Tag Archives: Mike Yawn

Daniel Cole’s “Ragdoll”–A Macabre and Mirthful Mystery

Daniel Cole’s first book isn’t set for release in the United States until April 4, so it’s understandable that he isn’t a household name—yet.  But with the book slated for translation into more than 30 languages and a narrative ready made for the screen (in fact, it was recently picked up by Sid Gentle Films), don’t be surprised if Cole’s name begins popping up in bookstores and households alike.  Described by fellow author Greg Hurwitz as “a gruesome delight,” the novel features detective “Wolf” Fawkes, who discovers a corpse stitched together from the body parts of six different victims.  Cole manages to inject humor into this macabre premise and the result is, indeed, a delight.  Published in the Houston Chronicle, April 9, 2017.
Mike Yawn: You began “Ragdoll” as a screenplay.  When did you finish it in that form?

Daniel Cole: Five or six years ago.  It was one of many screenplays I submitted, only to have them rejected.  But “Ragdoll” is the one I liked the most, and I spent time developing it into a novel.

Q: How did you persist during those years of writing when nothing was accepted?

A: It was tough.  If “Ragdoll” had also been rejected as a novel, I’m not sure I would have hung in there.  But I loved the characters and premise, and I stuck with it as a novel.

Q: Tell us about the characters and premise.

A: The main character, Detective William “Wolf” Fawkes, gets a call to a crime scene.  When Fawkes arrives, he finds a “body,” but it’s a body composed of different parts of six different victims, stitched together to make a whole, which the press nickname the “Ragdoll.”  The media then receive a list of six more names, along with the dates on which those victims will die.  So the police have two objectives: to solve the murders of the first six victims, and to prevent the targeted victims from being murdered by this twisted but ingenious serial killer.Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Q: Why do you think novel was accepted when the screenplay was rejected?

A: I think my writing improved.  In looking at my old screenplays, I can see that they got better as I wrote more.  At the time, you think you’ve written something really good, and then you look back at it later, and think, “Gosh, that’s a bit cringe-worthy.”  But I think I also added some complexity, details, and humor that made the novel better.

Q:  How did you get the news that the book was accepted?

A: I got an excited call from my agent.  To be honest, for me, it was more relief than anything.  After six years of rejection, I started wondering if I was deluding myself.

Q: And I guess the positive reviews have taken you beyond relief into excitement?

A: I’m quite naïve, and I didn’t know how the whole publishing world works.  But I stay clear of reviews, if I can.  The good ones don’t sink in, they just bounce off of me, and I take the bad ones to heart, so it’s not very healthy for me.  But the publishers let me know how it’s going, and it’s been wonderful.  I wrote the book for me, filled with dark humor and weird things.  I wasn’t really aiming for it to be a commercial hit, so I was just happy it was published, and then to get a really positive response has been amazing.

Q: You worked in emergency management while writing.  Did that inform your writing?

A: Yes, some of my medical knowledge came in handy for the gory parts of “Ragdoll.”  But I also think the attitude of people who work in the midst of tragedy, their world-weary outlook and sarcastic humor is something that I used to set the tone.

Q: I was surprised by the humor in a book with such a macabre storyline.

A: The humor is important to me.  I get bored easily, so I need something every couple of pages that makes me smile.  And I think it helps the readers, too, who may not want a book that is just doom-and-gloom.  The humor lightens it.

Q: You wrote this while working full-time.  When did you write?

A:  I stayed up writing all night when I was in the mood.  I’d turn up to work the next day a bit of a zombie, but able to function.  It’s quite an exhausting way of doing things, and I wouldn’t recommend that other writers emulate my writing schedule, because it’s not healthy or good.

Q: When do you write now that you are a full-time writer?

A: The same.  I’ve tried to write from 8 to 5, but I find that just rubbish comes out if I try to force it.  So I wait until I am in the mood and then I write obsessively for a few weeks. I’ll start growing a beard and looking a bit homeless and keep going at it.

Q: Are you doing a book tour?

