Friday, November 15, 2019

Flashback Friday: Did you Know George Orwell Took a Stand Against Paperbacks?

Illustration by Tara Stone
Not sure if you have been following the conflict between Hachette and Amazon regarding publishing and especially eBook pricing. As an eBook author using the Kindle Direct Publishing system, I was on the receiving end of an interesting email this morning. I found it interesting to learn that book publishers were seriously frustrated when the paperback book industry emerged with low cost alternatives to expensive hardcover books that the majors stocked shelves with. Especially surprising was George Orwell's response to this upstart industry.

Here's the first portion of the letter I received. I've included a link at the end so you read the whole of it, including the call to action. 

Dear KDP Author,
Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year. With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion. Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Illustration by the author.
Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

You can read the rest of this letter at I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

Do you read eBooks? Do you have a Kindle or eReading device? Do you read books on your iPhone? Leave a comment. Inquiring minds want to know.

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Featured eBook of the Day: The Red Scorpion
To purchase any of my other books, click on the covers at the right... No shipping. You may purchase and download these stories from nearly anywhere in the world. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Chicago Race Riots of July 1919

One of the best ways to find good books cheap is at spring garage sales near college. Graduating students are oft in a hurry to discard some of the belongings they accumulated. If you're lucky, and it happens, you'll find some real gems for pennies on the dollar.

Last night I started re-reading a short volume called The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919 by Carl Sandburg. It was one of a dozen books I picked up for a dime each from a Hamline grad when we were living in the Midway in St. Paul.

If the Sandburg name sounds familiar, it may be because of the two Pulitzer Prizes he won as a poet. Or it may be because of the Pulitzer he won for his renowned biography of Lincoln. I had not realized at the time I picked up this volume that he was initially a journalist. This printing includes a preface by Ralph McGill and an intro by the legendary Walter Lippmann.

I fetched the book off my shelf after reading a section of Don't Know Much About History pertaining to the post-WWI South. It's painfully depressing to read about the raw treatment blacks have received at the hands of whites.

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In the Deep South cotton was king, until the boll weevil came along. Few of us today realize how devastating the boll weevil infestation was. If you're like me, you may have thought boll weevils were a problem cotton growers had always had to contend with.

The weevil had been a plaque in South America but over time came north through Latin America and Mexico to become a major problem after the First World War. The way this critter works is that it lays its egg in a cotton boll. The newly hatched baby weevil then chews up the inside a bit and thereby kills the boll. Farms that produced thousands of bales of cotton were soon producing hundreds of bales. While the Roaring Twenties roared up North, the Southern economy was in a tailspin.

This, combined with Jim Crow laws, now set in stone, led to an exodus of workers seeking employment in Northern Rust Belt cities.

This led to another problem. Racism in the North wore a different face. If you were black, you couldn't live just anywhere you wanted. The Chicago black population had been 50,000 at the beginning of the century, but with this influx of families thru the decade there were 125,000 blacks in the Windy City by 1919. (It took more than four decades to place laws on the books that would permit a black family to choose where they could live.*) The lack of housing, Chicago politics and post-war psychology all contributed to the events that happened in July 1919.

There were also riots in other cities. (Photo: East St. Louis)
For blacks who stayed in the South at this time, prospects weren't exactly comforting. Ralph McGill, in his preface to this book, cites three incidents. In Blakely, Georgia, April 5, 1919, A Private William Little returned to his hometown after the war via train. He was "met by a band of whites who ordered him to remove his uniform and walk home in his underwear." When he continued to wear his uniform (because he had no other clothes), he was found dead, "his body badly beaten, on the outskirts of town. He was wearing his uniform."

A few weeks later, in Shreveport, Louisiana, a train was held up by an armed mob in order to lynch a black man who had written a note to a white woman. Only after he was shot did anyone seek to find out whether he could read or write. He could not.

Another example from two weeks after that was cited in McGill's preface but it was so horrible I'm not even going to share it. The account begins, "Lloyd Clay, Negro laborer, was roasted to death last night." A mob of 800 to a thousand men and women removed him from a jail...

McGill's preface was to the re-issued 1969 publication of Sandberg's account, 50 years after its original publication. He laments that race relations, in spite of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, were not wholly better. This (1969) was only a year after the  assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the race riots that shook more than 100 cities.

