Moar Chart Pr0n: Who Is the Bigger Liar—Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

The June 1st Quinnipiac poll revealed a remarkable disconnect: more independent voters thought that presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump was more trustworthy than presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a fluke, because a concurrent ABC/Washington Post poll came to similar conclusions—That people generally believe that Clinton lies more than Trump.

However, that is not the case at all. Donald Trump is a much bigger liar. He says less true things, and he utters much more bald-faced lies. What can explain this misperception among potential voters?

First, here is a chart I built based on Politifact’s Personality files (compiled June 22, 2106). Click to view in new tab.

Hillary versus Donald

Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton lies and truths compared.

The only place where Clinton outdoes Trump is in the “Mostly False” category. Politifact has recorded 32 mostly-false statements by Madame Secretary, versus 27 by Trump. So they’re neck-and neck here, but everywhere else, Hillary Clinton clearly tells more truth and less lies than Donald Trump. So why do more people think Hillary is a bigger liar?

To answer this, we first have to normalize the data. First, partisan voters (those already declared Democrat or Republican) tend to see the opposition as a bigger liar by roughly the same ratio: 80–10. However, independents tend to believe Trump over Clinton by a ratio of 44–29 percent. I think this is because of the “Mostly False” statements made by Clinton. I believe they tend to remember those more than any other statements she makes. Here are some examples from Politifact:

  • “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”
  • “Our campaign depends on small donations for the majority of our support.”
  • Regarding her State Department email practices, “my predecessors did the same thing.”
  • “If I had not asked for my emails all to be made public, none of this would have been in the public arena.”

Does the opposition run away with these statements? Undoubtedly.

One other reason that I think more people don’t trust the Former First Lady and Senator is that her statements have always had much heavier political import than Trump—for decades actually. From the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” to “What difference does it make?”, Hillary Clinton’s words have had a major impact on world events. That is to say, she has taken many risks, and some of those risks have failed.

Trump, on the other hand, can lie with impunity and get away with it. He does not suffer the consequences of his “pants-on-fire” utterances. On the contrary, many of Trump’s untruths have actually boosted his popularity. How long will he continue to get away with his bullshit? All the way to the White House? Let’s hope not.

Open Letter to Governor Larry Hogan and the People of Maryland

Regarding the Governor’s Requesting “Federal Authorities Cease Any Additional Settlements of Refugees from Syria in Maryland” (November 17, 2015)

As a child of immigrants who has seen waves of refugees make Maryland their home, I have always applauded welcoming new people to our state. The obvious benefits of a diverse population, with stories from each of us, to me is always a simple no-brainer. Lately I’ve been stupefied by the rising of an anti-immigrant xenophobia throughout the country, but I’ve always considered my home state immune to such a patently self-destructive philosophy. And now, after the terror attacks in Paris, even after the—questionable—rumor one of the terrorists was embedded among Syrian refugees, Governor Hogan has joined the increasingly partisan clamor to close our border, especially to Syrian refugees.

Before the Governor’s announcement, I failed to understand how someone who proudly calls him- or herself an American and a Christian could ever take such a morally, politically and spiritually abhorrent position. My wife urged me to try seeing from the other side—the side that would put security ahead of liberty—but I was comfortable because I don’t encounter those people in my surroundings. Larry Hogan showed me the light, though. His attempt to emulate the likes of Chris Christie and Donald Trump helped me see the other side up close. His announcement helped me change my mind. We should seriously reconsider allowing refugees—or any immigrants, for that matter—not because of them, but BECAUSE OF US!

We are no longer the same nation that could once light the golden door. We distrust each other to the point where we gun down each other on a daily basis. The moderates among us just don’t believe we are competent enough to keep each other safe. In the extremes, we suspect conspiracies among our fellow citizens, dark desires to bring on an age of barbarism between our fair shores. Nevermind that our lamp is always lit by those seeking to escape that very barbarity, I guess I’m being blinded by the light.

We on the left and the right both distrust government more than we trust each other. Talk about a no-brainer! How can we even imagine our government will keep us safe, when we have questioned the legitimacy of the two previous federal administrations (and will likely question the legitimacy of the next one)? We prefer politicians who challenge big government, and now our Governor has joined them. Nevermind that none of them have the Constitutional authority, because that question will ultimately be answered by the only branch of government that we still have no choice but to trust: the courts.

We are not a Christian nation any longer. It’s true, I’m tired of arguing how we aren’t, and now I see how we need to be. The Governor’s announcement reminds me that we as a nation are on the Christian team, but we are not Christian. We turn our backs on Christ when we applaud the devil who lied against every word of holy scripture when he declared from the pulpit, “Charity begins at home.” Nevermind how turning our backs is exactly what our enemies want us to do.