A: My publicist has all sorts of strange stuff planned for me.  I’m booked more or less for the next few months with radio shows and public-speaking things that I’m still trying to get my head around.  It’s something I’ve tried to avoid in the past, and I didn’t fully realize it was part of being a writer.

Q: As a person who likes to write obsessively for weeks and look homeless, how do you think you’ll do with the kind of city-a-day schedule?

A:  I wish I knew.  The publisher gave me some media training at last, which was much needed because I tend to just babble when I am nervous (laughs).

Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Author Daniel Cole

Q: What do they tell you in media training?

A: It basically came down to telling me to stop babbling, to think about my answers, really obvious stuff.  They filmed me speaking so I would see myself on camera, which is really horrible to start off with (laughs).  But it helps, and I’ll be a pro by next year…or that’s what they keep telling me.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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“The Brain Defense” by Kevin Davis (Q&A)

Kevin Davis has worked as a journalist for decades, covering crime stories for newspapers and working as a writer for the American Bar Association Journal.  His latest book covers “The Brain Defense”—the idea that a criminal’s wrongful action may be a product of a faulty brain, thus mitigating the criminal’s responsibility.  Such defenses have increased by a factor of three in the past decade, and Davis’s “The Brain Defense” explores the science and the law behind this trend.  The Brain Defense, Mike Yawn, Kevin DavisThis article was published in The Houston Chronicle on March 5, 2017.

MY: As a non-attorney and non-scientist, what did you do to understand this intersection between law and criminal behavior?

KD: That was my greatest challenge, but I’ve been covering crime stories for decades, watching trials, interviewing lawyers, so I have some background in this area.  And like a good journalist, I dive into my topic, do the research, and rely on my natural curiosity to answer questions as I go.

MY: What is the “Brain Defense”?

KD: It’s when defense attorneys bring neural psychology into courtrooms in an attempt to excuse or diminish their client’s responsibility.  It’s different than your basic insanity defense, bringing more neural science into the courtroom.  It’s a way of explaining criminal behavior through a better understanding of the brain.

MY: The poster boy for that is Herbert Weinstein.  Tell us about his case.

KD: Weinstein is mentioned in dozens of medical and law journals on this topic.  Here’s a guy who is 65, a family man, never committed an act of violence in his life.  He was praised for being kind, gentle, and giving.  So when he got into an argument with his wife, killed her, and then threw her from the 12th story of his Manhattan apartment window, it drew attention.   His attorney ordered a brain scan, which showed an orange-sized cyst in the frontal lobe—the area of the brain that affects judgment, decision making, and executive functions.  And in this case—for the first time ever—a brain scan was used in court to help determine guilt or innocence.

MY: Although Weinstein was 65, one of the areas that is being investigated is childhood adverse experiences, whether they be stress, abuse, or brain trauma.

KD: The idea is that the developing brain is susceptible to trauma and that stresses inhibit proper development of neural networks.  Studies show that young people are already prone to impulsive behavior that is heavily influenced by peer presence, so it is an area particularly ripe for additional study.  But researchers have documented the fact that many of the adults they have worked with share a common experience of a trauma, extensive stress, or abuse from childhood.  The child psychologist Bruce Perry describes some of these children as being “incubated in terror,” and I think that’s both chilling and accurate.

MY: One group potentially affected by early brain trauma is child athletes.  We hear a lot about athletes committing crimes.  Is that a media thing, or is there some science to it?

KD: This is difficult to sort through.  It’s documented that many football players have suffered concussive brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  The difficulty is proving cause and effect.  Athletes, by nature, are probably more aggressive than the average person.  They are also more likely to have head trauma.  At this point, I don’t think we can definitively point to the head trauma as the causal link.  It’s a gray area, but as we see, many lawyers are picking up this idea and bringing it to the courtroom.

MY: In the book, you explore the philosophical aspects of this defense.  Are people whose brains are impaired responsible?

KD: I am not opposed to using the idea of a brain defense as a mitigating factor in the sentencing stage. The most important things to me in sentencing decisions are looking at the entirety of a person’s life and determining whether there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances.  We have two obligations.  The first is to protect society from violent people.  We also have an obligation to offer understanding and compassion to people in the criminal justice system.  I don’t think those ideas are mutually exclusive, and I think that’s where neuroscience may prove really helpful.

