Why I Love History


Here’s why I love history: you always stumble on things so unexpected, so different from the stereotypes you expect, so much better than anything you could make up.

In this excerpt from U.S. Grant’s memoirs (that’s him in the picture, looking very different from how we’re used to seeing him on the fifty-dollar bill)  it turns out that a major cause for the American war with Mexico (aside from taking about half a country away from the Mexicans) was the economics of drug smuggling — from America into Mexico. 

It was a drug war!

It seems the price of tobacco was unnaturally high in Mexico because of government restrictions, so smugglers could make a lot of money taking what Grant calls “the weed” across the Rio Grande to sell to the addicted population of Mexico who all smoked, partly because tobacco was hard to get, which made it more attractive. 

After the restrictions were lifted, the price dropped, smuggling stopped, and usage declined. Ever hear about that before? I’ve put an edited excerpt here, but the whole memoir is a great read and available free in eBook form.

U.S. Grant:

At the time of its first occupancy by United States troops there was a small Mexican hamlet there, containing probably less than one hundred souls. There was, in addition, a small American trading post, at which goods were sold to Mexican smugglers…The trade in tobacco was enormous, considering the population to be supplied. Almost every Mexican above the age of ten years, and many much younger, smoked the cigarette. Nearly every Mexican carried a pouch of leaf tobacco, powdered by rolling in the hands, and a roll of corn husks to make wrappers. The cigarettes were made by the smokers as they used them…

[T]he cultivation, manufacture and sale of tobacco constituted a government monopoly, and paid the bulk of the revenue collected from internal sources. The price was enormously high, and made successful smuggling very profitable. The difficulty of obtaining tobacco is probably the reason why everybody, male and female, used it at that time. I know from my own experience that when I was at West Point, the fact that tobacco, in every form, was prohibited, and the mere possession of the weed severely punished, made the majority of the cadets, myself included, try to acquire the habit of using it. I failed utterly at the time and for many years afterward; but the majority accomplished the object of their youthful ambition…

The native population had been in the habit of using “the weed” from a period, back of any recorded history of this continent. Bad habits—if not restrained by law or public opinion—spread more rapidly and universally than good ones, and the Spanish colonists adopted the use of tobacco almost as generally as the natives. Spain, therefore, in order to secure the largest revenue from this source, prohibited the cultivation, except in specified localities—and in these places farmed out the privilege at a very high price. The tobacco when raised could only be sold to the government, and the price to the consumer was limited only by the avarice of the authorities, and the capacity of the people to pay…

Now, [since the tobacco tax has been repealed,] the citizens are allowed to cultivate any crops the soil will yield. Tobacco is cheap, and every quality can be produced. Its use is by no means so general as when I first visited the country.

Excerpt From: Ulysses S. Grant. “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Complete.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/1aS1D.l



Thoughts on the Imminent Implosion of Hollywood

More than a few people have been posting about the shocking statements from Steven Speilberg and George Lucas prophesying the “implosion” of the film industry. Add to that the recent book by producer/executive extraordinaire Lynda Obst that describes how even industry heavy-hitters are having trouble getting movies made, then top it off with the box office reports on the latest mega-movies, and you can almost start to feel sorry for poor little Hollywood.

A few thoughts. First, this is not the first time the imminent death of Hollywood has been in the headlines. In 1952 the advent of television was similarly expected to be the doom of the big screen. It turned out instead to be a new way of selling movies. The same was true of videotape in the eighties and DVD in the nineties. Each of these was predicted to be the death knell of the movie industry and quickly became the new foundation of the industry instead.

Secondly, a genuine cataclysm that could destroy the industry as we know it is actually possible. For a lesson on what Spielberg might be talking about when he says “implosion” you can read in Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the making of HEAVEN’S Gate how United Artists died. The studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, was destroyed by a single movie in 1980.

So it could have happened before and didn’t, but something similar also did happen before and could again. The threat is real. Anyone familiar with the movies Sunset Boulevard and The Artist can see how failure to adapt to new technology and market forces can leave filmmakers in the dust. Those who failed to adapt to audio in film were left behind. The contemporary situation is not exactly analogous — the threat of Netflix to mega-plexes is not the same as the threat of talkies to silent pictures — but it’s similar enough to make you stop and think about those movie makers who refused to allow microphones on the set and were never heard from again.

Here’s some of what we know and don’t know. First, the “known unknowns.”

First, we can be sure that we DON’T know how movies will be produced and consumed in the future. No one can tell you with certainty what new technologies and market forces will emerge in the next few years to alter the way people make movies and watch them. In the mid-eighties, when I was an undergrad studying mass communication, we had a class where we studied all the emerging technologies. Each student in a class of about thirty took a technology and did an in-depth analysis of its potential to change the communications industry. We discussed technologies like CDs, flat-screen, and high-definition TV, all of which were just emerging at the time. And here’s what we didn’t discuss — what none of us in 1985 saw coming: the Internet, email, cell phones (much less mobile computer smart phones), low-cost high definition cameras, non-linear editing systems, and tablet computers. In other words, important stuff that completely changed the world. Google didn’t exist and Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers. I suspect we’re in a similar place now. We have no idea what technologies, companies and market forces will shape the industry next year, much less in the next decade.