I see the Honorable Governor now. I see his partisan glory, the accidental spoiler in an off-year election. I also see his recent victory battling leukemia, and I join the rest of the world in offering congratulations and well wishes. I will take a lesson from the Governor and will live like I’m dying, because a part of me is. My American Dream is dying now, so I am going to live for it. If there any others who are working to make our state align to our true values—who could use my talents, skills and experience—please email me directly and I would love to lend a hand. I pray that by 2018 we will be ready to elect a candidate truly worthy of reviving the American Dream for the people of the Great State of Maryland.

Tips & Tricks for Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word 2011 Mac Icon

The ubiquitous word processing program, after emerging victorious from the Word Processor Wars of the 1990’s, Microsoft Word has managed to skate in front of every challenger since. Today Microsoft Office (the productivity suite that Word pilots) commands 45% of the market. As an early adopter (I chose sides in the WP Wars in 1992) and as a Microsoft Word power user over the past decade, I would love to persuade any small business thinking of using one of the other cloud-based or open-source office suites. Here are some tips and tricks to improve your business’s design capabilities with Microsoft Word.

Tip #1: Turn on Non-Printing Characters

Word-nonprinting button

It might be hard to get used to at first, but making nonprinting characters (also known as control characters or formatting marks) visible will keep your files tidy and manageable. Seeing multiple spaces that tabs could replace, or paragraph breaks where line breaks could be instead—all could be spotted and fixed by keeping track of your nonprinting characters. I promise after you keep them on for a while, you won’t be able to work without them.

Turn on nonprinting characters by clicking the pilchrow (¶) button in the Home tab, or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+* (Command+* for the Mac) to toggle nonprinting characters. Alternatively, you can choose File – Options – Display (or Word – Preferences – View on a Mac) to micromanage your nonprinting characters.

Tip #2: Use a Mac!

Comparative market penetration: Microsoft Word Mac versus PC 1986 to 1997

Image © Stan Liebowitz

Not to break the truce in the old PC vs. Mac Wars as well, since Apple won it anyway (at least where it counts), but Microsoft Word for Mac has one major capability that makes it a no-brainer: picture handling. Even so, Word on a Mac ain’t as rare as 1988; today’s subscription-based pricing structure for Office allows most of us to install Word on five different machines—so why not make one of them a Macintosh?

Microsoft Word for Mac lets you insert native Photoshop files.

I’ve never been able to learn why (I suspect it has to do with the MacOS graphics rendering engine), but placing layered Photoshop files into Word for Mac is as easy as any other picture… not so on a Windows machine.

The major advantage: your source graphics look much better than some old pasted-in web graphic, and you don’t have to manage multiple versions of your visual assets just for Word. Secondly, you can work with transparency in ways that Windows just won’t permit (but still magically opens and prints on a PC!)

Word for Mac document with Photoshop files inserted

When I placed two Photoshop images into Word 365 for Mac

Screenshot of  an attempt to insert Photoshop file into Word 365 PC

When I tried to do the same in Word 365 for PC

Word on a Mac treats PDFs like images (not objects).

Word for Mac recognizes Adobe Acrobat documents for what they are: vector-based images. Place multi-page documents just like any other picture—and resize them without compromising legibility.

WARNING: Acrobat is not as reliable as Photoshop. Sometimes Word for Mac will mess up your PDF, especially if you have used exotic fonts, or have added objects to an existing PDF. So use care!

Tip #3: Table-Based Layouts—Outré in Web Design, Chic in Word

Word Table layout

A complex table layout before getting content

Back in the frontier days of the World Wide Web, good design consisted of creative layouts inside invisible tables. Since the widespread adoption of Cascading Style Sheets, web designers have eschewed table-based layouts, but tables still make excellent frameworks for creative layouts in Microsoft Word. Need a complex layout for your cover? Put it in a table!

WARNING: While web layouts love nested tables, recent versions of Microsoft Word will throw up compatibility errors if you use them. Whenever you need to put a table inside a table, split up your cells instead.

