Sunday, February 28, 2010

Court Commentary: United States v. Comstock ... In Verse

(My company's Hamlet is still running, with six shows next week. Tickets are still available, and I've already had one blog reader say hello!)

I wrote the following response to the Supreme Court case United States v. Comstock, because I was tired and I was waiting in the wings during Hamlet. There may be more in the future. You are warned.

Respondent in this case is Comstock
Petitioner's United States
Defendent herein seeks to unlock
Comstock's cell and prison gates
Comstock's jailed for crimes of sex
Perpetrated years ago
To be release he should have been next
But the second jury's 'no'
Leaves the plaintiff jail'ed still
With to certain date to leave
His term is up but he's not done yet
So he feels he's been deceived
See, our Congress passed a statute
Creating one more step to get through
Before your jail bags can be packed
You must prove that you're no danger
That your term has fixed your mind
Convincing panel, judge, or juror
You've left sexual crimes behind
They quiz you on your deepest fancies
And you're lawbound to reply
And if they find your dreams abhorrent
Kiss your sweet release goodbye
They can, indeed, hold you forever
Civil commitment's the name of the fate
If they decide you still think evil
They won't tell you your go-home date

Comstock's case is quickest to recount
"My term is up, so let me free!
No matter what, I must be let out
And that's the way the law should be
Imagine if the gov could jail you
On the tiniest of charge
But on the final day detain you
Let your jail term slow grow large
The law mandates a term to start with
And judge confirms that at the trial
But if we say 'That's only part'
You could stay locked up for a while."

"But wait!" the U.S. seeks to argue
"What if perverts don't repent?
Should we release a rapist to you
If we think to crime he's bent?
Our job is, in a word, protection
Like doctors we can do no harm
while knowing he'll return to prediliction
The public will raise the alarm
We'll be blamed for missing ation
If we knew him, and released
There'd be no way to fix the damage
No resurrection for deceased
The process used by our parole board
To review the impact of freeing
Can, in these cases too, prove more
safe than just 'release and see'ing.
We are bound by higher calling
To protect and also serve
If we find his state appalling
He will get what he deserves."

The case has resonances, clearly
With other policies of late
The mind is drawn at once to Cuba
And the enemies of state
In other cases, courts have found
The Eigth Amendment must prevent
Incarceration stretching long
Though, there are some different features
To distinguish this from those
Detentions of the Bush Admin years
(Although those are just different clothes)
For instance, this detentions legal
inasmuch as there's a law
This isn't presidential fiat
In Guantan'mo's legal maw.
Secondly, there are review boards
Judges, juries, or a panel
Evidence must be looked over
Before a term is made so final

For my part, I side with Comstock
On the issue of the term
How many viewings must we watch
Minority Report before we learn?
You see, a trial revolves around a crime,
Event, which happened in the past.
We ask, "prove so-so did this!"
That's a manageable task.
Here, however, crime is future
So begins a dicey game
Now we're talking just desire
Whether or not the beast's been tamed.
Can we know what folks will do
Years and years along the line?
And if the perp has disagreement
How to prove to us he's fine?
In this case, as with Gitmo,
Or police who use entrapment
Passing judgment on a person
Not one what a person's done
To paraphrase in verse from Franklin:
Want safety over liberty?
have none.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hamlet Opens Tonight!

Alright, so I'm poking my head out of the hiatus-land for a moment just to remind everyone that my theater company, Organs of State, is performing Hamlet starting tonight. Seriously, buy a ticket or come find us at the Paradise Factory at 64 E 4th St. in Manhattan. It'll give you something to do that's out of the cold, and is genuinely fun.

Seriously, this is not only a really brilliant staging of Hamlet, but it's actually fun. You'll spend as much time laughing as you will thinking.

Oh, and not to toot my director's horn too hard, but I think he's solved The Ophelia Problem.

And if you do come see it, say hello to me in the Box Office! And I'd love to hear your feedback afterwards or read it online as comments on this post or posts on your own blog!

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Alright, I feel pretty bad. I made a call to the community for ideas, and I haven't been able to return to it, and I've been just doing some fluffy posting since then because I'm busy. My life just took another crazy turn yesterday, and I need to focus on Hamlet (buy tickets! buy tickets!)

I'm going to be on hiatus officially until March 6th, which is when Hamlet closes. And when I get back, I'm going to deal substantively with the stuff that I've bookmarked. Particularly, I've got my eye (and you should too), on 99 Seats, who's hit the mark on a great run of posts lately. And I owe Lionel Frumpton a considered response too.

Anyways, I'll either see you folks in March... unless you come see Hamlet and introduce yourself to me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why We Do What We Do, Pt III

So, I listen to science podcasts when I get the chance, and one of the things that is most fascinating to me in the scientific world is how much there is to be interested in. Seriously. Today's episode of Quirks and Quarks included someone who sequenced the genome of an extinct human being, someone who studied whether six month old babies who can read our intentions, and someone who studied the tentacled snake to figure out why it has tentacles. Oh, and a Canadian astronaut who spent six months in space.

