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Tell Me A Science

"Tell Me A Science" was presented by Lear Center Director Marty Kaplan at the National Academy of Sciences' third Sackler colloquium, as part of the panel titled, "The Power and Patterns of Communication of Science through the Entertainment Culture."

The colloquium offers scientists, communication practitioners, and opinion leaders the opportunity to discuss issues of mutual concern, share successes and ongoing questions, and fine-tune their understanding of how lessons from research can drive effective communication of scientific topics.

UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center :: October 2014


Is it possible drones might, uh, entertain us in the future? Cirque du Soleil already has the answer. more>>

StarkBrain.jpgCGI (computer-generated imagery) rules in Hollywood, right? Not for everything, it turns out. Several top filmmakers got together with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to compare notes on where audience members direct their gaze and what sort of tricks directors use to focus and hold onto that attention. Can you guess the two elements in action films for which CGI just doesn't cut it? (Link opens in new window; scroll down for clip of Iron Man 2 with an overlay of eye-tracking software) more>>

Afraid your new infographic-intensive presentation will bore people? What if it were turned into a game? A Dutch company has developed Metrico, which replaces traditional game narrative with infographics. more>>

Mourning Becomes Collective

CrystalTweet.jpgThe tragic passing of actor Robin Williams becomes a case-study in how social media is changing how we grieve. more>>

DigiArt75.jpgMuseum-quality digital art...coming soon to a screen in your home. more>>

A new UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center study reveals a stunning truth about the effect of TV violence on viewers: Americans' fear of crime is statistically related to the level of violence portrayed on primetime TV, and not particularly to real world crime stats. Good job, TV! Now take another look at the Lear Center's research on the primetime war on terror. more>>

Who appear to be the new kings of Twitter, social media strategy and branding? ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, currently terrorizing large swaths of the Middle East. They've even built their own app. Where's the fail whale when you really need him? more>>

The jury is still out on the relationship between violent video games and real world violence ...but that may be about to change. A new study due later this summer finds that areas of teens' brains linked to empathy become muted by violent images when exposed to them over long periods of time. Another study, from Canada's Brock University, found that children who played violent video games for significant lengths of time were not as morally mature as other children their age. more>>

Fashion flip: designers have long been thrilled to get their clothes into movies (think Ralph Lauren and Annie Hall), but now a filmmaker is preparing to market the clothes from his new film directly to customers. Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) hopes viewers of his James Bond spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service will admire the Savile Row look of the suits in the movie enough to pay Gucci-level dollars. more>>

Who can protect Los Angeles from the next big earthquake? How about this woman? And revisit the Lear Center's study about the first Great Shakeout, a mass earthquake drill which has since become an annual event. And just in case, remember it's duck, cover, and hold!

A new UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center and Pew Research Center study shows that regular viewers of the Colbert Report during the 2012 election were better educated about campaign finance law after the "Citizens United" decision than viewers of traditional news shows. Read it and weep....or laugh.

Care for an artistic interpretation of what climate change might feel like? You're welcome!

More blurring of the line between real life and entertainment: Thai protesters angry at the recent military coup are borrowing a three-fingered salute from the science-fiction hit The Hunger Games to express their resistance. Military leaders are monitoring the movement closely.

What's the relationship between science and telling ourselves stories? Closer than you think. Read this terrific article from Nautilus. about the long, complex link between scientific progress and stories we make up.

OrgChart1955.jpgWe're awash in big data now, even as we try to clearly visualize it graphically. Perhaps a look at old data visulizations can inspire us. Take a look at this absolutely beautiful Erie Railroad organizational chart from 1855. Wow.

Much Ado About Moocs...a short two years after educators and techies embraced Massive Online Open Courses as the gateway to a new golden, egalitarian age of higher education, the cursor seems to be stuck, blinking, on the screen: a new study shows that only half of those who registered for a course ever watched a lecture, and then only 4 percent completed the courses. And a joint San Jose State University-Udacity experiment has failed completely. This NYTimes article explains the reboot.

