Monday, April 29, 2013

Live in White River: Vermont's Transmedia Festival

By Greg Guma

During the Vermont International Film Festival last year, I was talking in the hall with Nora Jacobson, producer of The Vermont Movie, a six-part collaborative documentary that will be released this fall and screened in theaters across the state.
     Given the growth of social media and desire of many festival-goers to share their reactions, I suggested that such gatherings could be more interactive. At that moment I was filing reviews with, but felt that others attending might have something to add if given an accessible, real time outlet.
     Seven months later the White River Indie Film Festival (WRIF) decided to use twitter and launch a blog. Asked over from Burlington I became the “official” blogger for the weekend. Here’s some of what I saw.
Opening night at the Tupelo

Welcome to Cartoon College

Based on audience reactions, the opening night feature hit many of the right notes. A full house at the Tupelo Music Hall frequently erupted with laughter during a screening of Cartoon College, which follows several students from admission to completion at White River’s Center for Cartoon Studies.
      At times it was like watching an offbeat version of Fame – the film, not the TV show. You know the plot, several talented, very different students struggle to make the grade; some do, others not so much. But these artists (with one exception) are not obsessed with becoming the next big thing. Their goals and interests are far more personal. For example, one develops stories about menstruation, while another uses his art to understand life as a Mormon and his childhood abuse by a brother.
     Despite the serious life questions that drive many students, the film is bright and energetic, with an engaging score, and sometimes breaks out of traditional documentary style with montage sequences that show the artists at work. Another effective moment uses jump cuts to telegraph the time and frustration involved in collaborative production meetings. Although Cartoon College doesn’t have all the quirkiness of its characters it explores with considerable sensitivity what drives both students and their teachers to create.
     Life as a cartoon artist clearly is not for everyone. It’s “more a calling than a career,” says a teacher. Another describes it as “insanely labor intensive but not insanely expensive.” Beyond that, it is one of the few jobs where having a unique viewpoint can give you an edge. Of course, talent is also a factor. But as the film shows, even someone with limited ability can find much satisfaction in the process, along with a supportive community of kindred spirits.
     There were a few lingering questions. For example, how have local residents responded to the evolution of an artistic enclave in their midst? And since the town has been used as a setting for quite a few projects, just how do the students see it?

What’s in a Name?

For some people using the term transmedia to describe what’s happening in media today isn’t necessary. As Liz Canner noted at the opening workshop on Saturday, what used to be “new media is now old media,” and it keeps happening. Yet some projects use transmedia techniques to bring a new, interactive and immersion element into the picture.
     It’s a way to “get more voices out,” said Melanie Crean, who has used “immersive technology” with women in Iraq. But she added that people working in television have been operating on an interdisciplinary basis for so long that there has been no need to give it a name.   
Local Filmmakers at the brunch
     “Transmedia is a cloud,” she added. “The innovation I see is in combining the film and game worlds.” The projects are cinematic, but the form can be almost anything. Crean described one radical project, a “heist” in which the viewer becomes an actor in a 15-minute film and actually robs a bank.
     “The content was commenting on consumerism, but they were reframing the film experience,” she said, comparing it to The Game, a Michael Douglas film. “You start to question the whole world around you.”
     According to Canner, “The difficulty is still to get an audience.” Since the narrative of a transmedia project often proceeds via various platforms, the challenge is that, if they’re only available online, it’s hard to build an audience.
     The promise of a democratized media has been partially realized, but getting reviews remains a challenge, she said. On the other hand, an advantage is that your work can have a longer life.

Hands on: Talking with Iraq

Using ideas from Crean’s Shape of Change project, festival-goers looked at new ways to communicate with people in Iraq. After breaking into small discussion groups, the goal was for each person to describe an artifact, object or thing that symbolizes home — what the object has seen, any random memories associated with it, or a story the object could tell.
     A series of questions prompted others to write about the objects. For example, if it was a door, a question might be, “What would you do if the door to your house was suddenly gone?” or “What is the strangest thing you think the front door to your house has seen?” A writing prompt might be, “The last time I walked out this door I thought...”
      The exchanges generated at iWRIF will be added to the website, an online archive of opinions compiled across Iraq and the US since 2008. To learn more about this project, check out Melanie’s Social Book.

Expanding the Documentary Playbook

Laura Kissel’s project, Cotton Road, goes behind the scenes in the production of cotton clothing though film and the Internet. It also poses provocative questions about the short cuts used these days and the negative impacts in a globalized process, as well as providing interactive maps and visualizing the consequences.
     The traditional documentary tends to be confrontational, sometimes even “in your face.” As a result, people who make them are frequently accused of preaching to the converted. Transmedia documentaries tend to use a different approach, often focusing on small places, designing intentional encounters, stressing collaboration and an open-ended process, and inviting viewers to play an active role.
     In response to this workshop editor Jeff Good wrote, “I found the Cotton Road and LunchLoveCommunity projects to be interesting examples of combining media (short-form documentary film, Web, mapping). But I wasn’t persuaded that they represent a revolution in storytelling; they looked a lot like the kind of multi-platform journalism that’s been going on for years on the websites of “legacy media,” i.e. newspapers.
     “With that in mind, I found it interesting that the scholars and directors fell silent when asked if they had tried to intersect their efforts with newspapers (and their websites), which still reach a lot of people and might provide a powerful outlet for the kind of good work shown today. (I work at one of those newspapers, so maybe I’m biased.)”