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The event that triggered the Chicago race riot of July 1919
A black youth accidentally floated on a raft across an invisible line at a segregated public beach shared by whites and blacks. The boy was stoned for his mistake by whites, knocked off the raft and drowned. Blacks rushed to get help from a policeman to address what had happened. The policeman refused to do anything. Fighting broke out  that spread throughout the overcrowded black neighborhoods which Sandburg called the Black Belt. After three days 20 blacks were dead and 14 whites, plus hundreds of injured.  (The Encyclopedia of Chicago states 23 African Americans and 15 whites.)

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Sandburg's book is more about the conditions that set off the riot so that it went viral through the black community. This is why the book discusses lynchings in the south. Chicago was a receiving station connected to every southern region. After every lynching somewhere in the south, Secretary Arnold Hill of the Urban League said, about two weeks later there would be more "colored people from that community" arriving. "You can depend on it."

It was this feature of Sandburg's story struck especially close to home when I read it. In my New Jersey hometown of Bridgewater we had a small section that was known as Hobbstown which consisted of two parallel streets about four blocks long. Bridgewater was a mid-to-upscale developing suburb when our family moved there in 1964. As I understood it Hobbstown started somewhere around 1920 or so.

As it turns out, this spring I discover a book about the community called Hobbstown: A Forgotten Legacy of a Unique African-American Community. As it turns out, Sandburg's description of how more blacks came north each time there was a lynching down south is precisely what triggered the birth of Hobbstown. The Hobbs brothers lived in Georgia (if I recall correctly) and worked as sharecroppers. One of the brothers was a reverend. At year's end their pay, minus expenses, came to nothing. After a lynching, and this ridiculous financial arrangement, one of the Hobbs brothers decided to go north to New York.

The New York situation was as overcrowded as Chicago, but as luck should have it, a woman showed up who said there was land in New Jersey. Hobbs sprang for it. He and his brothers were soon building a future in Bridgewater.

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It's been a hundred years since the Chicago race riots of 1919 and the book it spawned. Next summer Duluth will be having a remembrance event of its own with regard to the lynching which took place here in 2020. Much has changed over the past century, yet much has not. There is still a lot of pain and anger, frustration and fear.

The promise of social media was that it would bring us all together, but it seems to have done more to drive us apart. It was a false hope.

What is needed is imagination and love, and a willingness to step outside our comfort zones. And a decision to become our better selves.

Related Links
Tamara Tabel, Historical Novelist, on the Race Riots of 1919
The Lynchings in Duluth by Michael Fedo

*Even with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, racist attitudes made it difficult for black families to buy homes in many areas of the country. When I was in college at Ohio U (1970-74) a black family bought a home in the county adjacent to Athens County. They were the first black family in the county, and their welcoming went something like this. Windows broken with rocks. More windows broken and vandalism. I do not know the end of the matter, only that to hear of it was pretty darn sad.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Bootleg #15: Travelin' Through with Johnny Cash Captures More Great Dylan Moments

There's certainly been a lot written and said about Bob Dylan's interlude in Nashville. In 2016 Nashville featured an exhibition titled Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats which was all the rage for a season. When PBS aired the most recent Ken Burns documentary on Country Music, we saw a lot of Johnny Cash and a fair number of Bob Dylan moments and references.

By that time many of us knew Bootleg 15 was coming, so it was just an appetizer. One thing was apparent though, and confirmed here in Travelin' Through--Bob and Johnny had that Mutual Admiration Society thing going. They were quite comfortable in one another's company, as if Johnny were just a favorite older sibling, and it showed.

Like many other folks, I pre-ordered my Bootleg 15 set and the day it arrived listened to all three discs in succession. Actually, I'd listened to John Wesley Harding the night before, and listened to it again last night before writing this.

I remember how someone called JWH Dylan's "comeback album, which seems strange because what was he coming back from, unless they meant coming back from the motorcycle accident. JWH couldn't have been a "comeback" from Blonde On Blonde. There were no weak links in his previous six albums of original material. How do you "come back" from being on top?