There's a new tool in the struggle to get action on climate change on everyone's agenda: insurance company actuarial tables. more>>

There's no link between exposure to media violence and actual violent behavior, right? Not so fast. A new meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990 suggests that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for violent behavior, much in the same way that second-hand smoke is a risk factor for cancer. more>>

Did you ever think chocolate could be entertaining, and compellingly so? Watch what some clever Germans have devised. more>>

Fox News seems to have discovered the science behind making people distrust science. A new study explains how. more>>

Do you tweet during television shows? A new study analyzes the interesting connections between Twitter and TV. more>>

Can puffs of air be the next big thing in online entertainment interactivity? Disney Research thinks so and their new tool, Aireal, is pretty dazzling. more>>

Are you still just playing Grand Theft Auto on your Kinect? Take a gander at what a dance company and engineering firm in France have been doing with the gaming device. more>>

Since the NSA leaks were revealed, "meta data" has been all the buzz. Find out what it means and what it looks like here.

If all you've got in your paintbox are pixels, can you still be an artist? The exhibit "Into the Pixel" offers some interesting answers. more>>


R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

nimoy150.jpgIn another time and galaxy, Lear Center Director Marty Kaplan interviewed the gifted Leonard Nimoy on his Air America show, So What Else Is News? Listen to the audio below.

And Popular Music Project Director Josh Kun played "Name That Tune" with Nimoy at a special event at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in late 2008. Enjoy and LLAP.

The Age of Edge

Lear Center Senior Fellow Neal Gabler takes a wide-ranging, sharp look at edginess in our culture and our current media favorites in his latest LA Times op-ed. Read it here.

Norman Lear in Conversation with Phil Rosenthal

NormanLear140.jpgNorman Lear is set to appear at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on March 12 for an on-stage conversation with Phil Rosenthal, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. The event will be part of the "Arts & Ideas: Conversations at the Wallis" series, in conjunction with Writers Bloc. Info and tickets here. Thursday, March 12, 2015 :: 7:30PM

Check the Technique: Hip Hop as Methodology

What is the history behind the making of some of hip hop's greatest albums and songs? How are tracks made? How can the process of assembling a track be applied to larger social and cultural practices?

Inspired by the publication of Check the Technique V.2, journalist Brian Coleman's second volume of "Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies," this discussion looked at hip hop production practices and the hip hop creative process as both musical techniques and social techniques.

Click here for a playlist of highlight clips.

Brian Coleman, journalist and author of Check the Technique Vols 1 & 2, and Rakim Told Me: Wax Facts Straight From The Original Artists
Adrian Younge, composer, arranger, producer (Venice Dawn, Souls of Mischief, Ghostface Killah)
Brother J, from legendary Hip Hop crew X Clan
Brian 'B+' Cross, photographer, filmmaker, UCSD professor, and author of It's Not About a Salary, It's About a Reality: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles
Oliver Wang, CSULB sociologist, DJ, journalist, and author of Classic Material: The Hip Hop Album Guide
Monalisa Murray, DJ, hip hop record label and promotion veteran

Watch the full discussion:

Norman Lear to Receive WGA East Honor

norman_lear150.jpgThe Writers Guild of America, East has selected Norman Lear as the recipient of the Evelyn F. Burkey Award, which recognizes a person or organization whose contributions have brought honor and dignity to writers. He will be honored at the 67th annual Writers Guild Awards in New York City on February 14. Full details here.

2014 Ev Rogers Award: Duncan Watts on "Social Influence in Markets and Networks (What's So Viral About 'Going Viral'?)"

Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and winner of the 2014 Ev Rogers Award, presented "Social Influence in Markets and Networks (What's So Viral About 'Going Viral'?)" in the Forum of the USC Annenberg School's new Wallis Annenberg Hall on Thursday, November 20. Watts described the surprising difficulty of empirically identifying social influence, which -- despite the metaphor of "going viral" -- doesn't necessarily spread in anything like the way that infectious diseases do.

The Rogers award honors the late Everett M. Rogers, a professor at the Annenberg School who originated diffusion of innovation theory and introduced the term "early adopters." Presented since 2007 on behalf of USC Annenberg by the Lear Center, the award recognizes outstanding scholars and practitioners whose work has made a fundamental contribution to areas of Rogers's legacy.

Watts' first paper, "Collective Dynamics of 'Small-World' Networks," co-authored with his doctoral advisor Steven Strogatz and published in the journal Nature in 1998, just a year after he got his Cornell Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics, quickly became a blueprint for network science, and it has been cited more than 23,000 times - one of the most-cited papers in any field in the past two decades. As he recounts in his book Six Degrees, his research on the Kevin Bacon Game and connectedness ultimately led him to insights about how influences like diseases, rumors, cultural fads, financial crises and social unrest propagate through a human population.