And then there was This American Life's 400th episode, where they let their parents pitch stories to follow up on -- and they wound up covering a car, the Erie Canal, a near-destroyed university in Haiti, the humor of death, and corporate personhood.

What it reminds me is that we, as artists, have so much potential to do work about. In the same way that scientists can find out interesting and cool stuff about any number of obscure creatures or beings, we can find ourselves in an unlimited sea of ideas and possibilities.

It's on my mind because my theater company is in the process of figuring out what we're doing for the next year (as for this year, come see our production of Hamlet that opens next week!). And I guess there's a lot of ink that has been spilled over how plays are selected, but I'm interested in the independent theater from the DIY crowd -- how do they select ideas?

What's the general process? Are there tendencies in terms of what we're drawn into taste-wise? How much do we draw inside of our own organization, and how much do we draw from outside? When we draw from outside, how much do we take in from strangers and how much do we take from acquaintances? What is our prime focus? Is it finding something new? A unique structure? Something that seems topical or immediate? Something that leaps off the page as being well-made? Something that accomplishes the mission statement? Something that you can striking home for your audience? Something that you imagine will be fun to do?

I'm thinking of stumbling my way towards making this a survey of some kind. Not just a collection of anecdotes, but something--if not 100% empirical, but something to look at trends in DIY theater season-making.

Monday, February 15, 2010


I feel like this is so very charmingly naive on the part of Hulu. Will I put a little of my time to help with the better distribution of advertising? Sure, Hulu. I'd love to.

(I seriously do plan to return to posting things of actual cultural significance soon, but I read all of Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition and What is Postmodernism? in one weekend, and the heady postmodernist theory has made my brain cloudy and brought out innate aggression towards children in me, so I'm taking a breather before I return to what I do).

Why We Do What We Do, Pt. II

Sometimes I get discouraged trying to explain to people what I do. I wish that I could say I was in a field that really created something tangible and, well, cool. In short, I wish I had invented the mosquito-killing laser beam:

A Better Valentine's Day

Well, Valentine's Day is behind us, but before we move on to Presidents' Day (incorrectly called President's Day, as though we're only honoring one...), take a look at this new revamp for Valentine's Day. I'm totally in favor of the symbol (on the right) and the color palette, although I think the Cupid replacements... well, let's just keep looking.

(UPDATE: Sorry for being snotty -- I looked it up on Wikipedia, and indeed either Presidents, President's, or Presidents' Day are all acceptable spellings, because as it is not a Federal holiday there is no official spelling, and therefore it depends on your intention. I personally think that President's Day is simply wrong, because either it's Washington's Birthday or it's everyone's day.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why We Do What We Do

"Over the years I have come to appreciate how elusive the answers to those questions can be. During my first book tour 15 years ago, an interviewer noted that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had dedicated his first book to his father, who took him to see the dinosaurs when he was 5. What was the event that made me become a cognitive psychologist who studies language? I was dumbstruck. The only thing that came to mind was that the human mind is uniquely interesting and that as soon as I learned you could study it for a living, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. But that response would not just have been charmless; it would also have failed to answer the question. Millions of people are exposed to cognitive psychology in college but have no interest in making a career of it. What made it so attractive to me?

As I stared blankly, the interviewer suggested that perhaps it was because I grew up in Quebec in the 1970s when language, our pre-eminent cognitive capacity, figured so prominently in debates about the future of the province. I quickly agreed — and silently vowed to come up with something better for the next time. Now I say that my formative years were a time of raging debates about the political implications of human nature, or that my parents subscribed to a Time-Life series of science books, and my eye was caught by the one called “The Mind,” or that one day a friend took me to hear a lecture by the great Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebb, and I was hooked. But it is all humbug. The very fact that I had to think so hard brought home what scholars of autobiography and memoir have long recognized. None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story."

-- Stephen Pinker, describing why he decided to sequence his own genome.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Arts and Government II: Obama Sings

Okay, this isn't exactly the most revolutionary thing in the world, and it's not exactly a good replacement for a strong national arts policy, but... well, there was something nice to hear Obama talk about the act of singing as something vital, as something part of our historical tradition. And it was nice to see him join in.

Diversity XXIV: The Checklist pt.2

Glad to see that there's some positive responses to the idea of the checklist.

99 Seats said probably the most important thing about it, which is that it's a complicated checklist and would take some thought to figure out what would be useful. And the reason for that complication is exactly what RVCBard said in my comments section:
I wish it were that simple, but the things I'd put on that checklist are cognitive, which presents a whole 'nother layer of problems - mostly the fact that people can justify anything.
It's true that any thing you'd put on the checklist that has to do with correcting your attitude or behaving differently would be completely useless. And the whole checklist, even if it is actionable in every part, will be pointless if the person is using it in bad faith (as a bit of window dressing; forced to as part of a legal settlement, for instance).

