tree lawn, or do you have another term for it?…
The main responses to our question “Playground equipment with a long board for two children to sit on and go up and down in turn.” were teeter-totter and seesaw. We also received variant forms of the former, such as teeter-tot, teeter-tooter, tee-totter, teeter(ing) board, tinter board, and just teeter, among others. If you use a variant form, could you tell us what the form is and how you pronounce it? Specifically, some of our examples of teeter-tooter may be typos for teeter-totter, but others appear to be legitimate. Or do you say ridy horse?
It used to be so simple to look for talent on television.
I will admit to being frustrated with American Idol. But no more. I have had a revelation.
There’s probably nothing to say right now about American Idol that has not been said. I do want to say that I spend most of my life time constructively. As for the three hours a week (minus commercials, for which there is always a good jump-to channel, and which means more like two hours a week), I always end up feeling I want most of my Idol-watching time back. Yet there I am the next week.
Instead of talking about Idol, I want to talk about the syndicated talent show Star Search, which ran from 1983 to 1995 (revived by CBS 2002-2004). Setting aside the talent competition, just consider this: those were the days when Ed McMahon, in addition to hosting Star Search, served as television’s most famous and successful sidekick, jousting playfully with television’s most famous and successful personality (that would be Johnny Carson). Here in the 21st century that has spawned Idol, we have snappy and suggestive patter between Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell.
It is astonishing that Star Search managed to showcase such a galaxy of talent, given that it did so without network support and scheduling. Here is a partial list of better known Star Search contestants, including singers, comics and one spokesmodel (yes, that was a Star Search category, and I would say that spokesmodel contestant Sharon Stone has done pretty well):
In its eighth season, Idol still has a few years more to go before it runs as long as Star Search did. Will it yet feature the kind of future stars that turned up on Star Search? Is there a thirteen-year-old Usher waiting out there?
As I thought about both Star Search and American Idol, here was the revelation: It is time to accept American Idol for what it is. A television show developed to sell advertising, along with ancillary income from related commercial ventures. That is its prime directive. The talent contest is one of the ways it achieves that goal, and good for them for showcasing that talent. But the success of that contest in finding a star, let alone a superstar, is secondary. That might not make the weekly frustrations go away completely, but it should help.
There are media innovations that are brain-dead from the start. There are innovations that are great but only transitional until something better comes along. For example, sitting over there is my laser disc player, a wonder when it was brand new, but a gawky precursor to the DVD player that was just a few years off.
Then there is the now-merged Sirius XM satellite radio (XM for convenience) that is neither brain-dead nor transitional. It is a great innovation, and one that is still a major medium for millions of subscribers. It was to be the next big thing. But subscriptions never reached the earliest projections, churning (losing subscribers who need to be replaced by new subscribers) continues, and the financials have never met expectations.
It has faced a combination of questionable strategies, unanswered questions and unplanned for circumstances. Among them:
Is XM a channel provider or a content provider?: Cable TV is for the most part a channel provider. A cable company may do some of its own production, but on the whole what you pay for is access to third-party content. The XM model and strategy was to be both. It carries and repackages existing radio content, and it also produces a lot of original and often very creative and successful content.
[Special Note: Maybe the most brilliant and successful of this original content is POTUS, a Presidential campaign channel (now a politcal news channel) XM created just in time for the most interesting Presidential campaign in American history. Overall, POTUS was the most interesting and successful media coverage of the campaign, and deserved much more attention than it got. The Peabody Awards are to be announced next week. If there is justice, POTUS should win one.]
Doing both jobs is not impossible. In the early days of TV, for example, RCA helped develop the technological medium, created the programming, and even sold the sets. But those were much simpler media times. There were fewer player, fewer media competitors and options, and most of all, the money involved was smaller. Mistakes are now very costly. As envisioned by XM, satellite radio is a great concept and a complex task, and anything less than near-perfect strategy and execution is dangerous.
Is XM commercial-free?: This is confusing and shifting ground, and it has hurt with both subscribers and prospects. There are both commercial-free and commercial channels on XM. Some of the commercials are carried along with the third-party programming; others are heard on original XM programming. Which channels are which seems to change, but that isn’t the big problem. The problem is whether subscribers expect, for $12.95 a month, to listen to commercials. Now if XM is like cable, the idea that some stations carry commercials and some don’t is unremarkable: all you are paying for is access to somebody else’s programs. But if XM is a content provider, like HBO, then why should the programs carry commercials. It isn’t so much that there isn’t a rationale (other than fincancial). It’s just that you can’t figure out the scheme to which that rationale might attach.