I don't think I  fully appreciated this period of Dylan's music till later. In fact, I think that's the best part of these Bootleg Series sets. Going back in time to re-discover some of what we may have failed to see and hear at the time. Perhaps because there had been yet another iteration of the troubadour, who has repeatedly been the snake who sheds his skin, we never knew what verdict to give to each new version of his work.

It's quite interesting how artists can go through these various phases and then move on. Travelin' Through does a fine job of filling in details from a unique period in Dylan's life. His voice sounds wholly other--a friend of mine calls this his favorite period in Dylan's vocal sound--and the stripped bare studio simplicity is noteworthy.

I don't want to repeat what everyone else has said about this set--like the fact that it has 50 tracks, 48 being music and two spoken word bits that give you the feel of Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Or that  25 of the tracks feature Bob and Johnny just being themselves. I only have the vinyl of John Wesley Harding so I like the clarity on the CD, even if it's just the outtakes.

The special feature of Travelin' Through is what we get on Discs 2 and 3 though. We've all known this material was out there somewhere. We're thrilled that it's out of the vault. Great to have it in the collection.

I've tried to think how to describe my feelings here and the only thing I can compare it to is spending time with a lovable grandfather. I'm referring to Johnny Cash on that comparison, though both artists fit the "together through life" feel of being family.

OK, it’s no secret there’s a lot of Dylan music played in this house. Less well known is how extensive our Johnny Cash collection is. There's not much in the Cash portfolio that Susie doesn’t own. So Travellin’ Through, Bootleg #15 is a sweet addition to our mutual collection. As I noted above, I listened to all three discs the first day it arrived. She’s kept playing the two Dylan-Cash CDs ever since. (I had disc one in my office, which she now wants in the living room player, too.)

The accompanying booklet has a lot of familiar photos and some new ones, along with backstory. It's definitely fun hearing Bob singing Johnny's stuff, and vice versa. Their harmonies may not be the stuff of an A-team men's quartet at times, but that's not what this is about. It's the joy of just singing some great songs together, as at a family reunion.

Another favorite "grandpa" also shows up on the final tracks. Five tracks from a session with Earl Scruggs is tacked on, like a rich dessert added to a five course meal of Low Country cuisine. Yum.

As we settle in for the long North Country winter, this latest Bootleg Series will help us get through.

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Related Links
When the Post Called Dylan King
WordPress blogs discussing Travelin' Through
The Recoup

Wordless Wednesday: Saturday's All Soul's Night at the Depot

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Local Arts Scene: Arts & Crafts Events To Fill Every Weekend Till Christmas

If you buy into the ethos of Buy Local, there are certainly plenty of opportunities to do so again this year. There's a pretty comprehensive list of ideas here at the Twin Ports Art Blog. When I spoke to Roger Deloach, pictured below with his 15-year-old grandson who illustrated his first picture book,he said he and his wife have booths at two different shows every weekend through Christmas.

This page is filled with photos from a couple events this past weekend where a lot of commerce was taking place.

Roger Deloach with young illustrator Kadin Deloach Kubat


Check out AICHO's Annual Biboon Winter Sale! This TWO day pre-holiday sale is set for November 29 and November 30 (Black Friday/Small Business Saturdays), both days from 10 am - 5 pm in the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center, located at 202 W. 2nd Street in Duluth, MN. This will also serve as the grand opening of the Indigenous First: Art & Gift Shop expansion. The event is free and open to the public.

There are still three nights left to see a modern adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Check out my review of this story here

Monday, November 11, 2019

An Interview with Author and ePublisher Nicole Akers on the Writing Life

In June 2007 I created this blog called Ennyman's Territory for the purpose of learning about blogging. Little did I know that 12 years later it would become a way of life of sorts. When I learned last year that Ev Williams, the co-creator of Blogger who was later instrumental in the creation of Twitter, had now founded a new platform for writers and readers called Medium, I was more than intrigued.

There were many aspects of Medium that I especially liked. Foremost was the elegance of the "look" of the pages, plus the ease of use. It was populated by a community of writers and readers from the four corners of the world, and it was possible to receive financial remuneration for one's efforts. For me personally, the feature I especially liked was that I could import content from my other blogs and website without having it hurt SEO.

I've met a many interesting people through Medium over the past 18 months. One of these is Nicole Akers, a writer who also manages a publication she created on Medium called Publishous.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in writing?