On Screen: Chasing Ice and For Ellen

After the workshops three feature films were shown at the Tupelo, while Peter Watkins’ prophetic 1971 dystopian fantasy, Punishment Park, was screened nearby at the Main Street Museum. I attended the screening Chasing Ice, an award-winning documentary, and For Ellen, a touching drama starring Paul Dano.

      If you can sit through Jeff Orlowski’s study of the world’s rapidly shrinking glaciers and the extraordinary work of National Geographic photographer James Balog without becoming even more concerned about climate change, you’re asleep or in denial. It’s an exceptionally beautiful movie. But Balog’s use of time-lapse cameras to capture the process also makes an incontrovertible case, while his determination in the face of health issues sometimes borders on the obsessive. Still, that may be what it may take to convince enough people there’s no time to lose.
     Dano’s character in So Yong Kim’s drama is also a bit obsessed – with his career as a rock star, but even more with his estrangement from his young daughter. Faced with divorce papers he negotiates a touching meeting and struggles with his life choices. Shot by Upper Valley cinematographer Reed Morano it’s a small, intense drama that gives the actors, especially Dano, plenty of space, and effectively employs close ups and one-shot scenes to increase the emotional impact.
     Other films screened during the weekend included King Kelly, a satire about an aspiring Internet star by Andrew Neel, and The House I Live in, Eugene Jarecki’s wrenching look at the US war on drugs.

Local Filmmakers in the Spotlight

As the festival program guide explained, the Upper Valley is an incubator for films. At the local filmmakers’ brunch on Sunday morning, we started off with three clever shorts by homegrown talent: The Check Up, a cheeky comedy by William Peters and Michael Mooney; Nico, in which Ben Silberfarb follows a Chicago tap dancer; and Octopus Story, a charming animated short by Ken Leslie that uses stop-motion to visualize a folk tale about an endangered indigenous community.
Dennis Mueller and Michael Fisher
 Next came two films about the consequences of war: Dennis Mueller’s documentary about Vietnam vets
, Soldiers of Peace, and Michael Fisher’s homecoming drama, Stations. This led to a spirited discussion, followed by a segment from Alison Segar’s We Have to Talk about Hunger and Benjamin Stimson Glean, Freeze, Give, both about food issues in Vermont.
     The morning ended with two works about the power and complexity of the human mind: a segment from Darwin’s Extra Sense by Wendy Conquest, Bob Drake and Dan Rockmore; and Out of the Den, a look at the life of bears and a man who has spent more than a decade with them, produced by a Dartmouth documentary class.

Post-Modern Challenges in the Transmedia Age

Despite the considerable promise of new transmedia forms there are some pitfalls, including the nature of the dominant media environment.
     In the so-called “modern era,” things basically made sense. Despite any setbacks, technical dangers or mad dictators most people believed in the possibility of a better future, changing the world that was changing us. But now we live in a “post-modern” world, and although it’s not a totally negative place, it does emphasize uncertainty, spectacle, and even the chaotic.
     Self-conscious and often self-contradictory, post-modernists tend to believe that truth is merely a perspective and nothing should be taken that seriously. The characteristic expression is irony, emphasizing the doubleness in whatever is being expressed. A favorite grammatical device is quotation marks, reinforcing the idea that the words don’t mean what they seem. This expresses the defensive cultural logic of late-capitalism, and can play well into the schemes of media and political demagogues.
      Faced with machines that have made life more complex, a vast amount of information – much of it unsettling, and an overwhelming variety of “choices,” it’s hardly surprising that people, especially the young, aren’t impressed with much of anything. Their favorite books often revel in this sensibility and abandon the grand narrative approach once standard in novels. Although most movies still rely on the old linear formula – the hero confronting obstacles to reach an obvious goal – few people really believe in that. Real life is so much more ambiguous and complex.
      The central institutions of post-modern civilization are, of course, the electronic media. Most advertising suggests that appearances are what matter, while the shows wedged between them reinforce ironic distance, often winking at us that it’s all a put-on. And the news? Plenty of facts. But enduring truth? That’s the last thing we expect anymore.
      Meanwhile, despite all its benefits, the “blogosphere” also accelerates social fragmentation. Many blogs and Websites attract only like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that serves the interests of extremists. Truth and facts are becoming debatable notions. This makes it more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a civil discussion, and easier for opportunists to ignore or distort reality for the sake of pushing initiatives based on convenience or special interests.
     That said, the news is not all bad. In fact, along with skepticism comes a re-awakened concern about the human spiritual condition and the planet’s health. It has also become easier to create or manipulate photos, video and music; in effect, to become an independent content producer.
     According to Henry Jenkins, one of the earliest academic thinkers to notice the potential of transmedia, new tools allow people to “write over” the dominant media culture, to remix, remold, amend and extend it – and then re-circulate a new creation, possibly even crossing back into the “mainstream” media.
     Since this type of storytelling requires coordination across media, Jenkins believes that it works best either for independent projects where one artist shapes the story across all the media involved, or those where strong collaboration is encouraged across divisions of the same company.
     One clear hallmark of transmedia is a marriage of narrative and new technology. “Passive viewing and active viewing are changing,” explains Genna Terranova, director of programming for the Tribeca film festival in New York. “You see it in our own cultural habits, where you watch TV and have a second screen on Twitter or are interacting on Facebook. Now you’re starting to see independent projects harnessing all these tools and creating stories that live on multiple platforms.”
   At this year's film festival in White River, the promise of this new media era was on full and vivid display.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Remembering Vaughn’s World

