Numbers, Sloppy Numbers, and Statistics

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I admit it — I get unreasonably cranky when I see sloppy, lazy or just plain bad business/financial reporting.

It goes back to my roots as a business journalist. I spent a lot of time making sure any estimates, figures, numbers or statistics I referenced were a) correct; and b) explained in as much detail as possible for general audiences.

While general-audience business journalism has historically been full of errors, false comparisons and mistakes (usually because these reporters come from J-school, not B-school), it seems to be getting worse. Yes, I’m sure news-org consolidation and downsizing has something to do with it.

But I was hit with two typical errors recently, and I have to vent.

Error 1: Not All Dollars Are Created Equal

I’m living in California’s Central Coast area now. And not to out any local media groups, but there was recent reporting on a reservoir’s water supply. So far, so good. Water’s always in the news here.

The local reporter took it a step further though, and said this particular project was built in 1957 for $5 million — what a deal that was! …And they left it at that.

Okay, if you’d going to reference past dollar figures, BRING THEM TO CURRENT VALUE! Annual inflation is a real thing, so give your audience an apples-to-apples comparison.

It’s easy. Heck, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has an online inflation calculator.

Spending about 6 seconds there shows us $5 million in 1957 is equivalent to about $41.5 million today. Still probably a deal for a water reservoir, but now at least there’s a valid basis for comparison.

Error 2: Statistics are Slippery Things

For this next example, I’ll name names because they’re national and they should be able to take criticism. It’s NPR.

First, they were covering a sad, even tragic, topic: suicide. The reporting focused on Japan’s suicide culture, and how suicide is often seen an an honorable way out of dishonorable actions or circumstances.

Realize that I have great empathy for the issue of suicide. I don’t want to be perceived as being insensitive.

However, the reporter led with the statement: “Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the United States. More than 30,000 people a year kill themselves in Japan.”

If I’m a casual listener, I might have missed the fact they just compared an apple to an orange. Someone could infer the US has about 15,000 suicides annually, since that’s half the Japanese number just mentioned (or another way: 30,000 is twice as large as 15,000).

But the RATE is different from the total NUMBER — especially in a country as large as the US (about 316 million people), versus Japan (about 128 million people).

This type of reporting opens the door for that same casual listener to conclude (incorrectly) if the US is only looking at about 15,000 to 16,000 suicides a year, the problem isn’t so bad.

The real numbers are far more disturbing for Americans. Yes, Japan tragically recorded about 30,000 suicide deaths annually… but the US reported 38,364 such deaths in 2010.

And there’s evidence the US rate is actually far higher, but under-reported by local authorities for a wide variety of reasons, including family concerns.

To close the loop, the rate is measured per 100,000 people — and according to World Health Organization estimates, Japan is actually not quite double the US suicide rate (21.7 suicides per 100,000 people versus 12 suicides per 100,000… and climbing for the US).

Even more depressingly, Greenland, South Korea and Lithuania have truly horrifying rates (but that’s a separate story).

Again, it’s a sad topic, but this also means there’s even more reason to make sure your figures and statistics are carefully vetted and put into proper context.

In doing the basic research for these numbers, there’s still validity to the story about Japan’s cultural view of this type of death, and the fledgling movement to change attitudes.

But another, larger story about America’s rarely discussed suicide culture is still waiting for a national stage, a national dialogue, a national discussion.

That’s just one reason why facts, figures and statistics are incredibly important to get right.

Brad Pitt Ain’t a Zombie-Killer

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Technically, he’s killing a virus that spreads itself through human hosts.

WorldWarZ

“But wait,” i hear you ask, “those zombies in 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, they went through the same thing. Why aren’t you picking on them?”

Well, they did, and I am, and those weren’t really zombies either.

Call me a traditionalist, but true zombies get infected and/or are dead already, reanimate, and SLOWLY make their way toward your still-beating heart (and brain).

That’s the difference. You might think it’s splitting hairs, but ask yourself: is there such a thing as bad jazz? Or could what you’re listening to be classified as uptempo contemporary adult?

Listen, anything or things moving that fast may as well be robots or sharks or bears or aliens or coordinated groups of mass murderers: it ain’t the same as the slow, plodding actualization of your worst fears about death and mortality, come to remind you that humans can have a REALLY hard time getting along even in the best of times.

