Let’s Ride: North to the Yukon and Southern Alaska, Day -1

It’s late, and there’s still lots to get done before I can roll, but tomorrow I head out on a trip I’ve wanted to take for a long time.

My friend Howard and I are riding our motorcycles from Texas (for Howard) and Nebraska (me) up to the Canadian Rockies; up the Alaska Highway up to Watson Lake, Yukon Territory; then down the Cassier Highway to Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder, Alaska; then across Canada down to extreme northwest North Dakota to see where my grandfather homesteaded back in the early 1900s; and then finally back home.

Over the next two weeks I’ll be posting photos, maps, and accounts of our trip. Hope you’ll all come along for the ride.

Good night!

North to Alaska map

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Another Big Tremor in the the Earthquake in Slow Motion: Part 1 – Some Context

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 is going down in history as a really big day in the world of television. The fact that C-SPAN aired cell phone video through the Periscope social media service for much of the day provided by Democratic members of Congress holding a sit-in in the U.S. House is nothing short of a siesmic change in our media world. This is the first of two blog posts looking at how television is changing.

Let me provide some context here.

Ken Auletta, Three Blind MiceJournalist Ken Auletta, writing in his book Three Blind Mice, said that the television networks were facing an earthquake in slow motion in the late 1980s.  There was the rise of cable, the growth of VCRs, the broth of new broadcast networks, and the realization by audience members that they ought to be able to control what they watched and when they watched it.

That earthquake continued to rattle on through the 1990s and the 2000ies with the growth of digital cable, direct broadcast satellite, DVDs and the digital video recorder.

And then, as I posted back in October of 2005, Apple set off what has turned out to be one of the biggest tremors in this ongoing quake.  Apple announced a new version of the iPod music player that  would now handle video files as well as music. Apple entering the video player market was a small thing. the big thing was that Apple was partnering with Disney to sell ABC Television’s top-rated TV shows through the iTunes media store. These programs were available the day after they aired on the network and cost $1.95 per episode without commercial interuption.

As I told my freshman class that morning, all mass media have both a hardware and a software component. There had been cool video hardware before, but there had not been such a revolutionary new source of programming for these devices that could be used by ordinary people.  The fact that Disney was willing to sell their top television titles the day after they air on broadcast in a form that you can keep and replay as often as you wanted was a truly major change in the media world.

That revolution of consumer control over what, when and where they want to watch continued on with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

While the click-wheel iPods with physical hard drives are now in the archives of history (though I  happily still use my final edition iPod classic), watching video on our mobile devices is more popular than ever today. While our video world is quite different today, it does involve watching video that we have purchased online and either download or stream to the latest technological marvel.

At the end of my post nearly 11 years ago, I noted:

“Mark my words, Oct. 12, 2005, was a big day.”

I stand by that statement today, and I would argue that 11 years in the future, I will hold up the importance of Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

You can read Part 2 of this here.

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Wild Ponies: ‘Making It’ in music in the age of streaming and file sharing

There’s a popular trope out there these days that with streaming music and file sharing, there’s just no way for musicians to make a living as musicians. Game over.  Done. Unless you’re already big and famous.

But don’t tell that to Doug and Telisha Williams, aka the band Wild Ponies. As of this writing in the spring of 2016, the Williams have just released a new album, Radiant, on their own label; they released a limited-edition acoustic version of the same album at the same time; and they have a new album in the works to be recorded in the summer.  They’ve also been touring throughout the US and Europe, and in March they completed a two-week tour of … the Yukon Territory. Yes, northwest Canada, where they travelled from the airport on a trailer attached to a snow machine. (That’s north country speak for a snowmobile.)

Doug and Telisha met in high school where he was the drum major and she was a majorette.  They then played together in a rock ‘n’ roll cover band. “We eventually got married and tried day jobs, and that didn’t work, so we went to being musicians,” Doug said in a recent interview.  They’ve now been married more than 17 years. Wild Ponies play roots and Americana music – sort of a mix of country, bluegrass, blues, folk and rock. When they got started everything was acoustic, But their latest album is all-electric for Doug’s guitar, though Telisha still plays the upright bass. They are often accompanied by drummer Megan Jane and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin.

“We’ve never been with a traditional record label,” Doug said. “We’ve never courted any of the major labels. And while we’ve flirted with the small indie labels, we’ve now formed out own small label.  When you have your own label, it means you spend more time on the business side than you want to… But it also gives you the responsibility.  You have to do your own work with radio promoter and the promotion person.

“It also means you have to raise your own capital, which is tough. It means you have to have a closer relationship between you and your fans.”

Doug says that principles for success he and Telisha count on come from the work of Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly and his theory of the “1,000 True Fans.” This is the idea that artists can be successful apart from a large company or media organization if they can find 1,000 true fans.  Kelly writes:

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res-version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

Doug says that artists who have a thousand or so true fans can have “a pretty good middle-class life. We don’t survive without fan engagement.  We don’t play a show anywhere where we don’t know someone in the audience on a first name basis.  Anywhere in the world. Amsterdam, London, southern Germany… Little towns in southern Germany.” (Full disclosure – your author and his wife are true fans of Wild Ponies.)