MY: You live in Chicago, which had almost 800 murders this past year.  Is there anything that can be done about that?

KD: I try not to be cynical; it breaks my heart.  I live here.  A couple of years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he was walking home with his mother.  Right in front of school, he found a loaded revolver.  He said, “Mom, look, a gun!”  And that just crystallized for me how endemic the culture of violence is in this city.  There are some wonderful people here trying hard to make things happen, but it’s going to require more than a law-enforcement response.  When children are raised in this environment, it’s adding to their stress levels and, if it’s severe enough, it’s truly like being “incubated in terror.”

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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‘High Noon” and Hollywood’s Red Scare

Glenn FrankelGlenn Frankel worked for the “Washington Post” for three decades, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.  Since retiring from the day-to-day news business, he’s kept an eye on social and political issues, but he’s explored them in the context of Hollywood.  His last book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” was a best-seller and received strong critical reviews.  His latest book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” explores Hollywood and the United States in the middle of the 20th century.  Published in the Houston Chronicle on February 26, 2017.

 

Mike Yawn: Putting aside social and cultural and political history for the moment, where does “High Noon” stand in terms of cinematic history?Gary Cooper, High Noon, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel, Red Scare

Glenn Frankel: “High Noon” marks the moment when Westerns grow up. It eschews the genre’s familiar trappings—beautiful scenery, exuberant cattle drives, set-piece battles between cowboys and Indians—for social drama. Although its protagonist is the iconic Gary Cooper, it portrays him as aging, vulnerable and frightened, forced to confront not only four murderous thugs but also the moral cowardice of his own community.

Mike Yawn: Describe the impact of the Red Scare on Hollywood in general and “High Noon” (released in 1952) in particular?

Glenn Frankel: Originally, Hollywood resisted the Red Scare, but by 1952—with the Korean War going on and Russia’s development of the A bomb—that changed.  The studios were fearful that groups would boycott their films, and they began requiring employee “clearances” and loyalty oaths.  Hundreds of performers, writers, and crew members were denied employment without any kind of legal proceeding. Carl Foreman, the scriptwriter for “High Noon” was one of these.

Mike Yawn: Tell us about Foreman.

Glenn Frankel: Carl came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great writer.  He was a progressive [he was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s], so he had a political point of view, and he was ambitious.  He partnered with the talented Stanley Kramer and they formed their own independent company.  They were able to make high-quality films with good actors and social meaning, and Carl’s career took off.  By 1951, he was sufficiently prominent that his name came up when the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began their second round of hearings on “Communist infiltration in Hollywood.”  He was working on “High Noon” when he received his subpoena.  He believed his friends were avoiding him.  He felt isolated.  The people he worked with were beginning to pressure him, concerned that his testimony might taint the company and the films on which they work.  The film “High Noon” reflects some of these themes, and on a personal level, Carl had a decision to make.  The Committee didn’t just want him to “confess” to being a Communist at one time, but also to “name names.”  Refusing to do so meant the end of his career and his goals, but if he cooperated, he would violate a fundamental principle for himself.  That’s the crisis he faced, and it’s the dilemma I build the book around.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a famous film, but most people think of it simply in terms of being a Western.  Can you elaborate on its metaphorical qualities?

Glenn Frankel:Well “High Noon” is about a community at risk, and it’s a metaphor for Hollywood and the United States.  Carl saw liberals shriveling in the face of a kind of anti-Communist hysteria, refusing to stand up to the HUAC.  Similarly, in “High Noon,” when the bad guys are returning to Hadleyville, Marshall Will Kane hopes he can count on the towns’ citizens and its institutions to support him, but they back away.  He’s left alone to fight these dark forces.  And, in real life, Foreman was left to face HUAC without much support.  He refused to back down, but he had to leave the United States and find work in England as a result.

Mike Yawn: How did writers cope after being blacklisted?

