Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rags Morales' Blog-O-Throb (blog scrolls up seperately from face page): My thoughts on SUPERMAN

My thoughts on SUPERMAN

"Superman? Superman sucks." That's what I told Geoff Johns one Wizard Con night in Philadelphia. "Superman is passe'. He's been split up into every superhero now out there. He's just not relevant anymore."

Geoff at the time, was just getting the Secret Origin machine up and running with James Robinson, with whom he had just finished having dinner. Geoff protested, but I wouldn't budge. "Who's better?" he asked. "Batman. Batman at least has something going on besides his costume that works." That was my answer and I was sticking to it.

My sentiment was based on Superman as he had become. When I was a kid, Neal Adams was the man on Superman. Despite the stories being as milk toast as I could stomach them, he, like he always does, took what was happening and elevated it. But since then Superman seemed to stay in this redundant vacuum of  'boyscout laughing at feeble attempts by Luthor and robots trying to knock the smile off his perfect face'. Bleh. Moreover, he was becoming more and more omnipotent to the point that villains were having to go to increasingly absurd lengths just to give him a reasonable challenge.

Then he got married.

What? Talk about jumping the shark.
See, when a character, whose whole existence is to sacrifice a normal life for the sake of humanity, becomes domesticated he loses his teeth. His concern doesn't become the world, but his own personal world. Back in the day, when Lois would be in danger, she was the metaphor for all of us. Humanity personified who was rescued, returned to safety, then left wondering 'who was the masked man?' Now Lois became his only world that was to be balanced with the rest of us. This changed Lois as well. She went from being this snarky, stubborn, beautiful pain in the ass, to the wife wondering if her husband would survive the current omnipotent menace challenging him, and still make it back home for lasagna. Any attempts to bring them back to what they were, felt clunky to me. He was a hero, husband, or brow beating dad, depending on who he was interacting.

There's the nutshell. Superhero who increasingly becomes more powerful as he is challenged, brought back down to earth as a spouse as his origin gets re-envisioned over and over again.

He had so many layers to him, that it threatened to blow him up like Krypton.

I simply had no affinity with him. Maybe that's why many of my attempts to draw him failed. I've done some "decent" drawings of him and a whole lot of lousy ones. I wasn't Neal Adams, or Curt Swan, or Jerry Ordway simply because I didn't get him. Wasn't my kind of hero.

Now, if you go back to the Max Fleisher films, THAT was Superman to me. He got hit hard by stuff and exerted effort. There was a sense of danger to himself and with Lois playing the damsel in distress for all of us, made it exciting to see if Superman could not only survive but manage to save Lois too. It was a simple formula that was perfect.

So why would someone like me even accept an assignment to a character that I felt I couldn't contribute?

The answer was issue #1. Not that it wasn't a badge of honor to have the entire industry's seed in my hand. I assure you it is. Not that having it at issue #1 wasn't an added thrill. It is. It's that I can do my job without having to have 70 years of backlog to think about and try to address and honor.

If you look back to the first image of Grant's and my Superman in jeans and a tee shirt, you can see the Superman as he had become to me. He was beyond Hercules and even in shadow you can see the miles and miles of history in his profile. That image was for, I thought, the brass to measure not only my ability with the character, but to see what the hell he looked like in his dungarees and work boots.
I didn't know, or even think, it was something I could do issue for issue. But then I figured it would work it's own problems out eventually.

When I got the script and saw that Grant wanted to harken to the Shuster image of Kal-el, it completely clicked for me. Max Fleisher here I come! And what, he's not omnipotent? All right! And he's not married? Get out of my fucking way and let me draw!!

THAT is Superman to me. Back to Hercules! Back to the feelings I had as a kid when I saw the reprints of the 40's stories in treasury editions.

Back to the Man of Steel, because that's the only fucking thing that matters. 

I agree with him on bringing Superman back to the Max Fleischer days, but his take on Lois and the marriage is way off the mark.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interesting case. The Day Comcast’s Data Cap Policy Killed My Internet for One Year

The Day Comcast’s Data Cap Policy Killed My Internet for One Year

Today I came home to find my 15 MB down/3 MB up Comcast broadband service had been shut off due to exceeding their 250 GB/month data cap policy.

This had happened the month before, and I called and had a polite but irritated conversation with Comcast's "Customer Security" department (since the regular customer service folks could not help.) According to them I had exceeded their 250 GB monthly cap, and they asked how that might have happened.

I told them the simple truth-–no idea, other than regular people were probably using it a lot for reasonable things. I have roommates, we stream Netflix HD movies and Pandora music incessantly to multiple devices in the home, and I also have an open access point (in addition to a secured AP that I use to access internal network resources) for guests. I asked if they could share what was using the majority of the data so I could go address it directly, but Comcast refused to share any information there (which is probably appropriate).

I made very clear to the gentleman I spoke with that I thought Comcast's data cap policy was arbitrary, unfair, and extremely irritating… and that if I had any decent competitive options in the neighborhood I'd dump Comcast in a heartbeat. Since I don't, I listened to him read his canned warning that if I exceeded their cap again I'd be cut off again. I do not recall details on how long the cut off would be, likely because I spent the next few minutes working with the service agent to add notes to my record about my detailed displeasure with Comcast's policy here. I specifically noted (and asked that it be recorded) that if this happened again I would contact the FCC, various news organizations, and otherwise make a stink. The CS agent was polite and reactivated my broadband. After hanging up I chatted with my roommates, asked them to keep an eye on bandwidth use, and also deactivated the open AP I had maintained for visitors (with regret, but this was the only area I could think of that I couldn't completely account for bandwidth use.) Then I forgot about the whole thing until today when I found I'd been cut off again.

I called up Comcast and went through customer service hell – a Comcast special, I might note. First their regular customer service agent couldn't help me, and sent me to their "Customer Security" group again. The Customer Security agent was polite, and after the standard identification questions notified me I was cut off for a year due to exceeding Comcast's Acceptable Use Policy limits on their bandwidth cap. I asked for details on what had been using bandwidth, and again, Comcast would not share. In a sudden brainstorm, I then asked whether the 250 GB bandwidth cap applied to just downloads (which I had assumed, as the majority of most bandwidth used in households is downstream bandwidth), or download and upload bandwidth. Surprise, surprise! Comcast measures both upstream and downstream bandwidth – and it suddenly clicked for me.