Wild Ponies inhabit a part of the music business (media business, really) located somewhere between the mega-stars who bring in enormous numbers of fans and the garage bands who hope to get a hundred plays on YouTube.  They inhabit a spot between the long tail and the short head on the media distribution curve.

For the Ponies’ first professionally produced album, Things that Used to Shine, they raised more than $30,000 from 340 backers through the crowd funding Web site Kickstarter. To get funding though Kickstarter, musicians (like everyone else seeking Kickstarter funding) put together a video pitch along with written details about their qualifications and the album they intend to make. Potential contributors pledge to fund projects they find interesting, but they only get charged if the project reaches the financial goal the creators set. If the project doesn’t reach its funding goal, no money is exchanged.  Assuming the project does reach its goal and gets funded, the people who pledge do not get an investment in album; instead, they get the satisfaction of supporting the project and very often some kind of reward, such as a copy of the album, a t-shirt, or even a dinner with the artist. (When filmmaker Spike Lee funded a small indie movie through Kickstarter, $10,000 donors got to go with Spike to a Knicks NBA game.)

Doug says that he and Telisha are pretty happy with the way their professional life is going. “People say “I hope you guys make it.”  But we are doing well.  I don’t even know what ‘make it’ means.  We’re paying our bills.  You can be a successful lawyer without arguing a case before the Supreme Court.  But I consider us successful. I love what we do.”


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Some thoughts on Captain America, IMAX and 3-D

I went to see Captain America: Civil War yesterday at the IMAX theater in 3-D, in which Marvel continues to show that super hero movies can tell stories of personal and political substance.

While I have enjoyed most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I think the two most recent Captain America moviesCivil War and Winter Soldier — are both excellent character studies and meditations on values. Both deal with the importance of personal loyalty, your moral code, and a willingness to sacrifice yourself for something bigger. They also look at the complex issue of a World War II era soldier/super hero having to come to terms with a post-9/11 world.  I mean, we don’t really expect summer pop corn movies to give a deep examination on the nature of contemporary fascism. And yet, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says about his Black Panther comic series, along with dealing with heavy contemporary issues, you also need to have “supervillians with cool powers.” (BTW, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther (king and super hero) is one of the best things about Civil War. He brings a gravity an depth to the film as both a protector and ruler of a peaceful country that has just suffered a devastating loss. Name sound familiar? Baseman is the great classically trained actor who played Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42. As a second not, I’ve had no interest in Spider Man for years.  The version of the web slinger in Civil War is a great interpretation!)

As a side note, I would say that the IMAX production values of the movie were excellent, especially the extended battle scene shot in native IMAX format.

The 3-D? Not so much. The film seemed to be primarily shot with 2-D composition that did not make the 3-D interesting or useful. Lots and lots of quick cuts which moved the action along but don’t work well in 3-D. Three-D movies don’t have to be shot in 3-D to be effective, but they most definitely need to be composed for 3-D.
The Tron reboot, Prometheus, and Gravity all made fantastic use of 3-D. In all of those, the 3-D was used to place you in the scene rather than to show off action.

Regular readers here know I’m a fan of seeing movies in the best theater possible, and the cost of an IMAX ticket is well worth the money for Civil War.

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Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

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Nebraska Press Association Workshop – Using narrative in reporting

This weekend, my colleague Terri Diffenderfer and I gave a presentation at the Nebraska Press Association annual convention on using narrative techniques in reporting.  We had a great time working with some excellent reporters.  I promised to share links to some of the materials we talked about, so here they are!

And here’s an interview with Buchanan from Charlie Rose during her novel writing phase.

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Prince Rogers Nelson RIP – Dick Clark’s Toughest Interview

Television stations broke into their afternoon programming today to announce the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, the 57-year-old exuberant, creative, innovative musician who was almost as famous for his love of personal privacy as he was for incredible peformances. As of this writing on Thursday afternoon, there was no announcement of cause of death.

President Obama issued a statement that said:

Today the world lost a creative icon. Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly, or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all.”

When the famous DJ/Host Dick Clark talked about the hardest interview he ever had with a pop/rock/soul star, the answer wasn’t a tough one for him.  It was his interview, if that’s what you can call it, with a 21-year-old Prince (who claimed to be 19). Prince’s music on the show was fantastic.  His interview – difficult.  Sorry I can’t embed it here, but follow this link to to Deadspin for a replay of Purpleness’s segment on American Bandstand.

Prince’s pouring rain 2007 Super Bowl halftime show. 
Personally, I don’t see the point of ever having another music act at the Super Bowl ever again after this one. A great behind-the-scenes look at Prince playing his halftime show during a massive rain storm.  I knew at the time I wondered how he and the rest of the band weren’t getting electrocuted.

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Guest Blog Post – Heroes of the Dorm on ESPN2

The following is a guest blog post by my colleague Aaron Blackman, who in addition to being a forensics coach and comm lecturer is also a big fan of video and tabletop games. 

