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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sounds Of Nature: Part II

Sound Editing in Nature Docs: The Second Narrator

Neal Romanek

(as printed in the October 2007
edition of TVBEurope)

If the nature documentary is one of the most important genres in British broadcasting, could Kate Hopkins and her colleague, Tim Owens, be among British broadcasting's most important figures?

Hopkins and Owens have been sound designers on many groundbreaking wildlife documentaries, including the recent "Planet Earth" (2006), the BAFTA-winning "Blue Planet" (2001), and Sir David Attenborough's "The Life Of Mammals" (2002). Should anyone dare suggest that documentary is a less "creative" genre than narrative programming, a conversation with Kate Hopkins will set them straight.

Kate Hopkins and Tim Owens work out of their Bristol-based company, Wounded Buffalo. It takes them roughly three weeks to cut a 50-minute segment. Cutting sound on 50 minutes of "reality" TV would take a bare fraction of that time. In the case of the nature documentary, as much work – or more – must be done as on any narrative film of that length.

One of the great secrets of the nature doc, is that virtually all sound design is created in post. Sync sound, excepting commentary by Sir David Attenborough as he crouches next to a Bower Bird, is virtually never available. Wild tracks and atmospheres may be recorded at the location, but in most cases it falls to the sound editor to create the entire soundtrack from scratch.

The irony of designing sound for a high-quality nature documentary is that although the sound editor may be manufacturing the entire soundtrack herself, the final result must pass the kinds of rigorous tests of authenticity and accuracy that no other sound track must undergo. If a humpback whale song is cut into an underwater scene shot in Hawaiian waters, it must be the humpback's traditional Hawaiian Islands song, which is utterly distinct from the song the animal sings, say, off the coast of Alaska. Few would notice such a difference, or even care, but this is what distinguishes a film that entertains from one that educates, enlightens and captures the quintessence of life on earth.

The other invisible artists of the nature doc sound design are foley artists. All non-specific sound – rustles, footfalls on leaves, snow crunching under paws, crabs clattering over rocks – are done in foley sessions.

The stunning aerial shots of "Planet Earth" were shot using the Cineflex helicopter mount, which allowed stable close-ups to be shot from thousands of meters away. The real sound captured at the scene is merely the roar of the helicopter. But once the foley artists have had their crack at it, and those effects have been edited and mixed, an entire new level of information is brought to the fore. Even seemingly innocuous sound cues, a crunch here, a splash there, are profoundly powerful storytelling tools.

The core of the sound designers job is understanding the peculiar twist of the human brain when an action is accompanied by a simultaneous sound, the human brain makes the assumption that the action itself was the cause of the sound, and an action that creates a sound takes on greater importance than one that does not. Thus a simple bit of foley accentuating one movement or another, or subtly emphasizing the rustling of a stalking lion, literally leads our eye to very specific places on the screen at very specific moments. Watching the real scene unfold in nature, we would be very likely to miss little details of action, intent, cause, effect that are integral to the sound design. BBC nature docs have two narrators – Sir David Attenborough, and the sound effects themselves.

"Planet Earth" is a milestone in broadcasting, not only for being a start-to-finish HD production, but for its 5.1 surround sound. "We knew it was going to be that right from the beginning, which helps a lot. Within a 5.1 mix, you tend to hear more. You can spread things around much more. It's nice for atmospheres because you can have even more atmosphere in the surround, but still not lose the voice over in the middle. Most of the sound I've done has had the capability to be in 5.1. There were always enough layers there. But it's whether there's time in the mixing."

Bird songs represent a textbook instance where a lack of sync sound recorded while shooting presents a potential nightmare. A bird's song may be distinct not only to a particular species in a particular location, but to a particular bird performing one particular step in a mating ritual.