The XM Sirius merger: The marriage of XM and Sirius companies (Marriage of convenience? Shotgun wedding?) was complicated by antitrust implications. As strangely happens when the only two players in the field merge, the merging companies actually had to talk up the strength and prospects of their competitors in the radio sector (that is, we’re not really as prospectively powerful or dominant as we want our shareholders to think). The Federal Trade Commission approved the merger, finding that there was still competition in the radio sector, especially since XM and Sirius were themselves still sort of competitive, maintaining separate technologies and channel lineups.
This is what I hoped would happen, despite obvious regulatory, contractual, financial and other obstacles: All of the XM and Sirius content would be made available to each of the subscriber bases, at an added but not confiscatory price. This would have created a programming powerhouse, one that stand its ground, at least for the moment, against the unending assault from other media devices and services.
This is where we are. XM and Sirius subscribers continue to get the service they signed up for. If you want choice channels from the other service (as in “Best of Sirius”), you can get that too, without buying a new radio. And now, just released, there is a MiRGE radio capable of receiving both services (you still have to subscribe to both). It is literally an XM radio and a Sirius radio in one box, separate circuit boards and all. If this sounds bizarre in an age of media integration, it is. On the other hand, if you consider it just an analog of the typical AM/FM combo radio (now about to become an antique) that has existed for decades, well, I guess that kind of makes sense. In a very twisted way.
Celebrity-driven content and marketing: Oprah. Howard Stern. These are just a couple of the big-name, big-ticket celebrities who were paid large sums to produce content, and to make XM subscriptions a “must have” for their fans. The celebrity contracts proved a burden on the bottom line, while the expected rush of subscribers never appeared.
XM radio as transmitter: One of the most marketable features of XM radios, and one that cell phones and MP3 players can’t rival, is the ability to broadcast to FM radios. Early on, this was a promoted benefit of XM radios. But something happened. Reports came in that car XM radios were transmitting to nearby cars. Anecdotally, some XM radios have been known to transmit much further: enough to cover all the rooms in a house, and probably some of the rooms in your neighbor’s house. A great thing, if you want to listen to XM anywhere, but not such a great thing if you are the FCC. Signal regulators were added to the radios, and promotion of the feature was toned down.
Portability: Obviously, built-in car XM is portable on wheels, and so are XM radios plugged into the car AC. But as for hand-held devices, cell phones are portable and MP3 players are portable. XM radios are for the most part not. Attempts to create hand-held portability (e.g., the Pioneer Inno combo XM/MP3) have not really caught on. An early technological push for development of a hand-held satellite portable, as difficult as it appears to be and have been, would have given XM a leg up on the competition then and the competition now. Which brings us to…
Competition now and demographics: I think satellite radio is a great medium. I hope it can find its way through a difficult and critical time. But there is a generational/demographic phenomenon that can’t be ignored. Cutting edge digital media are driven by younger people. And there just isn’t a satellite radio buzz.
I know that XM has lots of appealing content for all ages and cultures and interests, and believes it can succeed by being all things to all people. But among a critical media population, the appetite for digital innovation – more capability, more power, more new, more cool – is insatiable. There isn’t a week when there isn’t a new device or a new application or a new approach. Swimming in those waters, I am hoping that the medium can essentially reinvent itself and survive.
Kid Scoop is a weekly full-page newspaper feature for children. It is aimed at both education and increasing newspaper circulation:
Kid Scoop is a smart way to grow home delivery and revenue.
Each week, Kid Scoop brings students interactive games, activities, puzzles and more in a bright and bouncy, award-winning newspaper feature kids and their family members can enjoy together. This warm, fun-filled page is now in more than 350 newspapers!
It is bright and bouncy, and covers a variety of issues we all want our children to learn more about, including animals, environment, geography, health, history, and science.
This week, Kid Scoop features The Stock Market. It seems a good idea to teach financial literacy to children, and the stock market is one element of that. In the current economic times, where children may hear a lot of complicated news about the economy they don’t understand, it’s even more important. (Of course, you can say the same thing about many adults, and even public officials.)
There is, though, something a little strange and disconnected about the content. It begins with a comic strip headlined “How the Stock Market Helped Charlie.” In it, Charlie invents a nifty new type of chewing gum, and as his business expands, he sells shares in his company. Charlie initially offers 100 shares at $10 a share. The strip goes on to explain:
If his company grows and becomes worth $2,000, then each share of the company is worth $20 and the shareholders make money along with Charlie. However, if his company loses money and becomes less valuable, then the share prices would fall in value as well.