Glenn Frankel: Carl left the US and went to London and worked under pseudonyms. Others took similar actions.  Writers might also use a “front,” that is a person who would claim to have written the film.  The real writer and the front would then divide the money.  The advantage of using the front is that there was a real person on the script.  In the case of “The Brave One,” that film was credited to a Robert Rich, but it was actually written by Dalton Trumbo.  When “Robert Rich” won an Oscar, everyone said, “Who is this guy?”  He didn’t exist.  The writers had to make all kinds of compromises to keep working.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a favorite film of US Presidents.  Why do you think this is?

Glenn Frankel: Eisenhower showed it in the White House, and according to presidential records, it’s the film most often seen in the White House.  Bill Clinton was the ultimate “High Noon” watcher—he’s seen it 20 times!  I think presidents identify with Marshall Kane, who is left alone to face the community’s problems.

Mike Yawn: In “High Noon,” the Gary Cooper character was clearly the hero.  Who are the heroes in this book about “High Noon” and the Hollywood Red Scare?Carl Foreman, Red Scare, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel: My idea of a hero is an ordinary person who, when faced with a terrible dilemma, rises to the occasion.  I believe Carl Foreman did that when he refused to cooperate with HUAC, despite a large personal cost.  It was a decision similar to that of his fictional creation, Will Kane, who chooses to confront four gunmen, not because he wants to be a hero, but because he feels he has to.  There were a lot of bombastic phony heroes who appeared during the Red Scare, but real heroes are quieter, more reluctant, and more vulnerable.  The question that history asks is: if we were confronted by similar circumstances, how would we behave?

 

 

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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One-on-One with Author Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner’s crime fiction shows off her research and writing abilities, a combination that has led her to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Her newest novel, “Find Her,” explores a high-profile kidnapping as well as the changing nature of the government’s response to crime. She spoke at a Houston bookstore a couple of weeks after being interviewed by Mike Yawn.  The interview is below.

Gardner_Speaking_4

 

Q: You do extensive research for your novels, and you often select topical issues. Tell us how you choose the topics.

A: The research I did for my new novel, “Find Her,” was something I started with “Catch Me.” It’s related to self-defense, and I think we’re all more conscious about safety and security issues. I attended a “Writers’ Police Academy,” and we learned various self-defense tactics and also how to free yourself from handcuffs with a “universal handcuff key,” which I found online for about $15. Since then, I’ve met various law-enforcement and military personnel, and they’re like, “Yeah, we never leave home without those keys.” I think my writing involves facing deep fears. As a mom, child abduction is one of my greatest terrors, and it happens to the main character, Flora, in “Find Her.”

Q: Speaking of Flora, she spends much time locked up in a coffin in your new novel. Did you actually get into a coffin or some enclosed space to write about that?

A: I’m claustrophobic, so I didn’t actually go into a coffin. But I did force myself into position in my office as if I were in a coffin. What are the boundaries? How limited is movement? What could you do to pass the time? I read several biographies of women who were in these types of situations, and they all discussed the boredom and isolation, among other things.

Q: In “Find Her” you hint at Stockholm Syndrome, the idea that captors can build a bond with those who took them hostage.

A: The experience that resonated more with me from my research is called “Trauma Bonding.” This can happen, for example, to battered women. They endure so much, but the tormentor might come back with an “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t mean to do to that.” All the captives I read about discuss this phenomenon. Even the most evil kidnapper can only be evil so many hours of the day. Ariel Castro, for example, had movie nights for the girls he kidnapped. A “trauma bond” is created that no one outside can understand, and I think that is what Flora struggles with in “Find Her.” She hates the man who abducted her; how could she not? But at the end of the day, this might be the single most impactful relationship she’s ever had.

Q: You allocate about three months for your research, and then you begin writing. Do you have daily writing goals or quotas?

A: I have a page count each week that I like to achieve, and I break that apart a bit. I write in ten-page segments or so, and I also polish as I go.

Q: Do you outline the plot before writing?

A: No. I go where the writing leads me. Once the story is written, I work with my US and UK editors, and I do pretty extensive revision work. A lot of people think we pop books out, but writing is hard work.

Q: You’ve written more than 20 books in the crime fiction genre, and many of those are part of a series. Even if you don’t plot out individual books, do you map out your series?