Hopkins notes, "The birds of paradise, for example, have calls which are very complicated. Even experts don't always know exactly which call is which. Sometimes if a producer likes something, sometimes the accuracy can drift a little bit because dramatically it works better." But more often than not, a researcher is called in with expertise in the appropriate area. "Tim did a scene with the capercaille, which is a bird notoriously difficult to lay sound for because it has such a complicated call. We had various people come in to check that it was right, and in the end it was absolutely fine. Bird calls are always the most difficult. One of the worst we had was trying to get a Mandarin duck calling her chicks. We put in the only recording that we had. It was the most awful recording. It was full of hiss, and at one point I thought, We just cannot put this in because it is so horrible. But it was accurate. And within the mix, between us and the mixer, we EQ'd it and put it through a lot of software. In the end it worked."

One of Hopkins most challenging shows - and perhaps most rewarding - was "Blue Planet".

Her ongoing collaboration with Tim Owens allows for a thematic unity throughout the series she works on. In the case of "Blue Planet" where whole sets of effects were being created, the clear and ongoing communication characteristic of their collaboration was essential to stay on course. To some degree, the creating of sound for "Blue Planet" was like building a sound track for a science fiction movie. Creating the effects in Earth's most unexplored regions yielded some daring choices.

"Obviously, most of 'Blue Planet' is underwater. It could have been just music and a general underwater track. But we decided, between the producers and the sound editors, that we were going to go for something different, because no one knows what you could actually hear underwater. There are some very natural sounds that you hear – humpback whales and shrimp clicking. But I added some much bigger noises – the fish going past – because it just adds to the strength of the images. And then there were some very tiny creatures too that I added some very strange, very designed noises. Whether it was real or not, I'm not sure that that mattered. It worked with the picture."

Those who have seen "Blue Planet" will understand how much certain sequences hinge on their sound effects. The truly frightening scene of tuna tearing into a bait ball, for example, gains extraordinary impact from the "sound" made by the attacking tuna as they rocket past. We don't for a moment forget the tuna is one of the fastest fish in the sea.

"If you have a huge bait ball swirling round and round and round, you just feel like you need to hear something. And I think that is what sound editing is all about – adding strength to the images. And you don't always want to have music going through it. You need to hear what you think you might hear if you really there."


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Friday, December 28, 2007

Ealing Broadway Christmas Tree


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Friday, December 21, 2007

Kucinich News

Kucinich's Brother Found Dead

by M.R. Kropko

CLEVELAND (AP) — The youngest brother of Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was found dead at his home Wednesday.

Perry Kucinich, 52, was found face down by another brother, Larry, at about 9 a.m., said Powell Caesar, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Coroner's office.

There were no signs of foul play, Caesar said. An autopsy was being performed Wednesday to determine the cause of death.

Larry Kucinich had taken his brother shopping Tuesday and then took him home but couldn't get an answer when he tried calling him Wednesday, Caesar said.

Dennis Kucinich took a flight from Washington to Cleveland after learning of the death and was not immediately available for comment, said his office press secretary, Natalie Laber.

"He was very close to Perry and he's taking this very hard," Laber said.

Kucinich, 61, is a six-term congressman from Ohio who is making his second bid for his party's nomination; he sought the nod in 2004. He registers in low single digits in polls and has raised little money for what is considered another long-shot run. Kucinich, who is known for his liberal views, has attracted a devoted following.

In a statement, Kucinich said his brother was a talented artist who had some of his works on display recently at a local art gallery.

"He had extraordinary insights. Although he struggled with mental illness, with the help of his family and friends, he was able to lead a productive life," Dennis Kucinich said.

Perry Kucinich was the fifth child of Frank and Virginia Kucinich. The family's struggles are discussed in Dennis Kucinich's recently released book, "The Courage to Survive."

Besides his brother Dennis, Perry Kucinich is survived by brothers Frank, Gary, and Larry, and by sisters Theresa and Beth Ann. They all live in northeast Ohio.

A Democratic rival, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, offered his condolences to Kucinich and his family. "Barbara and I will keep your family in our thoughts and prayers," Richardson said in a statement.