I'm a photographer and audiophile. I shoot all of my pictures in RAW format, and I store the many hundreds and hundreds of CDs I've purchased over the last 20 years or so in a variety of lossless and lossy music formats. In the case of music I rip my CDs to WMA Lossless (for ease of streaming to Windows), FLAC (another lossless format, so I can stream losslessly to my Sonos system), and M4A (also known as Apple's iTunes AAC format, so I can import my music from the media server to iTunes). I'm a big believer in storing the original, lossless digital content so that I can access it in full fidelity in the future no matter how technology evolves. In some ways that makes me a bit archaic as I still buy (used) CDs from Amazon for all of my music so I can rip it losslessly – I'm not a fan of the compressed music formats you buy and download. But the ramification is that I have terabytes of storage in my basement RAID server – each music track is duplicated three times, I have all of my original RAW photos, plus processed JPEG versions of those RAW photos, as well as a variety of other miscellaneous content – documents, spreadsheets, that sort of thing.

This stuff is valuable to me, and I recently purchased a three-year subscription to Carbonite so I could back all of this content up to the cloud. I also recently saw Amazon's announcement of being able to upload unlimited M4A/AAC tracks to their Cloud Drive service, and decided to upload my library there so I could access it when on the road. And it turns out uploading all of this content to the cloud triggered Comcast's bandwidth cap and caused me to be cut off from the internet-–again. It was never clear to me that Comcast measures both upload and download bandwidth, and I suspect many people are going to be surprised by this in the coming years, especially as the cloud continues to become more and more a part of our lives.

Anyway, to close out the Comcast call, I asked to be reinstated and he said it was final-–no appeal. I asked to escalate to a manager so I could explain my situation, and he stated there was no escalation, and repeated there was no appeal. I then asked for customer service email or other contact information so I could CC the company on a blog post (which you are reading now) and letter I would be sending to the FCC, Public Knowledge organization, New Media Foundation, the city of Seattle's Mayor's Office, and my Seattle City Council representative. He said he could connect me to the customer escalation line, but also stated it would not help – they wouldn't consider removing the cap. At that point I said I wouldn't bother wasting my time with the customer escalation line, and that I'd like to cancel my broadband. He politely said he understood, and that he'd transfer me to the appropriate department.

Time to return to Comcast customer service hell! After a few minutes I spoke with another gentlemen in the Technical Support and Billing division I'd been transferred to who, surprise, couldn't help me since I was cancelling my (now defunct) service. He then transferred me to (wait for it!) the Retention department, since they're apparently the only ones who can cancel a Comcast cable account. Yes, after Comcast applied their ridiculous policy and told me they didn't want me as a customer, I was transferred to the Retention department where they insisted on driving through their spiel until I could finally interrupt, say it wasn't going to work, and explain my situation. At which point the agent said: "Oh. I'll take care of it, thank you for calling Comcast ." As of this moment I have no idea if I've been cancelled or not.

[Update, added July 12: To clarify, Comcast has cut my broadband with no appeal. The text above about my attempting to cancel my account was my attempt at making sure I don't get charged for a service Comcast is no longer giving me. But right now my cable modem is dead, with no signal going into it.]

My Opinion:

My opinion on all this is simple. The ability to access broadband internet is a right, and should be defined as an essential utility. Just as you're surprised when you flick a light switch and the light doesn't come on so are you surprised when the internet goes away in your house. The internet is used for communication, entertainment, business - an entire panopoly of humor endevours. Just as there are protections to keep water and electricity flowing to your house, so should the internet be protected.

Now the broadband companies would strongly disagree with me here. They're terrified of being turned into dumb pipes that only deliver data. This is why you see such vicious fights over the definition of internet neutrality, and cable companies fighting to be able to restrict services that flow over their pipes, inspect packets, or have the right to charge more for differing levels of service. They try to spin this as protecting the integrity of the network for other customers, and not having to charge more to offer service that some small percentage of their users overuse. However, these same companies are also strangely quiet when you ask them why (as in Comcast's case) they're able to keep boosting my broadband speed tier year after year for no additional charge. Or why their quarterly filings show their cost of providing broadband service continues to drop year after year, while rates keep going up. It doesn't add up.

[Update, added July 12:: Some disagree with my opinion above. To reiterate, I believe that internet access is a right, and an essential utility that's needed in today's life. That's not supported in any legal definition in the US (though Finland recently made it a point of law, and the United Nations believes broadband access is a basic human right), but I do believe that most people would intuitively agree. Put another way, internet access long ago passed the stage of "new tech that's interesting" to "something everyone uses and assumes you have". Hence my electricity and water points – I believe internet falls in the same vein, and also think the current battles/discussions over the ability to control the internet are emblematic of that.]

Several commentators have also noted that internet access is a requirement in some states for food stamp access, to attend some (offline, not internet-only) universities, and even for VoIP over fiber in some communities. This also supports my opinion that internet access is right and should be regulated as an essential utility.]

Ramifications:

Here's what's frightening about all this: today Comcast blocked me from using a potentially competitive music service from Amazon. Even worse, today Comcast disconnected me from the ever-evolving cloud services I use each and every day for life and work.

Amazon deserves a lot of credit for pushing the bounds on what we can do on the internet. Their recent announcement of storing unlimited music in their Cloud Drive service is a compelling alternative to Apple's iCloud solution, and one that many might choose to use-–if Comcast allows it. Are you listening Amazon?

And it gets worse-–I work as a entertainment industry consultant, and depend on cloud services such as Dropbox, Simplenote, Google Apps, and Google Docs for day to day work. I use streaming online services such as Netflix, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, and Pandora every day for both work and play. I send and receive data all the time and have never had a problem with my $60/month broadband plan until A) Comcast added their data caps, and B) I really started engaging in using new cloud-based services (meaning uploading data to those services so I could get value from them).