But I’ve made a whole presentation about this, years ago, and I stand by George Romero’s viewpoint:

July 13, 2010, Inside the Artist’s Studio Interivew with Molly Matlock.

However, I give massive props to Mr. Pitt and his whole production team for getting a movie like “World War Z” made in the first place, and getting it released as a PG-13 feature.

There are some interesting themes raised in the film, and it’s visually stunning, and parts of it quite intelligent. And I generally like Brad anyway.

But he ain’t fighing real zombies, is all I’m saying.

Writing for the Web: A Brief

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I’ve trained hundreds of people to write effectively for the web. And I read a lot on the web — the good and the bad.  As this year wraps up, I’ve concluded good web writing isn’t a common skill.

Because  we;re in the holiday giving season, here are a handful of free tips, hints, and pointers. (The next session will be a charge…)

The fundamental truth:

• People don’t read online. They scan online. Your site visitors survey the page layout. They read down the middle. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, quickly, they move off your site.

Corollaries to the truth:

• Be direct. Be powerful. State your point. Don’t hold back the punch line.

• Make copy “scannable.” Use bulleted lists, hyperlinks, and subheaders to boost readability for basic page content.

• Use short paragraphs. Short paragraphs are scannable. Long paragraphs aren’t. If you burden visitors with long paragraphs, you’ll lose them.

• Use subheads, section titles, and anchors for longer content pages. If you have to pour a lot of information on a single page, create anchor links so readers can go to the relevant section. (Example: every FAQ page you’ve ever read.)

• “Phrase” hyperlinks. That means avoid linking to your favorite blog. Do link to your favorite blog, The Huffington Post.  It’s easier to spot a linked phrase than a single word.

• Avoid Web clichés. I still see this one: “Click here to find out more!” Why? Embed the hyperlink in text. People know what it is.

• Use the serial comma before the “and.” This slows down the reader and gets their attention.

Now go, and bore no more.

A New Arena, and Huffington Post

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Yes, my posts have been few and far between as of late.

I’ve been working on final edits to a screenplay written with my partner, Devon Moore. And as the creative team behind Ninth and James Productions, I think I can speak for both of us and say the time away from the story has helped tremendously. The story now barrels down the road like a supercharged hot rod…

In other news, I’ve been working with UBIMS Inc. and founders Luke Ho-Hyung Lee and Jess Parmer. Luke and Jess have an innovative, if not revolutionary, if not actually evolutionary idea that could transform industries and economies around the world.

Our first article, describing the fundamental and essentially hidden problem confronting any economic recovery, is up on The Huffington Post.

Give it a read, let us know what you think:

After the Election: The Hidden Flaw Holding Back Full Recovery

- James

Enough with the zombies!

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No, no, I have nothing at all against The Zombies. Those guys were great!

I’m done with our culture’s continued and ongoing obsession with zombies in general. And that’s hard for me to admit, because I was identified as an expert on zombies in film, even to the point of leading a discussion about the raging slow- versus fast-zombie debate.

(In short, fast zombies are essentially the same as homicidal maniacs [looking at you, Danny Boyle and your 28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later] so who cares? Slow zombies are cooler because they’re a metaphor for the end that’s heading our way regardless. And they’re the catalyst of our own stupidity, self-centeredness and fear of life. But that’s just me yakkin’… )

Back to the main point: Zombies are everywhere now, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s alarming. Is this a symptom of an underlying dread we have as a society? Do we collectively imagine, or even worse, believe, some big slate-wiper event is heading towards us, one shuffling footstep at a time?

Don’t get me wrong: zombies can be great. I loved “Sean of the Dead,” “Zombieland,” and even the FAR earlier “Return of the Living Dead”. The first time I saw the original “Night of the Living Dead,” it was shown using an old 16mm projector in the back room of our town’s public library. The experience was like watching a found-footage documentary, and as I was walking to my car – the parking lot lights went out. Yes, I nearly browned myself. But I told everybody what a great movie it was. And I’ve even watched the remakes of George Romero’s works, to mixed results.

I can also appreciate zombies as both political statements and as social events. Bring the whole family!