On the Democratic Debate Debacle

by Gore Vidal

(published Thursday, December 20, 2007 by TruthDig.com)

I don’t know how many of you were as appalled as I was at the way that the presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was totally erased from the last Democratic debate held in Iowa. This was a decision that was made, I can tell, jointly by the one-time voice of AIPAC, Mr. Wolf Blitzer, and, at the same time, The Des Moines Register - or whatever it is called - a paper of no consequence for the United States of America.

Elements of right-wingism are keeping his voice from being heard, even though there are many millions of us (Kucinich is ahead of both Biden and Dodd in the national polls) out here who like to hear his voice. He is in the great tradition of the original People’s Party of the 1880s; he is in the tradition of George Washington and of Thomas Jefferson, and to silence him with a bunch of political hacks who have made such a mess of our political system, pretending these were the only voices who could talk as presidential candidates … is it because of their campaign budgets?

Now, I know, as all of you know, that people can come in with millions of dollars, like Romney and so on, and can buy time in Iowa and in the North Pole or wherever it is they are running. They can buy it, but to get an honest member of Congress speaking out for the people of the country is a great and rare thing.

I have listened to many political debates in my lifetime, if I may pull rank because I have been around longer than anybody else, and here is a voice not only against the war but the entire course leading us to it. I haven’t heard anybody who has ever listened to Kucinich who didn’t say, “Oh yes, yes, what he says is true, but nobody will ever take him seriously.”

Well, of course nobody will ever take him seriously, because they won’t let him on TV to stand side by side with the other candidates - some of them attractive candidates but whose roots are not as deep as his in what we may call “American life.” Dennis Kucinich was brought up in poverty, something the other candidates talk about but he actually lived through. He has known poverty in the richest country on Earth, a country that is constantly boasting, that seems to be out of control with self-love. Well, I say let’s have less self-love and pay some attention to our serious critics - and he is one - and his is a voice that’s showing us how to get to the exit from the box that we are all in.

It is so typical for CNN, a lousy network, and whatever that awful newspaper is called. Do we want to listen to them at the close of a primary campaign in a key state? They have nothing to say of any interest, and so they eliminate any voice that might say something intelligent. I have never felt more ashamed being an American than when I saw how this debate was handled.

National Book Award winner Gore Vidal has written twenty-three novels, five plays, many screenplays, short stories, well over two hundred essays, and a memoir.


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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Yo Soy Un Facebookador

Mi Amigos y Amigals,

Please note that I have joined Facebook.

For those not familiar with Facebook:

Facebook is just like MySpace. Except it's not as badly designed and utterly useless and irritating as MySpace. Apart from that it's just like MySpace though. Except it's easier to use and much more enjoyable to develop lists of friends and contacts and networks. And it also allows you to use all kinds of fun and neat applications and add-ons without having to hassle with irritating tags and HTML code. So it's just like MySpace, the only difference being that MySpace is bad and Facebook is good. Got it?


Neal R.

Neal Romanek's Facebook profile

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant" by Siouxsie & The Banshees

Siouxsie and the Banshees perform the French Christmas Carol "Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant" on TV in the early 1980's.

Yes, that is Robert Smith on the cymbals.


Il est né le divin enfant,
Jouez hautbois, résonnez musette.
Il est né le divin enfant,
Chantons tous son avènement.
Depuis plus de quatre mille ans
Nous le promettaient les prophètes,
Depuis plus de quatre mille ans
Nous attendions cet heureux temps.
Une étable est son logement,
Un peu de paille est sa couchette,
Une étable est son logement,
Pour un dieu quel abaissement.
O Jésus, ô roi tout puissant,
Tout petit enfant que vous êtes,
O Jésus, ô roi tout puissant,
Régnez sur nous entièrement.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

U.S. First Purchaser's Crude Oil Price (1920 - Present)

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cold Layers

I still haven't quite got the hang of getting dressed. I'm still an Angeleno. I wear t-shirts. That's what I wear. If it's cold, I wear a coat over my t-shirt. If it's really, really cold, I don't go out.