Akers' first book.
Nicole Akers: I took an interest in writing in fourth grade. My Creative Writing teacher, Janet DiSilvestro, was influential in my writing path. She encouraged us to be different. I remember her standing Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled” and kind of adopted it as a motto for life, to be different. Little did I know then how different I would be.

Janet DiSilvestro has been extremely influential in my life. As she stood (standing) there in front of class orating Robert Frost's poem, I can remember everything about her, down to her feet close together and the bow on her black shoes. She encouraged us to be different in our lives and in our writing. If we followed the road less traveled, it would make all the difference. I've made that my motto for life, to stand out by being different. Actually, my husband and I are very different from the rest of our family, much to their chagrin.

We never know when we will be deeply touched by something or someone, but Janet touched me deeply and continues to do so. She drove from Ohio to Indiana for my first book signing, a self-published book of poems called Crossroads.

EN: What kinds of writing do you do?

NA: I write mainly non-fiction, on the topics of self-help and parenting. An interesting shift, since I graduated from college at Indiana State University as an English major, with Journalism and Creative Writing minors. I hope the well-rounded schooling serves well as a foundation for multiple ranges of techniques.

EN: Do you make a living as a writer or is it something that is a moonlighting occupation?

NA: Writing is close to becoming a full-time income for me. It developed as a hobby but became a dedicated passion when my husband took a one-year sabbatical. It was time to make the thing I enjoyed also pay the bills.

Stats show how Publishous has gained traction on Medium.
EN: How long were you on Medium before you started Publishous? And what prompted you to start a publication? Did the publication precede Medium or is it an off-shoot from your Medium activity?

NA: The progression on Medium for me is interesting because Medium is the platform where I did not want to be. I drug my feet, with heels dug in, before literally being drug onto the platform by writer friends. At first I thought it was just another platform, and I need another platform--said no writer, ever. (joke). I started writing on Medium to get my writing noticed in other places and was only there about 6 months or so before starting the publication. The publication grew quickly and had strong traction before Medium opened the option for writers to make money by publishing the writing on the platform. Timing, as they say, is perfect, and I feel I am in the place I am supposed to be in the time I am meant to be here.

Publishous is almost two years old, as of the first week of December we will be 2. In that short time, we've achieved a lot and continue exponential growth. I'm making some additions this weekend. We have three full-time columnists and ambitious goals to meet by year-end. By the time your piece is published, we should have 22,000 following the pub and I've included a pic of recent stats, showing more than 400,000 unique visitors in 30 days. It is much closer to 425,000 now.

EN: Where would you like your writing to take you in five or ten years? Do you have a path?

NA: Yes, I have a path. I think a writer who doesn’t have a path needs to develop a plan, at least with a six months to one year outlook and a 3-5 year general forecast.

Next for me, includes speaking. I’ve found Toastmasters and there’s something exciting and exhilarating about speaking. I’m honing the skills and soon will be looking for speaking opportunities. The broader outlook also includes podcasting and a publishing house. Publishous (Publish-us) has also been called Publish House from day 1. We joke about this often. We don’t care how you say our name, just that you write and read with us.

Related Links
Publishous and

A number of Medium and Publishous writers have been meeting on Twitter from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. using a tool called PubChat. To participate use #PubChat to join the conversation between writers about writing.
To learn how, read What the Heck is a Twitter Chat?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Author Historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin Shares Insights from His Research on The Cold War's Killing Fields

Just over a year ago I discovered an audio version of Paul Thomas Chamberlin's well-researched and thoroughly engaging The Cold War's Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace in our local library. I listen to books while commuting, and from the getgo it was a compelling read. I was soon writing about it and ordered a copy of the hardback for ongoing research purposes.

Ideas from this book have helped serve as a lens to better appreciate a number of other books I've read this past year including Seymour Hersh's books and Ken Burns' Vietnam, among others. I consider Chamberlin's book important for any Baby Boomer who has grown up in this period of history as it helps us understand many of the events that formed a backdrop for our own personal histories from McCarthyism to the Space Race to the Concert for Bangladesh and the ongoing Middle East turmoil.