The Life and Death of Deadbone’s Dark Wizard
By Greg Guma

When Vaughn Bode died in 1975 his most memorable eulogy appeared in National Lampoon, which speculated in jest that he might have been murdered by Paul Krassner, a Bode acquaintance and notorious renegade journalist. It was a fitting tribute for an artist whose life and work often rode the line between satire, genius and obsession.
     Bode had become famous for comics in the East Village Other, his Cheech Wizard strip and the weirdly erotic Deadbone series that appeared in Cavalier, the first full-color comic strip in a national magazine. But by then he was also a world-class manic depressive with paranoid tendencies, buffeted by primal fears and suicidal thoughts. 
     And not all of it was in his mind. The IRS was out to get him.
     We met ten years earlier at Syracuse University, when he returned to school after release from the army. At the time he admitted to getting out on Section 8, a psychological discharge, but did not mention that he’d been locked up after a suicide attempt. He was 23 at the time, married with a young son, and struggling to balance school with supporting a family by creating ads and illustrations for local businesses. One campaign included a comic book about the exploits of Mower Man.
     On campus he emerged with a strip called The Man, wryly humorous stories about a cave man struggling to survive with his only friend, a stick. In a 1966 collection of those strips poet Greg Kuzma commented that Vaughn’s work was like an epic panorama: “a cast of thousands of unique characters lies behind his pen waiting to be born.”
     Shortly after The Man we began collaborating on a publication, Vintage, an attempt to re-imagine the idea of a campus magazine. With a small budget provided by Syracuse University we produced several issues over the next two years, each one different in content and form.     
    For Vaughn it provided a platform to tell stories his own way, to explore his demons and introduce an alternative universe in which he would spend much of his remaining life. In the first issue he published seven illustrated vignettes called “Excerpts from the Saurkraut Papers,” brief stories about the absurd hypocrisy of war. In “Survivor,” for example, a German hides from the Russians under a pile of bodies only to discover that he’s not the only one. As more time passes more Germans pipe up. “About two hours later,” Vaughn concludes, “the pile of dead Germans stood up and walked back to camp.”
     These early experiments were restrained in comparison to what came next. Although Vaughn had not yet experimented with drugs and wasn’t much aware of the emerging underground comics scene he had a whole world in his head that was destined to emerge. To provide a better venue we decided to publish the next issue of Vintage as a series of stand-alone sections, all enclosed in a stylish slim box. The package included two Vaughn Bode comics, and a third by his protégé Larry Todd
     The more memorable comic was Cheech Wizard, which introduced one of the characters that made him famous. Cheech, who talks trash from under an oversized hat, is taken into custody by cops under the control of Morton Frog, a boss who wants to reveal his identity. But as Cheech explains in the final frame, after his captors go into shock, “Their primitive minds couldn’t accept the truth.” 
   Who was Cheech? Neither he nor Vaughn ever said.    
     The second comic book, The Machines, is a grim dystopian tale about a Terminator world of thinking machines. Set in 2005, it’s a war story with three main characters, a lone human living underground, a “Baby Battery” machine fighting on the surface and “Mother Complex.” When Baby is hit Mother goes ballistic before being overwhelmed by other machines. There’s no silver lining and little humor.
     As Vaughn’s universe expanded the magazine attempted to keep up. The last issue of Vintage, released in late 1967, was a large-format publication. We promoted it with the catch phrase “It’s bigger than Life,” since it was literally larger than the popular publication. The cover was an elaborate full-color illustration by Vaughn that introduced the Deadbone world of lizards and cherubs. Inside, along with contributions by Allen Ginsberg, Marshall McLuhan and folksinger Tom Paxton, plus features on contraception and a motorcycle gang, was the first installment of The Junkwaffel Papers, ostensibly “wireless communications between the Planet Plumpstickel 5 and Vaughn Bode’’s head.”   
      The format allowed Vaughn to create a short graphic novel with four book pages on each larger page of the magazine, each bordered with the image of a heavily-armed woman warrior. The story’s premise is that Vaughn, an illustrated character in his tale, is struck by lightning and begins receiving outer space transmissions. Eventually he learns that he’s been set up to provide the opening for a regime change on lizard planet.
     “When they try to jam your mind out of existence,” he is told, “they will be feeding out 86 percent of their total energy capacities. A nation-wide blackout will exist while they execute you. That’s when we strike!”
Self-portrait, 1967
     Fortunately for the world of comic art, he survived the plot and was invited to lizard world for an extended visit. But the story did suggest that Vaughn was dealing with deep inner conflicts, and perhaps even saw himself as a victim. Meanwhile, back on Earth, he separated from his wife Barbara and moved to New York in 1968 to begin work with The East Village Other and found The Gothic Blimp, a weekly comic paper. That year he also won a Hugo Award for his science fiction illustrations.
     By 1970 Vaughn Bode was a comic art superstar, his work able to cross from the underground to commercial venues. He’d created about 200 different cartoon series with more than 1500 characters. During a visit in 1969 he shared some of the detailed dossiers and designs he was developing for each character and location. A natural performer, he also began appearing in a series of Cartoon Concerts, which combined slides of his art with voicing of characters. His Cavalier strips were collected for a 1971 book, Deadbone Erotica.
Deadbone landscape
     During the next few years he had considerable fun hanging out with Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, which helped catapult him into the drug scene. He also collaborated with writer Dean Koontz and began developing motion picture ideas with Ralph Bakshi. But an attempt to establish himself as a church failed to dissuade the IRS. According to someone close to him during this time, Vaughn again began to view suicide as a serious option.
     For several years he followed Guru Maharaji, the teenage spiritual leader of the Divine Light Mission. At the same time he was experimenting with meditative auto-asphyxiation. Although primarily known as a sexual practice, oxygen deprivation is sometimes associated with deep meditative states.
     On July 18, 1975, according to the official version of the story, Vaughn was meditating with a leather collar around his neck. A San Francisco Chronicle editor described it as a bizarre hanging accident. But National Lampoon wasn’t satisfied with that tepid explanation. “Bode was a convert to Zen Zen, a highly advanced mystical discipline which teaches that satori can be reached merely by drinking a quart of Jim Beam and urinating in a light socket,” the Magazine joked. I believe he would have loved the attention and have gotten the joke.
   Lampoon even published a poem about his passing, “Vaughn But Not Forgotten.” It begins with the line “Somewhere there’s a four-color heaven,” and then describes an afterlife filled with artists and their creations. It ends with this:
And Jesus was waiting for Bode
And Cheech up in heaven that day.