Isaac chimes in:
Guy's checklist idea wouldn't correct the structural inequalities that would make it harder for people from certain backgrounds to be qualified for various jobs-- just as blind orchestra auditions doesn't change that the fact that learning to master a musical instrument is expensive-- but it's an interesting thought experiment.
Yeah, thought experiment is perfect. The thing that was getting to me about implicit bias was that even if we remade America from top to bottom, and really ensured that every person of every background was on an even keel economically, educationally, etc., then there's the possibility that still people will not have equal opportunities, because of implicit bias. Clearly, however, we're not at that near-utopian end point.

On the other hand, this isn't purely an esoteric thought experiment. This is from the perspective of someone who runs a small arts organization and wants to say, "Well, okay, I'm not exactly in a position to level the entire economic playing field, but I am in a position to create better hiring practices. What can I do on that front?"

So anyways, I think one checklist question that came to me as I was falling asleep last night is that if you are hiring, you are going to be limited in your choice by the applicants. And your applicant pool is going to be limited by who comes across your want ad and notices.

So one point on the checklist should be reaching out to minority champion organizations with your hiring position. In other words, when you think to yourself, "I need a playwright," don't just put your playwright ads in the usual places -- Craigslist, Backstage, etc. It's not that those places necessarily have anything wrong with them (I have no idea of the demographic readership of Craigslist or Backstage, actually). But you need to also make sure you reach out specifically to groups like the one that RVCBard is forming for playwrights of color. For young actors, I remember that there's a group at NYU for both artists of color (The Collective) and female artists (The WOMB -- which I didn't know about until I looked up where to link to for The Collective).

I haven't figured out exactly how to word this checklist question, but the thrust of it is, start by making sure that you're getting a diverse range of applicants: make sure your want ad is in the hands of champion groups. And if you're looking at your applicant pool and it still doesn't look like a reflection of the diversity in the community, keep pushing for more applicants.

Just one tiny step, perhaps. Small in the face of the widespread structural challenges that face us. But on the level of individuals, it could make a huge difference to someone who could get an opportunity.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Freedom of Speech Elsewhere

I was going to be done for the day, having taken advantage of the snow day to get a bunch of posts out, but I just saw a post from my former teacher and mentor Aaron Landsman (of Elevator Repair Service)'s post about a colleague named Ozen Yula that he met while working with Free Theater Belarus:
His most recent is called Yala Ama Yutma, translated roughly as, "Lick But Don’t Swallow". An Islamic fundamentalist newspaper called Yakit has begun an attack on the production, and the company producing the show is actually in fear for their lives. Supporters of Yakit have been known to assassinate the targets of the paper's ire in the past.
From Mr. Yula's press release:

Vakit has made factually incorrect and libelous statements about the authorship of the play, the producer of the play and the intent of the play. Vakit’s website includes posts which are dangerous and which appear to be inciting others to violence and criminal action. The venue Kumbaracı50 that is rented by the independent theatre group had been receiving threatful phone calls and emails from unknown callers, which have referred to Vakit’s inaccurate statements. On February 8, Kumbaracı50 has been closed down by officals of Beyoglu district. The reason given for the closure was the absence appropriate fire escape.
On February 9, the mayor of Beyoglu has announced that he is supporting the independent theatre and their play “Lick But Don’t Swalllow”. He also claimed that the venue will be open after they had their fire escape completed. He also announced that if the fire escape cannot be completed in time, he will provide a suitable venue for the production. However, threatening commentaries are continuing on some websites and a provocative propaganda against the play are being created in these websites by mostly anonymous guest writers. The future of the play is still uncertain because of the growing potential for violence, the loss of valuable rehearsal time, and the financial costs of disrupted produciton.
This is going on in Istanbul, so there isn't much it seems like we can do. It's depressing to think that this is Turkey, which compared to much of the Middle East is a liberal pluralist democracy.

It also puts into stark relief the difference between this and the "sinister censorship" that some believe will take place if the NEA increases its budget and hands out more subsidies.


This was a few weeks ago, but I was hardcore blown away when it was announced that Newsday had spent $4 million dollars to create a pay-walled news site, and had only accrued 35 subscribers.

Apparently, this story hasn't had much effect on the New York Times, which still seems to be going ahead with putting its own content behind a pay wall... sort of. It looks as though NYT and Newsday are both saying "Yes our content is worth paying for... but we're not going to make you pay for it."

Actually, the report I analyzed for Createquity made the point that free events do not paid subscribers make. There's the outside chance that some people who have not heard of you will find your free content, and then will know who you are and will pay for you, but certainly the Old Grey Lady is not suffering from lack of name recognition. And Newsday's freebies are only mostly available for established subscribers, thus nullifying the effect.