Comcast will try to spin this, and say 250 GB is plenty for anyone – and in fact, a large percentage of their network users today probably really don't hit this cap right now. What they don't want to say is that streaming services such as Netflix now consume a quarter of network traffic monthly, and is projected to rise – all of which impacts the cable TV services they sell.

The last report in October suggested it made up around twenty percent of internet traffic during prime time, but this time around the stats say it accounts for 30% of traffic during prime time, and 22.2% of daily internet traffic. Sandvine gets the data from ISPs using its broadband technology and now foresees "Real-Time Entertainment" (which includes Netflix) shooting up over 55% of peak internet traffic by the end of this year.
- Engadget: Study finds Netflix is the largest source of internet traffic in North America

And in the Netflix case, 99% of that data is downstream data. Comcast doesn't broadly advertise the fact that their cap also counts upload data – and I strongly believe as more and more people begin to "get" the cloud they're going to want to upload their valued data to services where they can engage with it in new and interesting ways. And until broadband is deemed an essential utility, and broadband providers like Comcast can't set an arbitrary limit and cut people off, our shared cloud-enabled future is at risk. To this end, I will be contacting various political entities in Seattle in the hope of trying to encourage either greater competition and choice in the broadband market (break Comcast's cable monopoly, and allow fiber to the home!), as well as greater investment in a citywide, city-run broadband network.

What am I Doing:

Well, first off, I'm writing this post to lay out the facts, as well as my opinion, as to the ramifications of broadband companies like Comcast being allowed to enforce data caps and cut people off from the internet. As I mentioned earlier, I will be sending a copy of this blog post to the following people and agencies:

I've also tweeted out a summary of what happened, will tweet a link to this blog post, and will also reach out to a few media folks I know in case they're interested in writing this up. I'll also be exploring what other broadband options I might have in Seattle – but thanks to Comcast's monopoly, my choices aren't great.

That said, if Qwest/CenturyLink (or any other broadband provider) wants to run fiber to my house on the top of the hill in Montlake, Seattle, and put up a broadcast antenna to serve the neighborhood – I'm in. Contact me at the links on this blog, or at andre at ozymandias.com. Seriously.

Andre Vrignaud has worked in the interactive entertainment industry for over 20 years at companies such as Intel, Microsoft Xbox, and Amazon. He currently works as an independent game industry consultant doing game, platform strategy, and media/PR consulting for a variety of firms.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spike Lee: Why I Haven't Made a Feature Film in Three Years - The Hollywood Reporter

NEW YORK -- Spike Lee is not feeling the love from Hollywood’s money men.

“I haven’t made a feature film in three years,” said Lee.

Lee has lately focused on documentary work with two films about post-Katrina New Orleans for HBO. But he had designs on biopics about Jackie Robinson – the Brooklyn Dodgers slugger who broke baseball’s color line – and soul icon James Brown. And he was in discussions a while back for a sequel to thriller Inside Man, which starred Denzel WashingtonClive Owen and Jodie Foster. But he's been unable to secure financing.

Inside Man was my most successful film,” he said, adding that he had Washington and Foster on board for the sequel. “But we can’t get the sequel made. And one thing Hollywood does well is sequels. The film’s not getting made. We tired many times. It’s not going to happen.”

Lee’s comments came during a free-wheeling Q&A session with public television’s Charlie Rose at PromaxBDA, the annual marketing, branding and design conference here. Lee received the organizations lifetime achievement award for his work in film and television, including a series of groundbreaking commercials for Nike that featured Michael Jordan and Lee as Mars Blackmon, the character he played in his 1986 breakthrough film She’s Gotta Have It.

“First of all, what in this world does not revolve around money? But money is a big part of film, unlike a lot of other art forms.”

Lee wore a tan seersucker jacket over a T-shirt and a straw pork pie hat. And when Rose’s cell phone rang at the beginning of the presentation, Lee jumped from his seat as the crowd in the New York Hilton ballroom cheered him on.

“I just want you to know,” said Lee, as he walked to the front of the stage. “On my sets, when the camera is rolling and the phone rings: $50.”

“Will you take $5?” asked Rose, rising from his chair and fishing in his front pockets.

“I’ll let you slide,” Lee laughed. (Later in the presentation, Rose’s phone rang a second time. “I owe you $100,” said a contrite Rose. It did not ring a third time.)

Lee – whose cinematic heroes include Akira KurosawaBilly WilderElia Kazan, Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese – has never won an Academy Award. But he likened Academy voters to basketball referees who attempt to make amends for a bad call with what is known in the sports world as a subsequent “make-up call.”

By way of some examples of this theory, Lee offered Al Pacino and Denzel Washington. Pacino turned in numerous Oscar-worthy performances in Dog Day AfternoonSerpicoThe GodfatherThe Godfather II, etc. But he won his only Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Washington did not win a best actor trophy for Lee’s Malcolm X, though he was nominated. He received his best actor trophy nearly 10 years later for Training Day.

“In 1989, Do the Right Thing was not even nominated [for best picture],” said Lee, with some mock outrage. “What film won best picture in 1989? Driving Miss Mother F---ing Daisy! That’s why [Oscars] don’t matter,” said Lee. “Because 20 years later, who’s watching Driving Miss Daisy?”

(Lee was nominated for best original screenplay for Do the Right Thing, though he didn't win. And in 1999, the film was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.)

“There are many times in history where the best work does not get awarded," he said. "And I’m not even talking about my own work. So that’s why [the Oscars] don’t matter.”

Lee also talked about the election of Barack Obama, whether he’d ever work with LeBron James and acting in his own films – something that earned him a comparison to Woody Allen.

On controversial Miami Heat superstar LeBron James:

“LeBron’s having a tough way to go now. And a lot of that I feel he brought upon himself. But I would work with him. I think he’s a good guy. He’s always been very respectful to me personally. And he’s funny. In a comedic role, I think he would do very well.”

On acting in his own films:

“I don’t like acting; not in front of the camera. The only reason I was in She’s Gotta Have It is because we couldn’t afford anybody else. But with the success of Mars Blackmon, I said, ‘I’ll continue to do it.’ At the same time, it was not something I enjoyed doing. Once it got to point where it wouldn’t hurt [the film] if I weren’t in it I [stopped].”