Tip #4: Boost Collaboration by Connecting to Adobe InDesign

Adobe InDesign is a complicated page layout program that many small businesses can’t afford to invest in. In fact, Word can accomplish most everything that InDesign can (in the case of bullet lists, Word actually surpasses InDesign!) Worse, there is an added cost to hire someone skilled in InDesign’s use. Here are some best practices to make your Word files ready to round-trip through Adobe InDesign:

  • Format as simply as possible. Unless your formatting is clearly defined in styles, all your special touches will be ignored in InDesign. Keep it simple—why waste creative energy this far upstream?
  • Make sure that all text is styled: paragraphs (like headers) and characters (like bold or italic) alike. InDesign will map Word styles across your document, and if you apply local styling (e.g., highlighting a word and hitting the “B” button) it will just get lost in the round trip. Take time to plan your styles—it will save time in the long run.
  • Leave tables unstyled. Tabular data is best micromanaged in InDesign.
  • Link your pictures. Embedded images will break. Instead, link to the same images in InDesign (and plan their placement ahead of time).
  • Keep revising the same Word document. If you make changes to a version on your desktop, you will need to over-write the file InDesign is linked to. InDesign will update it next time it opens. The best option is to save your document in the cloud, and link to it from InDesign through a desktop alias or shortcut.

Tip #5: Know When to Hire a Professional

To reiterate: Madmac Creations has been using Microsoft Word since the early Nineties. I have made every kind of document you can imagine in Microsoft Word. Why challenge yourself with creating and managing your desktop publishing when you can trust Tony MacFarlane to deliver?

Contact me to discuss your desktop publishing needs.

Email Marketing for Small Business (Part 5)

Getting the Best Responses from Your Email Campaign

Flowchart of an email blast

So now you’ve built a pretty decent subscriber list, how do you get your subscribers to respond to your message?

First off, lower your expectations. If you get more than 25% of your subscribers to open your email, you are doing great. Keep in mind that the ROI for email marketing is so good because the cost of execution is comparatively good. But there are some things you can do to raise the stakes.

Measure Your Campaign’s Effectiveness

Any email service provider (ESP) worth a dollar is going to provide you with data metrics—think Google Analytics for your email blast. Here is a list of rates to measure (refer to the flowchart above):

  • Bounce Rate: There are two types of bounce rates—hard bounce and soft bounce. A hard bounce means that there is no recipient at the email address (your ESP will usually delete that address from your subscription list immediately.) A soft bounce means that something technical stopped the email—a full mailbox, a downed server, etc. (your ESP will usually delete this address after five unsuccessful tries.)
  • Unsubscribe Rate: The CAN-SPAM Act requires you to give your subscribers the option to remove themselves from your list. Your ESP may break down your unsubscribes into more granular data—including reporting spam.
  • Open Rate: Your ESP can tell when your subscriber opens the email blast (it’s technical.) You can usually infer that some part of your email was read.
  • Click Rate: Someone clicked something in your email blast. Hopefully, that click was on your call-to-action (and if you had only one, it was!)
  • Conversion Rate: Your subscriber fulfilled the goal of the email campaign. This metric might not be captured by your ESP, but it is the biggest measure of success—so capture it somewhere.
  • Abandonment Rate: This is usually called “Cart Abandonment”, but I have adopted it to include any time your subscriber drops out of your campaign.
Improve Open Rates with Good Subject Lines

Counterintuitively, enticing keywords are a turn-off. Trendy taglines that might work in other marketing channels just just bomb your open rates. What kinds of subject lines work best? Honest and straightforward. Tell your subscriber exactly what to expect by opening your email blast; if you are sending a promotion, don’t call it a newsletter. Bottom line: putting your company name in the subject line usually does best.

Improve Click Rates with Good Design

Whether you are selling a product, informing an audience, building awareness or mobilizing people, all email blasts have the same design pattern: a call-to-action linked to a landing page. All email marketing has the same one objective: to elicit a response. There is no sense in sending out an email blast without some sort of call-to-action (C2A). If you don’t have something to click in your email blast, why bother?

Designing sexy C2As is best left to an expert (like me), but here are a few tips:

Harry and David Email Blast

The Harry & David email blast’s C2A is prominent even with images turned off.

Even if you have several links in your email, feature one single C2A prominently. This is true even if you only send a quarterly newsletter. With a preponderance of choices, most email readers will choose nothing. Why muddle up your metrics with too many factors?

Make sure your email looks good with images off. Most email clients don’t allow for the automatic downloading of images. Will your email blast look blank without images? What’s going to invite your subscriber to respond then? Why force your subscriber to take one more effort before responding to you?

Don’t neglect the text version. HTML email might be the default these days, but a text-only fallback is perfectly harmless. Most email service providers automatically generate a text-only version for you. Check through it to ensure everything reads well (you might even notice mistakes the design hides.)

