Telling the story of the California fires through comics

We often think of comics as being either funny stories or super hero dramas.  And they can be all that. But many of the best comics tell intensely personal stories about life, death, and surviving the time in-between.

Let's GoI was reminded of this last week when I read the heartbreaking “A Fire Story” by writer/artist Brian Fies that tells the story of his family’s experience with the runaway wildfires still burning in California and the West. Fies is an award-winning artist who won an Eisner Award for his comic “Mom’s Cancer.” (An Eisner is commonly described as the Oscar or Grammy for the world of comics.)

Ties told The Washington Post’s comics blogger Michael Cavna:

“When I began working on my ‘Fire’ comic, my wife said the same thing she did when I began ‘Mom’s Cancer’: ‘Well, it’ll be good therapy for you.’

“It is that, but I really see my main motivation as bearing witness,” Fies says. “ ‘I was there — this is what I saw.’ I was a newspaper reporter for a few years after college and have been a freelance writer since, and this comic, like ‘Mom’s Cancer,’ feels like doing journalism to me. I’m using words plus pictures to explain what happened and tell the truth as best I can…

“One thing I think is true is that readers respond to authenticity,” says Fies. “They sense the difference between someone who’s lived an experience and someone who’s faking it. I think in order to be good, a story has to tell the truth. I did the best I could.”

I urge you all to follow the link and read the entire comic.  It’s not only a great story, but it will also give you a much better understanding of what’s happening on the West Coast right now. (Please note that the comic contains a limit amount of bad language.  Given the context, I think it’s understandable.)

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How Lin-Manuel Miranda helped boost a tweet about insulin in Puerto Rico

InsulinThe one thing you need to know about me as I tell this story is that I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic.

My pancreas checked out several years ago and no longer does much.  Which means that I have to manually control how much insulin I take in so I can process the carbohydrates I eat too much of.

The thing non-diabetics might not know is that insulin is a relatively perishable medication. You need to keep insulin in a refrigerator for long-term storage, and you absolutely must keep it from getting too hot — like hot-summer-day hot. If you run out of insulin and can’t get a fresh vial or pen of it, your blood sugars shoot up, you start feeling terrible, and, if this goes on too long, you do serious damage to your body and eventually die.

I tell you this to explain why, when I heard this story on NPR, I started to cry.

In the story, diabetic Juan Natal came to Puerto Rico to visit ill parents, and he got stranded there because of Hurricane Maria.  His trip home to the mainland was delayed about a week, and uring his unexpectedly long stay, he ran out of money, and, more importantly, insulin.

And yet, even as tough as things were for him, Natal by now is likely (hopefully!) on his way back to his home where there are refrigerators and drug stores stocked with insulin. But my heart continues to break for those living in Puerto Rico who have no idea where their next vials of fresh insulin will come from.

So I was thrilled to see this tweet from diabetes advocate Ally (who tweets under the handle @verylightnosuga) that the Lilly Corporation was distributing vials and injection pens full of fresh insulin around the island of Puerto Rico.

When I saw this, I thought about Natal’s story, and I wanted to do everything I could to help spread the word.  But what could I do here in central Nebraska?

Of course!

Ask Hamilton composer superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose family is from Puerto Rico, to help. He’s been very busy with fund raising and activism for PR since Maria stormed through.  But he’s got 1.8 million followers.  What chance is there that he will see and pass this on?  Can’t hurt to ask…

And within a couple of hours, this very simple reply pops up:

And with that emoji pointing to my request, Ally’s message took off. From Lin-Manuel’s account, within 24 hours it has been shared more than 3,500 times and liked more than 7,000 times.  From my much more modest account, it’s been shared and liked more than 400 times.

And because of that, word of the problem of insulin shortages in Puerto Rico and news of the locations where Lilly is distributing it has been boosted massively.  Ally’s message alone has had more than 1,100 shares.

So, thank you so much Mr. Miranda for your help! And thanks to everyone else who helped share this important message.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to help share the song and video Lin-Manuel Miranda composed and assembled for Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria relief. In a riff from West Side Story, it’s called “Almost Like Praying.” (Maria in West Side Story, get it…?) You can help with the relief effort your self by downloading the song from your favorite service.  I bought my copy through iTunes.




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How watching a movie leads to Facebook ad

I recently watched the movie The Fifth Element on TV at home, and I don’t believe I posted anything about it, though I certainly searched it for cast and crew information. Fascinating to see that such a low level of online engagement has produced this ad on my Facebook page… (I did, however, watch it using iTunes on my Apple TV.)