On actors in general:

“You’re out there buck-naked and that is hard. The reason why actors are f---ed up; can you imagine having a job where someone is, ‘No, no, no. Your butt’s too big. Your heads to big. You’re too skinny. Your nose is to big?'”

On Barack Obama:

“There were people who thought that racism and prejudice would be eradicated [with the election of the first African American president.] The moment he put his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible it was going to be abracadabra, presto chango, poof! I was there that night [in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night.] It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was swept up in the euphoria; drinking the Kool-Aid like everybody else. And here we are: racism and prejudice have not disappeared.”

On President Obama’s re-election prospects:

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a fight.”

 

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Commentary: Dumbing Down the Culture - Look-Listen - June 2011 - St. Louis MO

Tuesday, June 28 / 10:25 AM

by Dennis Owsley

Commentary: Dumbing Down the Culture

Commentary: Dumbing Down the Culture

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

Dennis Owsley

In the last 20 years or so, our public discourse has become less civil on just about every issue. While there have been many hypotheses as to why this has happened, I believe that we are afraid to discuss a very important component of this incivility: a deep and long standing dislike of education and educated people that has been part of our culture since the country was founded. This post discusses how this dislike of education is reflected in our arts.

Commentators over the years have remarked that a country’s psyche can be understood by observing the popular arts. As one who is heavily involved in the arts (music, photography and writing), I have been observing this very closely. When we look at the characters played out in films, in television and in popular music, we see something that tells us about what we really are. While there are exceptions, we rarely find an educated person in any comedy or drama who is not an object of derision. Scientists, even in the most popular CSI shows on TV are portrayed as people who have few social skills that should really stay in their labs. The “evil genius” is a common archetype in TV and movies. While some teachers are portrayed sympathetically, most are portrayed as being clueless as to what is really going on in their schools.

This nation has had a “frontier mentality” since its founding. I suspect that people in this country believe the Horatio Alger story, which is an outgrowth of the frontier mentality. This story is the basis for a belief that through hard work, perseverance and pluck, people can be successful and rise above their station in life. Education does not seem to be part of this story, except in a peripheral way. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, suggests that success comes from being in the right place at the right time, having good mentors, from thorough preparation including a lot of education when needed and being born at the right time of the year, in addition to the other attributes noted above.

I believe that one of the outgrowths of our frontier mentality and our Puritan roots is a mistrust and dislike of education and educated people. While I can find no studies that substantiate this idea, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. In jazz, there are a number of myths in line with these ideas. One myth is that the earliest jazz musicians were dirt-poor people who just picked up horns without musical training and played this complex music. The evidence is that the vast majority had a lot of training from books, lessons and mentoring from older musicians. I have actually had people tell me that they think an education gets in the way of a musician’s “natural talent.” In addition, most of the early jazz musicians, black and white, came from a middle class background. These facts are in line with Gladwell's thinking, not the myth.

Our current education woes are blamed on the educators, not on the lack of community and parental support for education that seems to be rampant in this country. While politicians say that education is important, most of them gladly cut funds for education when the financial going gets tough. The salaries of teachers reflects the value we place on them and their work.

An educated person has training in the arts, the humanities and the sciences. We know of the dismal performance of our students in science and math since the 1960s, when the ethos of that time asserted that these subjects were irrelevant. Of more importance is what an education in the arts can do for a student. Studies have shown that students who take arts courses in high school score an average of fifty points higher on the SAT than those who don’t take such courses. Students learn discipline and focus in doing something that is creative and engages them. In many segments of our society, such courses are considered frills. Often, arts courses and arts teachers, certainly not football, are the first to go when budgets get tight. According to St. Louisan Lester Bowie, one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz history, rap music happened because the New York schools cut out instrumental music; the students had no outlet for their creative impulses. Arts classes provide a refuge from the bullying that most intelligent children experience in school.

While there are exceptions to these observations, I believe that anecdotal evidence of the decline in an educated populace since the 1960s is all over the arts. I see a lot of visual art and photography that I believe is deliberately dumbed down to look as if the artists have little or no training. As a people, our rhythmic sense has been dumbed down to where dancing seems to consist of jumping around in one place to tunes that have no melodies and consist of “hooks” that are repeated ad infinitum. To me, most of the rhythms sound like someone chopping wood with an axe. Our most successful films are special-effects films with very rudimentary plots and are sequels to already successful special-effects films. Much of our popular comedy sounds like 14-year old bathroom humor.

In jazz, the arrival of Wynton Marsalis in 1980 was not a coincidence. The country was taking a turn to the right, and Marsalis provided a conservative voice in jazz that the press exploited to the detriment of the music. One of Marsalis’ biggest supporters, Stanley Crouch, has written an essay called “The Jazz Tradition is Not Innovation.” Since 1980, too much of jazz is tributes to past jazz greats and imitations of what has gone before.

An under-educated populace lacks critical thinking skills, among other things. This lack of critical thinking skills has allowed our public discourse to be hijacked by “trials of the century,” political bullies, sex scandals and fear mongerers of all political stripes. As the populace becomes less educated, we need to know the consequences of losing our critical thinking skills as we face the problems of our financial woes as a nation. Deliberate distractions, slogans and political beliefs on both sides that have no basis in fact about taxes, revenue and the cost of our entitlement programs will never solve these problems. Due to the lack of critical thinking skills in this country, our politicians are allowed free rein to do whatever benefits their friends and moneyed supporters. Our press does not ask the right questions. Possibly they do not possess the skills to know the questions to ask.

One consequence of our dislike of education is that we have to import scientists and engineers because there are not enough young people in our own country entering these professions. Many don’t go into these professions because the training is too hard or they are not prepared intellectually for it.

A second consequence is that states with lower education rates have higher rates of rape, spousal abuse, divorce, teenage pregnancy and abortion. These seem to preoccupy the minds of many people in those states, spilling out into the rest of the nation.