My friend Attack Cat, now that guy knows how to dress. He wears layers. I've never understood how to do layers. When I do layers, it's a jacket over a t-shirt, over a hoodie, over another t-shirt, over a sports jacket, over a turtleneck. Sometimes I'll wear a jaunty hat too. With perhaps a yarmulke under it or a long nightcap like Scrooge would wear. 

No, I've never been able to figure out layers. 

Winter will be here next week. The shortest day of the year. At these northern, vampire-friendly latitudes, you get about - as I recall - 55 minutes of daylight on the first day of winter. And that is some extremely cold daylight too. With rain and sleet and snow and freezing wind. Exposed skin will shatter instantly. And ships will be crushed by the incoming ice floes. Or is that spelled "floze"?

Long ago, veterans of the Roman legions used to retire to Britain - for the climate. Which I think tells us a lot about Europeans. In the USA, you retire to Florida or Arizona - for the climate. But in Europe, it's Britain.

Maybe Britain was warmer in 100 A.D.

Of course, they were giving away land for cheap too, so that was a big incentive. Retire from the Roman army, get a cottage with spectacular Thames views for no money down.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that, even though it's the 21st century, I'm having trouble staying warm. While taking the above photograph, I literally froze my ass off (ironically the real tissue damage happens not during freezing, but when the ass begins to thaw).

But it did make for some good pictures.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

First Yuletide

I know, I know. EVERY dad says their daughter is the most beautiful girl ever. But seriously, look at that face!

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Monday, December 10, 2007


The FBI is 100 years old this year!

Congratulations, FBI!

Remember that whole goofy anthrax thing after the crimes of September 11, 2001? What was that about? I'd almost forgotten about it. Like I'd almost forgotten that George W. Bush pardoned Scooter Libby.

But the FBI hasn't forgotten about it. No, no. The FBI has so not forgotten about it that they have given the dogged hunt to find those 2001 anthraxers a cool brand name ...




Here, from the FBI's website is the ....

(put up in Sept. 2006, in response to too many people saying
"What was up with that goofy anthrax thing 
after the crimes of September 11, 2001?")

The investigation into the deadly 2001 anthrax attack is one of the largest and most complex investigations ever conducted by law enforcement. Today, the FBI's commitment to solving this case is undiminished. The men and women of the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service assigned to the case remain fully committed to bringing the perpetrator(s) of these murderous attacks to justice. While no arrests have been made, the dedicated investigators who have worked tirelessly on this case, day-in and day-out, continue to go the extra mile in pursuit of every lead. From the Director to the investigating agents, analysts and inspectors, there is confidence the case will be solved.

Second, while not well known to the public, the scientific advances gained from this investigation are unprecedented and have greatly strengthened the government's ability to prepare for - and prevent - biological attacks in the future. Since the first anthrax mailing, investigators have worked hand in hand with the scientific community to both solve this case, prevent another and to be best positioned should another occur.

Despite the frustrations that come with any complex investigation, no one in the FBI has, for a moment, stopped thinking about the innocent victims of these attacks, nor has the effort to solve this case in any way been slowed.

--Acting Assistant Director in Charge Joseph Persichini, Jr., Washington Field Office.


What is the status of the investigation?

This is a pending investigation and a top priority for the FBI.

The FBI has devoted hundreds of thousands of agent-hours to the case and conducted thousands of interviews. Eight panels of scientific experts have been convened to develop a comprehensive analytical scheme for evaluating and analyzing the anthrax evidence. As a result, valuable relationships have been forged in the scientific and public health communities, greatly increasing the government's ability to deal with biochemical threats in the future.

Is this a cold case?

This is an active case and the effort to solve it has in no way been slowed.

