Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Modern Fable Updated

Latest Newspaper Column:

You may remember the fable I told a while back about the village and the shepherd boy.

After people in the village were killed in a wolf attack, the shepherd boy and his friends used the villagers' fear and sorrow to get them to attack the old bear who lived in the woods far away.

When some villagers tried to point out that it wasn't the bear who attacked them and they didn't think the bear was any real threat, the shepherd boy and his friends shouted them down and called them "wolf-lovers." Anyone who questioned their insistence that the bear was a major and growing threat to the village was branded an enemy of the village who wanted the wolves to attack again.

Well, you know how the story ended. As it turned out, the old bear really didn't have any teeth. He was no threat to the villagers, and there was never any evidence the bear had been behind the wolf attacks. But the shepherd boy still insisted he'd been right.

Unfortunately, in the years since the story ended, things got worse. More wolves moved into the forest around where the bear lived. Many more men of the village were killed, even more than had been killed in the attack on the bear. Some of the people who lived in the forest got tired of soldiers around all the time and started to turn against them. The villagers found themselves at war with the people they'd tried to protect from the wolves and the bear. The clans of the forest people even revived their old feuds and began killing each other as well. The forest was plunged into chaos.

None of this seemed to bother the shepherd boy and his friends.

"We're stacking up wolf bodies like cordwood!" the shepherd boy chortled.

"Yeah," the people of the village replied wearily, "but when does it stop?"

"When there's victory, wolf-lovers!" the shepherd boy snapped.

"And when is that?"

"When we win!"

Fewer and fewer people believed that the shepherd boy knew what he was doing. Some days only 28 percent of the villagers were willing to say they liked him, and some even wanted him replaced as shepherd boy. But he continued to act as if everyone believed him, and the cowardly village elders were still afraid of being called disloyal, so they sent more men into the forest to die every time the shepherd boy demanded it.

One day, the shepherd boy appeared in the village square.

"I have bad news to report," he said. "A new threat is growing in the forest."

"Oh, good grief," some of the people said, "what now?"

"The dragon that lives in the forest," the shepherd boy said in a dark, impressive tone, "is learning to breathe fire!"

"You mean the big lizard?" the people said. "Breathing fire? We know he doesn't like us, but... "

"If we don't do something," the shepherd boy yelled, "he's going to rain fire down on us!"

"Wait," the people said, "he can fly?"

"He might! And he's helping the wolves!" he yelled. "Do you doubt what I say? Wolf lovers! Wolf! Wolf!"

"Well, yeah," the people said. "We do kind of doubt you after the whole bear thing."

The shepherd boy was growing hysterical. "We need to stop the dragon from learning to breathe fire!" he said. "And we need to do it NOW! It's going to be the end of the world! Once the dragon learns to breathe fire, he'll give the power to the wolves! Wolf! Wolf! "

"What are you going to stop him with?" the people asked. "All our soldiers are busy fighting the wolves and the forest clans." But the shepherd boy ignored them. He and his friends continued to set up a huge noisy clamor over the fire-breathing dragon.

"OK," the people said, "lets ask the scout whom we send into the forest to look for threats. Can the dragon breathe fire? Is he about to learn?"

The scout shuffled his feet and looked down at the ground. "Um, no," he said finally. "He can't breathe fire. He shut down his whole fire-breathing program four years ago. Even if he started up again, it'd be 10 years before he could breathe enough flame to light a campfire."

"See! See! What did I tell you?" the shepherd boy said triumphantly.

"What? Are you nuts? Did you hear the scout's report?" the people said. "He said the dragon wasn't trying to learn to breathe fire."

"Which only goes to prove my point that we have to act NOW to stop the dragon from learning to breathe fire. Didn't you hear what I said about the end of the world?"

At that, the village elders had had enough. They worked up the courage to turn their backs on the shepherd boy and vowed that, no matter how much he blustered and insulted them, they weren't going to listen to him anymore. And they all lived happily ever after.

If only it were like that in real life. ...

Holiday Stress Gets To Everyone

Even Santa's Elves:

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's post office and police are trying to track down a "rogue elf" who wrote obscene letters to children on behalf of Santa Claus, a newspaper reported on Friday.

The Ottawa Citizen said at least 10 nasty letters had been delivered to little girls and boys in Ottawa who wrote to Santa this year care of the North Pole, which has a special H0H 0H0 Canadian postal code. Return letters from Santa are in fact written by an 11,000-strong army of Canada Post employees and volunteers.

"We firmly believe there is just one rogue elf out there," a Canada Post spokeswoman told the paper.

Canada Post's popular "Write to Santa" program -- which last year delivered more than a million letters to children in Canada and around the world -- has been shut down in Ottawa until the offender is caught.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I'm Not Saying I CONDONE It...But I Understand.

Man Drinks Liter of Vodka at Airport Line: "BERLINA man nearly died from alcohol poisoning after quaffing a liter (two pints) of vodka at an airport security check instead of handing it over to comply with new carry-on rules, police said Wednesday.