A third consequence is that all the well-paying new jobs will be ones that go to wherever there is a better-educated work force. No politician, no government stimulus, no more laws and no political sloganeering can reverse this trend. We are so distracted by all of the peripheral issues that we cannot or we are not allowed to discuss this issue in a rational manner. Manufacturing jobs that were the backbone of this country have left and will not be replaced. If we don’t have an educated workforce, we, as a nation are in deep trouble. I believe that our only hope is to somehow overcome this ingrained dislike of education, a tough job since I believe that most of our politicians would prefer an electorate that cannot think critically.

The arts have reflected on what is going on with the psyche of this country, and it is not pretty. I believe that a lot of our decline in education levels in our nation is parallel to the decline in the quality of our arts. I also believe that much of this decline can be traced to our dislike and mistrust of education. The other night, my fiancée and I were watching the movie Idiocracy, a comedy about a future in which the education level has sunk so low that people believe whatever they see on television and the Internet, spend their time making jokes about bodily functions, drinking, drugging and having lots of children. What was interesting was that as we fast-forwarded through the commercials, we had trouble deciding where the commercials ended and the movie began again. Are we there yet?

Dennis Owsley has broadcast a weekly jazz show for St. Louis Public Radio (KWMU-FM) continuously since April 1983. Professionally, he holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is a retired Monsanto Senior Science Fellow and college teacher. His current show, “Jazz Unlimited,” is heard every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

ICP is still out there? Gathering of the Juggalos: Old Wrestlers, 90's Rappers and 'Terrifying Helicopter Rides'

The Confessions of Keith Olbermann - The Hollywood Reporter

Keith Olbermann hobbles into the cavernous Highline Studios in Manhattan's Meatpacking district. A black collapsible cane in his left hand, he carefully picks through jumbles of wires and gingerly sidesteps an equipment cart. A brace on his left foot protects a healing second metatarsal, the long bone in the foot.

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Asked how he was injured, he jokes, "I broke it on Glenn Beck's shiny metal ass." PHOTOS: Keith Olbermann's famous feuds

Actually, he explains, he fractured it because he was running in "five toes." The froglike slippers are designed to deepen one's connection to the earth. But they should not be worn during impact exercise by anyone more than 175 pounds. ("I haven't been 175 pounds since high school," the 6-foot-3½-inch anchor admits.)

Yet on this day, TV news' predominant left-leaner -- without a cable platform since he abruptly announced on-air Jan. 21 that he was quitting MSNBC that very night -- is still a two-ton gorilla. Dressed in his trademark suit (he prefers Hickey Freeman), he is here to film promos for Countdown With Keith Olbermann, the Current TV version of his former MSNBC program that will bow June 20 at 8 p.m. It is the same time slot he occupied on MSNBC for nearly eight years -- propelling the network from also-ran to contender and primetime counterweight to the conservative firebrands on Fox News. These days, Lawrence O'Donnell, who was known to fill in on Countdown when Olbermann was out, is hosting his own show in the time slot (and pulling in comparable numbers).

"I don't think my former employers thought this was going to turn out quite this way. I just don't think they thought they'd be in competition with me, so fast or at all," says Olbermann, 52, who can't resist adding, "and my understanding is this has left a certain tension over there."

The promo he's filming -- called "Keith-on-Keith" -- has him interviewing himself. It is an id-superego volley that is equal parts grenade launcher and bomb defuser, letting Olbermann lambaste familiar enemies while deflecting adjectives that have adhered to him during a 30-year career in television.

An Olbermann stand-in sits off-camera firing questions at the real one behind the desk.

Q: "OK, Keith, why Current?"

A: "Like you don't know the answer to that."

Q: "Why don't conservatives have a sense of humor?"

A: "Who built the pyramids? These are unanswerable questions."

Q: "What do you say to critics who find you smug?"

A: "I'm not smug. I just never learned how to bullshit very well."

Q: "Do you ever admit you're wrong?"

A: "On occasion."

Q: "How many times have you been fired?"

A: "I was fired once, by Rupert Murdoch. And it was the happiest day of my life."

The director yells: "Cut!"

Olbermann inquires: "What about the spit take?"

A production assistant springs into action, bringing him a mug filled with water.

"What question do you want to prompt the spit take?" asks the director.

Says Olbermann, "Is it true that when you were at Cornell you dated Ann Coulter?"

♦♦♦♦♦

Two and a half weeks after he and MSNBC parted ways -- a bombshell that launched a firestorm of tweets, anger and, of course, right-wing cheers -- Olbermann announced a new deal with Current TV, the company founded nearly six years ago by recovering politicians Al Gore and Joel Hyatt (a 1994 Democratic Senate candidate from Ohio and longtime political adviser to the late Howard Metzenbaum, his father-in-law). Olbermann's $7 million-a-year MSNBC contract, which had two years left on it, forbids him from going to any competing cable news outlet. Online was an option (Olbermann spoke to Yahoo), as were sports outlets (he spent 5½ tumultuous years at ESPN and another couple doing an ESPN Radio show with his SportsCenter co-anchor Dan Patrick). The announcement of his Current TV gig came as a surprise largely because one of TV's best-known personalities was heading to one of TV's least-watched channels. (Current's ratings are second-lowest only to ESPN Classic, which focuses on decades-old games). "It's been fascinating to see the assumption that this is some sort of bizarre move for me," he says. "I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. I'm better off at some sort of independent place where they not only like what I produce but also trust me to be the one to produce it."

But while Current touts independence from the competing interests that news organizations that are part of international conglomerates face, the appointment of the oft-polarizing figure also cements a partisan identity.

"We see ourselves as the only independent news and information channel on television," says Gore. "The point of view expressed by Keith Olbermann is one that I share more often than not. When he says something that I don't agree with and somebody asks me about it, I'm happy to say I disagree. But I will defend his right to speak independently and passionately."