How many Agents are currently assigned to the case?

At the present time there are 17 FBI Special Agents (SA's) and 10 U.S. Postal Inspectors assigned to the AMERITHRAX Task Force. The number of Task Force members tends to vary on occasion due to career advancement opportunities and transfers. Within the last 30 days, 2 FBI SA's transferred from the Task Force to other FBI assignments. Two additional SA's are scheduled to be assigned positions on the Task Force in October.

What other statistics regarding the progress in this investigation are available?

To date, the number of interviews conducted exceeds 9,100. There have been over 6,000 grand jury subpoenas issued and 67 searches have been completed.

What kind of scientific advances have been made in the past five years?

Since the 2001 attacks, relationships between investigators and scientists have greatly expanded, resulting in tangible improvements in the FBI's and U.S. Government's preparedness.

The FBI Laboratory has created or expanded three new scientific working groups (SWGs) consisting of scientists from academia, private industry, the National Laboratories, other U.S. Federal Government agencies, physicians, and researchers. These working groups identify areas where scientific advancements can be applied to terrorism investigations.

The FBI Laboratory has created a new Unit, the Chemical Biological Sciences Unit (CBSU), staffed with forensic scientists with advanced degrees in Chemistry, Biology, and Nuclear Chemistry. This Unit has established extensive working relationships with partner laboratories in a variety of specialized scientific areas, based on the requirements of casework within the FBI. CBSU has developed and validated new analytical procedures to better characterize hazardous evidence, including anthrax, and has evaluated and applied existing methodologies in new and novel ways.

The FBI Laboratory has expanded the Hazardous Materials Response Unit (HMRU) with additional professional first responders, hazardous materials officers, doctorate-level scientists and former clinicians. These individuals conduct threat assessments, respond to WMD crime scenes, manage and train field personnel distributed in FBI Field Offices to effectively respond to collect, package, and transport hazardous evidence to specialized laboratories, including the FBI Laboratory.

The FBI has expanded their international liaison activities to include professional scientists in other countries in support of counterterrorism investigations.

The FBI Laboratory has supported an ongoing Department of Homeland Security initiative to build a dedicated bio-forensic laboratory at Ft. Detrick, MD. An interim laboratory is currently operational. The permanent facility, supported by a series of partner laboratories, will significantly increase forensic analytical capabilities and reduce analytical timelines.

Will the anthrax case ever be solved?

The FBI commitment to solving this case is undiminished.


"The investigation into the deadly 2001 anthrax attack is one of the largest and most complex investigations ever conducted by law enforcement."

Hmmm. Okay.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Across The Thames


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Friday, December 07, 2007

Sounds Of Nature: Part I

How BBC Natural History Producers Use Sound Design To Make 
The Real World Sound Real

Neal Romanek

(as printed in the September 2007 
edition of TVBEurope)

The BBC nature documentaries, most recently the HD-shot "Planet Earth" (2006), have invariably offered stunning image upon stunning image, showing us scenes few people in world have ever glimpsed before.

"Planet Earth" featured spectacular helicopter shots using the Cineflex camera mount that allowed an unparalleled intimacy. We raced along with wolves chasing down caribou – the terrified caribou huffing, the desperate footfalls trying to outrace each other. "The Blue Planet" (2001) showed us stunning scenes of hunting dolphins whooshing through the water like rockets. "The Private Life Of Plants" (1995) showed a creeping bramble in time lapse as it scraped and scrabbled its ruthless way to dominance.

In each of these sequences we were treated not only to visual wonders, but to the intimate soundscapes that accompanied them. Via the sounds it made, we could tell whether a subject was wet or dry, angry or tired, close or far, cautious or hell-bent.

So fans may be shocked to learn:

When the heart-pounding footage of the caribou chase was actually shot, the only sounds that could be heard were the roar of the helicopter and shouted communications among the camera crew, producer and pilot. And those mesmerizing sounds of the growing bramble? Of course, no one has ever heard the sound of a bramble growing, much less recorded it.