In the “Minding the Market” section, we are told that Charlie offered shares in March 2004 at $20 and that today shares are worth $100. (Way to go Charlie’s Chews, Inc.!) Below that is a stock chart for the last five years.
There is advice to “Buy low, Sell high,” and a puzzle about “Where is the Stock Market?” (hint: it’s a street in New York City).
Finally, there is a “Write On” section called “That’s Fair,” asking readers to describe a fair trade.
As for the 100 shares of Charlie’s Chews, Inc., if the company is “worth” $2,000 (whatever “worth” means exactly), each share is supposedly “worth” $20 of company value. We are further confused by the news that if the company loses money and becomes less valuable, the share prices would fall in value.
This goes beyond financial imprecision and confusion to the realm of fantasy. We do want our children well-schooled in important matters. And, yes, the stock market is mind-bogglingly complex. But that is no excuse for a flight from objective reality, even if these are only children.
The fact is that stocks have regularly defied the simple laws of financial gravity. To put it another way, the price in a market is what someone else is willing to pay, based on what the buyer thinks the value is or may become. The current book value or profitability may or may not have anything to do with it. In other words, the stock market is gambling. That’s not a moral point, just the fact.
As for where “the” stock market is, I think that children can understand two important things that would actually be fun to learn. One, there are multiple stock exchanges, in America and around the world. You could even include geography in this financial lesson by having them locate these exchanges on a world map. Two, much stock trading is now electronic. There probably isn’t a Kid Scoop reader who hasn’t seen the E*TRADE baby commercials. So, yes, there is a Wall Street, but it is as much a symbol as a reality.
As for a description of a “fair trade,” the replies will be published in Kid Scoop on May 17, 2009. I don’t know what Kid Scoop readers will say, but I bet there are a lot investors who have some pointed ideas on this.
Maybe also some investors who want to know how they can get in on the Charlie’s Chews action.
Here is a good word for those involved in media that seem to be struggling: radio.
Radio is going through another set of its periodic challenges. But according to some, radio should have been dead a long time ago. Instead, it survives, even thrives.
Maybe the crown jewel of modern radio is its continuing production of superlative documentaries and non-fiction. As good as Ken Burns and other documentarians are with sight and sound, that’s how creative radio producers continue to be with their eyes closed. Well, actually, it’s the listeners whose eyes are closed.
If you want to hear what is going on at the highest level of radio, visit the Public Radio Exchange. There you will find a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called The Wire: The Impact of Electricity on Music.
The CBC describes the series this way:
Incorporating interviews, music and sound in an innovative way, The Wire creates a unique radio experience that’s somewhere between a documentary, a remix and a music show.
The eight episodes include the state of music immediately before electricity, the impact of recording, the development of the electric guitar and the synthesizer, the turntable, electronic dance music, and the digital revolution. It is a unique and insightful look into the evolution of a medium.
The very first episode projects you right into the moment, around a century ago, when everything changed in music. A time not unlike this one. There is much food for thought or cause for indigestion, depending on whether you are a performer or producer on the decline or in the ascendancy.
Here, for example, is something to consider. The Wire explains that when talkies came in, at the beginning of the Depression, 20,000 musicians who played live at movie theatres were put out of work. They were replaced by about 500 musicians who played for movies at the Hollywood studios.
Some call economics “the dismal science.” Others don’t think it even deserves to be called an art, let alone a science, and consider it hocus-pocus veiled in obscure mathematics.
Science, art, or hocus-pocus, economists are everywhere these days – professional, amateur, and would-be/wanna-be economists. Most people don’t know who to listen to or believe, since relatively few non-experts have much background in the subject.
If you are one of those who are curious about economics, but either have no exposure to the topic or suffered from toxic overexposure in school, here’s a suggestion:
Pick up a copy of Robert L. Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers (7th Edition). It is the most fun you will ever have reading about economics, and you will also learn enough to start cutting through at least some of the economic sense and nonsense we are hearing every day.
Heilbroner published the first edition of The Worldly Philsophers in 1953, when he was still a doctoral student at Harvard. It was so successful that it took him ten more years to finish his degree. The 7th edition was published in 1999, and the book has become the most popular non-textbook in economics history, selling more than four million copies.