Fifth Element T-shirt

This ad for Fifth Element t-shirt showed up on my Facebook page this morning.

The trailer for Luc Besson’s  The Fifth Element:

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A few more thoughts on the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a fairly simple test for the presence of women in movies.  It asks three simple questions:

  • Are there two or more women in the movie who have names?
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

There has been a lot of controversy over the test that include the fact that movies  that pass can be quite sexist, the fact that movies with prominent roles for women don’t pass, and that the test ignores the role of women behind the camera. Here are a couple of videos that deal with these issues:

Top 10 Movies that Surprisingly Pass the Bechdel Test (From MsMojo)

The Bechdel Test is the WORST

An intersting video about the role (or lack thereof) of women behind the camera in the movies, from indie filmmaker Bri Castellini.



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When tragedy strikes: Dealing with breaking news

As I write this, we as a nation are reeling from a mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday night that left at least 58 people dead and more than 500 people injured.

As the story started to break, there were lots of contradictory versions of the story circulating.  Fake news? No.  It’s just that when something big and horrifying happens, the truth can be hard to come by.

NPR has been including the following statement at the bottom of their web stories, in their their podcasts and over the air:

NPR’s media news show On The Media has a guide for news consumers dealing with breaking news, shared here by media critic Matthew Gertz:

And journalist/journalism professor Steve Fox reminds us that the desire for speed by journalists is more likely to lead to errors than is any agenda of the journalist:

Media sociologist Zeynep Tufekci points out this morning  that as reporters, we must always keep in mind what the effects of our coverage can be:

Boston Globe reporter Astead Herndon noted in June 0f 2016 following the Orlando night club shooting that the National Associations of Black Journalists and Hispanic Journalists warns against using superlatives in stories about mass shootings:

Today, NPR’s culture blogger Linda Holmes put up a tweet that really spoke to me as a media professional:

Finally, on days like this we must remember the words of Fred Rogers:

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MLK’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” is still relevant today

Over the last couple of days, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has been getting lots of mention on Twitter and other social media in reaction to the NFL players and management participating in the #takeaknee protests.  

Here’s a typical example with a tweet from Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse followed by one from religion writer Rachel Held Evans:

If you do a search on Twitter for “Birmingham Jail,” you will literally come up with hundreds of references to it over the last month. With all that attention, I think it is worth reposting a talk I gave at the Martin Luther King, Jr. candlelight vigil  in 2015.  Here’s what I had to say:

Visalli-11-10-13When we think of public relations, we think of a professional in a suit trying to persuade us about something related to a large corporation. But not all PR is practiced by big business.

Civil rights leader The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a brilliant understanding of public relations during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

The goal of the campaign was to have non-violent demonstrations and resistance to force segregated businesses to open up to African Americans. What King, and the members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wanted to do was stage a highly visible demonstration that would not only force change in Birmingham, but also grab the attention of the entire American public.

King and his colleagues picked Birmingham because it was one of he most segregated cities in America and because it had Eugene “Bull” Conner as police commissioner.

Conner was a racist who could be counted on to attack the peaceful marchers. Birmingham was a city where black protestors were thrown in jail, and the racists were bombing homes and churches. There was a black neighborhood that had so many bombings it came to be known as Dynamite Hill.

Dr. King and his colleagues had planned demonstrations and boycotts in Birmingham, but held off with them in order to let the political system and negotiations work. But time passed, and nothing changed. Signs were still up at the lunch counters and water fountains, and protestors were still headed to jail.

King and the rest of the SCLC needed to get attention for the plight of African Americans in cities like Birmingham.

They needed to do more than fight back against the racism of segregation. They needed to get Americans of good will in all the churches and synagogues to hear their voices.

Starting in April of 1963, predominantly African American volunteers would march in the streets, hold sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and boycott local businesses in Birmingham. As the protests started, so did the arrests.

On Good Friday, King and Abernathy joined in the marching so that they would be arrested. While King was in jail, he was given a copy of the Birmingham News, in which there was an article where white Alabama clergy urged the SCLC to stop the demonstrations and boycotts and allow the courts to solve the problem of segregation.

But King was tired of waiting, and so he wrote what would become one of the great statements of the civil rights cause. One that spoke to people who were fundamentally their friends, not their enemies. This came to be known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Writing the letter was not easy. Dr. King wrote it in the margins of the newspaper. He wrote it on scraps of note paper. He wrote it on panels of toilet paper. (Think about what the toilet paper was like if Dr. King was able to write on it!)