Diversity XXIII: The Checklist

I was reminded by the Guardian's blog post today about our last dust-up about diversity, which started with Scott's lottery proposal. (I won't link to all the significant conversation it started, but the Guardian blog post is a good overview)

At the time, I hashed out pretty clearly what my disagreement with it was, but I forgot to say the one philosophical point on which I agreed with it -- that it tried to find away to address implicit bias in the selection process. As I'm sure I don't need to say, even casting directors/hiring managers/etc. who think that they are open-minded demonstrate biases in their hiring practices. To cite just one example, a study in the American Economic Review found that blind auditions significantly increases the chance that women will be advanced or higher. The reason for this is because it takes away all of the extraneous biasing factors out of the hands of the auditioner and allows them simply to judge on the music. This is why many theaters that judge plays also judge blindly, and that's not exactly a new tactic.

But recently, I heard Atul Gawande's interview on NPR (and was reminded of it by The Daily Show's interview) about his book, the Checklist Manifesto.

The crux of the manifesto is this: every time a checklist is developed of things that you have to remember to avoid infection, and you force doctors to go through that checklist, rates of infection go down. The increase in positive medical outcomes is measurable, and at the end of the process, 80% of doctors say that the checklist improved outcomes and saved lives-- and 92% say that they want the doctor who's operating on them to use a checklist.

But the key revelation, I found, was the difference between those two numbers - the 12% of doctors who think the checklist is hogwash, but still want their doctors to use it. Partly that might be Pascal's Wager at work, but Dr. Gawande has some insight on why else that might be.

You see, even though he developed a checklist and insisted on its use, he didn't think he needed it himself. He thought the checklist was for other doctors. And yet, he too couldn't escape the data: his patients did better when he had a checklist. He didn't make as many mistakes.

The case in which checklists were used were to prevent carelessness. But I think the checklist idea might be able to address diversity... if you can figure out what belongs on the checklist.

So I call upon you, internet: say I'm the head of an organization who wants to ensure diversity in hiring practices. What would you have me put on my checklist?

If You've Just Come To This Blog From The Guardian

I'm always pleased when the Guardian's online blog includes me in a recap of one of the theater-sphere's rolicking debates. Earlier today, they posted a recap of the debate around race sparked off by Thomas Garvey's response to RVCBard.

I just wanted to say two things, if you're just arriving now and missed it:
  1. I responded to Isaac's charge, quoted at the end of the piece, that I was taking Thomas Garvey in good faith here.
  2. One odd omission from the Guardian piece is RVCBard's stance on the issue, since after all it was her comments that Garvey latched onto and started the whole thing, and without her the issue would probably have died away much quicker and been less interesting. Anyways, this is her biggest response to the debate, and this is her last one. They're crucial to understanding what happened.

One Reason Theater Has It Better Than Television

Our actors are free from the terror of freeze-frame.

How We Connect

Regionally, according to an analysis of Facebook. You can find the tool they're using here.

(New Zealand's #1 like is Outrageous Fortune, which for a moment made me think they were super in to the terrible fate facing American Playwrights, but instead (and far more logically) it's a New Zealand TV Show.)

Anyways, the clusters of America tend to ring true, and it might be useful information when tackling figuring out how to decentralize the American Theater -- what networks are already out there?

(BTW - I would have though that all of New York's top 10 most connected regions would be other major metropolitans, but it's a mix between places like Los Angeles (its top connection) and Suffolk County, NY and Nassau County, NY. That seems like what you might expect, but compare to Washington D.C., whose closest major connection is Baltimore.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Contribution to

I've said it before and I've said it again, I owe a lot of gratitude to Ian Moss. Ever since we first crossed paths on Twitter, he's been a solid friend of this blog and, I was thrilled when he first asked me to contribute to Createquity. He's a very studious editor and makes my reports something quite above the level of work I usually do on this blog, and it is always a joy to get to work on it with him.

Anyways, in celebration of Snowpocalypse/snOMG, my second contribution is now online - it's an analysis of the report The Search For Shining Eyes, which was a rather comprehensive investigation into how to reverse the wane of orchestras in America. Although its focus is on classical music, there's a lot that theater can take a way from it -- and some illuminating differences.

Anyways, go take a look. If you're interested, my previous contribution is here, along with a response to a response here.

Loss Aversion

Theater people - pay attention to neurology. I have no idea how people expect to create works that mirror the human experience without being at least somewhat invested in how we form that experience.

Anyways, this post comes from The Frontal Cortex (a great blog for this sort of thing), and is actually almost exactly what my next big theatrical project is going to be about. The subject is Loss Aversion:
The two different questions examine identical dilemmas; saving one third of the population is the same as losing two thirds. And yet, doctors reacted very differently depending on how the question was framed. When the possible outcomes were stated in terms of deaths⎯this is the "loss frame"⎯physicians were suddenly eager to take chances. They were so determined to avoid any alternative associated with a loss that they were willing to risk losing everything.

