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4,717,368.

That’s how many views (including mine) have been tallied for director/actor/producer Freddie Wong’s short fan film “Modern Warfare: Frozen Crossing Part 1” on his YouTube channel, so far his sole distribution platform.

I first read about Wong’s work last week in an article on TheWrap.com which reports that Wong and his partner, Brandon Laatsch, have so far uploaded over 120 largely fan-funded, gunshot-riddled videos to their two channels, FreddieW and FreddieW2, which have more than 3.5 million subscribers between them.

For the record I despise violent video games like “Modern Warfare” and I have a hard time lauding their spawn, but I am really impressed with what Wong and company have done with such limited resources.  Hollywood has apparently approached the prolific duo looking to make a deal, but who knows whether that move was simply prescient or made in self-defense… or perhaps both?

Either way it seems Wong et al. couldn’t care less. “Making a feature film or making a TV show [as] a definition of success, that’s out of date,” Wong scoffed to TheWrap. “We’re looking at where online content is going, where technology is going — that’s an exciting new frontier. We have this chance to carve out what the online world and digital-distribution world could look like, and that’s infinitely more interesting.”

Deja vu…  As a journalist I watched some of my colleagues first dismiss the Internet – especially those from the old guard – then cower in private over its might, and finally scramble to catch up with those who embraced it early.

Case in point: when I was in graduate school in 2003 I got a C on a paper I wrote for my Media Law & Ethics class (taught by the venerable former NPR and ABC Newsman Bob Zelnick) in which I portended the significant influence of blogs on both the coming presidential election and the archaic media landscape.  When I appealed the low grade, Zelnick attributed it to my “implausible” thesis.

I’m still new to making movies but I see a similar trend of such fatal skepticism at work in the film business as has crippled and culled the print media, especially, during the last decade.

One example was the countrywide boycott that theater owners threatened last fall when Universal Pictures announced that it would release its Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy action comedy “Tower Heist” on video on demand (VOD) at a premium price in some markets only three weeks after it opened in theaters.

In a perfect world the two sides might have worked together in this experiment to share the risk, come up with a compromise and investigate this new distribution model.  Instead the theaters’ balked and Universal ditched the idea.  At least the controversy started a dialogue that will hopefully drive change for the better.

Wong says he’s open to collaboration, telling TheWrap that “it’s a matter of finding a project that takes advantage of the audience we’ve been building. We really like being able to directly communicate with our audience.”

(Apparently the feeling is mutual…   The view counter on Wong’s FreddieW channel is up to 496,764,780.)

Still, one can hear the proverbial teeth chattering as old guard producers across Hollywood furtively watch Freddie Wong’s latest short, wondering whether to try and beat him or join him.  In my corner of Hollywood East, I’ll be watching and learning.

If you’re interested, too, check out the fascinating making-of video he and his cohorts posted for Frozen Crossing Part 1.

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This is a personal pet-peeve.

I HATE it when I’m driving along on the highway and suddenly there’s a tiny orange flash on the road ahead – someone has chucked a cigarette butt out their window.  For some reason these people don’t think they’re littering.

NEWSFLASH: Hey smokers!! Cigarette butts are NOT biodegradable!  When you toss them out your window or on the sidewalk, make no mistake – you are trashing the planet.

How bad is the problem? The American Legacy Foundation says that “in the past decade, cigarette smoking in America has decreased 28%, yet cigarette butts remain the most littered item–in the U.S. and across the globe.”

A fairly recent New York Times story said, “Nationally, cigarette butts account for one-quarter or more of the items tossed onto streets and other roadways.”  The article goes on to point out that cigarette butts “contain plastic filters that enter sewers and storm drains, and get swept into rivers and then out to sea, where they can release toxic chemicals including nicotine, benzene and cadmium.”

A Virginia-based anti-butt effort reports that “about 95% of cigarette filters are composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic which does not quickly degrade and can persist in the environment.”

With characteristic irony, apparently even cigarette companies agree this is a problem.  Pollution prevention programs that get funding from Phillip Morris, including the Keep America Beautiful program, say that only 10% of cigarette butts are properly deposited in ash receptacles, they constitute 28-33% of all litter nationwide, and account for 28% of littered items washing up on the world’s beaches.