The letter spoke to the moderates who were urging restraint. To them, he wrote:

“My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas…. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”

He went on the acknowledge that perhaps he was an extremist, but that he was an extremist for love, not for hate:

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” …

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” …

And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”

And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

King’s jailhouse writings were smuggled out of the jail and published as a brochure. His eloquent words were given added force for being written in jail. As he says toward the end of his letter, it is very different to send a message from jail than from a hotel room:

“Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

Once King was released from jail eight days later, he and his followers raised the stakes. No longer would adults be marching and being arrested, children would become the vanguard. And as the children marched, photographers and reporters from around the world would document these young people being attacked by dogs, battered by water from fire hoses, and filling up the Birmingham jails.

King faced criticism for allowing the young people to face the dangers of marching in Birmingham. But he responded by criticizing the white press, asking the reporters where they had been “during the centuries when our segregated social system had been misusing and abusing Negro children.”

Although there was rioting in Birmingham, and King’s brother’s house was bombed, the campaign was ultimately successful. Business owners took down the signs that said “WHITE” and “COLORED” from the drinking fountains and bathrooms, and anyone was allowed to eat at the lunch counters. The successful protest in Birmingham set the stage for the March on Washington that would take place in August of 1963, where King would give his famous “I have a dream” speech.[King, 1998 #552],[Kasher, 1996 #553]

We are now more than fifty years from King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter was not one of his “feel good” speeches. It doesn’t raise the spirit the way his I have a dream speech did.

But it did give us a message that still matters today:

 “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

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Sunday News Pops on Twitter (All media are social)

Yesterday was surprisingly busy as a news day with my Twitter feed overflowing with rapid-fire commentary on the news. There was news about earthquakes, floods, health care, the president, the NFL, and just a bit about the new Star Trek show on CBS.

This prompted me to ask my students this morning what they saw as the most important or interesting news from the weekend.  I had them all write their choice down before people started speaking so that we would get an honest read.  Got a sometimes predictable/sometimes surprising list of stories and sources of the news.  Here’s what my whiteboard looked like at the end of class:

Class news board

What my students saw as the most significant/interesting/noticed news of the weekend.

And here is a sampling of what my Twitter looked like throughout the day.  I don’t claim it as being representative, only that it represents what I was seeing. (It’s possible that the original tweets that I saw RTs of date back to Saturday):

President Trump started off the day with a series of tweets blasting NFL players for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest treatment of African Americans by police. It was picking up a thread that got him a lot of cheers at a political rally in Alabama last week:

These were predictably followed with responses from supporters and critics.

Activist Henny Wise had a tweet storm on the subject of respect for the flag with an illustrated series of posts on the US Flag Code.  Here’s a couple of them.


Dallas Maverick’s NBA team owner Mark Cuban had this to say to people who were tired of the mixture of sports and politics:

Conservative journalist/commentator Rich Lowry opined:

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, an outspoken conservative who has been pretty consistently critical of the president and very active on Twitter, wrote:

This prompted some fascinating responses.

Religion writer Rachel Held Evans pointed Sen. Sasse, who has a doctorate in history, back to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.

And from one of Senator Sasse’s history professors at Yale:

Interestingly enough, though Sen. Sasse often engages with some of his most vocal critics on Twitter, he has not, to the best of my knowledge responded publicly to Dr. Gilmore.

Center-right journalist/commentator David Frum, who is former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, argued that the players shouldn’t be giving President Trump attention by kneeling:

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss took a subtle approach in noting that today is the anniversary of Congress’s approval of the Bill of Rights:

And one can sympathize with media studies professor Chuck Tryon who tweeted:

Of course, there were other things in the news as well:

But perhaps the most neglected story of the day was this:

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Twitter Responses are the New Autograph (All media are social)

Updated 10/9/17

We all have our moments that David Letterman called a “brush with greatness,” moments where our lives intersect with someone famous. In the past, when you met a movie star, musician or famous author, you might ask for an autograph.  Today, the memento of choice is often a selfie.  But to me, one of the ultimate souveniers is a Twitter response from someone of note.