Paul Chamberlin is currently Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He taught for six years at the University of Kentucky after receiving his PhD from Ohio State University. He previously studied at the American University of Cairo and the University of Damascus and has held fellowships at Yale University and Williams College.

I recently reached out to the author as a means of learning more about this work and an excuse to keep talking about the so more people will read it.

EN: What was your motivation for writing The Cold War’s Killing Fields?

Photo by Ross Yelsey
Paul Thomas Chamberlin: There was a general consensus among historians that post-1945 era conflicts took place in the so-called Third World. Nevertheless, it struck me that we didn't have a clear idea of where, when, or how -- precisely -- these conflicts happened. The discussion was all generalities and few specifics aside from disconnected wars such as Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. I wanted to create a narrative map that would give a sense of shape to the heretofore shapeless violence of the Cold War age. In doing so, the book also suggests a new periodization to the post-1945 era and tries to suggest a sense of proportion to the era's global patterns of violence.

EN: One of the key takeaways for me was that the so-called Cold War took place in the context of the post-Colonial era. That is, the World Wars 1 & 2 liberated the rest of the world’s peoples from the Colonial powers. How did this “revelation” become so clear for you? And why is it still not grasped?

PTC: Historians in my field are fairly accustomed to thinking about 1945 as a major transition in international affairs from a world of empires and colonies to a world of nation-states. Likewise, we often approach the Cold War in the context of decolonization. What I found in the course of my research, however, was that most of the era's largest conflicts were not wars for decolonization -- i.e. conflicts aimed at pushing out colonial powers. Indeed, most of the bloodiest wars took place inside postcolonial societies that had already driven out their colonizers. These battles, then, were struggles for control of postcolonial states. My sense is that, in general, most readers and diplomatic historians don't always differentiate between decolonization and postcoloniality. Beyond this, Eurocentrism and Americentrism still tend to direct a lot of folks' away from the wider world.

EN: I would like to have seen you apply this truth/reality in more depth to South American power struggles of the 50s to 80s. Are you working on a follow up on that topic?

PTC: Not at the moment, I'm currently working on a project that looks at the Second World War as a clash between competing imperial powers. The Latin American case is interesting, but I found that it didn't quite fit into the story I was trying to tell. On the one hand, the casualty figures just weren't there in Latin America. Though the region certainly saw more than its fair share of vicious wars, the body counts of the conflicts in Asia and the Middle East dwarfed those in Latin America. Moreover, the sort of conflicts that Latin America experienced as well as U.S. interventions in the region began long before 1945. As Latin American historians have argued, then, the conflicts taking place there weren't really Cold War phenomena. Rather, they relate to a deeper history stretching back to the early 20th century and even the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. For more on this, it's worth looking at Greg Grandin, Stephen Rabe, and Alan McPherson's work.

M26 Pershing tanks in downtown Seoul, Korea
EN: The great tragedy, as you point out repeatedly, is how damaging all this has been to the innocent civilians who are just trying to go about their business and survive. Why are our leaders so oblivious to the suffering they generate?

PTC: Nationalism teaches us to see the world as broken up into separate, national boxes. Leaders and the people they represent tend to care more about the deaths of their fellow countrymen and women than the deaths of foreigners. My guess is that this will remain the case so long as we remain unable to see ourselves as global citizens. The big challenge moving forward in this regard seems to be climate change. How do we put our common interests as humans above our narrow interests as Americans, Chinese, Russians, etc.? Unfortunately for the time being, it seems our narrow national consciousness maintains a pretty strong grip.

EN: How do American citizens properly process all this bad behavior by its own leaders?

PTC: I think it's helpful to gain a better sense of history. It's been my impression that officials have historically tended to act in good faith but their priorities were often rooted in short term interests and unfounded anxieties. This was certainly the case during the Cold War when exaggerated fears of the Soviet Union led the United States to militarize the Cold War and stage disastrous interventions in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. But fear and short-term thinking are powerful forces -- I'm not sure how we can move past them.

EN: Who are some of the people whose voices you respect today?

PTC: That's tough, there are so many. I think Timothy Snyder has had some interesting things to say in the last few years about our current situation. I'll also listen to Rachel Maddow’s show when I have some time to check in on current American politics (albeit with a strong editorial take). I think Shoshona Zuboff's Age of Surveillance Capitalism puts forward some interesting ideas.