Investigating Power and the Future of Truth with Chuck Lewis

Mortally consequential lies by those in power can take months, years or even decades to discover. That means a public deluded about some of the most important issues of the day until it's too late to do anything meaningful about them. What are the implications for journalism and democracy if citizens don't have timely, accurate information?

The Encyclopedia of Journalism called American University Professor Charles Lewis "one of the 30 most notable investigative reporters in the U.S. since World War I." Founder of the Center for Public Integrity, and winner of the PEN USA First Amendment Award for his courage in expanding the reach of investigative journalism, American University professor Charles Lewis is author most recently of 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014
Wallis Annenberg Hall, Room 106 :: USC University Campus

This USC Annenberg Dean's Forum was co-sponsored by the School of Journalism and the Norman Lear Center.

Art, Music and Immigration Reform in 21st Century America

NDLON295.jpgPopular Music Project Director Josh Kun co-moderates this roundtable and musical performance focused on the political and artistic work of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and their collaborations with musicians (La Santa Cecilia, Aloe Blacc, Manu Chao and Ana Tijoux), filmmakers (Alex Rivera), visual artists (Ernesto Yerena, Alfredo 'Albur' Burgos, Cesar Maxit), and their own house band, Los Jornaleros del Norte.

Since the 2006 immigration marches, music and art have played a renewed role in voicing, shaping, and critiquing contemporary debates around immigration reform and activism, a role with a long history in U.S. political and cultural life. Los Angeles is now, as it has always been, a key hub for artistic and musical interventions into these stories and struggles.

This event will begin with a conversation about these issues and will be followed by a live, interactive musical performance by Los Jornaleros del Norte.

· Members of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network
· Filmmaker Alex Rivera
· Musicians Los Jornaleros del Norte
· And special guests TBA
Moderated by Josh Kun (USC) and Alicia Schmidt-Camacho (Yale)

Full info is here. FREE with suggested donation.

Saturday, November 8th :: 8-10pm
Human Resources Los Angeles
410 Cottage Home Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Making Media Smarter

Johanna Blakley

NEWMIPlogo140.jpgThe entertainment industry is notorious for adjusting its numbers to service an often inscrutable bottom line. And all of us -- including everyone who variously produces or consumes media content -- have been ill-served by cookie-cutter audience segmentation techniques and panel-based research methods that cannot account for what's happening in the "long tail" of our global cultural economy.

The insidious audience segmentation techniques that valorize age, race, gender and income over every other facet of human identity have contributed to a media system rife with stereotypes about how humans tick. The tremendous data sets emerging from social media networks offer us the opportunity to understand ourselves, and our engagement with media, in a far more nuanced way (check out my TED talk about this).

«We want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audiences needs, values and taste»

For the last two years, I have been co-principal investigator on a major new research initiative at the University of Southern California: the Media Impact Project is a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by the Gates, Knight and Open Society Foundations, I'm optimistic that we can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people's lives.

Our vision here? Ultimately, we want media makers to have the resources to make data-driven decisions. Rather than depending on their "gut" alone, we encourage them to grapple with meaningful feedback information that demonstrates how real people have engaged with their work and what effects that interaction has produced.

We also want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audience's needs, values and taste. For me, it's really an issue of respect. Our media environment should be respectful and responsive to the needs of global audiences, rather than painfully engineered to fit stereotypical notions of the interests of a few prized demographic groups.

Note: Interested in media impact? Follow the Media Impact Project on Twitter at @mediametrics and find us on Facebook.

New Media & the Holocaust

Johanna Blakley

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can't help but consider what's changed ... and what hasn't. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it "right."

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film's impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there's a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I've been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it's embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler's List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations - around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media - that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be - and should be - mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience.

Rachel Baum, one of my terrific panelists at the Shoah Foundation event (check out the video of our panel), offered a nuanced argument about how holograms might change how we think about Holocaust testimony. Baum sees the intrinsic value of a memorial that seems "uncanny" - a feeling that many people report when engaging with simulacra, convincing imitations of reality that can be confused with reality itself. But the hologram of Pinchas Gutter is not trying to fool anyone into thinking it's really him. Because of the novelty of the technology, we are forced us to acknowledge the strangeness of these testimonies in a way that traditional media cannot.

But once you hand the reins of power over to an audience - and that's exactly what you're doing with any interactive media - it's hard to predict what people are going to do.