If you believe in forever
Then life ain’t just a four frame gag.
If there’s a comic strip heaven,
You know they’ve got a heck of a gang.
     Seeing photos of Vaughn during his last years, it’s hard not to compare them with some illustrations in his comics. He'd transformed himself physically into a character from his imagined world – a buff, long-haired cartoon hero in a tough and sexual alien environment. From the distance of decades it seems as if he never truly returned from lizard planet.

Friday, April 19, 2013

REBEL NEWS 4/19/13:Drone Wars: Privacy vs Profit

Maverick Media’s Rebel News airs 9-10 a.m. (more or less) Friday on WOMM, 105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator in Burlington on The Howie Rose Variety Show and streaming worldwide.

TOP STORY: Welcome to the Drones Wars
States Debate Limits as Business Eyes $89 Billion

Idaho took the lead in protecting people from drone surveillance last week when Gov. Butch Otter became the first state leader to sign legislation.  Known as the “Preserving Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act,” the law restricts the use of drones by government or law enforcement, particularly when it involves gathering of evidence and surveillance on private property.
Mosquito MAV
Florida, the state senate has passed a similar bill, The Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act, which prevents police from using drones for routine surveillance. However, it would allow unmanned aircraft if there’s a threat of terrorist attack. 
     Massachusetts and Rhode Island are considering legislation that would prevent police from identifying anyone or anything not related to a warrant.
     According to the ACLU, at least 35 states have considered drone bills so far this year, and 30 states have legislation pending. Most bills require a “probable-cause” warrant for drone use by law enforcement, while a handful seek to ban weaponized drones.
     They come in all sizes, from the Predator drones used in Pakistan and other countries to tiny mosquito drones that can be used covertly in urban neighborhoods and indoors. In the next few years police will increasingly turn to them for surveillance. But groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also see their potential for tracking poachers, while farmers want aerial vehicles to measure crop growth.
     The ACLU is urging state lawmakers to require that police obtain a warrant before using any drone to conduct a search. But the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute argues that governments should go further and ban any information obtained by drones from use in court. In January, Rutherford submitted model legislation to lawmakers in all 50 states.
     In Maine, a Joint Judiciary Committee had a work session last week on LD 236, officially known as “An Act to Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Use.” After a debate between the Attorney General and an ACLU spokesperson, committee members voted unanimously to postpone a decision for two weeks.
     In a nearby hearing room, where a debate on gun control was underway, one gun-rights supporter displayed a bumper sticker with a drone on it – and the words "Protect our 2nd amendment rights to shoot down drones."
     Maine’s Attorney General has proposed a temporary moratorium until July 1, 2014. The official rationale is to allow time for law enforcement agencies to come up with "minimum standards," including prior authorization by "some official" before drones could be used for surveillance. But the AG also argues that the drone bill should not impede the possibility of a drone test center in northern Maine. 
     At least 37 states are competing for six drone testing centers that are expected eventually to launch 30,000 drones into the skies. For Maine, one lure could be the promise that the state won’t require operators to get a warrant before launching a spy-bot.
     Democrats, who control Maine’s legislature but not the governorship, hope to win back the top spot again.  Thus, they want backing from the police, aerospace industry interests, new drone manufacturing firms, and citizens living near the closed Loring AFB who believe a drone test center and missile defense base would bring back jobs.
     A variety of activist groups are staging protests in an attempt to stop the use of domestic drones in US airspace.  Events are expected in at least 18 states at research facilities, drone command centers, manufacturing plants, universities that have drone programs and the White House, according to Nick Mottern, founder of Known Drones, a website that tracks unmanned aircraft activity in the US and abroad.
     The protests are being organized by more than 15 anti-drone groups, including Codepink, Veterans for Peace, No Drones Network, and the American Friends Service Committee. The groups oppose both domestic drone use and targeted drone killings overseas.
     On February 7, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released an updated list of communities, states, law enforcement agencies, and universities that have requested and received licenses to deploy drones. The Electronic Freedom Foundation obtained the list via a Freedom of Information Act disclosure and learned that more than 81 public entities have so far applied to the FAA for permission to launch drones.
Lethal Ornithopter
Why the rapid push for domestic deployment ?
  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, drone makers hope to speed their entry into a domestic market valued in the billions.  The US House actually has a 60-member “drone caucus” — officially known as the House Unmanned Systems Caucus. In the last four years, it members received nearly $8 million in drone-related campaign contributions. Drone Caucus members from California, Texas, Virginia, and New York received the lion’s share, channeled from firms in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
     In a recent study, the Teal Group estimates that spending on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will increase over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion. That’s more than $89 billion in the next 10 years. "The UAV market will continue to be strong despite cuts in defense spending," claims Philip Finnegan, Teal’s director of corporate analysis. "UAVs have proved their value in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said, "and will continue to be a high priority for militaries in the United States and worldwide."
     On  April 23, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights will hold a hearing Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing. If you can't attend, you can submit a statement for the record. Chairman Durbin has invited advocates and stakeholders to offer their perspectives and experiences by submitting written testimony.
     Submissions are limited to 10 pages, submitted in PDF or Word Document form to Stephanie Trifone at  no later than Monday, April 22, 2013 at 5:00 p.m. Statements can be addressed to Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Cruz, and Members of the Subcommittee. For some reason they can’t accept previously published information as a statement.
     The FAA is currently writing regulations for domestic drone use. According to Defending Dissent, the federal agency's jurisdiction is limited. But it could provide safeguards such as compliance with Fair Information Practices for all licensees, creation of a public database of drone operators – with information about the surveillance equipment used and the operator's data minimization procedure. Operation of drones could also be restricted to only licensees, ruling out wildcat rental operators. Otherwise, it’s going to be crazy up there.