But damn, this death-cult worship is getting old. I know a lot of us are afraid: war, terrorism, mass shootings, disease, economic disaster, famine, rising sea levels, December 21, 2012 (and anyone want to make a bet with me on that, BTW?), Armageddon, the national elections… all the old classics.

So what? Get over it, and go DO something. do something to make your life, your family, your community a little safer. Maybe even a little happier.

I was in New York City during 9/11. It was terrible. But it wasn’t the end. Not by a long shot. why are we now worshiping The End?

And of course, we always like our monsters. It helps us project our real fears and anxieties onto something outward. Something fantastic, from the dream world. Fables brought to vivid focus. But this just feels like too much.

Is it possible to have a more life-affirming Other come to knock on the door in the middle of the night? Hey, The Joker was a relentless sociopath, but at least he smiled and liked practical jokes.

Heck, even vampires resurrect and mix it up with us. Too bad the “Twilight” series reduced them to teen-dating anxiety…

Before Katniss; Other Teen Dystopia

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Yes, The Hunger Games is a box-office phenomenon, and good for them!

The film’s creative team did a good job translating the book to screen (and yes, I know there are some detractors out there, but screw ‘em. A film is it’s own separate work of art and has its own needs and requirements). The producers also did a fantastic  job keeping the budget down and production values high. Who can’t appreciate a film that can succeed artistically and financially, right?

But this isn’t the first teen-dystopia film. Not by a long shot. A really quick, top-of-my-head review would include Lindsay Anderson’s “If… with an incredibly young Malcolm McDowell; Michael Anderson’s “Logan’s Run with Michael York; and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange, with a not-as-young Malcolm McDowell. I could go on and mention Peter Brooks’ “Lord of the Flies, and even “Children of the Corn,” but we’re getting younger and younger with these films. (And, with that last mention, crappier and crappier.)

The film I’m REALLY here to talk about is arguably the best teen-dystopia film ever made. You’ve probably never seen it, possibly never heard of it, and that’s a crying shame. It’s a disturbing, exciting and even hilarious work of genius by one of Japan’s premier directors, and he regarded it as his warning cry to younger generations.

That film is Battle Royale” by Kinji Fukasaku. It came out in 2000, never got a real US release, but it will knock you on your ass. It’s been release on Blu-Ray recently, although you can also find regular DVD versions. The story takes place in a near-future totalitarian Japan that keeps its population in line and entertained by a yearly battle to the death of an entire randomly-selected school class. The set up takes place in just minutes, and the students literally have to come out of the room fighting. Beyond that, it’s a gigantic bloody game of hide-and-seek among the adolescent characters.

I first saw the film on DVD, with my nephew. We had no idea what to expect, and our jaws dropped in awe, terror and admiration as the movie played out. At the end, he turned to me and said, “That was the best movie EVER!”, so we promptly turned around and screened it again. It’s that damn good.

Even though the film won several awards and was the buzz on the festival circuit, word was an American release wasn’t possible so soon after the 1999 Columbine massacre. It looks like an American version is in development, but that’s been a rumor with different production houses for years now.

Do yourself a favor and check out the original, on Blu-ray or regular DVD. Keep in mind this film ISN’T for young children, and it’s in Japanese with subtitles. Oh, and under no circumstances should you check out the sequel. The director died while production was under way, and the film was completed by his son. It’s not good; really not good at all.  Trust me on this.

All that said, I can’t recommend “Battle Royale” highly enough. Here’s the trailer:

Just a quick “Drive”…

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I know, I know. It’s been a long time between posts.

My excuse is I moved all the way across the continent to start a film production company with my amazing partner, Devon Moore.

More on that later.

But here’s the clip, with comments below:


If you haven’t seen this film, and it’s still at your local theater, go see it ASAP.

It stars Ryan Gosling as essentially an updated “Man With No Name” character — he’s variously referenced as “the driver,” “the kid,” etc. Gosling plays a stunt driver, mechanic, and freelance wheel man for whatever job you’re willing to pay him for: legal or not.

The film has two pedigrees.

First, it’s based on the novel by James Sallis (although the screenplay’s by Hossein Amini).

Second, it’s directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for his “Pusher” crime drama series, as well as “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising”.