Still, Olbermann isn't at 30 Rock anymore (or even on the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., where he got himself in hot water more than once). His Current show will originate from a studio in a decidedly unglamorous building on Manhattan's West 33rd Street between 10th and 11th avenues; Olbermann calls it "the fortress of isolation." As he did at MSNBC, Olbermann will serve as the leadoff hitter for a primetime lineup that eventually will include at least one more commentary show and event coverage including the 2012 presidential election. His Current show will look much like the MSNBC show, with multiple stories and a "worst persons" segment. He also reveals in our conversations that he has recruited as his primary substitute anchor David Shuster -- who last year was suspended from MSNBC when it came out that he had taped a pilot at rival CNN.

Olbermann has signed a stable of contributors including Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, comedian Richard Lewis and filmmakers Michael Moore and Ken Burns. Current is not paying many of them -- at least not in the traditional sense. Moore will be compensated via a donation to charity. Burns declined compensation. Moulitsas, who will appear regularly on Countdown, is receiving what he characterized as a "token amount." "I'm not a big fan of being on television," says Moulitsas. "But there are people I appreciate and so I like to do their shows, and Keith is one of those people."

In recent weeks, Olbermann hired David Sarosi -- who produced the "worst persons" segments on MSNBC -- as executive producer. Senior producers include Leslie Bella-Henry, who produced for Lou Dobbs at CNN; Bob Lilly, who worked with Olbermann at MSNBC; and Aaron Volkman, whom Olbermann poached from MLB Network. "I'm a natural management guy," Olbermann says. "I had forgotten that. And I forgot how much I hate it."

But if some of his contributors are doing this on a shoestring, Olbermann is not. He is drawing a salary of $10 million a year, says a source. (Current TV disputes the figure but adds it does not "disclose confidential, contractual details.") Meanwhile, Olbermann will continue to collect his MSNBC wage for another year and a half. At Current, where he is also chief news officer with an equity stake in the company, he is No. 4 on the corporate ladder behind Gore, Hyatt and CEO Mark Rosenthal, an MTV veteran who was on Current's board before being tapped in 2009 to re-invent the network's programming. Olbermann's equity has the potential to inflate his payday exponentially over the life of his five-year deal. Sources say that Countdown will cost about $15 million a year to produce, and the network is spending another $5 million upfront on marketing. All this for a cable channel that is only in 60 million homes in channel Siberia (versus MSNBC's 95 million with prime positioning). Says Rosenthal, "We will spend the money we need to spend to make Keith into even more of a household name than he already is."

"If they're trying to unseat MSNBC as the progressive voice at 8 o'clock every night, they're behind the eight ball when they start," says a veteran TV producer who has worked with Olbermann off and on for two decades. "It is kind of a David and Goliath story. But David wins every once in a while."

Olbermann believes he can lift Current out of obscurity. But for all the lip service paid to DVR-empowered viewers -- "We're not asking people to pass a bar exam to watch the show," says Olbermann. "We're asking them to remember three numbers" -- location still matters. "The three most important things in cable are carriage, carriage and carriage," notes Larry Gerbrandt, principal at Media Valuation Partners. "Programming comes in at No. 4. If you don't have carriage, programming literally doesn't matter."

Current executives already are having conversations with distributors. And in the run-up to launch, Current is pressing all its promotional levers: print and online ads in ideologically congruent periodicals (The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Times) and websites (Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Politico); national and local TV spots; and a robust in-house TV and online promotional campaign led by marketing chief Kent Rees. Gore, Hyatt, Rosenthal and Olbermann also will make a swing through Chicago for a private schmooze with affiliates and advertisers at the Cable Show, the annual media confab that runs June 14 to 16. "Distributors who have not yet become affiliates of Current will have to face a lot of subscribers who will say, 'Where can we get Keith Olbermann, and how quickly can we get him?' " says Rosenthal.

No one doubts Olbermann will attract attention -- good and bad. Even on hiatus, he remained a hot topic, guided by what he would likely characterize as his moral compass. Since his last broadcast, he engaged in a Twitter war with ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, who has 1.4 million Twitter followers, nearly five times as many as Olbermann, over a joke Simmons made comparing the John F. Kennedy assassination to the L.A. Lakers' playoff flameout. Both men are featured prominently in Andrew Miller and Tom Shales' ESPN tell-all Those Guys Have All the Fun, where, it seems, ESPN employees lined up to trash their former marquee star. ESPN anchor Bob Ley: "We felt not so much relief when Keith left as unrestrained f--ing joy." ESPN chairman Herb Granath: "I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just piss me off … because there's no loyalty. It's just me, me, me. There was no choice but to get rid of him."

Olbermann is working his way through the 784-page tome. "I naturally read the parts about me first to see if there were any forest fires. There were no forest fires. There are some funny things in it," he says, adding, "Honestly, hearing which executive thinks he was most responsible for the success of the place is probably not going to interest people who are picking up the book to find out how big of a jackass I am. Was I not a big enough jackass? Do I need to go back and jackass some more?"

But Olbermann has larger targets than ESPN (from whose campus it's rumored he is banned) -- like longtime "worst person" staple Murdoch. On Twitter, he attacked Murdoch after News Corp. dropped Current on Sky Italia. Olbermann excoriated Murdoch's "evil empire" and later vowed a fight: "Rupert, you have been warned." Olbermann also launched the FOK News Channel website and Twitter feed (FOK is an acronym for "Friends of Keith," and the logo is designed to ape Fox News Channel's "patriotic" red, white and blue emblem). The FOK site now redirects to Current's Countdown page, where Olbermann has been posting videos including "worst persons" segments -- which until last week he was recording in the den of his Upper East Side apartment.

But these recent playground skirmishes pale in comparison to his tenure at MSNBC. Olbermann's departure was the culmination of years of simmering tensions. Indeed, he admits the split was so bad he still has not spoken to onetime mentee Rachel Maddow: "There were lots of people who were forced to choose sides. And particularly in Rachel's case, I didn't want to add to the pressure on her already. The last thing I need to do is be calling her up and saying, 'How's that Michael Steele working out for you?' [He signed to NBC as a political analyst on May 23.] Which is exactly what I would do if I were in the office."

He left the network once before, in 1998 after a brief stint. NBC sold his contract to Fox Sports Net, where he lasted until 2001, when Murdoch fired him for reporting that News Corp. was looking to unload the Los Angeles Dodgers, says Olbermann.