Avoid advanced web design. Compared to a modern web browser, most email clients are still stuck in the 20th Century (Microsoft Outlook still thinks it’s a word processor!) Even browser-based applications like Gmail can wreak havoc on your flawlessly-designed email. It’s best just to rely on tried-and-true conservative layout techniques:

  • Make your maximum width around 600 pixels
  • Don’t use background images
  • Stick to standard web fonts
  • Use “alt” text for every image
  • Avoid FLASH, animated GIFs and SVG graphics
  • Use inline CSS, or better yet, HTML attribute declarations
  • Make sure to use absolute links to your images
Test and Re-test

Never send out an email campaign without testing it first—no matter what. The more reviewers the better; the more email clients you can test the better too (while helpful, don’t completely trust the client previews your email service providers offer).

Moreover, test your campaigns with A/B split tests. Send out two samples of your email blast, and then send out the best performing version. You can test versions of your subject lines, C2A placement, or even best day to send. If you can imagine a split test, by all means test it.

Also, don’t limit your testing to the campaign itself. Test your landing pages, test your abandonment responses, and test your confirmation emails.

I have been directing email campaigns for businesses and non-profits for more than five years now. I built large lists from scratch for the automotive industry. Send me your RFP to get your email marketing started.

Email Tony MacFarlane Now!

« Part 4: Know your subscribers

Email Marketing for Small Business (Part 4)

Know Your Subscribers

Someone opting into an email newsletter subscription

People hate getting spam more than junk mail. For small businesses and nonprofits, though, this might be a good thing. The CAN-SPAM Act basically outlawed the sale of subscription lists, which means businesses should build subscriber lists by hand. What better way to get to know your customers than by getting in the weeds with them?

The best way to build your subscriber list is to provide an opt-in form for your website—some email service providers (ESPs) can even put forms on your Facebook page. Opt-in forms will build a list of people who want to hear from you. Be sure to plan your form well. Many enterprises are tempted to require extra information that might make prospects skittish; on the other hand, you want to be sure to collect enough information to personalize and automate your marketing. Each business is different, so each plan for yours.

An email form on your website doesn’t preclude adding subscribers manually, however (for example, you shouldn’t risk prompting someone who hands you a business card at a seminar or trade show to go to your opt-in form.) Even so, don’t buy a subscription list from anybody! Also don’t export your customer relations database (CRM) into your subscriber list—you are only asking for trouble down the road with your ESP. Your ESP has to keep their server reputations clean for the rest of their clients. If your campaign gets a lot of SPAM reports from people who didn’t opt-in, they can’t keep serving you at their other customers’ expense.

Be careful if you collect addresses from your point-of-sale (POS) systems. Be sure to include boilerplate that emphasizes permission to send marketing emails. Train your staff to use that language. Be sure to have documentation ready if your ESP challenges your subscription list.

Once you’ve managed to build a large, diverse subscriber list, you can start thinking about personalizing and automating your email marketing content. Personalization helps your prospects trust you, and were shown to lift transaction rates and revenue per email six times higher. In the same study, automated email responses to opt-in forms were shown to increase responses as well.

Confirmed opt-in (COI) mailings have high response rates

I have been directing email campaigns for businesses and non-profits for more than five years now. I built large lists from scratch for the automotive industry. Send me your RFP to get your email marketing started.

Email Tony MacFarlane Now!

« Part 3: Choose an Email Service Provider (ESP)

Part 5: Getting Responses »

Email Marketing for Small Business (Part 3)

Choose an Email Service Provider (ESP)

A good vendor can turn your email marketing into a turnkey operation. Look for the following features:

MailChimp logo

MailChimp is Tony MacFarlane’s favorite email service provider
  • Opt-in forms you can put on your website
  • Automatic list scrubbing
  • A/B Testing Capabilities
  • Analytics (including heat-maps)
  • Easily customized templates
  • Sending schedules
  • Social media integration
  • Integration with your CRM (advanced)

The best ESP that I’ve found by far is MailChimp. MailChimp provides all the features above in “forever free” accounts (maximum 12,000 emails per month to a maximum of 2,000 subscribers). By the time your list has grown past 2,000, you will be reaping dividends to afford their modest monthly rate. The most important consideration for using an ESP like MailChimp, however is the hygiene of your list: because MailChimp’s email servers need a stellar reputation to protect their many customers, they will shut you down if your email blast gets more than a 1% spam report. That means your list should have no more than one respondent in 100 unsubscribing and calling your email spam. If you have been growing your list properly, though, you should never encounter this problem.

Other excellent email service provider:

  • Emma (head-to-head comparable to MailChimp)
  • Constant Contact (pricey, but worth it to very large enterprises)
  • ExactTarget (great for connecting to your CRM)

I have been directing email campaigns for businesses and non-profits for more than five years now. I have built email lists for the design/build and automotive industry. Send me your RFP to get your email marketing started.