Related Story: How Are Drones Used in the US? PBS Newshour

THIS WEEK ON REBEL NEWS:  Drone laws  vs. drone business, Patrick Leahy and the F-35s, Django unseen in China, the politics of explosion, economic warnings, and a new leak at Fukushima. VERMONT: Marathon security, no pipeline reversals, and considering online gambling. Here are highlights:

Another Time, Another Bomb

Django Unseen… in China

Quentin Tarantino’s irreverent film about slavery in America, Django Unchained, had China’s street and media buzzing last week after the film was banned from Chinese theaters. The move, beginning with a dramatic plug pulling in a Beijing cinema less than a minute into a screening, came despite major promotion, including telephone interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio. Notices halting all screenings quickly appeared at other cinemas.
     No reason was given for the ban, but the theory is that the full-frontal shots of male slaves and brief female nudity, together with the violence and profanity, could have triggered the censorship. Some media outlets tied to human rights groups have connected the ban and depictions of torture in the film, suggesting that the scenes bothered Chinese officials concerned that audiences might see a parallel with the state’s own alleged torture of dissidents. New ad brag: Banned in Beijing!

Are we headed for another crash?

A bubble is biggest before it bursts.  Keep it in mind If you listen to talking heads these days, whose happy talk suggests the current stock market boom is set to continue indefinitely. According to CNN, Americans are more optimistic than they’ve been in six years.
     But as CNBC analyst Marc Faber also explains, "If we continue to move up, the probability of a crash becomes higher."  As to when it might happen, he predicts "sometime in the second half of this year."
     How? After all, the stock market isn’t crashing. But there are signs of trouble. As in 2008, it could take stocks extra time to catch up with other economic realities. 
     What realities? One is the demand for energy. Similar to 2008, overall US demand is falling.  Obviously, it’s good for people to consumer less energy. But it’s also an indication that economic activity is starting to slow down. Beyond that, gold and silver are falling, the price of oil continues to decline, markets in Europe are collapsing, and consumer confidence lags in the US.
     Let’s start with gold. The price was down by about 4 percent last week and has fallen below $1500 an ounce for the first time since July 2011. Overall, the price has dropped 10 percent since the beginning of the year, and is about 22 percent below a record high in September 2011. The rapid fall in recent days—some call it the biggest plunge in more than 30 years -- indicates that deflationary tendencies are strengthening worldwide. Nevertheless, gold remains a safe investment for the long-term. (Imagine Jim Cramer sound effect here)
     So does silver, although the price fell by about 5 percent last week.  If it falls much more it will present an even more favorable buying opportunity. Like gold, there are times when the price swings dramatically. But it could be an even better long-term investment.
     The price of oil was down about 3 percent last week. Many also see this as a positive thing. But remember 2008, a price drop came just before the crash. If the price goes below $80, that could be a signal that a major economic crisis is about to happen.
     According to Wells Fargo, the number of Americans taking loans from retirement accounts rose 28 percent over the past year. Of those taking out loans, about a third were in their 50s, followed by those in their 60s (29%) and those in their 40s (27%). The increase in the 50s group was nearly double the rise among those under 30.
     As the same time, casino spending is declining. Positive, right? But casino spending is one of the most reliable indicators about the overall health of the economy. Lean times in Vegas. 
     Turning to Europe, the unemployment rate in Greece had topped 27.2 percent, up from 25.7 percent last month. This isn’t a depression, it’s an avalanche. European financial stocks have been hit particularly hard -- and for a reason:  many Europe’s major banks are close to insolvent.  Last week, European financial stocks fell to seven month lows.
     According to Reuters, the number of Spanish companies going bankrupt is up 45 percent over the past year. A record number went bust in the first quarter. Companies are under intense pressure from tight credit and low demand. The 2,564 firms filing for insolvency was a 10 percent rise from the last quarter, and a 45 percent increase from the same period last year.
    So, does all this mean another crash is coming? The real question seems to be when.