The truth is that, with the exception of those shots in which Sir David Attenborough addresses the camera crouched behind a bush, the great mass of a nature documentary soundtrack is deliberately and meticulously constructed in post-production. Atmospheres and sound effects may be gathered on location, but these are virtually never captured simultaneously with picture.

Some might find this disappointing, but upon closer study what is revealed is the incredible creative machinery that makes for a first-rate nature documentary, the apex of which is "Planet Earth", featuring a 5.1 surround mix as sophisticated, as that of any science fiction movie.

I spoke with veteran nature producer Huw Cordey about his approach to the sound design of the landmark shows he's worked ono, including "The Life Of Mammals" (2003), "Planet Earth", and most recently the BBC documentary about the South Seas. Cordey's work as a producer covers as wide a spectrum as any in the industry, going from spending days beneath the surface of the earth in one of the most spectacular caves in the world to making creative – at times purely artistic – decisions in the post-production process. In fact, it could be said that the sound editing stage is the most creative of the entire natural history cinematic process.

"You ignore sound at your peril," Cordey began, "It tends not to be noticed - unless it's bad, then everybody notices it. Often when I start talking about sound there's this huge sense of disappointment. Until they understand it, there's an initial feeling that you've broken the rules of documentary."

Of course, this exposes the nature of all documentaries, and raises again the eternal discussison of whether objectivity is ever possible once the camera starts running. It is the job of the nature documentary producer to make these aesthetic decisions virtually invisible, so that as little as possible comes between the viewer and the experience of really being there in the wild.

One of Cordey's great adventures on "Planet Earth" was the filming of the exceedingly rare wild Bactrian Camel in the icy wastes of the Gobi Desert. The extremely long lenses and camera stabilization equipment allowed intimate glimpses into the lives of these animals. Months of waiting produced only a few minutes of footage, but those few minutes were precious. Simultaneously recording the animals' sound was not even on the table.

But the final sequence is filled with the subtle grunts, snorts, and rumbles of the camels, which make a memorable sequence verge on the magical. These camel effects were recorded by the crew on a Mongolian breeding preserve. Their domesticated status allowed recordings up close and personal. Such sound effects can describe the visceral shape and flavour of a subject in a way that the image cannot quite match.

On "The Life Of Mammals", Cordey's crew was very lucky to capture footage of a babirusa, a wild pig of Indonesia armed with spectacular tusks. They were not able, However, to record sound of the animal. The BBC's massive sound libraries came to the rescue and the grunts and squeals of a real babirusa were located and employed in the final sequence. These babirusa effects had been originally been recorded in London Zoo in 1932.

It is a matter of pride on the BBC docs that the natural sounds, though not recorded in the same time and place as the images – or even in the same century –maintain impeccable scientific accuracy. Atmospheric tracks are collected at the location whenever possible, or – as is increasingly the case – existing library sound of the actual location is used. A jungle is never simply a jungle. If the original shoot took place in the Amazon, only atmospheric ambience and effects from the Amazon are employed.

This points out the superior longevity an audio library can have. It would be virtually impossible to cut in stock video or film footage into "Planet Earth", for example. Sound effects, on the other hand, in part because they contain less data are far more forgiving of post-production equalization or digital clean-up and can lend themselves to a wider variety of uses. In addition, they are not always inextricably bound to a specific time, place, or action.

Until about 2001, the BBC deployed dedicated sound recordists to the locations with the camera crews. They recorded atmospheres, effects, and the location narratives of Sir David Attenborough, and others, either boomed or fitted with a lavalier radio mic. The library of past sound recordings has become so vast, that sending a dedicated sound recordist on a shoot is not a priority, in the absence of an on-location presenter. Producers have sometimes taken up the slack and, in a pinch, acted as the shoot's location sound recordists. DAT's advent as the sound equipment of choice, replacing larger, heavier analog recorders, made it all the easier for a limited crew to manage the recording.