EN: Can you recommend 2 or 3 books for further reading?

PTC: Off the top of my head, Odd Arne Westad's Global Cold War and The Cold War: A World History cover some similar themes as my own book. Daniel Immerwahr's How to Hide An Empire is another really interesting take on U.S. global power. Another book I'm looking forward to reading is Megan Black's Global Interior which looks at the Department of the Interior as a paradoxical agent of American expansionism and globalism.

EndNote: Thank you, Paul. I believe you've made an important contribution toward better understanding our history.

Related Links
Killing Fields: New Book Proposes that the Cold War Wasn't Really Cold, It Was Just Different
The Thích Quảng Đức Episode (A Snapshot from The Cold War's Killing Fields)
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Revisited
The Cold War's Killing Fields at Amazon
Korean War photo via Good Free Photos

Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Visit with Award-Winning Film Maker Cy Dodson, Creator of Beneath the Ink

Many people are probably unaware of the scale of the Catalyst Content Festival, now in its 14th year, that took place in Duluth in mid-October. To give an idea of how big the event is, festival director Philip Gilpin said there were more than 800 films submitted for consideration from 25 countries this year. Nearly 90 films were screened and 26 scripts read during the five-day event.

One of the films I saw was an extremely powerful documentary called Beneath the Ink. It came as no surprise to me when it won Best Documentary. Even better  was hearing the news that Director Cy Dodson was signed by the Abrams Agency, a major sponsor of the festival.

What did surprise me--but shouldn't have--was discovering that Dodson and I both graduated from Ohio, University in Athens.

EN: How did you come to choose Ohio U in Athens and what was the focus of your studies?

Cy Dodson: I grew up in Zanesville, Ohio which is about an hour drive to OU. A lot of my high school friends went there. It's in the hills, nice location for a school. I was undecided for a while in college. I took a variety of classes, a lot of engineering and music classes. I ended up getting a communications degree with an emphasis on audio production. Not a whole lot of jobs for audio/music recording. I ended up working for my home town television station. I was in the news business for the next 8 years as a journalist, ended up moving to Minnesota in 2000, working for KSTP.

EN: How long have you been making films?

CD: I'm sort of a late bloomer. I made my first documentary My Last Breath in 2015, The Ragman in 2017, and Beneath the Ink in 2018. All short films. Short films are typically the entry point for first time filmmakers, so I've screened with filmmakers at festivals that are probably half my age. I wish I would have started 20 years ago, but times were different back then. You had to take out a second mortgage to be able to buy a camera and editing system.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in film? Did you grow up with a camera in your hand?

Bobby, the central character in Beneath the Ink.
CD: I thought I wanted to have a career in music, that was about the only thing that I thought I was halfway decent at. So that was my path in college. I didn't pick up a camera until I started my first job after I graduated. It wasn't my first love, but eventually became my profession.

EN: Beneath the Ink is a powerful story. How long did you work on this project? Can you share how it came about?

Hiding a swastika beneath another design.
CD: My first two films were a process. It's like anything else, you have to a do it a few times, gain experience and learn what works. Beneath the Ink was filmed in less than a week’s time, mostly over a weekend with a couple pick up shots. More so than anything with the film, it was the subject matter and story. The story sold this. I didn't have a crew, the production value is good but it's not epic, but it's timely and it's redemption angle resonates with people.

EN: What’s the key to successfully telling a story in film?

CD: It's really all about the story. Is it universal, timely, and thought provoking? If the answer is yes to those questions, it would be worth pursuing. I see many filmmakers putting so much time and effort into films that really have no chance at success because the story isn't there. It's so hard to find unique stories that have a complete package, including surprises, layers, and emotion. There have been stories told on tattoo artists that cover up racists tattoos, I haven't seen any documentary films.

EN: Congrats on your Best Documentary award at Catalyst. There was a lot of competition. Now you’ve been selected to be represented by the Abrams Agency. Can you share how that came about and what’s next?

CD: Catalyst was a great experience. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I went to one of their intro meetings in Minneapolis to hear their spiel. At the time, I didn't know I would be pitching a series. I noticed something on social media about deadlines for submissions and 15 dollars, hit the submit button. I've spent a lot more for a lot less at festivals before. We won Best Documentary, met with several networks, and signed on the dotted line for representation with Abrams. That 15-dollar submission went a long way for us with Catalyst. I would recommend learning more about Catalyst, even if you don't have anything to pitch.