Kahneman and Tversky stumbled upon loss aversion after giving their students a simple survey, which asked whether or not they would accept a variety of different bets. The psychologists noticed that, when people were offered a gamble on the toss of a coin in which they might lose $20, they demanded an average payoff of at least $40 if they won. The pain of a loss was approximately twice as potent as the pleasure generated by a gain. Furthermore, our decisions seemed to be determined by these feelings. As Kahneman and Tversky put it, "In human decision making, losses loom larger than gains."
Think about Loss Aversion, and then think about the 1% Doctrine, from one Richard Cheney:
If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response.
Emphasis mine. Oh, and don't forget the rules of Terrorball:
(1) The game lasts until there are no longer any terrorists, and;
(2) If terrorists manage to ever kill or injure or seriously frighten any Americans, they win.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Strange Article

A strange news story that stuck out to me (it's behind a pay-wall, so here's the important bits):
IQALUIT, Nunavut (Dow Jones)--European members of the Group of Seven nations told their counterparts that budget problems in Greece are "no matter" for the International Monetary Fund, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Saturday.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a meeting with top G-7 financial officials, Schaeuble said there was "no doubt" that the euro-zone members oppose any outside involvement in helping Greece to solve its problems.

"All our partners outside the euro zone have the firm impression that the Europeans will solve the problem and can deal with it and that we are aware of the problem," Schaeuble said. "But we have strongly and unanimously refused to discuss internal problems." To make that point, he added that Europe isn't discussing problems occurring in the U.S. state of California either.
I don't exactly know why this article struck me so oddly. I guess it's the strongest statement of territorial integrity from Europe I've seen yet. I've held that the slow process of the EU's birth and solidification has been like watching the US' Constitutional Conventions in slow motion -- watching a federation of states become a single nation -- but this is an interesting new take. I suppose this is a by-product of the new EU Constitution, stating that there's now one EU foreign policy and therefore things like the IMF have to go through Europe first.

I guess what really strikes me is that the State of California does not have any internationally recognized sovereignty, whereas as far as I know Greece still does. (side-note: the United States did want to give California some form of internationally recognized sovereignty during the very early days of the United Nations -- the USSR wanted each of its 14 Republics to be treated as separate states for the purposes of the UN's Security Council, and the US threatened that if that was the case, each of its 50 states would be given a vote on the council -- but I digress) I wonder how that statement played in Greece.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Diversity XXII: Meanwhile, In Literature...

Via Andrew Sullivan, Claire Messud writes about diversity in literature. Not an unfamiliar story:
Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men. It’s a known fact that among children, girls will happily read stories with male protagonists, but boys refuse to read stories with female protagonists. J.K. Rowling was aware of this: if Harry Potter had been Harriet Potter, none of us would know about her.

And we don’t change our spots when we grow up. Last year, I was one of nine judges awarding an international literary prize for a writer’s body of work. Each of us nominated a candidate, and five of us were women; but only one of our nominees—only one out of nine—was female. (I myself enthusiastically nominated a man.) Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all. The absence of women from lists and prizes leads, then, to the future absence of women from lists and prizes. Now, lists and prizes mean nothing, of course; except that they inform curious readers about who and what to read.

Tino Seghal

I don't want to spoil the exhibition for anyone who hasn't seen it, but Tino Sehgal's work at the Guggenheim is exquisite. I'm writing a response to it that will be posted after March 10th, because I don't want to ruin it for anyone who is planning on going. It's not that expensive, not that much from your time, and it transcends discipline -- it's just sublime.

Quantifying the Arts IV: Tie Professor's Salaries to Wages

Scott Walters, of Theater Ideas and CRADLE(arts), has decided that he isn't busy enough and has started a new blog with Tom Loughlin to generate new ideas about a Theater curriculum, named TACT (continuing a love of acronyms...). I'm excited to see what goes on over there, because I'm interested in changing the curriculum of the arts.

Anyways, my first introduction to the new blog was this post, which contained a Modest and Tactless proposal: "Tie the salaries of theatre professors to the income of their students."

Before you get all up in a hizzy (there was a brief second where I did), I think it would be good to revisit the spirit in which this proposal is offered, which probably goes back to the Kushner quotation that Scott used during his last "modest" proposal:
I can take comfort, however, from Tony Kushner who, when he proposed in his outstanding speech and essay "A Modest Proposal" (American Theatre, Jan98, Vol. 15 Issue 1) that we "abolish all undergraduate art majors," recognized that "Since[undergraduate arts education] so very lucrative, I can say let's get rid of it and we don't have to worry that anything will actually happen. So my speech is rather like theatre in this regard, and this frees us to consider the validity of my a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire." I should be so lucky.
Now, Scott's proposal this time around is a lot more fully fleshed out than the lottery idea, and it seems like it would work.