I’ve gotten tweets from a wide range of people over the years, including noted Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin, musician Neil Finn, and conservative commentator Erick Erickson.  But there are several that stand out to me:

Back in 2012, when I finally saw Brad Bird’s under-appreciated film The Iron Giant for the first time on DVD, I tweeted out a comment asking how had I missed it? That drew a response from the director:

In the spring of 2016 my dear wife and I traveled to Omaha to see the Alien/Aliens double-feature at the Alamo Drafthouse theater. (If you have a Drafthouse near you, they are great theaters with fantastic programs and good food.)  I saw that Carrie Henn, the actress who played the brave and charming little girl Newt in Aliens, was on Twitter doing promotion for the movie’s re-release. (Ms. Henn only made that one movie and grew up to be an elementary school teacher.)  Again, I was thrilled when my comment drew a response:

But just to show that my geekdom is not limited to science fiction movies, lately I’ve been watching PBS documentaries on NASA’s planetary space probes, including the Voyagers that went to the outer planets, the recently completed Cassini probe to Saturn, and the New Horizons visit to Pluto.

Astronomer Mike Brown was featured in the Nova program “Chasing Pluto” as the astronomer who was largely responsible for demoting Pluto from being a planet to being a dwarf planet. (He goes by the Twitter handle @PlutoKiller and is the author of the book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.)

I was introduced to Brown and his work with an article from The New Yorker published back in July of 2006,  where I first saw the argument that Pluto shouldn’t be considered a full-fledged planet.  I clearly remembered Brown’s big quote from it:

“I’m perfectly willing to have eight or ten planets,” Brown says. “Nine would bug the bejezus out of me.”

Although Brown is in his early 50s, he has a boyish face, and it struck me that he looked like he was barely out of his 20s in the Nova program.  So I sent out the following tweet and was delighted morning to get the following reply…

All of these serve as great examples of the new Secret 5 – All media are social. It’s not just that I’m using Twitter to talk with people who are a big deal, it’s that our consumption of media leads us into wanting to interact with others about what we’ve learned.  This was true when people wanted to get their movie magazines autographed in the 1940s, when young people discovered the Beatles back in the 1960s, and when we engage in geek culture in the 2010s.


Today I reached out to Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda to help share news about insulin distribution in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.  I was delighted when he did so.  And though his reply was just a single emoji, it has to be my coolest response on Twitter to date:


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Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

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Looking back 10 years to the original iPhone’s introduction

Today Apple is introducing their 10th anniversary iPhone along with other new products and upgrades. Here’s what I had to say ten years ago when Apple announced the iPhone.  How’s it hold up?  (For the record, it took me almost 5 years for me to actually get an iPhone.  But this was more an issue of waiting for Verizon to get the iPhone than anything else. I currently had an iPhone SE, which has relatively modern guts but the same form as the iPhone 5.)

Also, this original post is 10 years old; no idea how many of the links still work.

Original iPhone

The original iPhone from 10 years ago.

Apple announced it’s new iPhone on Wednesday, and in typical Apple fashion it is absolutely too cool for words. As the NYT’s David Pogue puts it, the iPhone is “not so much a smartphone as something out of Minority Report.”

In typical Apple fashion, the iPhone is already becoming a pop culture icon, just the way the iMac and iPod did before it.

In typical Apple fashion, the iPhone is redefining what we think a cell phone should be able to do. It’s not enough for it to have a lame “mobile” browser. It’s got to have a fully functional standard browser. It’s not enough for it to have voice mail, it’s got to have a voice mail system that looks just like E-mail. It’s not enough to be able to show movies, it’s got to have widescreen video. It needs to be smart enough to turn off the power hungry screen when you put it up to your face to talk.

In typical Apple fashion, it’s somewhat ahead of its time (and I don’t mean this in a good way), so everyone who doesn’t have to instantly have one would do well to wait for the second generation.

In typical Apple fashion, it has a my-way-or-the-highway idiosyncratic interface that says however Steve Jobs think you should use it is the only way you should use it because he’s cooler than you are.

In typical Apple fashion, the company neglected to clear all its trademark issues in advance, but instead just assumes that “Hey, we’re Apple, and we’ll clear up all our problems because we’re too cool not to have what we want.”

In short, it is a typical, mind blowing, infuriating Apple product. I’m glad I’ve got a new PDA that I won’t be ready to replace for a couple of years, which gives the technology the time to catch up to Apple’s brilliant vision.

BTW, Apple is no longer Apple Computer. Just Apple.

And here’s a followup post from the next day with some reader reaction to the item.

So what do you think about this, or the iPhone in general ten years later?  Post it in the comments!

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