New Leak Delays Fukushima Repairs

Efforts to remove highly contaminated water from a leaking underground storage pool at the Fukushima nuclear plant were delayed this week when the plant’s operator found another leak, this time in pipes that would be used to move water to above-ground storage containers.
     Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) discovered that six gallons of water had leaked from a junction in the pipes used to move water between other storage pools. The company is having trouble  finding space to store the huge amounts of toxic water created by makeshift efforts to cool reactors at the Fukushima -plant, which was damaged two years ago by an earthquake and tsunami. Since then, Tepco has been pouring water onto the melted reactors and fuel storage pools to keep them from overheating again.
     The newest leak will force Tepco to postpone removal of water from the No. 2 storage pool while the the faulty pipe is repaired. The pool has spilled 32,000 gallons of radioactive water and may still be leaking. Another recent mishap involved the temporary loss of power for the vital cooling systems last month. A rat had short-circuited part of the electrical system.

City Marathon Looks at Security

On Sunday May 26, thousands of runners converged in Burlington to take part in the 25th annual Vermont City Marathon, with thousands more cheering them on. "I'd like to think we're safe in Vermont, but I'm sure people in Boston thought that too," said Kasey Flynn, a spectator last year who plans to run this time. But what happened last week at the Boston Marathon “is definitely going to be on all our minds.”
    To help ease public fears race organizers and emergency responders met Tuesday to talk about safety. Burlington police say there will most likely be increased security, which could include bomb sweeps, more cops and asking people to leave any bags behind. If so, they'll get the word out soon. "Nothing is off the table," said Burlington Police Deputy Chief Andi Higbee.


Environmental regulators say that Act 250, the state’s land use law, applies to any proposal to reverse the flow in an oil pipeline that crosses Vermont. It’s a victory for environmentalists during the fierce debate over another pipeline, the proposed Keystone XL, which would move tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas.
     The Vermont Natural Resources Council says the pipeline that carries oil from Portland, Maine to Montreal could have its flow reversed and carry Canadian tar sands oil through Vermont, New Hampshire and western Maine. The Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Corp. claims to have no “active plan” to do that. But the ruling quotes its CEO telling Vermont Public Radio that the company has been "aggressively looking at every opportunity to use these excellent assets in a way that will continue to provide for the North American energy infrastructure needs." The ruling says that statement means the possibility of such a pipeline reversal is "not hypothetical."
     Monday's decision cited a July 2010 spill of more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil from a pipeline near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Kirsten Sultan, coordinator of the District 7 Environmental Commission, noted that the tar sands oil sank to the river bottom, coating wildlife, rocks, and sediment. “Cleanup from this spill is incomplete, with costs at $800 million and rising," she wrote.

VT LOTTERY: Going Online?

Online lottery sales may be coming to Vermont. The Vermont Lottery Commission is currently looking at ways to expand its base, according to Lottery Commission Chair Martha O’Connor. A recent survey suggests that 45.4 percent of Vermonters play, slightly more women than men, with an average age of 49.
     Lotteries are operated by most US states, and generate major revenues as other sources are decreasing. But they are regressive. In other words, the percentage spent on lottery tickets rises as a person’s income falls. A famous study from Cornell University concluded that people “with lower incomes substitute lottery play for other entertainment.” Sales and poverty are strongly related. The poor appear to see lotteries as “a convenient and otherwise rare opportunity for radically improving their standard of living,” said the study.
     In another study, Duke University researchers found that the more education someone has the less one spends on lottery tickets: dropouts averaged $700 annually, compared to college graduate’s at $178. Those from households with annual incomes below $25,000 spent an average of nearly $600 a year on lottery tickets; those from households earning over $100,000 averaged $289. Blacks spent an average of $998, while whites spent $210.
     In other words, lotteries take the most from those who can least afford it, essentially redistributing wealth from the poor to the batter-heeled.  They escape what is really a disguised taxation simply by not buying tickets. Why not? They’re already “winners.” Retail merchants meanwhile get commissions on a virtually cost-free product -- lottery tickets. And politicians boast that they haven’t raised taxes.
     The recent Vermont survey tested interest playing games online and found that 10.5 percent of the 1,000 people polled — both players and non-players — would more likely play if offered the chance on the Internet. Thirteen percent said they can see themselves using a smart phone to buy tickets.
     Supporters of bringing online lottery sales to Vermont dismiss worries that it would make it even easier for people with gambling problems to lose big.
     Since its creation in 1977, the Vermont Lottery has attempted to balance two competing goals — “produce the maximum amount of net revenue consonant with the dignity of the state and the general welfare of the people.” This tension – between profit and public welfare – will play out next year once the commission makes its official recommendations to the House Ways and Means Committee.
     Jim Condon, a key member of Ways and Means, has already telegraphed support for at least considering online sales. He thinks the lottery is just a form of benign entertainment that produces revenues and helps lower property taxes. The money people drop on tickets is state revenue they are “voluntarily giving up,” he argues.
     However, Ways and Means Chair Janet Ancel and House Speaker Shap Smith are skeptical. “If I had been in the Legislature I wouldn’t have supported Powerball,” Ancel told the Burlington Free Press last week. But she wants to revisit “how much we want to depend on the lottery for essential services.”
     If selling tickets online is needed to keep the lottery alive, Smith claims to be persuadable. But If it’s “a nose under the tent to expanded gambling, I have real concerns.”