There's one huge, huge problem though: Scott notes that there is no profession (since the Actor's Equity salary median of all actors is $0), so tying professors' pay to students' performance in "the profession" may get professors to compete to turn out students into a system that won't support them. Even if some college out there figures it out, their incentives would now be aligned with a system that doesn't work. So what if professors are making sure that some of their students are earning over $8,000 a year? It's not a huge improvement over the current system, since the rules he proposes still allow a large number of students to fail.

But I take Scott's point in the context of the blog, which is that if professors were aligned to their students' interests, they would fight for curriculum reform. In fact, there's the possibility in this system that theater professors would suddenly find incentive to reform the theater industry -- trying to encourage students to make living wages at theater start-ups back home rather than pouring in to the over saturated market in New York.

I would like to point out, however, that there is a certain degree to which professor's salaries are tied to their profession. Now, before I make this point, I probably should make it clear that this is based on my own university, New York University, and is probably not representative of all schools.

But at the same time, it's clear that NYU pays its theater professionals a tiny fraction of what they pay (as a for instance) Business School professors. Although our school's financials are private, and therefore we can only speculate on much of the budget, public tax returns show that the highest paid NYU employee is a fertility doctor at NYU's School of Medicine, who makes something north of $2 million a year.

Why does the fertility doctor make north of $2 million a year? Because NYU feels it has to have the best fertility doctor in the field -- and therefore, it has to pay above the prevailing wage for fertility doctors (and in this case, above the prevailing wage for a top-of-the-line fertility doctor).

Our theater school also employs working professionals as our teachers (at least in our professional training classes) and, therefore, they have to pay better than what those teachers would be making in the field. Which, in our case, is basically tuppence. Whereas a business school teacher is probably forgoing a salary of $100k or more, the top-of-the-top teachers in our theater program would probably not really be making much worth talking about if they were outside of the school.

Again, this is probably a problem endemic to schools which seek to employ working professionals to teach. There's a different model for academics, since the competition there is almost exclusively other academics, and therefore isn't so moved by the economic fates in the market. And also, the difference between this process and Scott's proposal is that whereas right now, in general teachers' pay is linked to the success of an industry as a whole, Scott's proposal makes the individual teachers responsible to the success of students in specific.

One last point I want to make: Scott's proposal really only makes sense if the success of students really is affected in a huge way by teachers in the college level. Which of course to some degree it is. But if we look at the current problems in the American Theater (of which much ink/0101s have been spilled), then we can see that unless the system incorporates the change of the industry into it, the teachers will simply fail. The way the system is set up, there's too many artists for too few jobs, because the jobs are overly concentrated. As he points out, there's an 8:1 employment ratio within AEA, and I'm sure many of that 8 are just as qualified as that 1, but there's a glut.

The walk-away is that Scott once talked about needing to move the riverbed. I agree that tying professors' salaries to the success of the students is key. But to what success? In my last post I talked about how the market is incredible because it forces valuation on the intangible, because it can't deal with anything that isn't valued. When we structure the economy (the way that Scott's gedankenexperiment does), we need to choose what we value, because that's going to be the output of the system.

Quantifying the Arts III: Art That Disrupts Economics

Alright, maybe "disrupts economics" is a little bit strong, but via Don Hall comes a work by Caleb Larsen which perpetually tries to sell itself on the internet:
Combining Robert Morris' Box With the Sound of Its Own Making with Baudrillard's writing on the art auction this sculpture exists in eternal transactional flux. It is a physical sculpture that is perptually attempting to auction itself on eBay.

Every ten minutes the black box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet connection to check if it is for sale on the eBay. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction of itself.

If a person buys it on eBay, the current owner is required to send it to the new owner. The new owner must then plug it into ethernet, and the cycle repeats itself.
“A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” is tangibly linked, via Ethernet, to the intangible world of taste, aesthetics and worth. It doesn’t matter if the work becomes astronomically valuable—you’re legally required to keep putting it up on eBay once a week until someone else buys it. The argument is you can’t own anything conceptual, neither in copyright or theoretical terms, and the artwork’s logistics ensure that no third party—the highly ridiculous art market—can change that.
Don Hall, who recently tried to wrangle with some intellectual property economics here, finds his allure in the last sentence -- that you can't own anything in copyright or theoretical terms.

I am interested in that myself, but there's something else that interests me -- the fact that we're going to construct our own ideas of owning it anyways.

This is, for me, the real magic of the markets. See, people right now are arguing over how to quantify the arts, how to really measure it, because we only have one measure and we don't like it -- the measure of money. And the reason we have a measure of money is because the market has to come up with values for everything. Because it is the basis of all of our transactions, it has to come up with values of money for things that, previously, were intangible (and perhaps a little holy).