A: No. My publishers are open minded about what story I bring to them. I’m definitely a character-driven author. The characters know what they’re doing and how things are going to work out.

Q: “Find Her” is part of what is now called the “D. D. Warren” series, but Warren was a relatively minor character in “her” first book. How did she evolve into the series’ focal point?

A: Some of that is feedback from the readers. She was a secondary Boston cop in the first novel, but the response to her was strong.   The readers said, “We would really like to hear her story.”

Q: D. D. Warren is not your typical detective protagonist. Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot are almost super-heroic. Warren is more dogged. She’s admirable, but not super-human. What do you think draws readers to her?

A: She’s human. She’s confident as a detective, but she isn’t a detective who sees things no one else can see. She has to work to get her information. She knows the system and the process, and she wants to solve the crime and she is going to keep going until she gets it right. Now she has a husband and a child, and she is juggling things, and I think people relate to that.

Q: You are sympathetic to officers in your novels.

A: I wish we offered more support for our law enforcement. It’s a difficult job. I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing officers and for them, it’s a call to serve. You don’t do this unless you are passionate about it, and you are putting your life on the line. Yes, some cops are imperfect but all of us are imperfect. They are public servants, and I wish we were more appreciative of that.

Q: What’s new in your latest novel?

A: It’s a terrific novel of psychological suspense, with an intriguing new character, Flora Danes. To bring this full circle somewhat, I also focus on a character who is a Victim Assistant with the FBI, a position that I researched before writing this novel. The nature of crime is changing today. In the classic murder mystery, you identify who did it, the case is closed, and people live happily ever after. That’s not true anymore. The Boston City Marathon bombing, for example, was a life-altering event for the victims and their families. That’s an ongoing process. Grandparents have to leave jobs because their grown child is in physical therapy or rehabilitation. What do law-enforcement agencies have to do to help ensure that needs are met? That’s the FBI Office of Victim Assistance, and I think people will be interested in learning more about a position that many people haven’t heard about.

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Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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The Iowa Caucuses: What to Expect

Iowa voters head to caucuses tonight to cast the first ballots in the nation’s months-long process of selecting the Republican and Democratic nominees for President.  With President Obama facing no serious opposition on the Democratic side, attention is focused on the Republican contest, where seven candidates are actively campaigning to win the party’s nomination.

What is a Caucus Anyway?

The Iowa caucuses have been described as a “gathering of neighbors,” and the process differs markedly from that which Texas voters are accustomed.  In Texas, voters participate in primaries to select their party’s nominee.  In terms of the process, a primary election is much like a general election: a voter goes to his designated voting place sometime between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm, votes, and leaves.

In the Iowa caucuses, however, voters assemble at 7:00 pm on election night in one of the state’s 1,784 precincts, often meeting in a home, school, library, or other community venue.  On the Republican side, the opening of the caucus is followed by a period of persuasion, where caucus attendees can speak on behalf of their candidate.  Once “debate” is closed, caucus participants vote for their favored candidate, and the results are compiled by party officials, who pass on the results to media outlets.

The Democratic caucuses are even more complicated, involving a multi-stage selection process, allowing for persuasion and negotiation between stages, and forcing candidates to meet a vote threshold before being allocated any delegates.

For both parties, the caucuses are a one-time thing.  Early voting is not permitted; absentee ballots are not given, and late comers are barred from entry.

Why Iowa?

Some voters suspect that Iowa’s privileged position on the calendar is the result of a back-room political deal.  In fact, it was an accident of circumstances.

When the Democratic Party overhauled its nomination procedures in 1972, Iowa leaders were forced to develop a schedule of party events that would allow them to get the precinct caucuses completed prior to preparing for county caucuses, congressional district caucuses, and the state convention.  To give them sufficient time to prepare for these other meetings, party leaders pushed the precinct caucuses back to January 24, 1972, which happened to be the earliest of any of the contests.

Four years later, Iowa Republicans decided to hold their caucus on the same date as the state Democrats, and over the past three and a half decades, the tradition of Iowa as the nation’s first nomination contest has become institutionalized.