In the past, reporters have had the discouraging habit of telling their audiences how big and bad a problem is, without telling them what they can do to help.  So it’s heartening to relate Keep America Beautiful’s claim that its Cigarette Litter Prevention Program resulted in an average 55% reduction in cigarette butt litter in the areas where it was field tested.

Here’s a link to where you can learn more if you want to help. The bottom line is, if you’re going to smoke, put your butts in an ash receptacle or trash can.

At the heart of the issue, in my opinion, is a careless mentality that needs to change.  I try not to pass judgment against those who choose to smoke despite the health risks, but the evidence is pretty compelling that all this butt chucking seems to spring from a general lack of regard for the personal and potentially global consequences of one’s actions.

This might be one of the strongest opinions I’ve ever posted here, but it seems to me that with all of the much harder environmentally hazardous habits our global society must break, this is an easy behavior to change right away.

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There was good news and bad news about the economy yesterday…

The bad news first: our economy shrank 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009. Yikes!!

Now the good news: consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of our GDP, rose at an annual rate of 2.2%, the most in two years.

So, you might wonder, what are we spending more of our hard-earned money on?  Apparently, consumers are snapping up long-lasting “durable” goods, including cars, furniture, household appliances… as well as (wait for it) pet products.

    Mila (on her L.L. Bean dog bed $89.99, with Kong $11.99, yellow bone $6.99, rope toy $6.99)

Mila (on her L.L. Bean dog bed $89.99, with Kong $11.99, yellow bone $6.99, rope toy $6.99)

The American Pet Products Association estimates that pet owners will spend an approximate $45.4 billion on our furry friends in 2009, $2.2 billion more than last year.

Giant pet supply companies are – gasp – posting earnings and opening new stores!

I spend between $75 and $100/month on food and a few toys for my black lab, Mila (age 1 1/2), and that’s when she doesn’t visit the vet!

But I have the sneaking suspicion that the APPA is not talking about food and a few toys, and I have evidence to support my theory.

My boyfriend’s dog has a congenital pēdal condition that, on occasion, results in sores between the digital pads of one of his hind feet.

He needs to wear a shoe to protect the whole foot, and he’s worn out several elastic-cuffed, leather-bottomed, velcro-strapped “boots” over the past few months.

His need for more formidable footwear gave me occasion to google “pet footwear” and I can report copious canine options, ranging the from seriously sturdy…

Bark'n Boots with Grip Trex from Ruffgear.com

Bark'n Boots with Grip Trex from Ruffgear.com - $55

to the utterly absurd…

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Um... fuzzy bunnies?! From PetEdge.com - $7

Don’t worry folks, if your dog doesn’t like bunnies, these also come in sheep and duckies, and for the holidays, santas and elves!

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"It's a ball within a ball that rolls and wobbles erratically as your pet lunges, chases, and chomps." Petco.com

I think pet spending is an interesting trend, at a time when many, many people are supposedly cutting back!  I’ve reduced my monthly expenditures to my bills, food, gas, laundry detergent, contact lens solution, and dog food.

OK, full disclosure, yesterday, I spent $11.99 on a new braided rope toy for Mila, but it was NOT the fancy version with the minty floss (which costs another $5 bucks).  Last year at this time I regularly bought her new Kongs (she destroys them in a week), Nylabone rings (these can last longer), some tennis balls for her Chuck-It, and I probably would have sprung for the minty-floss rope toy too.

And I’ll admit I was tempted to get her a Jolly Pet Teaser Ball (see picture, right), which I walked past on my way out of Petco yesterday. The premise behind this product had me daydreaming about being able to leave the two dogs outside for hours, unattended and unmonitored, without worrying that they’ll dig holes to China all over the yard.

But the price – $22.99!!!  Plus Mila would probably get so frustrated with the “ball within a ball” after five minutes of trying to figure it out, that in classic retriever fashion she’d dismember it inside of thirty seconds.

But I digress…

There’s something disturbing about the pet spending boom;  APPA President Bob Vetere says, and the aforementioned duckie dog slippers show, that one of the main factors behind this trend is society’s overall humanization of pets.   Dog pajamas?! Dog bathrobes?!

Now, to each their own; I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but come on!  Terry cloth with a hood?!