So what began as a way for objectively identifying how my cow stacks up against your three or four chickens now has to wrangle with the concept of the value of part ownership in a company, or the value of the future. And it also has to wrangle with value of artistic taste, whether it's in terms of inflated prices for clothing by certain people, or trying to figure what the hell Damien Hirst is on about. As with stock, people have clearly proven that they're willing to own a percentage of something -- so why wouldn't they be willing to own a moment of something?

So what I'm really interested in is how much are people going to bid on a work of art that they will only own temporarily, as opposed to owning a work of art outright? If the artist were truly correct and the concept of ownership doesn't apply to art nobody would make a bid. Instead, people are going to - on the fly - create their own individual valuations for owning a piece.

If, as is the case, Caleb Larsen is receiving the money each time (and finding a Damien Hirst-like way to make art pay), then each buyer is making their own valuation on what the ownership is worth to them. If the box were to somehow auction itself in the name of its new owner, then people would actually buy the box in terms of speculation -- which would be a whole different economic approach.

I'd love to see an economist speculate on those two differing models. I would also love Caleb to post charts containing the different prices it sells for.

Friday, February 5, 2010

In Context Of Our Latest Discussion

I don't have much to add to this post from the incomparable Ta-Nehisi Coates. The focus is on systems, which I always find to be more useful than focusing on individuals. The lines that really struck me:
The point isn't that all white people are somehow guilty. The point is that a choice between guilt/innocence wasn't really present. It had to be created and it carried with it significant social costs.

Diversity XXI: Race in Conversation pt. 2

Guy Yedwab makes a big mistake in this post by assuming that Garvey-- who has proven time and time again to be nothing but a not particularly bright (if well read) internet troll-- is speaking in good faith. Trolls aren't interested in good faith conversation, they're interested in provoking and upsetting people for private enjoyment


As a result of not realizing that Garvey is, in fact, a garden variety troll, Guy seems to think that it would be better if 99 were less angry and tried to keep engaging with Garvey in "conversation". And used the f* word less. Well, all due respect to Guy, whose blog I really like but fuck that. You can't have any conversation with everyone.
Either Isaac misunderstood my post, or I didn't make myself clear -- which is very possible, because I only devoted a few lines to the idea.

I do not believe that Thomas Garvey was speaking in good faith. I stopped reading his blog a long time ago because I realized exactly what Isaac says -- he enjoys baiting people, he throws bombs without providing much substance, and I never left a post of his feeling enlightened. Just sometimes angry.

But suppose a troll lands a bomb at you and you decide to argue back -- after all, you can simply ignore them -- what is the point in arguing? What was the point of that furious post?
  1. You want to convince Garvey to change his mind
  2. You want to convince your blog-roll readers that Garvey is wrong
  3. You want to have some sort of public catharsis by screaming at a wall
Isaac things I'm advocating option number one, but I'm not. I agree that it's pointless. But if your goal is number 2, I think you're much better served by a sharply written post that focuses the anger into tearing your opponent's argument apart, rather than just spewing anger. The spewing anger route might get an "amen" from your own choir, but like it or not there are going to be people on the fence who'll miss what you have to say because they're put off by the anger.

If you're going for option 3, then I probably have already spent too much time talking about the post and I'm tired.

This isn't just about 99 Seats. This is about how we debate major issues in this country. We talk about the partisan rancor in this country, and it's precisely because of this process -- the trolls control the tone, because people feel they have to match the tone of the trolls or get drowned out.

This is what has always appealed to me about Obama over his opponents. That Q&A Obama had with the Republicans is perfect. And it's not just perfect because I (who already agree with him) was happy to see him take on the Republican party -- it's perfect because it allows the independents who may be watching the chance to hear both sides.

In the primary election, I happen to know that what decided the primary for my mother was the fact that as time wore on, the Clintons got more and more desperate, were basically lobbing bombs and saying ugly things of increasingly unpleasant caliber, and Obama simply stuck to the issues and the facts. Which didn't mean not fighting back -- it just meant avoiding the lure of personal attacks.

That's what I was getting at. It is precisely if you don't think the other side of the conversation is dealing with even hands that you shouldn't waste your time flying off the handle. In those cases, the conversation isn't about you, it's about the people listening.

Oh and one more thing. It's not that I don't like the word fuck. I can fucking drop that fucking word every other fucking word if I fucking feel like it. Fuck is a fucking FANTASTIC word in some contexts -- I actually even like the way that it gives Glengarry Glenn Ross the Mametian rhythm. I fucking LOVE George Carlin and I've definitely yelled a good hearty "FUCK OFF" in someone's face before.

I just meant that, in the context of a heated response in a heated debate, all the fucking makes it sound like what you're saying is just sound and fury.