I've always been a believer in the old Irish legend that when you die and stand before the Pearly Gates, St. Peter wheels out a big barrel filled with all the whiskey you wasted in life. If you can't finish it, down you go. Maybe this fellow felt the same.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Gee, Ya Think?

I've never cared much for the work of documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. His Super Size Me was mildly amusing, but based on a fatally ridiculous central premise. (You're not supposed to eat Mickey D's three times a day every day, ya doofus.) So when rumors started making the rounds that Spurlock actually located Osama bin Laden while making his latest film, those of us who are not complete rubes immediately thought "publicity stunt" and put it out of our minds. When right wing blogger Debbie Schlussel titled one of her recent screeds " I Don't Believe Morgan Spurlock Found Bin Laden," my immediate reaction was "yeah, no shit, Debbie."

Schlussel is one of those hysterics who can work herself into a mouth-foaming frenzy at the drop of a hat, running around with their hair on fire and the spittle flying, shrieking about "jihadists" and "islamofascists" hiding around every corner and under every bed. She and bloggers like her are the perfect terrorist tools, because they live in exactly the state of mind the terrorists want us in: a state of constant paranoia, jumping at every sudden noise and spreading their fear far and wide. She's also the perfect patsy for a publicity seeking con man like Spurlock. Her outraged reaction is just what he was looking for.

Congratulations, Debbie. You've been played like a cheap violin and you don't even know it.

A Novice's Guide to the Writer's Strike

Latest Newspaper Column:

You may have noticed that there are a lot more reruns on TV these days. I mean even more than usual.

That's because the Writers Guild of America, which is the union representing the writers, is out on strike. Why? you may ask. Aren't all TV writers already rich and powerful? Don't they make enough money?

To understand the answer to "why," first you have to understand one of the ways writers for TV and movies get paid. Every time a show gets shown in reruns, the writers get paid what's called a "residual."

Movie writers get a percentage when a movie is released on DVD. It's the same principle by which a singer or songwriter gets paid a little bit every time his or her song gets played on the air. Yes, even the Spice Girls. And what cut do writers get on residuals? Two and a half percent. For every dollar the studios or media conglomerates like Disney or Viacom make, the writers get a measly two and a half cents.

Enter the World Wide Web. As Internet speeds got faster, and the equipment for viewing got more sophisticated, networks began rerunning their shows online, along with various other goodies. You've probably seen the blurbs at the end of your favorite show directing you to online content at and the like.

Well, said the writers, isn't this exactly the same as a rerun? Shouldn't we get a residual on that, especially since you're running ads on these online reruns, just like on regular TV? Huh-uh, said the corporations. Because it's, uh, promotional. Yeah, that's it. Promotional. Not only do you not get your two and a half cents, you get zippo. Fuhgeddaboutit.

The corporations originally said they couldn't possibly consider any proposal having to do with online distribution because the Internet is so new. We don't know that we'll ever make money on it, they wailed. This is what is commonly described using a term that makes reference to the excrement of male bovines.

We know this because of a brilliantly put-together montage the writers put up on YouTube, which shows people like Bob Iger of the Disney Company and CEO Sumner Redstone of Viacom appearing on various business-related talk shows and practically rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the money to be made reusing content online.

You may have 20 million people watching "CSI" on TV and another five million watching it online, assured Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, "but we're going to get paid wherever you get it from." As the video caption following Moonves' statement dryly points out, "'We' does not include the writers of CSI."

Now, I may occasionally want to throw things at whoever the writer is on "CSI Miami" that comes up with David Caruso's cheesy one-liners, but I won't begrudge the man (or woman) fair pay for his (or her) labors.

The other reason that this "we don't know how much we're going to make on 'new media'" argument is suspect is that it's exactly the same argument the studios used 20-odd years ago when it came to the subject of home video sales. "We don't know if this VHS thing is ever going to make any money," they insisted, and the writers obligingly took an 80 percent pay cut to help grow the business.

The business grew. The pay cut stayed. Like our president says: "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

But wait, what about the argument that writers are already filthy rich and powerful? Obviously, people who ask this question have never heard the old Hollywood joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer.

But the thing is, writers on movies and TV shows don't really have what you'd call steady employment. When a show finishes its run, the writer's hitting the street looking for another job, and maybe not finding one for a good long while.

The WGA estimates that at any one time, 48 percent of its members are "between jobs." And all that time, companies like Disney and Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns Fox and other outlets) continue to rake in profits by replaying and recycling the writer's work.

And that, right there, is the heart of the matter. When someone's making billions off your creativity, it's not greedy to ask for a little slice of the pie. But it is outrageous for companies like Disney and Viacom, which probably have more cash on hand right now than most countries, to chastise anyone for being greedy.

Rupert Murdoch's compensation over the past five years was 60.5 million bucks. But I'll bet if you sat him down in front of a computer and held a gun to his head, he still couldn't create so much as a single episode of "The Simpsons."