Email Tony MacFarlane Now!

« Part 2: Know your CAN-SPAM

Part 4: Know Your Subscribers »

Email Marketing for Small Business (Part 2)

Know Your CAN-SPAM

Chun - Hexagram 3: Difficulty at the Beginning

The first thing an email marketer should do is read over the CAN-SPAM law. Regardless of your opinion about unwanted email (or “spam” as it is commonly called), your business can be held liable if it fails to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. The Federal Trade Commission has an excellent overview of what the CAN-SPAM Act means for businesses. Basically it boils down to seven points:

  1. You must identify your business properly
  2. Your subject lines must be truthful
  3. You must say when you have commercial content
  4. You must tell people where to find you
  5. You must give your recipients a way to request to opt out
  6. … and you must honor their requests!
  7. You are still responsible for any vendor’s actions

So-called “transactional emails” (i.e., one-to-one communications between you and your customers/clients/audience, etc.) are supposed to be exempt, but if you include any commercial or promotional content, you still need to be compliant.

Most businesses comply with CAN-SPAM by putting everything in small print in the footer of your message. I recommend that all businesses do this as a matter of habit—regardless of content.

What this all means to you is a lot of pain at first, but it will benefit your business in the long run. Complying with CAN-SPAM will keep spam complaints down. Your subscriber list will be more hygienic, and your analytics will be more trustworthy.

I have been directing email campaigns for businesses and non-profits for more than five years now. I am very familiar with CAN-SPAM and can ensure your compliance. Send me your RFP to get your email marketing started.

Email Tony MacFarlane Now!

« Part 1: The ROI of Email Marketing

Part 3: Growing your subscriber list »

Email Marketing for Small Business (Part 1)

The ROI of Email Marketing

Email marketing continues to provide the strongest return on investment (ROI) of any marketing channel. In fact, the ROI of an email campaign is thought to be “95x times better in terms of ROI” than direct mail. As of 2012, email ROI still beats out the next highest digital marketing strategy (online marketing) by more than 50%. Moreover, while email marketing is used by over 90% of businesses, it is the best choice for a small business on a budget.

Which marketing tactics have the ROI in your company?
Here are the best reasons why a small business should employ email marketing:

  • Email marketing can bring you direct revenue
  • You can develop a personalized relationship with your customers
  • Metrics can give you insights into how your customers respond to you
  • Eventually your email campaigns can be automated to do the marketing for you

I have been directing email campaigns for businesses and non-profits for more than five years now. I have developed a set of best practices for small businesses, non-profits or associations to start using this valuable tool. Send me your RFP to get your email marketing started.

Email Tony MacFarlane Now!

Part 2: Know your CAN-SPAM »

Reality TV Didn’t Kill Scripted Content

In 2014, media wunderkind John Foxx was conferred with an honorary Doctorate degree at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, England. In his address he said, “In fact, we take almost everything we believe about the world on trust—from media. That makes the media at least as powerful as any previous belief system we humans have ever had.” But does media lie to us? Of course, but much of the time media is simply as flawed as any other belief system.

A few years earlier, in 2010, TV writer and producer Phil Rosenthal produced a documentary film Exporting Raymond, about his efforts to export his successful comedy Everybody Loves Raymond to Russian TV. Rosenthal didn’t blame the television industry for the venture’s failure, but he did badmouth it at a press tour for America in Primetime (a four-part PBS Documentary on the archetypes of primetime TV characters.) Referring to another show he produced, Men of a Certain Age, being cancelled, Rosenthal said, “Everything is so short-term oriented now. It’s not just in TV. It’s in our government. It’s on Wall Street.”

Rosenthal went on to say about TV in general, “There’s always lots and lots of crap and a few good things.” When someone else said that there is probably more quality content on television, he countered, “That’s only because the amount of crap has quadrupled.” Rosenthal blamed reality television for the bulk of that stool. “The glut of reality shows that we’re seeing could signal something larger than just a trend. And that is the end of civilization.” I beg to differ; media—TV in particular—is undergoing a renaissance of scripted content and highly literate drama.

Of course reality television has not brought down civilization—yet. There may be more reality-show crap on TV (especially channels like TLC and Bravo), but broadcast and cable television has seen a 14% increase in scripted original primetime series over the past year. While some analysts preach caution that media buyers are in something like a bubble, I suspect they fail to account for time-shifted viewing patterns and revenue streams from new digital platforms. I hope they fail to account for the huge demand that spurred competition from online properties like NetFlix.