Sure, he’s Danish, but don’t think cerebral and soft — Winding Refn knows how to direct some violent action.

With that said, don’t expect a LOT of high-speed car chases. There’s some four-wheel adreneline, but most of the action is violence outside and on foot — between people who are desperate and willing to kill to get what they want.

It’s also a real change of pace for Gosling. If you remember him from “The Notebook,” this movie should completely blow up that little romantic bon-bon. There’s a lot of intense, explicit violence, and his character works right on the edge of extremes.

And although it’s set in contemporary Los Angeles, that’s really just a setting.

This isn’t an American crime drama as such — it’s an artful take on “American” crime dramas of the past, drawing from a clear European sensibility.

But don’t take my word for it. Go see it if you can, and if it’s left your local theater, check it out on DVD or your preferred streaming provider.

Wesley Wolfe: “Only Ray of Sunshine”

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First the clip, then the story (but for this one, I recommend clicking on the “Vimeo” link in the bottom right, so you can see this video in its full glory. There are a lot of moving parts…):

The song is “Only Ray of Sunshine”, from Wesley Wolfe’s Storage album (Odessa Records, 2010).

Wes is a really nice guy — soft-spoken, polite, and hard working.

Why, exactly, would his video have a lot of bad cops doing a lot of bad things as one poor couple sat there bound (and the female, hooded)?

Because we talked him into it. Half-kidding — it started from a germ of an idea about this sweet little love song and how to shake up the visuals. Showing a couple in the park holding hands wasn’t going to cut it. The project needed the Creato Destructo Imagery edge.

“It started out as a concept about a guy tied up in a trunk being dropped off mysteriously in front of a woman already tied up — basically the action at the core of the produced video,” said director Jerry Stifelman. “Then we had a creative session with Wes, who came up with the idea of making everyone cops, based on the lyric, ‘We are all criminals disguised as cops.’  Then we all came up with having all the cops being as uncoplike as possible… I love working with an artist to bring the video even closer to the essence of the song.”

As producer, it was a great moment when we really connected with the talent on the concept. Truly, this was an idea that hasn’t been done many times over in a music video.

But also as producer, I began tugging at what hair I have left — there were so many questions:
– Where are we going to find all these people?
– How are we going to find (and pay for) the cop uniforms and accessories (badges, caps, etc.) for all these people?
– WHERE can we pull this off?
– We’re in a small town. This really has to be done in public to visually “sell” the concept. What will our REAL cops think?

The good news is Wesley is well liked, so we were able to draft a lot of his friends, fans and family. And the good folks at Odessa Records also joined in. Then, we worked our own lists of good-humored friends, and supporters of Creato Destructo, and got enough bodies to approach a visual critical mass the video scenarion needed.

In terms of the uniforms, accessories, and other things that were needed — hire us and we’ll tell you all about it. (But one thing that worked in our favor was Halloween.)

We also benefitted from the great talent at Playmakers Repertory Company and the affiliated UNC Department of Dramatic Art. Not only were we able to “seed” trained actors into the bad-cop group — we also found standout talent Kelsey Didion, who earned my undying loyalty to her acting skills by sitting there, for hours, bound and hooded on a cold and windy day. (Kelsey, I hope someday to see you win an Oscar…)

And for location, well… we’ll have to protect the names of innocent property owners.

But enough from me. What does Wesley Wolfe think about the video?

“Jerry, James and Tracy are the kind of people I love to work with. People that have the need to create, and find any way possible to do so,” Wolfe said. “They let no obstacle — especially the all-mighty one, budget, stop them. Through ingenuity and resourcefulness they have found away to put on bigtime productions with little budget…

“I feel fortunate to be a part of their collection of work. I have only heard great thing from people that have seen it. My closest friends we’re blown away by the video. The production value speaks for itself.”

So far, so good. How did he feel about the process of taking his song (a highly personal thing), and handing it over to others, to translate it into a video that wasn’t necessarily… his?

“Another thing I admire is how open and flexible Jerry was to ideas and changes in post production. He truly treated this project as a collaboration. I have no doubts that my ideas and thoughts were taken into consideration, and not just tossed to the side. Something rare in any art project,  especially when all I had to do was just show up for the shoot,” Wolfe said.