Kingmaker?

Months prior to the caucuses, the media descend upon Iowa’s small towns to cover the candidates, who traverse the state in search of votes.  Most candidates will travel to all of Iowa’s 99 counties and voters, on average, will meet three presidential candidates.

Despite its vaunted place in the nomination process, Iowa has only a mixed record of success in selecting the eventual nominee.  On the Republican side, for example, Iowans have become somewhat notorious for voting against the establishment candidate—an expression, perhaps, of their desire to be more than a rubber stamp for party hacks.

Since the Republicans’ adoption of the current system for selecting party nominees in 1976, the Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses has only gone on to win the nomination half the time.  In 2008, for example, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but was unable to translate his victory into a serious challenge to McCain’s frontrunner status.

But if Iowa isn’t a kingmaker, it can still dash royal aspirations.  Poor showings are deadly, especially for second-tier candidates, who often lack the funds necessary to continue their campaigns.  The caucuses are often followed within a day or two by announcements of withdrawals.

Assessing the Candidates

The key to thriving and surviving in Iowa is managing expectations.  As Ted Kennedy once noted, “I finished second in 1980, and it killed my campaign.  Mike Dukakis finished third in 1988, and it launched his.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to conduct accurate polls in caucus-holding states.  Traditional polling is difficult enough, without having to predict who will turn out in freezing temperatures, or who might take advantage of Iowa’s election-day voting registration, or how many Democrats might temporarily “switch parties” to make mischief in the Hawkeye caucuses.  This year’s polling may be off even further by a large number of “persuadables,” voters who may change their mind at the caucuses.

Nonetheless, the final polls released this weekend are likely to form the threshold against which the media judge the candidates’ performances.  The latest polls show Romney and Paul leading the way, with Gingrich, Perry, and a surging Santorum forming a second tier, and Bachmann and Huntsman bringing up the rear.

Mitt Romney: An outright victory would provide him with additional momentum in New Hampshire, where he currently leads, and make him the presumptive nominee. His money, organization, and national stature make it likely that he will be able to weather a second-place finish.  A third-place finish, on the other hand, will damage his perceived electability, open the field, and make for a longer primary season.

Ron Paul: Although he has little chance of winning the nomination, a first or second-place finish will give Paul increased visibility and leverage that will help him promote his libertarian policies in the media, with the electorate, and at the party convention.

Newt Gingrich: A former frontrunner, Gingrich now has the most to lose.  He still has a national standing, and something of a southern base, but a fourth or fifth place finish will damage his current (and soft) lead in South Carolina.

Rick Perry: Following a string of campaign gaffes and a precipitous drop in the polls, Perry has announced that he will not campaign in New Hampshire.  If he survives Iowa, he’ll need to make a strong stand in the south.

Rick Santorum: Plagued by fundraising difficulties, Santorum has relied largely on old-fashioned retail politics, making 250 appearances in the state, the most of any candidate.  Late polling suggests that he may be gaining traction at the 11th hour, and a second or third-place finish could give him momentum.  A first-place finish would be a delight for Santorum—and for the media, who would welcome a primary season with legs.

Michelle Bachmann & Jon Huntsman: The only candidate in the race from Iowa, Bachmann nonetheless remains mired in single digits, and is likely to beat only Huntsman, who is sitting out Iowa.

Iowa Surprise?

With just over 100,000 voters expected to participate in the Iowa Caucuses, party leaders should have the results released to the media by 10:00 pm, making for a short night of vote counting.  It is worth noting, however, that Republicans won’t be the only ones watching the returns—or voting.  With 15% percent of the voters expected to be Democratic crossovers, there could be a surprise in this “gathering of neighbors,” making for a long night of political punditry.

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The Future of Television: Eye of the Beholder

For the first time since 1992, the number of households with a television declined.  The downturn was slight, but its impact may hint at much larger changes in the country’s entertainment and marketing industries and, by extension, the future of Americans’ social interactions.