EN: Anything you’d like to say to future creators?

CD: Be bold, take chances, and learn from mistakes. The competition is fierce, there are more content creators now than there's ever been. I had a great run and still got a pile of rejections from festivals with each starting, "we had a record number of submissions this year." Even if your film doesn't win awards and get a distribution offer, that doesn't mean you failed. Build on what you learn from each project.

Covering a Klansman with an American Eagle.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Patterns: Paul Simon's Prosaic Pathos

The Beatles and Bob Dylan may get more ink today, but the songs of Simon & Garfunkel voiced the isolation and soul-searching as meaningfully as any artist of the Sixties. We listened to their albums, studied their lyrics in English class, and deeply reflected on the things they were saying.

"Patterns" was a song from their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. At the time I was unaware it first appeared on Simon's 1965 album The Paul Simon Songbook. We had a record player in Mr. Sebes' art class and two girls there seemed to control what music we listened to there. It was Simon & Garfunkel continuously. And I don't believe anyone ever objected.

The song "Patterns" is actually pretty bleak. It states that life is a labyrinthine maze in which we are trapped like rats. There are patterns but we never seem to find our way out or have any control over the game.

According Wikipedia, "A pattern is a regularity in the world, in human-made design, or in abstract ideas. As such, the elements of a pattern repeat in a predictable manner. A geometric pattern is a kind of pattern formed of geometric shapes and typically repeated like a wallpaper design."

Artists can become fascinated by patterns. We see them everywhere in nature.

Psychologists look for patterns in behavior to help unravel inner conflicts and resolve neurotic angst in their patients.

Stock market investors look for patterns as well and devise a whole array of techniques in an attempt to determine if a stock price will go up or down, based on the pattern trends.

Cyberpunk author William Gibson's ninth novel, was titled Pattern Recognition. "The novel's central theme involves the examination of the human desire to detect patterns or meaning and the risks of finding patterns in meaningless data. Other themes include methods of interpretation of history, cultural familiarity with brand names, and tensions between art and commercialization." (Wikipedia)

Pattern recognition has become a pretty hot area of new research today. The journal Pattern Recognition describes it like this:

Pattern Recognition is a mature but exciting and fast developing field, which underpins developments in cognate fields such as computer vision, image processing, text and document analysis and neural networks. It is closely akin to machine learning, and also finds applications in fast emerging areas such as biometrics, bioinformatics, multimedia data analysis and most recently data science. The journal Pattern Recognition was established some 50 years ago, as the field emerged in the early years of computer science. Over the intervening years it has expanded considerably. 

* * * *
A pattern within a pattern. Captured at Art on the Planet n Superior.
Paul Simon's "Patterns" is a precisely crafted piece of poetry infused with its own patterns. When we studied it in Mr. Harris' class, we learned about various devices like assonance ("when you don't get the rhyme right" as Rita says in Educating Rita), and onomatopoeia. Note the ominous "shivering shadows" and repetition of "s" and "sh" sounds in this first stanza.

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child's uneven scrawl

Simon continues to describe the setting, amplifying his gloom with the description of this cramped space he is in. The word "impaled" is a haunting image and we sense the central character's isolation and sense of hopelessness. What he sees is the pattern of his life, with the word "puzzle" repeated from the first verse.

Up a narrow flight of stairs
In a narrow little room
As I lie upon my bed
In the early evening gloom
Impaled on my wall
My eyes can dimly see
The pattern of my life
And the puzzle that is me

In the final stanza we find his "aha" moment. This pattern began when he entered the world, and will continue unaltered until he leaves it.

From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death
There are patterns I must follow
Just as I must breathe each breath
Like a rat in a maze
The path before me lies
And the pattern never alters
Until the rat dies

* * * *
Fractals are themselves a form of pattern within a seeming non-pattern.
The message is bleak, but is it true? Are our lives really so scripted that we can never deviate from who we appear to be?

