Friday, April 11, 2008

Camera Obscura: Reasons To See 'Southland Tales

No movie is better at tackling the mood and madness of the current age better than "Southland Tales". It's no wonder it's gotten reviews ranging from awful to the best of 2007. It's an opera of our times, a comedy-sci-fi-musical-satire apocalypse which starts with a roaring barrage of nuclear blasts, oppressive media over-stimulation, and a host of plot threads and ideas that hit viewers like a shotgun blast. The movie is not, as some critics claim, a disaster, but it's a view on the disastrous world we inhabit.

I was constantly reminded of the kind of fearless satire of writer Terry Southern - who gave us such classics as "Dr. Strangelove", "Barbarella", and "The Loved One". The sledgehammer of satire strikes again and again, not worrying about achieving wisdom but more about achieving an approximation of the lunatic surrealism so constant in our culture.

The basic story is of an America torn by war, the return of the draft, fringe political groups locked in relentless conflict, media consumed with fame, with itself, with shock and awe, a society under constant surveillance, a fierce rush for alternative energy, self-righteous demagogues, a presidential election and much more. Honestly, as the movie unspools it's version of television as The Breaking News hub of consciousness, I was glad to see someone else had the same view of media today as I do - a glut of the popularity of the mundane and meaningless and a catalog of political in-fighting which is impossible to accommodate.

Now add in a story about rips in the space-time continuum and you have a story that could have been penned by Kurt Vonnegut. This movie instead is from Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko") and while the story gets incoherent, that's part of the point. There's a whale of a cast too - Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore, Amy Poehler, Sean William Scott, Miranda Richardson, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert and Rebekah Del Rio in the closing scenes doing an unforgettable version of the National Anthem.

Dwayne Johnson scores a bulls eye in the lead role here - playing a celebrity with political power and some mysterious amnesia who has a movie script which might save the world or destroy it. He's living with porn star Gellar, who is attempting to parlay porn into intellectual and commercial might. Johnson never winks or nods to the camera (nor does anyone else), playing the farce straight up.

There are some marvelous bits, like the references to T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost (and the Republican presidential candidates of Eliot/Frost versus the Democrat team of Clinton/Lieberman), a 'secret' energy source called Fluid Karma, and Justin Timberlake lip-synching The Killers. And a giant blimp.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Not A Torch Run, It's A Torch Flee

The chaos and confusion amid the Olympic Torch run in San Fran yesterday made trying to locate the troubled symbols of the Olympics like playing a game of Where's Waldo?

As I observed some of the events on CNN, I kept thinking how my friend Brittney Gilbert at CBS-5 was covering the story from the blogging world. Boy, did she nail it and posted many great videos and pics and stories from the scene - check it out at Eye On Blogs.

Oddly, as I was reading and watching this debacle unfold, I was reminded of a 'torch mystery' from the past ....

"Golly, Frank, what is a 'tibet' anyway??"

Devilish Details In TN Cable Franchise Legislation

A definition of the word Legislation: a solution to a problem which may, or may not actually exist, which may or may not actually create any observable results, and typically is a hand-stitched agreement crafted after some great length of time in order that the public be aroused or dulled and during which time money may be applied to preserve, alter or eliminate debate.

That thought kept running through my head as I was reading the proposal to allow AT&T to by-pass local control of franchises for cable television - especially since they could now today be offering 'competitive' plans to consumers across the state. Wading into and through the complex legal language is and always has been a chore. My brother is the lawyer, not me. And sometimes I'm not even sure what he says and/or means.

I wrote previously this week about this draft agreement. The plain fact is the plan does have some odd and downright wrong components. Keep in mind this bill was created to provide AT&T with a statewide cable franchise proposal, though there is much in the bill addressing the access to internet services, too.

For example, when it comes to verifying whether or not a franchise holder has attained the mandated deployment of broadband access to the internet, Section 12 (d) of the plan says that the state agency Connected Tennessee will be providing the information. I wrote recently about Connected Tennessee, since it's board members are former Bell South/AT&T employees. How handy the agency was created prior to this legislation - sure sounds like the fox watching the henhouse to me.