I say that the state of scripted content couldn’t be better and we might as well enjoy the bubble before reality TV crushes us. Let’s take a look at some broadcast and cable scripted primetime series that I personally watched regularly over the past year (2014):

ABC

BlackishBlackish (Comedy)

This show is a post-millenial Cosby Show: post-racial and not afraid to offend everybody. Tracee Ellis Ross is just brilliant and outshines the men of the cast as well.

Fresh off the BoatFresh off the Boat (Comedy)

D.C. native and cook/entrepreneur Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir is brought to the small screen by Nanatchka Khan, whose genius is stamped all over Malcolm in the Middle and American Dad. This show is a laugh riot that has me in stitches every episode.

How to Get Away with MurderHow to Get Away with Murder (Drama)

Not as popular as ABC’s flagship primetime soap Scandal, this show has a much pulpier film-noir feel. Viola Davis personifies the dark side of every successful woman, but the whole cast scintillates with poison. But the writing is some of the tightest to be seen on broadcast TV. The narrative style can be a little disorienting—especially for a viewer coming in the middle, but I applaud their experimental style.

Other Recommended

Scandal, Selfie

AMC

Better Call SaulBetter Call Saul (Drama)

Bob Odenkirk (Writer for Saturday Night Live 1987–1991) reprises his Breaking Bad role as something of a prequel: a previous alias, Kimmy McGill.

Hell on WheelsHell on Wheels (Drama)

It’s been a long while since I’ve seen such classic western style and tone. As dark as a spaghetti western, as gritty as cinema verité, and as mean as Eastwood, Hell on Wheels keeps you glued. I will miss Common—his character Elam Ferguson was a totally new Western anti-hero.

Other Recommended

I’ve never managed to develop an appetite for these shows, but they remain two of the strongest series in the history of television: Mad Men, The Walking Dead

BBC America

CopperCopper (Drama)

This British interpretation of Gilded Age America gives us a lot to enjoy. It is gritty and sexy, very much like TNT’s Hell on Wheels. Occasionally it devolves into melodrama, but I can forgive them when a fistfight starts.

Doctor WhoDoctor Who (Comedy/Drama)

The ancient Sci-Fi series was resurrected in 2005 to cult status. I feel that the series degenerated over the past year, but everybody’s got their favorite doctor!

Orphan BlackOrphan Black (Drama)

Tatiana Maslany is an incredibly underrated young actress playing a cloned set of sisters. Who knows how many there are, but one thing’s for sure: Tatiana will bring them all to life. Her foster brother Felix (played by Jordan Gavaris) follows her (fabulously!) through thick and thin. While the story concentrates on science-fiction, it is really about the relationships between all of the characters.

Other Recommended

Musketeers

CBS

Big Bang TheoryBig Bang Theory (Comedy)

At first I didn’t want to like this send-up of geek culture. I was comfortable with my nerd-ness, and didn’t need some vicarious confirmation. Plus I have been concerned about how our culture stereotypes scientists as brainy-but-dumb or evil (see Fox’s Fringe.) But the troupe are very good together; the characters are charming and their chemistry is top-notch. Even so, Jim Parsons manages to always steal the show. Nevertheless, the writing is clever and seldom degenerates into self-indulgent crap the way Friends did.

Other Recommended

Hawaii Five-0, Scorpion, The Good Wife

Comedy Central

South ParkSouth Park (Comedy)

The raunchy quartet of Colorado tweens may just be one of the most significant works of modern humor. Many people still might find it too scatological, but given the partnership of Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s success on Broadway with Book of Mormon, no one can deny their genius any longer. Last season introduced a bittersweet tenderness that convinced me that they don’t just look for laughs with fart sounds and cussing. This season’s Inception-like miniseries last season clinched my esteem of the pair.

Other Recommendations

None. Get with it, Comedy Central!

FOX

Bob's BurgersBob’s Burgers (Comedy)

Most of the team from King of the Hill got together to give us the same endearing pathos of the everyman trapped in the wrong universe. Keeps getting better every year.

EmpireEmpire (Drama)

Everybody’s guilty pleasure has people’s tongues wagging every Thursday morning. There isn’t an episode that goes by without me jumping out of my chair yelling, “Oh no (s)he didn’t!” Sure, it’s over the top, of course it’s salacious and sometimes even a little sticky-feeling, but so what. It’s deliciously dirty and voyeuristic. Plus it has that whole envy/pity of the rich that made Dallas such a success thirty years ago. I admit I have to grit my teeth through Timbaland’s heavy-handed auto-tuning, but I also have to admit sometimes the music gets me to tear up a little. Great show!