Victoria Grace Walden at Queen Mary, University of London, studies some of the troubling ways in which people are using new media to engage with Holocaust memorials: this includes people taking selfies at Auschwitz and students producing stop-motion Lego animations of gas chambers, which they post on YouTube

Walden warns us that if we simply chastise young people for misusing new media to represent the Holocaust, we risk perpetuating a "sub-culture of unethical virtual memorialisations which purposely 'rebel' against critics." The Web is teeming with images of contemporary atrocities - how can we develop and dispense ethical guidelines for producing, distributing and consuming that material?

One necessary step is to take a methodical look at how the Holocaust is being represented in new media. Our panel included Israeli scholar Aya Yadlin-Segal, who had intended to perform a study of journalistic discourse around the Oscar win for Iran's A Separation, which incensed many Israelis who were rooting for their own country's entry in the Best Foreign Film category, Footnote. Yadlin-Segal shifted her focus to the online comments on these stories, which she regarded as a construction of a collective memory of the Holocaust. In informal public venues like these, scholars have the opportunity to see what lies beneath and beyond the more carefully constructed rhetoric of official Holocaust memorial. Yadlin-Segal found commenters comparing the Iranian film to a painting by Hitler and equating its Oscar win to the German's victory in the 1936 Olympics. The underlying presumption was that the Oscar was given for political, not artistic, reasons, and Iran's win provided evidence that Jewish persecution continues and that every Jewish generation will experience a Holocaust.

Social networks, whether physical or virtual, offline or online, are often used explicitly or implicitly for survival purposes. Paris Papamichos Chronakis, our third panelist at the Shoah event, presented fascinating research on the social networks developed among Greek Jewish survivors at Auschwitz. As minority Sephardic Jews among mostly Ashkenazi prisoners, it was especially important for Greek Jews to establish social ties with others who understood their Hebrew accents (they didn't speak Yiddish) and their distinctive culture. Papamichos Chronakis used social network analysis of audiovisual testimonies to reconstruct those relationships, which he represented in chilling spreadsheets that demonstrated how friendships ended with selection for the gas chamber.

Now that we have ready access to the data and technology to perform these kinds of analyses, I how no doubt that we'll see a lot more research on social networks and survival strategies. Scholars are sure to look at how social networks operate in different types of genocidal situations, which continue to plague us. Future research should help to explain whether new technology has fundamentally changed the equation between survival and social networking or whether it has simply reinforced a very basic human impulse. Either way, it is imperative that we explore how these powerful new technologies of mass self-communication (as Manuel Castells would put it) can be harnessed to ensure that genocide becomes a bitter memory rather than a constant future threat.

You can watch video of all sessions of the Shoah Foundation's 2014 International Conference, Memory, Media, and Technology: Exploring the Trajectories of Schindler's List.

How Satire Happens

Marty Kaplan

kent-state.jpegMary Ann Vecchio kneels by the body of a student lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970, following the shooting of students protesting the Viet Nam War. Photo was winner of Pulitzer Prize. Photo by John Filo/AP

On May 4, 1970, when 29 Ohio National Guardsmen shot 67 rounds of ammunition at a group of unarmed Kent State University students protesting Richard Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, killing four students and wounding nine others, I was the president of the Harvard Lampoon, the nation's oldest college humor magazine.

Campuses across the country erupted in protests, some of them violent. Four million students at 450 colleges and universities went on strike. Some Harvard students may have supported Nixon's widening of the war, and some may have found a way to forgive the Kent State shooters, but I didn't know any of them, and certainly not on the Lampoon. We were furious, and since lampooning is what we did, that's how we channeled our rage.

Though I didn't know it then, this was the same year that Charlie Hebdo first appeared, as the rebranding of a weekly called Hara-Kiri, which had been banned by the French government for a cover mocking the effusive press coverage of former President Charles de Gaulle's death by contrasting it with the media's relatively restrained attention to a nightclub fire that killed 146 people the week before.

The broadsheet that the Lampoon published four days after Kent State didn't get us banned, but it aspired to the same tastelessness. Our format was a parody of the treatment Nixon was getting in the establishment press. We thought the papers were bending over backwards to be respectful toward a paranoid warmonger while showing contempt for student protesters, whom they portrayed as dirty draft-dodging druggies. So we decided to out-do the sycophantic media by dialing the suck-up into the red zone.