Behaviorism was a popular philosophical view in the mid-20th century. It used science to affirm that we internally are wired to be who we are, both by genetic design and the nurturing of our early childhood. Though we're psychologically more complicated than pigeons, like pigeons we are essentially "programmed" by forces that lock us in, that we do not have a free will at all.

French attorney/philosopher/theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about these matters as well, though he approached it differently. He stated that we are enslaved more than we realize--for the reasons cited by Skinner and Freud--but that in the very center of our being have do have the ability to make choices, our basis for hope. It's just not easy due to the multiple forces, internal and external, that bear down upon us.

In an essay on the thought and writings of Ellul, James Fowler writes: Ellul's thesis is that the natural man is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality in which he is struggling (cf. I Cor. 2;14). He only sees the surface issues of social, political and economic problems, and he attempts to work and find solutions with the methods of technique, and in accord with moral standards. The world of modern society is not capable of preserving itself or of finding remedies for its spiritual situation. The more so-called "progress" man makes, the more he is aware of the inadequacy of human solutions, which all fail, one after another, and only increase the difficulties in which he lives.

The end result is the sense of futility and despair described by Paul Simon. How we respond to this emotional/psychological space has a bearing on who we become. Existentialists see this as the foundational starting point for creating meaning for our lives. We choose whom we will become. For those who find salvation in faith, it's from this place of despondency and desperation that many people reach out to, and find, God.

Zentangle pattern courtesy Esther Piszczek.
Hemingway had contempt for what many called "foxhole religion" in which soldiers only reached out to God when they were at the end of their rope. "Oh God, don't let me die and I will do anything you ask!" He no doubt saw first hand this kind of religion--may have experienced it himself--and wrote a cynical story about it in his classic In Our Time.

How we choose to live says more than all the promises we make. What we value is revealed in our choices. I disagree with the fatalists who say we are so programmed that we have no choice, no free will. On the other hand, habit can be a very harsh taskmaster. Gaining our freedom requires determination and persistence. We don't and won't drift into it if we're passive like jellyfish.

Paul Simon is a poet, and his effort to capture a feeling, a feeling most of us have experienced, is not necessarily a conclusion about the meaning of life. He captures the feeling well, however. And in other songs he captures other feelings, such as, "Life I love you, all is groovy."

Of all these things much more can be said. For the moment, let's save it for another space in time. The song may have a somewhat bitter end, but that doesn't mean our lives have to.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Steveboyy's Dream of Duluth Artwork NOW AVAILABLE on T-Shirts


to raise money for  STEVEBOYYI. 

I first met Steveboyy Makubuya in early 2017. He'd been sponsored by a church in our region to visit on a temporary visa. Despite the inhospitable Northern Minnesota weather, he fell in love with our city. A talented young artist with a wide grin and big heart, he's currently back in Kampala, Uganda, but he dreams of Duluth.

Multiple shirt styles and colors to choose from.
Those who read his story here may recall that he has no knowledge of who his parents were or when his birthday was. He didn't even have a name. He was found on a sidewalk when nine months old, raised for several years in an orphanage until the children's home closed when he was in his teens.

Since returning to Kampala he has been helping occasionally at an orphanage run by Idah Menanghe where he is much loved by the children.

EdNote: IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP FEED ORPHANS whose needs are real, but you don't know who you can trust or where to give, I can tell you how to make a contribution that makes a difference.
EdNote 2: These kids love Steveboyyi. He's also helped paint buildings there and make art with these children.

 One more time:

WITH THE HOLIDAYS COMING, THESE SHIRTS CAN MAKE GOOD GIFTS FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY, CHILDREN OR EVEN GRANDCHILDREN. Or if you get Christmas money from home, you can buy one for yourself. The shirts come in several styles, with the singular artwork by Steveboyyi. Here's the Link at BONFIRE.

If you would rather donate directly to Steveboyyi's Youth Outreach: Read more about this initiative. Follow this link: Go Fund Me: Dream of Duluth

The T-shirt art was designed by Steveboyyi Makubuya. His first love is making art and he has become quite skilled at it.

We need to sell 25 shirt in the next 19 days in order for Bonfire to print any. Please share this post with your friends.

Related Links
Local Art Scene: Moira and Steveboyyi
Nobody's Child
Bonfire URL:

Make a Difference. Buy a Shirt!