We DO know that Hollywood has been faced with extinction before, but has adapted and actually grown as a result of forces that were expected to destroy it. I suspect that storytellers with nimble minds will find ways to adapt and thrive in the new realities.

Because another thing we DO know is that human beings are storytelling animals. Stories are not a luxury; they are a necessity of life. A society can no more live without stories than a person can live without sleep. So no matter what form the market and techno-landscape take, we’re still going need skilled storytellers and their stories.

We also know that different communication technologies communicate with the human mind in different ways and require different techniques. So as the technological landscape for storytelling shifts (say, perhaps in the direction of viewing on mobile devices instead of big screens or TVs) the storytellers who succeed will be those who master not just the new technologies, but find storytelling techniques that are uniquely suited to those technologies.

We know as well that new communication technologies are almost always dominated by the thinking and techniques of the preceding technologies. In the past it has taken up to a full generation before storytelling techniques caught up with technology, as in the case of film itself, sound, color, zoom lenses, CGI, and 3D (which we still haven’t figured out completely.) All of these took decades to master to the point where they no longer called attention to their technological specialness and simply served the story they were telling. In the interim, new technologies tend to serve as new vessels to carry the old wine of the old storytelling technologies. But those who see the new technologies as nothing more than ways to repackage and get new revenue streams from the old techniques tend to be the ones who invest their psychic energy and their money in massive flops. This is where the potential for “implosion” is very real.

Another thing we know well is that even as changes in storytelling technologies have mandated adjustments in storytelling techniques, certain basic concepts of how stories work have not changed significantly since the Greeks first wrote them down millennia ago. The medium that carries the story may metamorphose, but the target at which the story aims — the human soul — is still the same as it was in the days of Socrates.

What we know finally, is that those who will succeed as storytellers in the new paradigm, whatever it may be, will be those who can simultaneously embrace and master the new technologies and stay firmly grounded in the storytelling basics that are as powerful today as they always were.

Brain Scientists on Movies: Some Answers, Lots of Questions

This article on the effect of movies on the brain was written for an audience of scientists, but it has some interesting points for those of us in the media.

I have long believed, and have taught in my classes on Film Analysis, that many of the techniques filmmakers use to guide an audience through an experience (what we call telling a story) have a foundation in neurology. Now we have scientists performing experiments with sophisticated instrumentation to find empirical data in an attempt to prove whether and to what extent that is true.

Ultimately, the article is frustrating because it offers a tantalizing tidbit and ultimately raises far more questions than it answers. And that’s certainly not a criticism; the authors themselves acknowledge they are just scratching the surface of understanding how films make an impact neurologically and there is much more to learn.

Here are some of the questions I would like to see brain scientists address in experiments:

  • How does “persistence of vision” work where, in a movie projected from film the screen is actually flashing dark in between frames, but the perception from the viewer is uninterrupted motion?
  • Is there a difference between the way the brain perceives progressive scan video (i.e. 24p) as opposed to interlaced video? A lot of people say progressive scan video is more “filmlike”; can instruments detect brain activity that would explain this perception?
  • How does the brain perceive video compared with projected celluloid?
  • I theorize (based on hints from Frank Daniel) that a gradual introduction of a character or other key cinematic element arouses curiosity, thereby activating the creative areas of the brain and effectively shutting down critical and logical brain functions, which allows for “suspension of disbelief” and a cinematic experience that has much in common with dreaming. Can brain science either confirm or disprove my theory?
  • Frank Daniel theorized (and I have adopted his theory) that film creates stronger emotional and physical identification with characters and is more highly vicarious in the way audiences experience emotional and physical aspects of the lives of the characters than literature. Can brain science shed light on this?
  • Frank theorized that in a well told story audiences progress from curiosity to sympathy to eventual empathy for the characters. Can brain scientists prove whether he was right?
  • I argue in my upcoming book series Good Stories Well Told that professional critics — that is people who go to the movies and evaluate them for a living — are neurologically incapable (or at least disadvantaged) when it comes to experiencing a movie in the same way an audience does when they go to the movie as a means of escaping from their every-day lives. Am I wrong?

I could go on. The idea of getting real empirical information on how media has in impact on the brain is very exciting — and maybe a little dangerous. Whenever people start to get the idea that they can engineer communication, the result is usually not pretty.

The Art of the Ebook

The future of the ebook is bound up with the way authorship evolves.  The most powerful communication comes from the unconscious minds of a creative person, and there are two parts to the creative process — the inspiration and the editing.