By the way, I wrote a few emails to Connected Tennessee's director, Michael Ramage some weeks back asking for some further details about the agency. But when I wrote asking for info on who is on their board as well as employees and contractors who were NOT previously with Bell South/AT&T I received no response.

A major concern among many is the concept of 'cherry-picking', allowing a provider like AT&T to simply offer services to the wealthiest of neighborhoods and ignore more rural and low-income areas. Under this new proposal, franchise holders would 'self-define' their areas of service. Also, a complex formula even allows for franchise holders to count households for their requirements twice or even four times whether or not that franchise actually offers service to them, just as long as someone does.

And there is no guarantee that Public Access, Education and Government channels would be in the most basic tier of channels. In other areas of the country, all PEG channels are lumped into one, and a viewer must call up a typically slow-running menu program and select a typically weak signal to tune in.

I also received an email from Bunnie Riedel of Riedel Communications, and former Executive Director of the National Alliance for Community Media, who has been reviewing and analyzing these franchise plans being pushed across the country state by state. She wrote that in reviewing the plans: "
The worst bill to have passed is Nevada, TN's bill comes in 2nd to that one. AT&T is about to take TN on a nice long ride."

Her own blog is here. (My thanks to her for her input, and see below for her take on the most detrimental elements to the proposed plan.)

The Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance for Community Media is Keep It Local Tennessee. (CORRECTION: This TN group is not part of the NAM -- Please see the UPDATE at the end of this post!!!)

The more I read of this plan, the more it seems to be a program geared to look out for the interests of AT&T and not for consumers. We all want to be able to make a good choice when it comes to seeking services for cable and internet. The local franchise plans, and I know it's a complex process to make agreements one at a time, yet these local plans all demand service providers work hard to expand their service areas so that all residents of a community get that chance to make good choices. But it's rather obvious the state legislature has crafted a plan to serve the needs of business first and residents second. Given the solemn claim by Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh to push this plan through, your voice and the voices of other Tennessee residents has little impact, and this proposal will likely become the law in Tennessee.

The following is from Bunnie Riedel of Riedel Communications, as she has been analyzing this state franchise issue for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers, and is a selection of troubling elements found in the current draft of legislation in Tennessee:

- Certificate of Authority (CFA) holders self-define their service areas. In other words, AT&T can cherry pick where they will or will not provide service throughout the state or even within zip codes. This practice has taken place in Texas, Kansas, Indiana and other states, with AT&T choosing to obtain statewide franchises for very limited, mostly wealthy, areas.

- For the build out percentages, households that did not have access to the CFA holder’s broadband internet service count as two households and households that did not have any broadband service count as four households. This is deceptive because the definition for broadband in the bill is 1.5 Mbps. Therefore the actual percentage would be either 15% (two households) or 7.5% (four households).

- The bill’s broadband definition of 1.5 Mbps is inadequate. AT&T’s own website shows that at that speed it can be only used for emailing and downloading music.

- The CFA holder can count households that have broadband internet service toward their requirements to build out video or cable service, whether or not they offer those households video or cable!

- The bill sets up an organization influenced by the telecommunications companies, Connected Tennessee, as “verifiers” for AT&T’s broadband deployment. That is the fox watching the hen house. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority is then instructed to rely on Connected Tennessee’s reports and can only examine documents provided to them by Connected Tennessee….documents that were provided to Connected Tennessee by AT&T in the first place.


- HB1421 details a convoluted formula for where PEG channels will be placed based on the number of channels activated by municipalities or counties in local franchise agreements. The bottom line is that the bill allows all PEG channels to be slammed out of the Basic Tier of service onto to any tier.

People who only purchase the Basic Tier will no longer receive PEG channels, unless they also purchase additional equipment.

- People who only purchase Basic Tier are typically lower income and the elderly.

- All channels are placed together on Channel 99, where viewers have to scroll through several menus to find their local PEG channels.

- The transmission of PEG channels is degraded to the same transmission quality as a cell phone video transmission.

-The channels take as long as 1 ½ minutes to “pull up.”

- They are not functionally equivalent to any other channel on the system.

- AT&T will not provide closed captioning or second language transmission for the PEG channels.

- Engineers say that AT&T can treat PEG channels exactly the same as any other channel, but choose not to do so for business reasons.
PEG support in the bill is woefully inadequate.