Family GuyFamily Guy (Comedy)

Seth MacFarlane’s (no relation) sick genius survived cancellation to come back and push the boundaries of taste, style and animation. Ideas have been stretched to the breaking point these past few years. Sometimes they fail, but more often they succeed. I think people may have altered their thought processes due to the rapid-fire tangents that are the hallmark of this show.

GothamGotham (Drama)

This prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe is much better than I thought it would be. Everything about it is just so well-executed that it shines like a gem. The writing is superb, the acting is really great (so glad to see Donal Logue having such a good year with Gotham and Copper.) Throbbing beneath the narrative is the same brooding foreshadowing that drives Game of Thrones. One keeps wondering if we are going to see the defining moments for the arch-villains that populate the Batman universe.

The SimpsonsThe Simpsons (Comedy)

I must admit that I mainly watch this show anymore just because I have been watching it since the first season. The show is growing long in the tooth, and it often fails to raise more than a chuckle.

Other Recommendations

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Glee, Sleepy Hollow, The Following

FX

ArcherArcher (Comedy)

This cartoon can be pretty derpy sometimes, and now that H. Jon Benjamin has given voice to Bob’s Burgers, I keep imagining Bob as the hard-drinking numbskull. But I just get totally fascinated with the background illustrations, so that makes up for everything.

JustifiedJustified (Drama)

The series based on late mystery writer Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens novellas harkens back to the heyday of TV westerns—even though it takes place in rural Kentucky. The writing is incredibly true to Leonard’s terse style, though Walton Goggins does get to pontificate marvelously as Boyd Crowder, the main baddie. He is the perfect foil to Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a man of few words who always manages to get one step ahead of his quarry.

The AmericansThe Americans (Drama)

This show was so needed. It walks such a fine line that no other TV show (except perhaps M*A*S*H) dared. At first I worried that the series would just be another piece of Reagan-worship, but it is hardly revisionist at all. On the contrary, this show treats history as it treats its characters: brutally. This season we were treated to a reminder about how cannabis indica came to America. How many other shows let you root for the bad guys?

Other Recommended

American Horror Story (another incredible ground-breaking series, but I only manage to watch it every other season), Rescue Me

NBC

The BlacklistThe Blacklist (Drama)

Would I watch this show if James Spader wasn’t in it? Probably not. Spader oozes out of the screen with style and panache. He takes some of the most soporific, saccharine and sometimes hopelessly inane dialogue and makes it convincing and meaningful. As badass as he is, you know you want to be him; but you can’t, because you just can’t do what he does. Bravo!

Other Recommended

Hannibal, Parks & Recreation, The Slap

SyFy

12 Monkeys12 Monkeys (Drama)

I suddenly stopped watching after missing an episode. It just kept getting more and more circular until I spun to a stop. The show was alright, though: as well-thought and dark as the original movie.

DefianceDefiance (Drama)

Rockne S. O’bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation) brings a comic-book quality to Defiance that managed to beat out competing series (Terra Nova, Continuum) at the time. The story is so tight that I can’t find an inconsistency that hasn’t been worked out. Even when a sub-plot comes out exactly like I predicted, I don’t mind. You might want to poo-poo the overacting a lot of the times, but you can chalk that up to just being an alien. I honestly find Graham Greene’s underacting of Rale McCawley the biggest distraction from what would otherwise be a perfect Sci-Fi TV show.

Other Recommendations

Haven, Helix

TNT

Falling SkiesFalling Skies (Drama)

I keep wishing Falling Skies was more like Defiance, but this is what Noah Wyle wants: more of an existential study. To a large degree, Wyle uses this show to examine American values. I can’t begrudge him that, because he does it so damned well.

Major CrimesMajor Crimes (Drama)

This series was spunoff from The Closer when Kyra Sedgewick left the series. The remaining troupe are still just as strong, along with Mary McDonnel as the new lead Capt. Sharon Raydor and Graham Patrick Martin as the emo foster kid Rusty Beck. The show is a great whoodunit; often the stories are incredibly touching. Mainly, though, I am emotionally invested in everyone—that’s the mark of a classic.

Other Recommendations

Wish I could think of something…

Dom Flemons: Saving Popular Music Through Sankofa

Dom Flemons: The American SongsterAccording to ancient Hindu mythology, whenever the world lost its way, Vishnu, the God of Preservation, would incarnate as an avatar to save the planet. There seems to be a similar archetype occurring in American popular music too.