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
- Garcia Marquez

It’s been a week of explosions, first in Boston at the Marathon and then at a fertilizer plant in Texas.  Intense emotions and hot words. Cowardice in the US Senate –and by another maniac or deranged group.
     But that doesn’t explain the music MSNBC has been running under news footage. Kind of a militant dirge, the kind of theme you might hear just before Bruce Willis arrives to bring some villain "to justice.” But somehow I don’t get the sense that the public is in a really forgiving mood at the moment. They’re kind of discontented, even riled up.
     Maybe it’s the music.

VT House Passes Pot Decriminalization

On April 16, in a 92-49 vote, the Vermont House passed a bill decriminalizing possession of limited amounts of marijuana. It now moves to the Senate, where chances of passage are good. At House and Senate hearings Attorney Gen. William Sorrell and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn testified in favor, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has expressed support. It’s one of the upsides of having a one-party state.
     Progressive Chris Pearson introduced H. 200 with a tri-partisan group of 38 co-sponsors. It removes criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and replaces them with a civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket. However, those under age 21 would have to undergo substance abuse screening. Under current state law, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a possible six months jail sentence for the first offense and up to two years for getting caught twice.
     Nearly two-thirds of Vermont voters (63 percent) support removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts and replacing them with a fine, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling.

The Feds vs. the Job Creators

Will Vermont also let farmers grow hemp? And if they do, will the DEA round them all up? Farmers Behind Bars: new reality TV concept. Anyway, that’s the worst case scenario as the Vermont House Agriculture Committee basically announces support for the idea.  In March, a proposal to let Vermont farmers grow the “same” plant that produces marijuana passed the Senate.
     As most people know, it’s not really the same. Plants grown for hemp are raised differently and contain much lower levels of marijuana’s active ingredient. Basically, no buzz.  Yet it’s illegal under federal law, supposedly because it can somehow be diverted for the drug trade.
     ‘I think all we’re up against is that the DEA feels this is a dangerous crop, which we’ve discovered as a committee it just is not,’’ says Rep. Carolyn ­Partridge, Committee chair and supporter of hemp legalization.
     It’s the archetypical multi-purpose crop. Hemp can be used as a heating ­fuel, as fabric for cloth and rope (the Navy used to love it), as construction material, paint, and more. And they say it grows pretty well in Vermont’s tough climate.
     In 2008, Vermont passed a law calling on the Agency of Agriculture (AoA) to begin issuing hemp growing permits to farmers -- as soon as the federal government gets serious about creating jobs and raising revenue.
     After all, hemp growers are J creators. And the J is for jobs. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Transmedia Way: Storytelling Across Platforms

By Greg Guma

For the Star Trek generation – which should also cover most Baby Boomers – the notion of a single cool, compact device that delivers all imagined media functions has been a captivating vision of the future. Just push a button and, presto, you see whatever info you need. But now that we’re well into an era of media convergence, that’s apparently no longer the goal. Instead, devices are proliferating, while information and stories are conveyed across more and more platforms.