This time, his tenure at MSNBC was longer and wildly successful. In 2003, its first year on MSNBC, Countdown averaged 350,000 viewers. The show peaked at 1.3 million viewers in 2007 -- during the wild and woolly 2008 presidential campaigns. When Olbermann left MSNBC in January, his show was averaging more than 1 million viewers. (O'Donnell's Last Word finished May averaging 1 million viewers.) But the scorched-earth theme is a recurring one.

"Every job he has ever had, he and the person he's working for end up hating each other," says a former MSNBC colleague who maintained a good relationship with Olbermann. "He grows more and more frustrated with not having complete autonomy until it becomes unworkable."

Still, Olbermann is undeniably smart and an engaging TV presence and thus has been irresistible to many a media CEO. In 2005, before CBS News wooed Katie Couric to the network, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward spent two hours at Olbermann's Central Park South apartment exploring the possibility of his joining the news division as CBS Evening News anchor, according to Olbermann. Moonves, says Olbermann, "had that lust-for-talent look in his eyes. I saw it."

When asked about the meeting recently, Moonves visibly bristles: "It was an hour, and it wasn't for the main [anchor] job."

In late 2006 to early 2007, former CNN president Jon Klein also tried to recruit Olbermann for the 8 p.m. slot. Says Klein: "I'm not alone in thinking Keith is a natural, gifted television performer who creates a sense of must-watch. And that is rare." On the CNN opportunity, Olbermann muses: "What would have happened if I had gone over to CNN and taken my then-nascent guest host Rachel Maddow with me? Different world."

♦♦♦♦♦

With a presidential campaign that delivered more drama -- and personalities -- than any in recent memory, 2008 should have been a banner year for Olbermann. But the summer began with a terrible shock. NBC News' Tim Russert, someone Olbermann viewed as a friend, died suddenly June 13. Olbermann says it was a turning point for him at MSNBC, where Russert was long one of his network allies. NBC's Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press had a prosecutorial mind but a knack for diplomacy that, it's safe to say, eludes Olbermann. "Tim knew how to play them," he says. "He managed to do that with every faction, with every complaint from the Republican side, with every complaint from the Democratic side, with every complaint from a staffer. He knew how to turn it into a conversation that ended in laughter. Tim, for the noblest of causes, could bullshit very well. And I admired him for it. It seems to sap my creative voice."

Then, in September, Olbermann and Chris Matthews were bumped from lead anchors to analysts on MSNBC's election coverage, underscoring the network's identity crisis as a news organization whose biggest stars were openly partisan.

In 2009, Olbermann was discovering he had few allies left at NBC and then-corporate parent General Electric. His pointed jabs at Fox News, its executives and personalities -- especially Bill O'Reilly and O'Reilly's crusade against GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt -- prompted then-NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker and News Corp. executive vp Gary Ginsberg to attempt to broker a detente. But, say those who have worked with Olbermann, such "tweaking" and Olbermann's "inability to stop going after Fox even when corporate people asked him to" only ratcheted up the tension. Says one former MSNBC executive: "He's the kind of person that the higher the rank of the person who asks him to stop doing something, the less likely he is to comply. He has a pretty serious authority issue."

On his reputation, Olbermann says: "I'm difficult for management. That's why I have the reputation because nobody challenges management." He adds that his run-ins are simply out of good conscience: "I stand up to people. I do not believe that simply because I signed a contract that that gives people the right to make [unilateral] decisions. As part of the process by which you hire me, you hire me. You just don't hire an hour of me to do a performance."

The following summer, Olbermann was yanked from NBC's Sunday Night Football preshow, a move that clearly still irks him. Until then, he had a hand in NBC Sports' football coverage dating to 2007. Company executives said he was removed from Football Night in America because it interfered with his day job on Countdown. But internally, he was  criticized for lacing his commentary with political references, a no-no in the apolitical arena of televised sports. And Olbermann contends Zucker was personally punishing him.

"You are not allowed to disagree with him, or he will exact vengeance," says Olbermann.

The particular transgression that got him booted? Olbermann says he was caught gossiping about Zucker's fate at the company after Comcast had announced its bid to merge with NBCUniversal. "There was a lot of speculation about what would happen," he says. "One surprisingly accurate bit of speculation on every floor of the building was, 'I betcha they don't keep Jeff.' And apparently he heard that I had said this. I was there, and I was a convenient punching bag, and everybody would believe everything they said about me. And so off I went." (Zucker did not respond to repeated e-mails seeking comment.)

Shortly thereafter, Olbermann parted ways with longtime agent Jean Sage -- with him since he was a 24-year-old sports wunderkind -- in favor of Hollywood agency ICM and Ted Chervin and Nick Kahn. Olbermann characterizes the breakup as mutual.

"The amount of interference that I needed run on my behalf exceeded Jean's capacity," he says. "And she agreed with me. When you get a little bit bigger than that, you've got to have a bunch of sharks."

Among colleagues at MSNBC, Olbermann developed a particular reputation. His blistering sarcasm and habit of icing people by simply not communicating could leave some devastated. "I have sometimes been curt or standoffish with people who work below me on the food chain," he admits. "But it's usually an issue of, 'I have no time.' It's like: 'I've got to get on the air. Where is this? Help me! Jesus, just get me the tape!' It's not personal. I don't yell at people -- downward. I yell at people upward. It's not always OK. But the point is that's what will get you the reputation faster than anything else."

Rick Kaplan, president of MSNBC during Countdown's early days, occasionally butted heads with Olbermann. But, he says, "If he were so horrible to work for, I would have had someone come to me and ask to be taken off his show. And in the [two and a half] years that I was there, not one person ever did. They knew he was prickly. But he was also incredibly smart and talented and loyal. And his staff loved him."