Great ideas come in flashes: capricious, unpredictable. They exist in the unconscious mind long before they break through to the surface where we can look them in the face. These are the sudden insights when we recognize in an instant something we’ve known for a long time but never could form into an intelligible thought. But these flashes of genius tend to be diamonds in the rough; it takes a lot of cutting and polishing before they become real gems. That’s the editing process — an often grueling regimen of refining, clarifying, taking an idea or image and making it a more intense and perfect version of itself. The first part comes from the creative Right Brain; the editing involves more of the technical Left Brain.

A medium can’t reach its full potential for powerful communication until the Right Brain becomes familiar enough with it that it acquires a certain effortlessness. This requires an understanding of highly technical material by minds that also have a powerful creative Right Brain. This takes time. You can’t rush the Right Brain.

With ebooks the level of technical knowledge involved is both large and constantly changing. And most of our best creative minds haven’t had time to digest even the basic technical elements of the medium to the point where the Right Brain has access to imagine and dream in an ebookish way. (Could Alfred Hitchcock have mastered HTML? And if he could, what would he have done with it?)

Certain media are so technically complex that no single person can obtain enough technical knowledge to be a sole creator of powerful communication. The idea of a committee writing a great poem is absurd. But you don’t cast large bronze statues or make movies alone. Complex ebooks fit into this category.

Still, even in these technology-dominated media, the best works tend to come from a single creative mind with a powerful vision. Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel alone. The Godfather is the result of a large team of collaborators. The Guggenheim Museum…you get my point. But the thing that makes these works stand out as unique and powerful is the way in which the technical aspects of the medium were subservient to the creative vision of the person we credit with what we now call a work of art. In each case the collaborators necessarily included highly skilled experts, but the only indispensable person in the process was the one who created the vision the others fulfilled.

What this means, for those of us who see ebooks as a medium with the potential to take its place beside novels and cinema as a powerful and unique way of communicating, is that we must focus on two important elements. The first is finding ways of getting creative minds up to speed on the possibilities of the medium so that our ebook Dickenses and Picassos can emerge. The books of Liz Castro and the development of iBooks Author are examples of attempts to do this. Liz makes technical aspects of ebook creation easier, but still not easy enough for most Right Brain dominant people. iBooks Author lets a non-technical person create a multi-touch ebook, but with limitations, and it’s still intimidating to a lot of artist types. Both these are steps in the right direction, but are there other ways to speed up the process of getting the creative people on board?

The second important aspect is to create ways of communicating between Left Brain technowizards and Right Brain artists to build teams that can achieve that delicate balance where the technology serves the creative impulse rather than dominating and dictating to it.

For the foreseeable future ebooks will remain a medium dominated by technology, so the most successful ebook creators will be those who can bring creative communicators and artistic minds into the mix through inculcating them with a wide variety of ebook experiences and developing collaborations to allow close cooperation between Left and Right hemispheres.

Still Looking for the First Real Ebook

When Gutenberg printed his first Bible with moveable type, he took great pains to make it look as though it had been copied by hand.

The makers of the first dramatic movies tried hard to make their work as much like stage plays and novels as possible.

The early talkies were wall-to-wall dialog and orchestra because, well, there was sound.

When color started to appear regularly in films, the screen was a riot of hyper-saturated hues, as if to make sure you wouldn’t forget you were watching a movie in color!

When post production people started to use computer graphics for special effects, we suddenly found ourselves watching movies that were more about CGI than characters.

In each one of these cases, new communication technology was defined by the preceding technology, either by trying to reproduce the earlier form, or to make sure people were aware that you were using the latest technology. As a result, the stories tended to take a back seat to the machines. It took about a decade before storytellers learned how to use the technologies as effective storytelling devices without the need to demonstrate the technology itself. In other words, it took time learn to use technology in ways that no one was aware the machines were even there because the story had all their.

Where are we with ebooks? Well, if they were movies, 2012 would be about 1904. In other words, we have not yet seen the definitive ebook. By that I mean a self-contained digital communication that provides a satisfying artistic experience that is a result of inherent properties of the digital technologies used to create it. It isn’t an electronic “version” of anything else. It doesn’t derive its power from recalling to mind another medium.

I want someday to be walking out of a movie theater and hear people say, “Yeah, but it wasn’t as good as the ebook.”

What we have at this point appears to be one of two things: First we have a lot of books preoccupied with reproducing the preceding medium, i.e. ebooks that try as hard a possible to be like paper books in the same way early movies tried to reproduce stage plays on the screen. The second is ebooks (or some variant thereof) that are electronic gimmicks, gadgets and novelties that feel more like parlor tricks than the experience of a great novel or movie.

Where is the Melias, the Griffith, the Eisenstein of ebooks? Where is the ebook equivalent of The Great Train Robbery, the movie that defined storytelling in feature films? The question is not rhetorical: if you know of an ebook that speaks powerfully and clearly because of — not in spite of — the attributes inherent in its electronic format, please share it and let us start to build on it.