This popularity came at a price. As his 1995 obituary in the New York Times notes:
Although popular with students and the general reader, he was regarded by mainstream economists as a popularizer and historian whose insights made no great contribution to the study of the field. He, in turn, saw their reliance on mathematics and computer modeling as narrow in vision and as losing sight of the very purpose of economics – to help improve the well-being of people at work and of the society they work in.
The book brightly covers the lives and theories of economic giants such as Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen and Joseph Schumpeter. But whatever else you read in the book, you will find nothing more relevant or entertaining than the portrait of the amazing John Maynard Keynes.
Keynes’ name is thrown around a lot these days, either as a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you believe that we can – we must – spend our way out of this recession. Just this week, Newsweek carries this cover story: Stop Saving Now! This is pure Keynes. If you are interested in knowing how this is supposed to work, without having a degree in economics, read The Worldly Philosophers today.
In a media rich world, our tendency is to stuff ourselves. When times are good, all news, all the time may be like an all-you-can-eat dessert bar. But when times are hard, the habit of consuming uninterrupted servings of bad news is less pleasant. Even harmful.
What to do? Here are three options.
Denial – That is, abstinence. Cut yourself off from news and opinion media entirely. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be seeing or hearing bad news, in your own life or in the lives of your family and community. It just means that you won’t have that news multiplied and pushed in your face by news and opinion networks. Of course, misery does love company, and there is something valuable in knowing that you are not going through hard times alone. Also, there is once in a while useful, actionable information to be discovered.
Distraction and Diversion – Entertainment media (this includes sports) can provide a break from hard reality. The problem is that purely diverting entertainment is actually harder than ever to find. The recession is creeping into television shows and even the Sunday comics. Really. And if sports is your distraction, well, having to hear about how some zillionaire player may have gotten there partly through the secret use of drugs is just not as uplifting a story as Lou Gehrig, Joe Louis or Seabiscuit.
Still, the value of pure entertainment in hard times is undeniable. In Preston Sturges’ wonderful movie Sullivan’s Travels, rich Hollywood director John L.Sullivan longs to make “meaningful” films, rather than movies such as his very successful “Ants in the Pants.”
Sullivan takes to the road, pretending to be a hobo, and ends up in a prison labor camp. The only distraction in this miserable life is movies. He sits with the other prisoners, watching a Disney cartoon starring Mickey and Pluto. He finally breaks down and starts laughing along with the others, realizing, as he later says, that this is all some people have.
Diet – There isn’t yet a pyramid for a balanced media diet, but maybe there should be. There is a time to know what’s happening now, however tough, and there is a time to turn the news off. For each media consumer, there is probably a healthy mix of news, information, education, opinion and pure, unadulterated distraction. If there was ever a time to find out just what that healthy media diet is, this just might be that time.
Over the past few months, there has been a steady stream of James Bond movies shown on cable. Having just watched You Only Live Twice again (again), something came clear: James Bond movies changed the world. It can be argued that no series of movies has ever done it better.
By Bond movies I mean those five movies made between 1962 and 1967, starring Sean Connery. This isn’t to get into the infinite argument about “the best Bond” or “the only real Bond.” It is just that during this brief period, society seemed particularly vulnerable to being changed, even revolutionized, by pop culture phenomena.
(Okay, I have to digress. One case for those movies being the real Bond movies is their songs. Listen to two or three of the songs from those early films: Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey, You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra. Then listen to some of the most recent theme songs: The World Is Not Enough by Garbage, You Know My Name by Chris Cornell (Casino Royale). You Only Live Twice has been covered by dozens of recording artists, including a bluegrass version. Time will tell whether the song from The World Is Not Enough follows in that success. As I said, I digress.)
The easy analysis says that these Bond movies encouraged libertine sexuality, female objectification, overreliance on gadgets, fake Scottish accents, and even wanton murder (given that Bond had a license to kill). But that gets it wrong.
These Bond movies were a view of impossibly exotic worlds that seemed oddly plausible. To see just how exotic, compare these early movies to the increasingly preposterous scenes in the next decades of Bond. The later films certainly have a lot of weird and wild stuff going on, but it isn’t exactly exotic.
It wasn’t that such people and places actually existed. But they might, and for those starting out in the world, it made everything seem possible. Recall that the first movie, Dr. No, was released during JFK’s brief but significant Presidency. The first two Bond movies were released before the Beatles arrived in America. These movies laid the groundwork, prepared the way, for a time when everything was about to be new and from somewhere else. In these movies, the future was calling from distant exotic shores – London, Jamaica, Moscow, Istanbul, Japan. At every opportunity, a generation of Bond-reared people was about to answer the call.