For the second year in a row, ESPN decided to forego showing traditional physical sports during primetime on a Sunday night. Rather than watch the Golden State Warriors tie the NBA record for number of wins in a season, many viewers (myself included) chose to watch 10 college students duke it out in a PC game for a chance at free college tuition. On April 10th, ESPN2 showcased eSports by airing the live Grand Final round of the Heroes of the Dorm tournament. The tournament began with over 400 teams from Universities across the country, and ended with students from Arizona State University winning up to $75,000 each in tuition for the rest of their college careers.

david chen photo tweetHeroes of the Dorm is a playful name twist on the video game that was being played in the tournament: Heroes of the Storm. Released on June 2nd, 2015 by Blizzard Entertainment, Heroes of the Storm is is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) similar to other popular titles like DoTA2 and League of Legends.

The concept beyond a MOBA is simple: two teams of 5 players square off in a digital battle to destroy the opposing team’s base. Each player chooses a hero that complements their team and levels up during the course of the match. The players try to sway the course of the battle by destroying enemy fortifications as well as fighting the other team – all in a bid to reach the enemy HQ, the core.

Whereas matches in other MOBA’s typically last 30-45 minutes, Heroes of the Storm tries to cater to a more casual audience with matches that last around 15-20 minutes. In addition, players can choose from the ever growing list of 50 possible heroes to play as, all of which are established characters from popular Blizzard video games such as Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo.

So why exactly does ESPN air the end of a video game tournament on a Sunday night? Just last week, Fortune reported on Newzoo, a research firm that analyzed eSports and the main place fans turn to for watching them: Twitch.tv. According to Newzoo, 475.5 million hours of eSports content was viewed on Twitch from July to December in 2015 alone. Newzoo also forecasts that eSports will grow to be a $765 million industry by 2018.

ESPN certainly seems interested in cashing in on a growing phenomenon, and have a dedicated eSports news page. However, without a consistent schedule or dedicated channel, ESPN’s attempts to cover eSports seem half-hearted. The dissonance caused by watching an eSport on ESPN, while physical sports scores tracked along the bottom of the screen was jarring.

I spent a few hours watching and tweeting Saturday night during the Semifinal round, as well as Sunday for the Grand Finals. Following the hashtag #HeroesoftheDorm, I ended up making a few observations. First, there were outliers on both ends of the spectrum for ESPN2 airing a video game tournament. Video game fans used to watching free streams on Twitch were disheartened that a cable subscription was required to watch on Saturday and Sunday.

On the other side of the argument, sports fans were upset that video games were being aired in the first place.

Second, ESPN pulled off a delicate balance between informing newcomers and satisfying gamers. Fans had a hard time getting used to a watered down version of the on-screen scoreboard.

ESPN had to make the information accessible to viewers who have never watched eSports before, but at the cost of leaving gamers in the dark on key statistics. The organizers clearly explained the video game in a very basic way each night, but only at the beginning of the broadcasts.

ESPN has staked its interest in a rapidly growing industry, but only time will tell if they can work out the kinks on airing video games alongside sports.

1 (Good photo of the venue for the Grand Finals)

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Where’s Rey?

Sitting in my garage is a plastic storage bin full of old Star Wars action figures that belonged at one time to my kids. If you dig through it, there will be Darth Vader, a Luke Skywalker, a Han Solo, maybe even a little green Yoda. There might be a Princess Leia, but that would be about it for female figures from the original trilogy.

You might expect with the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens there would be a one for Daisy Ridley’s character Rey, the movie’s lead; a General Leia (a promotion from princess, after all, for Carrie Fisher); and of course there has to be one for Gwendoline Christie’s bad ass Stormtrooper Captain Phasma! But when Hasbro released its first set of Force Awakens action figure toys, none of these women were represented. There was Rey’s co-lead, Finn; Chewbacca, and the villain Kylo Ren. But there were also an unnamed Stormtrooper and an unnamed TIE fighter pilot.

Where's Rey Action Figures

Why no women? It’s not like Hasbro doesn’t sell lots of female action figures – it’s just that they are generally Disney princesses, not women with quarterstaffs, blasters, or legions of rebel soldiers… So even if there aren’t action figures, you would at least expect there to be female character tokens in The Force Awakens edition of Monopoly… Nope.

Well, at least not until the #WheresRey hashtag campaign got started on social media and led to shaming Hasbro into including Rey and other female characters into subsequent toy releases. But this problem is not limited to Star Wars toys. Caroline Framke, writing for Vox, notes that the toys for the Avengers omitted Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, even though they managed to include her motorcycle and give it to Captain America. The same was true for Zoe Saldana’s Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy – and Saldana is a veteran of action movies, having stared in Avatar and multiple Star Trek movies. (You can read more about this on the great girl geek blog The Mary Sue.)

Framke writes:

The idea is that Hasbro wants to cater to a female audience, but it’s concentrating those efforts on princesses rather than diversifying its existing “boy” brands to be more friendly to girls.

What this logic ignores, of course, is the notion that female fans of Star Wars or Marvel heroes, who finally got to see something of themselves in Rey or Black Widow or Gamora, might want to own an action figure that reflects as much.

It ignores the notion that both girls and boys can like superhero toys, as well as Disney princesses.


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Trailer drops for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

OK, so I might have squealed.  Just a little.

 

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