The APPA’s Vetere also cites an increasing number of empty-nest baby boomers who “have had their children leave home and move on, and they are looking for something else to care for.  Lo and behold, there’s Spike. He never talks back and doesn’t take the car out late at night, and it’s like, ‘I love you, Spike.’ This is a new child to hover over.”

And to garb in chiffon party dressesseriously

In fairness, pet products (Kongs and diva dog dresses alike) account for the second highest percentage of consumer pet spending, and veterinary care comes in third.

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Number one is the price of pet food, which Reuters reports rose 13.5 % during just the last quarter of 2008.

The APPA predicts Americans will spend a record breaking $17.4 billion on pet food this year, up from $16.8 billion in 2008.

My guess is that the tainted pet-food fiasco of 2 years ago scared a lot of pet owners into switching to premium food brands with identifiable ingredients made closer to home.cuddlecouch2

I think the bottom line is that pets are a comfort to us, especially in tough times, and it’s clear that we’re grateful, whether the gesture comes in the form of a ball within a ball, internet sale price $11.99, or a canine “cuddle couch” also on sale at BeyondTheCrate.com for $1029.00.

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Tempus fugit; a fact indisputable of a thing irretrievable.

The seasons, to me, are portraits of time’s passage.

It is the second of two “stick seasons” this month, here in New Hampshire.  The first one comes after the leaves fall in October, and the world turns grey, ever colder and darker as we await winter’s white peace.  The second arrives in April when the ground is grey again, the precursors to splendor just beneath its surface.

Dynamic portraits of time’s flight, the seasons.

Here’s a static one I found this week while doing some spring cleaning:

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me, circa 1983

and, a favorite poem on the subject:

TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME
by Robert Herrick

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

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A couple of months ago I visited the Johnson Space Center in Texas, where a tired one hour tour passes through NASA’s historic Mission Control Center.  Until 1992 this was a cutting edge communication hub, filled with the hum of important activity and the same state of the art technology that helped mankind take our world famous “giant leap” on the lunar surface.  The room now sits behind a glass wall, silent, empty, seemingly irrelevant, as tourists are ushered past, dumbfounded by the rotary telephones and keyboardless computers inside.

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This image came to mind when I heard that the Rocky Mountain News, one of two newspapers in Denver, CO, published its final edition on Friday, just 2 months shy of its 150th birthday.  I can’t help but wonder if today’s newspaper newsroom, like the old Mission Control, will one day be a stop on journalism’s own tired tour?

The empty newsroom at the now defunct Rocky Mt. News (Photo: Rockymountainnews.com)

The empty newsroom at the now defunct Rocky Mt. News (Photo: Rockymountainnews.com)

The story of the RMN’s demise is sadly becoming banal.  It was a mighty little newspaper (4 Pulitzers since 2000) and a farm team that funneled reporting talent to the likes of the inveterate New York Times.

Now it’s the latest casualty of what some are calling a multi-front war on journalism.  News outlets everywhere are succumbing to a recession on one front, the new media revolution on another, and on at least a third we’re fighting for a share of our readers’/listeners’/viewers’ ever shrinking appetites for journalism done de rigeur.

Like my visit to the defunct Mission Control Center, the death of the Rocky Mountain News is a lesson in the inevitability of change.  But, if I may I add, isn’t there opportunity in change, and discovery through it?

Over the past few months I’ve noticed more column inches and airtime devoted to that dreaded question: is journalism dying? (Here’s what a quick google search turns up on that question.) On the contrary I truly believe that journalism is still very much alive.  I would argue instead, as many others have, that our current media and methods are simply evolving.

So we are losing the newspaper, much like NASA upgraded to a fancy new Mission Control down the hall (and computers with keyboards), but don’t we still have astronauts in space, not to mention much better methods of keeping in touch with them?

As such, instead of navel gazing on the subject of our demise, perhaps we journalists could and should better spend our energy, to say nothing of our precious airtime, finding better ways to report the news for today’s audiences?  I suppose that means we could all put down our pens for a moment, and take a pause from informing the masses to try to better understand them?

That brings us to the million dollar question:  America, how do you want your news?