But the animal you are most likely to hear in any nature documentary is a human being. All the non-essential sounds, the creeping footsteps of a lion, the rustle and crunch of a lizard devouring a spider, are all done in foley sessions.

"In a project I worked on a long time ago, we had a shot where a monkey was tearing the husk off a a coconut. The foley artist used gaffer tape peeling off a camera case." The foley done on tentpole projects like "Planet Earth" is among the most sophisticated that foley artists can do. It requires skill and experience, and competent editing and mixing, to convincingly create the sound of a polar bear's feet in the snow with no other sounds available in the Arctic waste to mask any problem spots.

"We delivered 'Planet Earth' on 5.1 surround. I think one of the great developments for TV is better sound. Look at our television sets – fantastic picture, but usually with just a tinny little speaker next to it. It's always the weakest part. Why do people enjoy going out to see things on the big screen? Very often I think it's the sound that has you on the edge of your seat. 'Planet Earth' is all about a cinema-style experience and sound is used to enhance that experience."

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Desperately Seeking Kent

Last month I took a trip to Canterbury to haunt the University of Kent with some friends - fellow alumni of that windswept institution. From the train, at Rochester and Faversham, and Sittingbourne and Gillingham, many sights can be seen.

We spend a lot of time waiting, we spend a lot of time between here and there.


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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Yesterday's edition of the daily news program - Democracy Now, hosted by Amy "National Treasure" Goodman - featured an entire hour devoted to StoryCorps, an American oral history project featuring regular people telling each other their regular stories. StoryCorps' founder, radio producer David Isay, started the project in mid 2003.

StoryCorps employs a private booth equipped with recording equipment and two chairs. Pairs of friends, relations, strangers are invited to enter the booth for 40 minutes for any variety of Q&A they wish. At the end of the recording session, two CD's are created. One goes to the participants. The other goes to the Library Of Congress.

A printed collection of StoryCorps conversations, edited by David Isay, is now available in a book, "Listening Is An Act Of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project".

You can listen to StoryCorps interviews using the player below:

Put my show and this player on your website or your social network.

StoryCorps airs each Friday on NPR's "Morning Edition".

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Dark Waters


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Venezuela Says Nyet To Constitution Changes

In a neck & neck, foto-finish, so-close-it-makes-your-eyes-water plebiscite, Venezuelans have voted 51% No, to 49% Si, to proposed changes to their Constitution.

They will still keep their long work week, instead of embracing the proposed reduction to a 6-hour work day. And they have avoided granting President Hugo Chavez the power to declare a national emergency whenever he wants and so declare himself the country's sole authority "for the duration of said emergency".

The UK's Guardian newspaper reported on the vote:

"I've voted for him every time before but not this time, I'm worried where this is headed," said Jonathan Machado, 25, a taxi driver in Barinas. "I want him to stay in office but on a leash."

So, a mixed bag.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Days Of Venezuela and Roses

"He daren't withdrawal. Arabia's part of his empire now. If he gets out now he'll never get back in again."

- Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)

So today is one of the most important days in World Events. 

Today the Venezuelan people vote on whether or not they want to make changes in their constitution. The changes include reducing the work week to 36 hours (nice). Free university tuition for all (yahoo!). And vague and expanded emergency powers for the President of Venezuela and no defined limit as to how long he can stay in office (oops!).

I like Hugo Chavez. He's a likeable chap. I also like that he's refused to give the income from Venezuela's massive oil reserves to foreign companies. Venezuela now keeps the money from sales of its oil. Makes perfect sense, but in practice such a thing rarely happens. Just ask Nigeria. Holding on to their own oil has allowed Venezuelas to pay off their national debt - something that would have been impossible under previous governments - and become an independent self-respecting nation. A massive dirt poor population, politically astute and cagey after years of being exploited by outsiders, is finally stepping out a dark age.