Some predict extinction for the “old media.” But will books really disappear because of the new digital options? Not likely, since printed books do seem to deliver a unique experience. Then again, so do handheld devices, laptop computers and home theaters, among others. What seems to be happening, for the moment anyway, is a rough and tumble multi-platform co-existence, and the drivers include culture, economics and technology.
     For corporate media giants it’s a matter of synergy, the ability to develop and market their franchises across various divisions. But convergence is also turning more media “consumers” into active participants – as engaged fans, volunteer distributors, and, increasingly, producers of content. As Middlebury College student Aaron Smith noted in a 2009 study of “Transmedia storytelling for Television 2.0,” the processes of convergence “form a perfect incubator for transmedia stories to flourish, setting the stage for narratives to flow across media platforms.” This in turn is changing how both creators and consumers see the storytelling process.
     These issues and more will be explored in Vermont on April 26-28 at Transmedia:The Future of Storytelling Across Platforms, a weekend film festival in White River Junction. In addition to the screening of seven feature films, the festival will include hands-on workshops and presentations that examine the intersection of filmmaking, writing and web design for interactive and user-generated storytelling.
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One of the earliest to notice our changing media landscape was Henry Jenkins, currently teaching and writing at the University of South California after a decade as director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. In 1992, for example, Jenkins noted the impact of fan culture as more people began appropriating and “repurposing” content for their own amusement. Twenty years later it’s common for fans of a TV show, film or book to interact with the creators and artists through social media.
     Jenkins calls transmedia a set of choices about how to tell “a particular story to a particular audience in a particular context depending on the particular resources available to particular producers.” What he specifically excludes from this definition is “business as usual” projects that are “simply slapping a transmedia label on the same old franchising practices we’ve seen for decades.”
     In an influential 2007 essay, "Transmedia Storytelling 101," Jenkins described a process in which “integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”  Most such stories aren’t based on individual characters or specific plots, he argued, but on “complex worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and stories.”
     Because this type of storytelling requires coordination across media, he believes it has worked best either for indie projects where one artist shapes the story across all media involved, or those where strong collaboration is encouraged across divisions of the same company.
     New media tools have reduced production costs, removed some of the distribution barriers, and expanded the range of delivery channels. At the same time, however, concentration of ownership continues to accelerate.  Global corporations like Viacom, News Corp, Disney and Time Warner all have divisions creating films, TV, video games and comics. This gives them the ability, and an enormous economic incentive, to produce and market productions across various platforms.
     But branding and repetition aren’t usually enough to assure success. Along with convergence has come another dynamic, the attraction of “divergent narratives,” ones that extent stories and characters through social media, games, magazines, newspapers, and other channels.  Viewers increasingly follow their favorites online, download episodes or webisodes, and use syndication platforms like Hulu. You can watch – and learn about the back story, the production and players—whenever you want on a smart phone or streamed to your TV screen.  Some shows, particularly sci fi and fantasy, urge viewers to “synch” up and participate online as they watch episodes.
     This shift in how people consume media – especially films and serial stories – also seems to be “unbundling” them; that is, the primary object in the exchange isn’t always a CD, DVD, newspaper or TV channel. Very often it is a specific article, episode or scene, sometimes just a brief clip or single track. You obtain it however you can, then share it and perhaps add a comment.  Whether this improves communication or adds to human knowledge remains to be seen.
     On the other hand, it’s much easier these days to create or manipulate photos, video and music; in effect, to become an independent content producer. As Jenkins sees it, the power of this participation isn’t mainly its potential to challenge the dominant commercial culture, but rather the ability to write over it, to remix, remold, amend and extend it – and then re-circulate a new creation, possibly even crossing back into the “mainstream” media.
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For corporate media, one early model of transmedia storytelling emerged out of the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street. In 1997, a cross-platform episode began with the investigation of a webcast killing. Detectives from the “Second Shift” closed the case on the Internet only to have it re-opened on the next Homicide TV broadcast. The case concluded online the following week. Each part made sense, but crossing platforms enhanced the experience.
     Two years later, two productions marked transmedia’s full emergence as a cultural force. The two could barely be more different.
     First, in March 1999, came The Matrix, the iconic movie franchise later extended into an online game, comic books and anime films, along the way contributing enduring memes and phrases. Rather than offering adaptations of the original material, each project added something new. The video game wasn’t well received, and the connection of Parts 2 and 3: Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, to transmedia content left some film viewers in the dark. However, those who crossed platforms got the full effect.
     The summer after the first Matrix film, The Blair Witch Project became a cultural phenomenon, and soon one of the biggest low budget successes in film history. The key ingredient was a website. Established a year before the film was released, it extended the story with alleged sightings, faux-documentaries and other devices designed to make the events seem real.  Blair Witch demonstrated the power of a devoted fan base and effective multi-platform promotion and storytelling.
     Since then, shows like Heroes and Lost have attempted something similar, spreading their narrative across platforms, while Canada’s ReGenesis, a mystery series about bio-terrorism, used a website to let viewers become “field agents” and play an extended reality game.  Two new post-apocalypse TV shows, Revolution and Defiance, currently urge viewers to synch up as new episodes air.  There’s something about sci fi that lends itself to extensions and interactivity.
     Still, the transmedia revolution has been relatively slow, in part due to a 2007 writer’s strike just as the power of multi-platform storytelling was being noticed. The big studios nevertheless argued that streaming video and other “ancillary” content is just promotional, and thus declined to offer writers much in residual payments. The theory is that Guild writers haven’t done their best work since because they aren’t being fully compensated. Perhaps. But it could also be true that, regardless of how much money is involved, it isn’t that easy to do.
     Ideally, a transmedia story invites the consumer to gradually discover a world across various media, layer by layer, and perhaps also interact with it. It encourages examination and ongoing investigation. But this means attention, involvement, and enough ability and time to follow a narrative across various platforms – at least to fully appreciate or understand it.  Well, you can rule out my mom, anyone not online, and most folks over 60.
     It’s a perfect approach for some projects, especially those hoping to tap into a base of collective knowledge or interest. But it’s not for everyone, and there will always be works of singular vision that, though they may be adaptable, aren’t necessarily improved by extension. Sometimes the best media experience is just to plow straight through to the end, then “close the book” and see what’s next.