Time for me to save music again.In an interview for Esquire in September 2014, Gene Simmons, bass player for the Rock band KISS stated that “Rock is finally dead“. His point is muddled though, in the ramblings of an out-of-touch curmudgeon. He blames those entitled Obama-era takers who want their music for free on the Interwebs, rather than his own legacy of conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence. But in the end he may be right: the same thing that is killing Hip-Hop today has left a trail of corpses behind. Take faith, stalwarts of popular music—there will always be an avatar born to save popular music from the corruption of adharma. Moreover, don’t bother looking to the dominant culture for our savior (despite what many may say about Eminem.) Instead, look to African-American culture to save us… again.


The first avatar was Louis Armstrong, providing perhaps the single-most profound influence in forming modern American Pop music. It’s kind of hard for us today to see some of the power and influence Louis Armstrong had back in the early days of Jazz. Perhaps that’s because we only remember the caricatures of him (his googly eyes and gravely voice all over that treacly “Wonderful World”), but in the Nineteen-Twenties, Armstrong was the man to beat. Everyone with a trumpet would challenge his supremacy, and every time they were beaten down by this master. Jazz may have become a classical form under the weight of other greats like Duke Ellington, but it became the heartbeat of the American popular form, recognized the world over. As Tony Bennet said, “Louis is really the tradition, we haven’t caught up to it yet. He created our colloquialism. Every musician that I know of worth in popular music or jazz music is stung by Louis Armstrong.”

If it hadn’t been for his mastery of his instrument, there’d be no Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. If it hadn’t been for his charisma, there’d be no Little Richard of Michael Jackson. And if it hadn’t been for his fierce pride in his skin color, there’d certainly be no tolerance for James Brown or even Gil Scott Heron. American music still has a way to go in order to recapture the purity and power of Louis Armstrong.


Perhaps our generation can understand Armstrong’s phenomenal influence by looking to our own avatar: Jimi Hendrix. Rock ‘n Roll was at the height of its power, fueled mainly by the influx of British musicians. Even so Eric Clapton, one of the heavyweights of Rock’s golden age, had to admit “it was all watered-down Soul music.” Jimi Hendrix changed that overnight, ironically by going to England to make a name for himself. While there, he managed to scare the living shit out of London’s Rock elite. At a January 1967 show, Rolling Stones frontman Brian Jones reported, “It’s all wet down in the front… from all the guitar players crying.”

It’s too bad that Rock ‘n Roll couldn’t save Hendrix, though. In the end, he fell victim to the demons that haunt Pop music. Recently, there’s even been talk that he had been murdered. Still his mythology lives on. He brought Blues Rock back to its American roots, and he freed up Black music from the highly choreographed, overly structured showmanship that led to Sly & the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic.


Now the Hip-Hop world sure is in a sad state—just when it’s needed the most. Somehow The Message has degenerated into this nasty-ass crap. Hip-Hop artists are billionaires, feeding us bullshit and calling it caviar… And we shovel it in by the spoonful. Couldn’t we all use a simpler fare?

Sure looks like the Eve of Destruction. Stateless fanatic are running rampant over the Middle East. Africa is inflamed in epidemic. Global warming has passed its tipping point. So where can we turn for true, honest, authentic succor?

Innocent people are gunned down by police in the supermarket or on the street. What’s a feller to do?

In my opinion, the music of Dom Flemons is the simple answer. He practices “Sankofa”: going back to the past, fetching it, and bringing it back to the future. Flemons illustrated Sankofa with an incredibly considered analysis of the song in the video above, “Can You Blame the Colored Man…” He concludes that “ Not all of this country’s civil rights problems have been fixed“. So can the thug culture be blamed for the way young black men are being treated today? I am beginning to believe that Hip-Hop is no longer capable of answering that question.

Like the country mouse in Aesop’s fable, perhaps now is a time to return to our roots, not as a retreat but as a retrenchment to our strongest values (Sankofa). Might sound a little like what Arrested Development espoused in the Nineties, but actually Flemons’s early collaborators, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, have taken to heart.

Sometimes you don’t have to go that far back:

But enough profundity, here is some wicked skill—Dom Flemons as masterful on the banjo as Satchno was on the trumpet and Hendrix was on that Strat:

…and the harmonica…

We’ll skip the guitar, bones and quills for you to discover. Suffice it to conclude that like the avatars before him, Flemons music reaffirms the value of African-American tradition in American—and by extension, the world’s—culture. It doesn’t need electric power, two turntables and a microphone, or a giant stadium with laser lights and security gates to reach your soul—it just needs a little more room to dance. His music is timeless and honest, smart and fun, universal and yet far from simple. He is just what American music needs more than anything right now.