Under the headline "Famous Dick Shrinker to Lobotomize Punks," we reported approvingly the news that Nixon's former psychiatrist had developed a pencil-and-paper test to screen American children aged six to eight for "anti-social attitudes and potential for hostile behavior." Another item lauded Nixon's appointment of Tommy, the deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard immortalized by the Who's rock opera, as his top advisor, "'who can tell me all I need to know to run the country.'"

But the story that pushed the envelope farthest was "Tricia Nixon to Wed Jew." Mr. Right was a nice boy from Yale studying to be a dentist. "Asked if marrying outside her faith posed a problem, Trish cooed, 'Not really. The ancient Jewish custom of....'" I cringe at the words that came next; they describe the blood libel, and I won't repeat them here. That custom, Trish continued, "'really differs very little from the policies Daddy advocates. I think every girl wants the man she weds to share those special little pleasures of her Pa.'"

I can easily imagine a cartoon depicting that scene. It would resemble any number of cartoons on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, and it would similarly polarize its audience -some finding it wicked, even blasphemous; others, hilariously on target. If the hate-speech rules on many college campuses today had been in place back then, publishing such a story could well have gotten us hauled up before a disciplinary board.

What might our defense have been? The genealogy of satire runs from Aristophanes to Mad Magazine, Voltaire to Colbert, Swift to "South Park," Orwell to "The Onion" and "The Interview." Freedom of speech must include the freedom to outrage. If you have to fight fire with fire, you have to fight indecency with more indecency. Rudeness subverts oppression. Crudeness ventilates orthodoxy. Laughter strips the emperor naked. Satire is a check on power. Why else would tyrants and fundamentalists bother to ban and punish it? "He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries," wrote Osip Mandelstam in "The Stalin Epigram," a poem that condemned him to exile and death. Last month in Cairo, Bassem Youssef, sometimes called the Egyptian Jon Stewart, was fined millions of dollars for satirizing that country's president and military leaders. Last week in Paris, imps were murdered by fanatics for making fun of fanaticism.

Of course barbarians and dictators can be just as jovial as cartoonists or college kids. Comedy can kill. I know there's a line between humor that dehumanizes and lampoonery that democratizes. If nothing is sacred, nothing is civilized. But who gets to draw that line, how do you demarcate the holy, without privileging the very authority that parody exists to challenge?

On the back page of the Lampoon's Kent State broadside, we ran two quotes. One is an excerpt from Mark Twain's 1905 essay "The Damned Human Race," as relevant to 1970 as when he wrote it, and as miserably apt today. The passage ends with this:

"Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven. He was at it in the time of the Caesars, he was at it in Mahomet's time, he was at it in the time of the Inquisition, he was at it in France a couple of centuries, he was at it in England in Mary's day, he has been at it ever since he first saw the light... - he will be at it somewhere else tomorrow."
The other quote accompanied a drawing of a girl kneeling over the body of a Kent State student, based on a photo by John Filo, who would win the Pulitzer Prize for it. In that iconic image of terror and grief, her arms are outstretched in agony, her face contorted by a silent scream. The words are from King Lear: "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."

As long as the only animal that has the True Religion is at it somewhere else tomorrow, the obligation of satire will be to speak again. And to speak against.

Cross posted at the Jewish Journal.

New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement

Johanna Blakley

I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

nealogo295.jpgFor those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn't everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn't it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth -- that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK's Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I'm hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

Sony 'R' US

Marty Kaplan

SonyPic125.jpgThe most shocking thing about the digital disemboweling of Sony Pictures' computer data is that anyone would actually find it shocking.

That goes for everything from the vulnerability of everyone's personal and proprietary data, not just Sony's, to the revelation that a sausage-making industry like the movie and TV business is likely to be run by people who know their way around an abattoir.

If you haven't been following the Sony story, the gist of it is the malicious Nov. 24 public dump of 40 gigabytes of private email, employee evaluations, complaints, salaries, medical records, passwords, social security numbers, movies, scripts, PowerPoint presentations, financial spreadsheets, executive suite gossip, marital confidences, temper tantrums, profanity, flattery, deceit, contempt, obsequiousness, insecurity, bad taste and (in the view of at least some people) evidence of racism, sexism and a host of other indefensible behaviors.

As of this writing, the culprit most widely suspected of breaking into Sony's servers, stealing its intellectual property, violating its trade secrets, invading its employees' privacy and doing their best to humiliate the company and damage its business is the North Korean government, posing as a group calling itself Guardians of Peace. The motive: revenge for The Interview, a Sony Christmas comedy about assassinating North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un. An alternative theory is that the perps are fiendishly talented malware coders with a score to settle with Sony for reasons ranging from its efforts to crack down on piracy to allegations of arrogance and greed. Whoever is responsible, their message to management is that the carnage is far from over.