I humbly offer that until we can answer this, we keep trying, erring and trying again with the newest tools at our fingertips, taking risks and chucking norms in search of the next frontier.  To the staff of the Rocky Mountain News, I say DON’T GIVE UP!  You helped get us here, and despite your lament for the past, you can be part of journalism’s future.  Easier said than done, perhaps, but possible nonetheless.

Even as these times force me too to contemplate defecting, I am confident that there are enough people who value journalism that the field won’t falter, if for no other reason that that every time as chorus rises to the contrary, we do something like this:

Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 18, 2007; Page A01

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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In New Zealand many of the people, and most of the places and things have two names, one in English and one in the language of the indigenous Maori.

So I got to wondering, to whom does this country belong?

Does it belong to the Maori who came here from Polynesian places in outrigger canoes (canoes!) between 950 and 1130 AD?

They gave beautiful names to the land and its features ~ from the tallest mountain, Aoraki, (cloud piercer) to one of the smallest birds, the kiwi (this is a Maori word for the shrill call of the male).

dscn4257

A stunning view of Aoraki (Mt. Cook) taken after an arduous hike nearby.

In spite of New Zealand’s first human occupants, some people would argue that the country belongs to the European explorers who arrived here in the 1600s.  Abel Tasman of the Netherlands led them, in search of a mythical, beautiful and resource-rich southern continent that the Dutch eventually found and dubbed Nieu Zelandt or Zeelandia Nova, meaning new sea land.

They too gave names to the land ~ Aoraki, to Captain James Cook, was Mt. Cook; a low passage over the Southern Alps, to Julius von Haast became Haast Pass; a river of tears shed down a mountainside by a goddess for her lost love and frozen there by the Maori gods, became the Franz Josef Glacier.

Or does New Zealand now belong to the British, who in 1840 signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori, in effect absorbing New Zealand into the United Kingdom, and barring the Maori from selling their land, to this day, to anyone but the crown?

Perhaps New Zealand belongs to King Aragorn and the stewards of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or perhaps to its wild stewards, including the mighty Northern Royal Albatross, blue-eyed penguins, fur seals, Kea mountain parrots and the tiny but fierce sandfly?

I’ve had many questions as have explored this vast, wild, breathtakingly beautiful, awe-inspiring place, including how long it will remain so?  How long before yet another outside force arrives to impose its will on whatever population happens to be “native” at that moment?

Given this country’s perilous position on a massive, active alpine fault line, its dynamic glacial and volcanic landscape, and its relatively recent reshaping at the hand and whim of mother nature, I can not help but think that this land belongs to her, and she will reclaim it, and that any names it’s been given will, as Tolkien said, pass into shadow and legend.

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There are pictures of me as a little girl, floating in open Caribbean waters with my father, rendered fearless by childhood.

I have no recollection of those times, nor of any time before I was afraid to swim in deep or dark water where I am surrounded by the unknown.  For as long as I can remember, my fear has kept me close to shore, physically and metaphorically, as fears tend to do when they rule you.

It is this phobia that I set out to confront and rid myself of when I boarded the catamaran Calypso out of Port Douglas, on Australia’s tropical northeastern coast, and headed for the Great Barrier Reef.  greatbarrierreef-eoIt is the world’s largest, can be seen from outer space, and being there feels like arriving at the edge of the earth!

Yes, there are sharks out there, but one has a better chance of getting killed by a falling vending machine than a shark, according to a sourceless, yet oft-cited statistic here… 

Ethan tells me I looked nervous on the way out to the reef; he kept checking in to make sure I was okay, and I’m sure my face must have looked pale and expressionless to him, but I wasn’t feeling scared yet, at least not in the way I imagined I would.  I think I was more afraid on dry land, two days before we left.

Most of the reef tour boats give you the option of snorkeling or doing what’s called an introductory dive, wherein instructors will teach you some basics and take you 30 feet down for 30 minutes or so.  We were both nervous, for different reasons, about going in the water at all, but we liked that this option was available in case we could summon the nerve to do both.

So on the way out, we sat through the intro diving course, which was both a welcome distraction from the long boat ride to our first jumping-off point, and a terrifying exercise in all the ways one could die out there…

We got a physics lesson (water + depth = pressure, so don’t hold your breath) and we promised not to fly for a few days after diving, then signed the obligatory release form detailing all the terrible things that could happen to us on the reef, foreseen and unforeseen…

Soon we arrived at the first dive site, the captain turned off the engine and we decided to try snorkeling first.  We slipped into some sexy, full-body stinger-proof suits (it’s jellyfish spawning season here right now), then we squished our faces and feet into our masks and fins, respectively, and headed for the swim platform off the boat’s stern.