- The bill is written in such a way to make one think that CFA holders must provide up to 1% PEG support, however, that PEG support is limited to “paying capital costs of equipment.”

- PEG capital expenditures go beyond equipment to the “bricks and mortar” of PEG facilities and the cost of maintaining those facilities.


- While the bill says the CFA holders must comply with Federal Customer Service regulations (47 C.F.R. 76.309 (c)) it states that customer service complaints are to be handled in accordance with the service agreement contract between a customer and the video provider. What does that mean?

- Comcast customers across the country were forced to opt-in to arbitration and lost the right to seek court action (even small claims court) because Comcast changed the terms of the service agreement.

- Verizon customers in California have been told that if they wanted to pursue a claim, they would have to do so in the state of Virginia because that clause was included in their service contract.

- With this bill the CFA holders could put anything they wanted into the service contract, in the smallest print, and the customer would have no recourse.

- Further the TRA has no power to investigate or regulate customer service compliance by a provider, only to look at individual customer complaints.

UPDATE: I received the following email correction:

Regarding your post, "Devilish Details" (, I see that you say:

"The Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance for Community Media is Keep It Local Tennessee. ("

This is not correct. There is no TN chapter of the ACM.

"Keep It Local TN" is the Tennessee version of a multi-state cable industry effort developed as a response to telco-inspired statewide video franchising legislation. There is also a "Keep It Local MA" ( There used to be a "Keep It Local PA" (, but that site has been down for a couple months at least. I assume that's because the cablecos have now signed off on the legislation that has been filed in PA, although I've not been able to confirm that.

Actually, it's somewhat surprising that "Keep It Local TN" is still functioning, since the TN cablecos have also signed off on the new bill. While its most recent front page right column post is an April 7 press release from TCTA's Stacey Briggs supporting the bill, their front page left column is still calling for action opposing the bill!

Although the ACM links to all of these sites from our website because they support local channels and local control, they are not ACM chapters. There are also other state-based groups we link to in our "Saving PEG Access" blogroll, but they too are not ACM chapters. Our chapters are listed in the blogroll's second section, "ACM Affiliates."

Although there is no TN ACM chapter, there are a number of TN PEG access providers who are ACM members. I'm sure they'd be willing to speak with you about how this legislation will affect their communities. I hope you're able to include their perspectives in future posts. I've included them in the CC's, but they are:

Frank Bluestein, Germantown High School
Alan Bozeman, City of Murfreesboro
Gail Fedak, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro
Elliott Mitchell, Nashville
David Vogel, City of Knoxville

Again, thanks for continuing to call attention to this story.

~ Rob

Rob McCausland
Director of Information & Organizing Services
Alliance for Community Media

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Wednesday's Web-Walk

A brief sample of things found on the Internet which may bring a smile or a grimace --

An American takes 15 million ice cream sticks, then 5 years of work from 5,000 students and makes a replica of a Viking ship which is setting sail. The ship, called The Sea Heart Viking, is loaded with toys and headed to London to visit some hospitals, too.

More information about the mission is here at the Sea Heart Foundation.


Oh, those political games about the most political of games, the Olympics and its flame:

The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die."


A most prolific American writer earned a Pulitzer prize this week, though some care little for the way he sings his words. But the words have been the subject of endless debates and discussions. One of my favorite lines is:

There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

and his take on an artist abroad has always been one of my favorites:

Train wheels runnin' through the back of my memory,
When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece."

Kudos to Mr. Zimmerman.


Speaking of music, did you know that Pat Summit is a Rock Star?

She is indeed.


Dear Mr.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

State Cable Franchise Plan Moves Ahead

Yesterday state officials provided information about a draft agreement for the state to start offering statewide cable TV franchises, just as AT&T wanted, and along the way the state will create a new oversight agency and a new fund to "promote" broadband internet access.

The document is a 67 page maze of legal-speak, which you can read here (thanks to R. Neal for the link). It will certainly take me some time to wade through it all and there is much to review. The proposal to allow for the first time a state franchise license doesn't mean much to consumers yet - though if the legislature OKs it, it is set to become law in July. The state commerce committee is scheduled to look at the proposals today.