If you've paid any attention to the files that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden turned over to journalist Glenn Greenwald, you know how invasive and pervasive U.S. government surveillance has become. Whether you believe that such spying is legal and justified by the threat of terrorism, or that it's unconstitutional and corrosive of the very democracy that terrorists threaten, what's inescapable is the scary likelihood that privacy, secrecy and security are technological illusions. There is a ferocious battle going on today between white hat hackers and black hat hackers, and though one or the other of those camps may momentarily outfox the other, the chances that any data -- government, corporate, or personal -- can be reliably protected from prying eyes are close to nil.

How should that make us feel, let alone behave? A few years ago, when the TSA introduced body-scanning technology at airports, there was an uproar about its potential for abuse -- the fear that contractors were casting us as unwitting performers in some kind of pornographic security theater. No, no, came the reassurances. The scans can't be stored. The faces will be pixilated. The genitals will be blurred. Your picture will be seen in a distant room, with no possibility of recording it or connecting your identity to your image. It turns out, of course, that those images provided plenty of entertainment for the staff. As one former TSA agent confessed to Politico, "All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels."

It would not be farfetched to assume a comparable nakedness of our emails and texts, our photos and finances, our locations and contact lists, our browsing and phone calls. There has been much public discussion about what privacy rights we should have online, what terms-of-service transparency a social media, e-commerce or any other site must provide. But I can't help thinking that all the privacy policies in the world won't be able to prevent a determined tyrant, crook, sociopath or teenager from making the Sony data dump a demoralizingly common occurrence. And looming beyond that industrial crime, of course, is a far darker digital terrorism capable of bringing down power grids, financial markets, transportation systems and military defenses -- the "cyber-Pearl Harbor" that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned about two years ago.

Much has been written -- much of it erroneously -- about people's attitudes toward privacy in the digital age. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been misquoted as saying that young people no longer care about the norm of privacy the way previous generations did. What polls actually show is that Americans under 30 are substantially less likely than those over 30 to agree that it's "more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy."

The Sony hack threatens to take the debate between civil liberties and national security, between freedom and privacy, out of our hands. The Guardians of Peace, or whoever these or the next vigilantes are, couldn't care less about social contracts. Their tech prowess alone could engineer a bloodless revolution, the transformation of any society into North Korea, where fear rules communication and no one dares risk an honest idea about anything. It's not that much of a big deal when hackers out producer Scott Rudin for dissing Angelina Jolie as a brat. Yes, it's infuriating when the financial and medical confidentiality of thousands of Sony employees is violated by cyberthugs. But what's most sobering is that the plausible nightmare of having our private words exposed will drive our democratic society to pre-emptive self-censorship, hustling us, without a shot being fired, toward the tyranny of Pyongyang.

Crossposted from the Jewish Journal. Journeys in Film Adds New Partner

Julie Lee
Founder, edtwist

Edtwistlogo150.jpgEntertainment - in the form of motion picture, TV shows, music and games - provides us with a window to a world that transcends our physical boundaries. It allows us to travel through time, geographies and even propels us to outer space. While exaggerated beyond life itself, it can bring us fun escape and through that escape, an opportunity to learn.

As a mother of a curious and inquisitive boy, I now have a heightened consciousness of the power of media. Never before have I sought out to find media that has the power to inform and create positive change rather than...well, not so good media. In a connected world where access to media appears to be unlimited, I find myself searching to identify content that can teach him to think, respect the world and make decisions that lead him and our society towards wisdom and happiness.

edtwist was founded with the goal of helping people contextualize the world's information via community support. Knowledge integration that results from information that is connected with context enables inquisitive minds to find better answers and hence make better decisions. When it came time to identify launch partners for edtwist, Journeys in Film - with their innovative program of using powerful media as the foundation to inspire learners to gain cross-cultural awareness in addition to STEM subjects - was an ideal choice.

edtwist is honored to partner with the Lear Center's Journeys in Film project to enable JiF's programs to live, improve and grow through community engagement. The first phase of this partnership has been launched with 134 multi-media interactive guides. We look forward to working with Journeys in Film to engage the community's contributions for curious students from six to 106.

I invite you to experience Journeys in Film on edtwist for yourself.

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