Still, Olbermann's behavior was erratic, a little careless, in the months preceding his exit. He pulled his "worst persons" segment in response to Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, begging for civility in news, only to reinstate it three weeks later. More significantly, in November, he was suspended for two days -- a Friday and a Monday -- for not disclosing campaign donations made to three Democratic candidates for Congress (including Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson, Ariz., and is recuperating). "It seemed like this huge thing externally," he says. "Internally, it was like, 'OK, put that on the list.' "

One source who knows Olbermann characterized the campaign donations as the proverbial last straw. "At that point, I think they [MSNBC management] were looking for the straw that would break the camel's back," says this source. "I don't know what's less than a straw, a thread, an eyelash? He apologized. He took a suspension. It wasn't a big amount of money. It wasn't a big newsmaker that he made the donation to. It was a fairly minor infraction. But I think they were looking for some reason to end the relationship." (MSNBC declined comment, though neither side will confirm the reported existence of a non-disparagement pact.)

Olbermann's former MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough endured his own suspension for donations to Republican candidates and seemed to suggest recently on-air that MSNBC management, like their Fox News counterparts, also had warned hosts not to pour gasoline on the political firestorm that erupted after the Tucson shootings. But in a Countdown special comment days after the shootings, Olbermann tore into Sarah Palin, O'Reilly and Beck, asserting that it was "time to put the guns down" and "put the gun metaphors away permanently." He also offered an apology if his own rhetoric had ever "encouraged violence."

"Frankly, I knew before Gabby Giffords got shot, several weeks beforehand, that the NBC experience was coming to a close," Olbermann says now.

His colleagues at MSNBC might have surmised that his days were numbered. ("I think the smart ones suspected something was up, because every night I was leaving with various objects from my office," he says.) But as Olbermann went on air at 8 p.m. EST on Jan. 21, his staff did not know it was his final broadcast. Olbermann had prepared two endings for the show; one with two readings from James Thurber and another with a Thurber reading and his farewell to viewers.

"As far as anybody knew," says Olbermann. "I was doing the two Thurber stories."

Meanwhile, huddled off-camera at Countdown's Studio 1A-Up, above the Today show's Studio 1A, were Olbermann's representatives (Chervin and Kahn from ICM and Michael Price, Olbermann's manager) and MSNBC president Phil Griffin and an NBC lawyer. As the long 8:30 p.m. midbreak began, a negotiation for Olbermann to be let out of his contract -- a negotiation that had dragged on all week and into Friday evening -- was finally complete.

Olbermann was hoping to tell the staff before the show began, he says, but "once we got past 7 o'clock, I'm not going to hold a staff meeting at seven and say: 'OK, this is the last show everybody. Have a good one. I've got to go over to makeup now. Bye!' "

Olbermann recalls breaking the news to his staff as the commercials rolled: "I said, 'There will be a special announcement that this will be the last show.' That was unfortunately the first time everybody knew about it."

After the broadcast, Olbermann headed to Gramercy Tavern restaurant with his team to celebrate and regroup as the Twitterverse and websites exploded. The next day, a Saturday, Gore called.

♦♦♦♦♦

Now Olbermann, the ultimate stand-up-to-management bad boy, is management himself. He has to figure out how to do a comparable show to his last one but this time without an international news operation behind him. (Current has become a client of the CBS News affiliate service Newspath, which provides national, international and sports feeds.) While the network has a small cadre of journalists who work for its highly regarded investigative franchise Vanguard, there are no foreign bureaus or Washington correspondents. Olbermann brushes off such logistics. But the fact remains: He is now at a small network, one that he himself characterizes as a "startup." At the promo shoot, when a computer glitch causes a three-minute delay in production, he barks, only half-joking: "Speed it up! This costs money."

But at Current, he may have found in Gore and Hyatt a couple of managers who are willing to let Keith be Keith.

"Keith's problems," says Hyatt, "I think historically stem in part from the confines of being within a huge conglomerate-owned news operation."

His new office is on the second floor above the studio. It overlooks New York's train graveyard. But Olbermann contends it is a better view than the one he had at MSNBC, smack in the media corridor of Manhattan's 6th Avenue. "I like trains," he says. Unable to resist a jab, he adds, "It's better than looking out the window and seeing Fox News."              

 

Monday, June 6, 2011

I still haven't watched the first The Human Centipede yet. Now there is a sequel, will it play in the US?

The Human Centipede, a 2010 horror film in which a scientist stitches kidnap victims together, was proudly touted as "the most horrific film ever made".

But its Dutch director, Tom Six, may have gone too far in the follow-up, because the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has denied The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) an 18 certificate for fears it poses a "real risk" to cinemagoers.

The BBFC refusal means it cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK – even on DVD or download.

In the sequel, a man becomes erotically obsessed with a DVD copy of the original film – in which the victims are surgically stitched together mouth to anus – and decides to recreate the idea.

The film then focuses on his fantasies and the torture he inflicts. One scene involves him wrapping barbed wire around his penis and raping the woman at the end of the centipede, having become aroused by the sight of his victims being forced to defecate into each others' mouths.

The BBFC described the central plot of the film as the "sexual arousal of the central character at both the idea and the spectacle of the total degradation, humiliation, mutilation, torture and murder of his naked victims".

It took the rare move of refusing to classify the film and explaining that no amount of cuts would allow them to give it a certificate.

"There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience," the BBFC said.

The board also said The Human Centipede II may breach the Obscene Publications Act, and "poses a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers".

Only 11 films have been banned outright by the BBFC in its 99-year history, the most recent being Grotesque, a 2009 Japanese horror film whose premise was likewise deemed dangerously offensive.

"The chief pleasure on offer," said BBFC director David Cooke at the time, "seems to be wallowing in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake."

Grotesque's director, Koji Shiraishi, responded warmly to the ban, saying he was "delighted and flattered ... since the film is an honest, conscientious work, made to upset the so-called moralists".

Last year the organisation demanded an extensive edit totalling 49 cuts to A Serbian Film, another hardcore torture movie, before it was passed with an 18 certificate.

But the publicity surrounding the BBFC's action was feared to have increased the film's reach.

Similar fears surrounded the release of the first Human Centipede film, whose content was vigorously defended by Six in interviews.

The director also promised then that part one would be "My Little Pony compared with part two".

Of the 11 films the BBFC has banned, eight have since been passed uncut, among them Tod Browning's Freaks and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.