There was a massive lump in my throat as I suited up, and I had to choke back some tears – I was in the kind of emotional state where if anyone had said anything nice to me, or understanding, or sensitive, I might have started sobbing.  It was strange, and powerful, but it still didn’t feel like fear.  It was as if I’d arrived at a huge turning point, and the flood waters were about to break the dam…

There was a moment when we sat down on the edge of the boat, and my pulse quickened a bit as I looked down.  Ethan snapped this shot as we sat there together, taking a few deep breaths.

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A nearby Calypso crewmember told me to put my face in the so I could see the coral and the fish straight away.  Almost as soon as I did, she took my hand and into the water I went.  Ethan jumped in behind me, took my other hand, and we took off to explore.

After a few minutes I felt like a pro, so I dove under for a closer look at the reef.  The water was fairly shallow, ranging from 8 to 15 feet deep, so we could easily see the bright colors of the fish and coral (these become muted the deeper you dive).

When completely submerged it sounded like I was swimming in a bowl of rice krispies with freshly poured milk, as millions of tiny fish nibbled nutrients off the coral.  Other than the crackling, it’s completely peaceful and quiet.  The fish dart by in every color, shape and size, and the coral conjures up scenes out of a Dr. Seuss story, some of it is brain-like, solid and globular, while other types have waving feathery tendrils.

Scientists know that this reef is suffering, but I wasn’t sure what to look for when searching out evidence of bleaching caused by human contact and climate change versus natural attrition.  Here’s a shot of some bleached, dead coral (the white bit in the center), the cause of its demise a mystery, but nonetheless it is a picture that will become increasingly common.

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There is an overwhelming amount of information about the reef, its residents and its health, that I’ve decided not to get into it here, but I heartily recommend a google search if you’re curious.  This is one, perhaps the only area where I was disapointed in my Calypso experience.  I wish the crew had done more to educate customers on the reef, in addition to one hasty (15 minute), half-hearted and sparsely attended lunchtime talk on fish and coral types, given AFTER the first two reef stops.

Rewind for a second though, to the moments after we emerged from snorkeling, dripping from head to toe and giddy with excitement and a sense of accomplishment.  But before we could pause to catch our breath, literally, our bleach-blonde diving instructor came looking for us, and said it was time to suit up.  Gulp.  Okay.

p1160132 _mg_3958 Then, one by one, we were taken into the water to practice the basic skills we’d learned earlier, including what to do if we lost our air regulator… yikes!  First obstacle: this dive site was much, MUCH deeper than the first one… say 30 feet or so, at least!  Second obstacle: once in the water we had to sit there and wait for our two fellow divers to pass their skills reviews, and said wait included a scary view of the boat’s underbelly, and our firm grasp of a slimy anchorline descending into the murky depths below.

Double gulp…

I must have sucked down half of my air supply just waiting there, focusing on Ethan’s face, trying to slow my breath, trying to remember not to HOLD my breath…

And finally we descended, popping our ears along the way, until it was time to let go of the rope.  Pretty soon I’d forgotten any sort of fear, and was too busy checking out a sea cucumber to remember that I was diving 25 feet below the surface of the shark-laden southern Pacific – me, Miss Fear of Dark Water Mullen, diving…

p1160193Before we knew our instructor signalled that it was time to turn back to the boat.  We’d done it!  I’d confronted and conquered one of my greatest fears!  Ethan deserves my gratitude for making the entire experience possible, and never leaving my side, not to mention admiration for his own bravery in the face of his own, presumably more powerful fears.

My mind flooded with thoughts on how many opportunities I’d missed, how much energy I’d wasted on this fear over the last two decades, and then almost as quickly I told myself to let go of those thoughts and enjoy the moment, as so many friends and family members have been advising me to do lately.  Live only in the present.

On the way back to shore I fell in and out of sleep in the sun on the boat’s top deck, my stream of consciousness drifting among my other fears and hesitations, wandering over which one I should vanquish next…

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