I admit I am troubled that once House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's wife Betty Anderson got a job with AT&T as a consultant, Naif
eh then took the long-opposed plan through 3 months of closed-door meetings and magically came up with a plan he's now willing to shepherd through the legislature. Anderson and Naifeh are both on record saying just because she's a paid lobbyist, she does not exert undue influence on her powerful political husband.

That aside, some additions were made to the bill which aim to serve the public interest - such as keeping control of rights of way at the local level as companies try and bring/expand services; that franchise fees (capped at the federal maximum of 5% of a company's gross receipts of revenue; and provisions for providing local public access channels (PEG) are included.

Still, I'm reading though this complex document to learn more. Given the billions of dollars involved in this telecom business, and how economic and cultural impacts of internet access and availability are key components of this legislation, this will touch most every life in the state, it's a plan worth reviewing.

Some excerpts from Chattanoga Times Free Press media reports:

But the speaker cautioned the legislation “is not a silver bullet to rising media prices, nor will Tennesseans see an immediate impact on the next cable bill.”

Stacey Briggs, the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association’s president, said in a statement that “AT&T and other companies have had the right to compete under local franchising rules for more than a dozen years. This new policy streamlines the franchise process, but it remains to be seen whether new entrants will compete in Tennessee.”

And from the Tennessean here:

Starting service: AT&T will have to apply for a franchise within one year of the bill's passage and would have to roll out service within two years after that, although the company could apply for an extension.

Build-out requirement: Within three-and-a-half years of its first TV service rollout in the state, AT&T would have to provide access to 30 percent of residents within its phone service territory, about 600,000 households. The company could provide service to fewer customers by getting extra credit for households that don't have access to broadband Internet.

Broadband incentive: AT&T could get credit toward its 30 percent build-out requirement by counting one house without access to its broadband service twice, and a house without access to any broadband Internet four times. This creates the possibility of AT&T providing access to its U-verse service to a minimum of about 150,000 houses in Tennessee. There would be no requirement that AT&T provide broadband service to areas that don't have it.

Low-income households: Twenty-five percent of households with access to AT&T's TV service would have to be low-income, defined as households with income of $35,000 or less, within three-and-a-half years."

More from the Knoxville News Sentinel here.

Monday, April 07, 2008

GOP Battle for Congress in East Tennessee

Voters were provided a comprehensive and vast, link-filled assessment of the state House, Senate and federal candidates in Tennessee thanks to some very hard work from R. Neal at TennViews, which you can see right here. You can review each candidate statewide at that site and hope you take some time to find out something about the folks who want to represent you.

The biggest fight in East Tennessee will be for the 1st Congressional District seat now held by Republican David Davis, but it will be a fight within the Republican party. Davis barely won his primary in 2006 and he has had a poor record, which I have been happy to post about hear. From his tax-payer funded mailers, to his blatant lies and exploitation on the issue of immigration, to his lock-step voting record with the Bush administration on every issue, Davis's slim approval within the GOP is being challenged often.

A major contender for the challenge is Phil Roe, who isn't much different from Davis, as noted in this interview. He's been hammering at Davis for receiving much cash support from PACs devoted to oil and maintaining the status quo on healthcare in the U.S. Davis may have a tough time claiming he's achieved anything of value to East Tennessee residents.

Sadly, incumbents like Davis in Tennessee do have a huge advantage - East Tennessee Republicans are as prone to change as a broken-down washing machine stuck in the corner of the basement.

He will face challenges from Democrats and from Independents, but again, little changes in the 1st District. Republicans have held the seat for over 100 years and once in, are in for life.

I have a simple approach to casting votes for congressional candidates in the 1st District: I'd vote for a Flying Monkey before I'd vote for a GOP candidate. Their leadership keeps this district poor, under-funded, and prone to staying in the corner of the basement.

Inflamed by China's Olympics?

If all the people who are so interested in protesting the next Olympics because they are in China, and China is the poster child of human rights abuses and tyranny over Tibet, such folk have no need to wait to huff out the fires of the Olympic flame as it makes a worldwide tour.

If you want to hit them where it hurts why not just boycott buying any Made In China products? That is, if you can identify them and learn to do without them for a while. (Good luck with that.)

In one case, a person's adventure with a 'year without China' led them to a create a best-selling book. Maybe you too can turn those protest signs into good ol' American dollars!