Aaaaand.... one more fuck for the road.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Diversity XXI: Race in the Theater. Or rather, Race in Conversation

Not much I can say on the subject except:

Part 1 - RVCBard

Part 2 - Thomas Garvey

Part 3 - 99 Seats

There's a lot of rage out there. A few brief thoughts:
  1. Thomas Garvey says: "But please, try to skip the temptation to continue the "ongoing dialogue." Let's not "dialogue" anymore - let's just bring city services to Roxbury instead, okay? Let's just pass national healthcare. Let's improve education. Let's move forward."

    Sorry - you can't stop a dialogue, unfortunately. There will always be a dialogue about race. That's just the way it goes.

  2. 99 Seats says: "Did I mention fuck you? Because, if I didn't, hey, pal, fuck you."

    It's a tough conversation we're having, and I believe you're pissed. And you make some good criticisms of Mr. Garvey. Imagine how much more powerful that post would be if it wasn't lost in a sea of fucking.

  3. The part of RVCBard's original post that start all of this: "In contrast, my experiences with White people have been confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting in this regard. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I always feel a kind of pressure to perform around White people. It's like I have to prove I'm worthy of their presence. It's proven very difficult to get a White person's attention, especially a White man's. It's even harder to maintain it for more than about 15 minutes. And if you're White, and you met me in person, I'm probably talking about you."

    Time for some carefully chosen words.

    Well, as someone who I guess is white (half-African doesn't count for me because it's Jewish African... anyways) sometimes it is confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting for the White People too. That's what Chris Matthews was talking about. NOT THAT I AGREE WITH WHAT HE IS SAYING. But Matthews has been told a lot that he's racist (because sometimes he is), and he doesn't want to be, so he's relieved for a moment to escape that confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting feeling.

    If you've read good books on this subject like Blink or a million others, you understand that there's a difference between what I usually call hard racism, where like Strom Thurmond you actually believe that one race is better than all others and it should be raised to the top, or soft racism, which can either be stupidity/ignorance like Chris Matthews or institutional and unconscious.

    There's a study that shows that blind auditions can greatly improve the diversity of an orchestra. This is not a proof of hard racism -- it's a proof of soft racism. The problem is that seemingly open-minded people may, inadvertently, through tricks of their own unconscious mind, wind up mis-evaluating different applicants based on their race.

    The point is, we White Americans want to bridge this gap. But sometimes, we're going to screw up the way we screw up at a lot of things we want to do.

    Why am I rambling on this way?

    Well, from our half of the conversation, RVCBard, here's what happens. We show up to a meeting with someone who says that this is a White Supremacist country and is clearly on her guard to smell us out: are we the White man who's playing fair, or are we in the category of racists? And we know that we're open-minded, but we also know that

    So we want to be on our best behavior. We're nervous, and self-conscious. Like in sex, the more nervous we get, the less pleasant the experience is, and the more likely we are to screw up. It is, as you put it, "confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting." Then it becomes a Catch-22 -- we're confused, uncomfortable, frustrated, and you're confused, uncomfortable, and frustrated, and the chances we'll try it again are low.

    Does this mean I agree with Thomas Garvey, then, that it's Black people's fault, and y'all need to move on?


    Thomas Garvey thinks the way to solve the difficulty of this conversation is to avoid it. It's irritating, and as all three players have demonstrated it can lead to incredible anger. But we can't avoid the conversation. I'm not so concerned about the frustrated/uncomfortable quality of the conversation as I am by the people who get up after 15 minutes.

    Part of it is we like to pretend that we're not having the conversation. White people meet Black people but they don't want to be talking about race. I don't like talking about it. And nobody wants our only dialogue to be "hey I'm black you're white let's talk about that" / "hey I'm white I don't really know what you're experience is like." And yet it may be necessary.

I don't know if I made the point I was trying to make (I thought I only had a few thoughts but it turned out to take a lot of words). I'm nervous to hit "Publish Post" because, well, it's so much easier for me not to post this and for me not to weigh in on this issue.

At least I'm not the only Jew who feels this way:

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My Latest Show

Hello faithful blog readers,

On the subject of self-producing, I would humbly submit that my theater company, Organs of State, has just begun selling tickets for its newest show. A friend of mine is directing Hamlet, and has done a bang-up job if I do say so myself. We're passionate about it, and we do think it is worth taking a look.

If you want to buy tickets, you can find them here. The show runs February 25th through March 6th at the Paradise Factory on East 4th Street. Details are at all of the links above.

I highly suggest you see the show at least for this reason: once you've seen my show, you'll be able to decide for yourself whether to take the opinions on this blog seriously. After all, the proof is in the pudding, isn't it?

And make sure to let me know if you're coming and introduce yourself to me! I'd love to meet some of you blogosphere types in person.


Guy Yedwab
Artistic Director