Technological innovations have always had social implications.  When Thomas Edison invented the motion picture film in the 1890s, for example, he envisioned motion picture viewing as an individual experience.  Edison resisted the movie projector; instead, he promoted the kinetoscope, a movie machine that permitted individual customers to push their eyes against a view lens and watch images flicker about.

Other inventors, however, surmised that projecting motion pictures allowed for mass audiences—and larger profits.  Unlike today, the early days of visual electronics trended toward shared community experiences.

These shared community experiences grew through the 1940s but, by the 1950s, television began to cut into Hollywood’s profits.  Within a few years TV took hold of the family living room, with family sitcoms such as The Andy Griffith Show ruling the airwaves.

Instead of a theater audience, the immediate viewing experience was largely limited to the family unit.  Nonetheless, the medium’s popularity and restricted viewing options created, as author Victor Brooks has noted, a “shared community…in which family members, friends, and schoolmates often watched the same program so that discussion of a particular show might carry over from the living room to the schoolyard the next day.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, however, even this “shared community” began to fragment.  As television prices dropped and cable television led to more viewing options, TV viewing became more individualized.

By the turn of the millennium, mass audiences were becoming obsolete, and “narrowcasting” was commonplace.  Today, broadcast programming is largely driven by “target marketing” and, intriguingly, is now less likely to involve television.

Younger people, in particular, are relying increasingly on personal computers, laptops, and mobile devices to fill the time they devote to electronic leisure.  As they become a larger portion of the consumer market, the electronics market will change radically.

Even now, internet providers are considering ways to respond to an increased demand for online programming.  Providers will most likely implement a “net-usage” fee while simultaneously increasing the cost of internet advertising.

It’s not clear how consumers will react to price increases, but advertisers are likely to pay the higher premiums as long as net usage grows.  Unlike more “primitive” technologies, internet advertising allows for microtargeting; that is, advertising to individuals based on demographic characteristics and preferences—with the latter determined largely by users’ recent internet activity.

Consumers who have recently used search terms such as “depression” or “loneliness,” for example, may soon find their next online program interrupted with ads for Prozac or Zoloft.

Portable devices may prove even more attractive to advertisers.  Phones with GPS, for example, can alert advertisers to users’ locations, which can quickly be matched with consumer preferences to produce almost instantaneous text-message coupons for nearby businesses.

Billboards Can Now Recognize Passersby and Target Ads to Individuals

While such matching techniques might lead to greater economic efficiency, its effect on social capital, “the capacity to work together for the common good,” may be more troubling.  High levels of social capital help people work together productively, resulting in communities with high levels of trust, lower crime rates, and increased economic productivity.

Unfortunately, according to Harvard Political Scientist Robert Putnam, social capital rates have declined precipitously over the past six decades.  The reason, he hints, is that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation.”

This individuation may become complete in the next twenty years, when scientists are expected to perfect wireless contact lenses that can provide images and text to users who wish to “augment reality.”

Book lovers will forgo books, and even Nooks, in favor of reading directly from their contact lenses; emails will be sent with the blink of an eye; and movies will be seen as holographic images floating a few feet in front of an audience of one.

Contact Lens or Entertainment Center?

Social recall will be just a memory, obviated by technology.   Can’t remember where Walgreens is?  Your contact lens will provide visual arrows that overlay your vision and point the way.

Can’t remember the name of the person approaching you in the supermarket?  The lenses will employ facial recognition software to provide you with the person’s name, and then conduct a search of the web for additional helpful information, such as age, occupation, marital status, and children’s names.

In search of a mate?  Your wireless lenses will be able to identify the blonde at the bar, run a background check, and produce a “match score”—all in less time than it would take to ask, “So, come here often?”

In less than two decades, our integration with visual technology will be virtually complete.

Writing in the 1990s, Putnam argued that the logical end of technological development is “to be entertained in total isolation.”  But that isolation comes at a cost of social capital which, in turn, impairs our ability to achieve collective endeavors.

After more than 100 years of technological evolution, we are coming full circle.  Edison’s vision of individualized electronic media is again ascendant, and increasingly isolated customers will soon be employing modern-day kinetoscopes to watch artificial images dancing before their eyes.

 

 

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