Losing such massive profits makes non-Venezuelan energy companies very angry. And these energy companies are among the most powerful entities on earth. While the rest of us have been tightening our belts over the past few years, Exxon has been setting earnings records year after year.

In 2002, U.S. interests sponsored a coup to get rid of Hugo Chavez. American cleric Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez in 2005. And this weekend former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has a piece in the Washington Post about the absolute necessity to neutralize the tyrant, Hugo Chavez (in the piece, Rumsfeld laments the oppressed people of Venezuela, but doesn't mention that Venezuela is sitting on billions and billions of euros worth of oil. To him, apparently, that's not so important).

So then this past week, Chavez showed the world a memo sent from the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to the CIA outlining steps taken to influence today's vote in Venezuela. The memo seemed perfectly authentic in that it outlined what you would expect the CIA to do, assuming it's doing its job properly, to influence a vote.

  • Take the streets and protest with violent, disruptive actions across the nation
  • Generate a climate of ungovernability
  • Provoke a general uprising in a substantial part of the population
  • Start to release data during the early hours of the afternoon on Sunday that favor the NO vote (
  • Creating an acceptance in the public opinion that the NO vote will win for sure
  • Criticize and discredit the National Elections Council
  • Generate a sensation of fraud
  • Use a team of experts from the universities that will talk about how the data from the Electoral Registry has been manipulated and will build distrust in the voting system
  • Seek an aliance between those abstentionists and those who will vote "NO"
  • Sustain firmly the propaganda against Chavez
  • Encourage a military rebellion inside the National Guard forces and other components
(thanks to www.globalresearch.ca)

Textbook stuff. Right out of the "How To Rig A Vote" handbook.

Chavez as a result has declared that if there is evidence of American tampering with the voting process today, if there is any attempt at civil unrest or a military revolt, if CNN Espanol or any of the other big media companies operating in Venezuela violate the voting regulations against announcing results before polls close, then he will halt oil shipments to the U.S. 

Let me write that again: ... then he will halt oil shipments to the U.S.

And he really seems to mean it.

It's worth noting that the principal 2002 coup plotters were granted clemency and that Venezuelan tv stations that supported the coup were still allowed to operate. So when Chavez makes a threat like that, it should not be taken lightly.

This is Cuban Missile Crisis-sized brinksmanship.

If the U.S. intelligence apparatus allows the Venezuelan referendum to go ahead unmolested, it seems almost certain the referendum will pass with a little room to spare. As a result, Hugo Chavez's power and influence across Venezuela - and the rest of South America - will soar. South American solidarity is dangerously close to pushing foreign interests off the continent entirely. This would be, as it were, the last nail in the imperialist coffin. This is a situation more threatening to American-based corporate power than a whole basketful of North Korean saber-rattling nutcases.

If the CIA plan goes ahead, and Chavez, does stop oil shipments ... well, let's just say the gang in Washington right now are not diplomats, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, such a move by Chavez would be an invitation on a silver platter to turn the Cold War against Venezuela into a Shooting War. Strategists in Washington have been keeping a coy eye out for that invitation for some time.

If you go to war with Venezuela, you probably also go to war with Iran. Aware that they were both high up on American "to do" lists, the two countries signed a mutual security agreement several years ago.

So today is a red-letter day. Perhaps a day to ask questions?

Some of my questions:

Is this CIA memo even real? Does it matter if it's real or not? What does all the recent Colombia ruckus have to do with all this? Will any of this be covered in the mainstream media? Why is every world leader around the globe lately rushing to establish autocratic emergency powers? How long does Hugo Chavez have to live? Will he make it till the end of the year? Will he die in a plane crash or by lone gunman? 

And what was up with that CNN Espanol "mistake" this week where they flashed a picture of Chavez on the screen with the caption "Who killed him?" (in Spanish) beneath it??

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Evel Knievel Jumps The Styx

October 17, 1938 - November 30, 2007


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