Aren’t those some production values? Damn right!  Even though I personally was still anxious on shoot day — because we had so many extras to manage — it was an amazing experience to watch as each person put on a uniform shirt, pinned on a badge, and donned headgear. They became bad cops right in front of our eyes, and it went from concept to stunning reality in just a few minutes.

The experience is well described by our own Tracey Oliveto:

“This shoot was really fun because once everyone was dressed and given their marks, it was like a big outdoor party. I couldn’t stop smiling at the image of 30 or more people dressed in uniforms, doing their thing in the sunshine and it definitely makes you stop and think about the roles we all play in life,” stated Oliveto, Creato Destructo’s associate creative director. “It was quite a spectacle and drew curious attention from passersby. Of course, James gave our Carrboro (police department), a heads up – after all,  it could have looked like some kind of conspiracy.”

Tto be honest, we had a few uneasy weeks as the local police tried to figure out if we were making fun of them, or cops in general, or if it was some kind of weird art project. This being Carrboro/Chapel Hill, it appears they settled on “weird art project” and decided not to pursue the matter any further…

All that said, the last words belong to Wolfe:

“I was nervous at first about being on camera. I really don’t like posing for pictures or seeing video of myself. They talked me into it, I trusted them fully, and I don’t regret it one bit… All in all, a great experience.”

We’ll be happy to do it again, Wes!

Wes Snaps Pic

Wesley Wolfe (left) photographs the anarchic chaos.

Big Star Third: “Kangaroo”

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First the clip, then the story:

This is another song from the “Big Star Third” performance collective. The song is “Kangaroo”, written by Alex Chilton.

This version is sung by Durham’s Brett Harris. His recent album, Man of Few Words, is getting great reviews.

And as mentioned earlier, this is an  ongoing concert series by a diverse community of musicians performing the whole of Third/Sister Lovers, working from scores re-created by composer Carl Marsh. Chris Stamey (the dB’s) provides additional orchestration and serves as the series producer.

This video captures the performance at the historic Playmakers Theater on the University of North Carolina campus, February 2011.

The next performance of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers will be on Saturday, March 26, at Mason Hall in NYC, 8 p.m.

The NYC concert will include the rhythm section of Jody Stephens (the only remaining original Big Star member), Mike Mills (REM), Will Rigby and Charles Cleaver. They will be joined by Stamey, Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, M. Ward, Norman Blake (Teenage Fan Club), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Mitch Easter, Tift Merritt, plus special guests Lost In Trees, with Jane Scarpantoni, Django Haskins (The Old Ceremony), Brett Harris, Sidney Dixon and Matt McMichaels.

Video by CreatoDestructo Imagery; Jerry Stifelman directing, James Hyatt 1st AD and Shay Stifelman, camera par excellence.

Big Star’s Third, “Holocaust”, new video

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First the clip, then the story:


This is a passion project. This is a labor of true love.

This  is the song “Holocaust,” from Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers album, performed recently by a group of local and nationally-known musicians coming together because of a shared love and shared inspiration.

Time has proven Third/Sister Lovers reputation as a beautiful, haunting masterpiece – and a fitting tribute to the talents of songwriter, Alex Chilton. The group’s influence has continued on, to this: “Big Star Third,” a ongoing concert series by a diverse community of musicians performing the whole of Third, working from scores re-created by composer Carl Marsh. Chris Stamey (the dB’s) provides additional orchestration and serves as the series producer.

This video captures two separate performances, in December 2010 and February 2011. Players included Big Star’s own Jody Stephens, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), Stamey, and members of the Love Language, Megafaun, The Rosebuds, Lost in the Trees, The Old Ceremony, Birds and Arrows, Mayflies USA, the Tomahawks and the NC Symphony.

Video by CreatoDestructo Imagery.

The next performance of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers will be on Saturday, March 26, at Mason Hall in NYC, 8 p.m.

The NC core group from the Cat’s Cradle show, complete with the rhythm section of Jody Stephens, Mike Mills, Will Rigby, Charles Cleaver, and Mitch Easter, will be joined by Tift Merritt, Matthew Sweet, M. Ward, Norman Blake (Teenage Fan Club), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) and others to be announced shortly.

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