Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics IV: Journalism


The world continues to change, and if you don't keep track of it, things will happen in your life and you won't know why.

The world is full of other people – practically billions of them. With all of those people and all of those events going on, someone has to keep track of it all. That's why we invented journalism: journalism is our attempt to keep tabs on the world as it unfolds, and to understand how each moment came to be the way it is.

Any time there is a change – new things, which we call news – if it is important enough, it must be disseminated into the community. The goal of journalism is to account for how the world got to be at this moment.

If that sounds like the goal of history; it is no accident. The idea that journalism is the first draft of history is in fact literally true: journalism and history are both our narratives to account for the moment as it is. History is only distinct from journalism in the fact that journalism accounts for the way the world is at this moment specifically by covering news. Of course, the two are not so distinct; a news article will often have to delve into history to provide context for news; similarly, a historical work will often reach to the current moment to provide for its own context. It's no surprise to me that, for instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals, about the Lincoln cabinet, appeared on the scene at about the same time as Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and Bill Richardson (all presidential rivals) to his cabinet; the context of the moment is what drove the work of history.

The mission to account for the current moment is, unfortunately, where the potential for corruption in journalism can come into play. In science, any set of data can be accounted for by multiple theories at once; however, not all of those theories may be true. Being able to account for something with a theory or narrative is not an indication that it is true; it merely indicates that it is plausible.

Hindsight is, after all, 20/20, and therefore it is easy to make the data fit a theory, if the theory is vague enough or flexible enough to fit it. What would be far more difficult would be to predict the future state of the world.

But because this isn't the mission of journalism, lazy and poor journalists are often difficult to distinguish from quality journalists. Journalism becomes the competition to write the most convincing theory for why the current moment exists; which becomes quickly indistinguishable from propaganda, the attempt to convince people of an ideology that uses accounting for the current moment as a tactic. In that way, a past-focused journalism that doesn't demand forward-looking will ring false and fall apart. The great iconic moment of this, of course, is Dewey Defeats Truman, where a complacent media printed their papers ahead of time, ready to put the final period on a narrative they thought they understood.

This is also, by the way, why journalism and political science (whose goal is, in fact, to predict the behaviors of people in the political arena) often part ways. Journalism tends to get caught up in rationalizing the current moment in the context of the competing narratives. Political science, on the other hand, weighs this against the rest of the context of what will matter to people in the future. The great example of this is the article “If Political Scientists Wrote the News”, where Ezra Klein (a policy analyst, which is a whole different game altogether) supposed that if political scientists wrote the news about the BP oil spill, they would trivialize the entire narrative as being insignificant because Americans overwhelmingly vote based on the economy, rather than based on big historical events.

In terms of a future predictor of Barack Obama's chances, the journalists believe it will come down to these big historical cruxes, the political scientists think it will come down to the bread-and-butter of whether he provides for the people. And I think the latter prove themselves to be correct time and time again. For instance, the Esquire article “Why White Supremacists Support Barack Obama” (note: look at the title; a great example of journalism as the attempt to account for the current moment), the White Aryan Resistance leader says of his decision to support Obama:

"The corporations are running things now, so it’s not going to make much difference who's in there, but McCain would be much worse. (...) I don’t hate black people. I just think it’s in the best interest of the races to be separated as much as possible. See, I’m a leftist. I’m not a rightist. I hate the transnational corporations far more than any black person."

Even racism can be made second to economic concern.

Although it seems, then, like political science is thus superior to journalism, it belies the fact that someone who only lived in the political science world would understand what would happen in the future, but would have no understanding of the past. Why does one candidate ring truer than another when people vote based on economic issues? What history and news is pushing against the current moment?

In the end then, as one might have guessed, the two have become halves of the important informational story that we need to right ourselves in the world.

So how should these two relate to each other? Because predicting the future is a more reliable (although not 100% accurate) vindication of a theory, political science should provide a starting point, and a way of gauging the importance of political news. Social science would be a good starting point to personal interest stories.

The process should resemble this: what do our theoretical models – the ones that have been tested and have proven their merit (like the Cook Political Voter index, or FiveThirtyEight's poll-of-polls) – should spark an investigative journalistic journey to understand how they came to be. Furthermore, when news stories break, journalism should position the story with an eye on the theoretical models and other narratives.

Furthermore, journalists should be held to account not just on whether their past statements are correct, but also whether or not their predictions come to pass. Journalists should not feel free to simply say anything they feel like in the future—they should be able to make statements about the future based on some sort of empirical grounding.

I'll name names – the most egregious offender of this is Jim Cramer of CNBC. Financial news – where, by the way, financial models and predictions are more available. But as Bear Stearns spiralled down into nothingness, he continued to regularly tell people to invest, to buy, to put more into a company for whom every outward indication was that it would fail by the end of the year. Was he in any way censured by CNBC? The only one who brought Jim Cramer to task was Jon Stewart – the only person, it seems, who checks back in on predictions.

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Journalism (accounting for the past) and political science (predicting the future) need to reconnect; both sides need to be held accountable for both sides of the equation, so that their models and theories need to account for both halves.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Anti-Defamation League

Remember that day you realized that the Human Rights Council is really a gay rights organization (as opposed to, say, Amnesty International)?

I've had this realization many times before about the Anti-Defamation League really being an Anti-Jewish-Defamation League previously. Case in point:
Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site, and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam. The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong. But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.
So, they think you shouldn't build something in a disputed area if it causes pain to some members of the community.

Except when it's settlements in Israel, such as in the case of this full-page New York Times ad that reads:
Mr. President

The problem isn't settlements,
It's Arab Rejection
The irony of the situation? The Muslim community center being planned is named after Cordoba, a tribute to the period of Muslim rule over Cordoba. That was an era of great harmony between Islam and Judaism; at the same period, the plague and the dark ages led to a lot of persecution of Jews in Europe, but in Muslim Cordoba it led to the great Jewish thinker Maimonedes.

One would have presumed that an organization whose name was Anti-Defamation League would go out of its way to categorically imply that another religion's worship sites might rub sore old wounds. What if someone said that temples remind them of the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla? Or if Britain decided that temples remind them of the King David Bombing? Or if any government in the world decided that churches remind them of child molestation? At least that last one would have some sort of organizational link.

Also, "This is not a question of rights" sounds like a pretty handy sentence for wanting to abridge someone's rights. Rand Paul could have used that when he was talking about his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, instead he went with:
"I think it's confusing in a lot of cases in what’s actually in the Civil Rights Case (sic)," Paul replied. "A lot of things that were actually in the bill I’m actually in favor of. I’m in favor of -- everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there’s a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights -- and indeed the truth is, I haven’t read all through it, because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn’t been a real pressing issue on the campaign on whether I’m going to vote for the Civil Rights Act."


This Mitchell and Webb sketch starts off funny but at the end actually made me a little bit terrified at its really sharp social commentary:

Try substituting news for football.

That Lovin' Feelin', or: 90% of Everything Is Crap

I think the more significant – and unique – sacrifice arts workers make is that we lose the capacity for full, innocent and glorious enjoyment of the very art that our passion for drove us to make our life’s work in the first place. What do I mean by this? Think about your earliest experiences with the arts, your first encounter with Matisse, or Chuck Close; your first time in the audience for Sondheim, or Verdi; that time you first saw Baryshnikov on stage, or Judith Jamison. Remember that childlike joy – even if you were not a child – that total immersion in the art where the whole world disappeared and you were unaware of time, of the person chewing gum next to you? Now tell, me when was the last time you felt that? Sure, you are still passionate about the art form or all art forms, you still go to museums, or opera, or theatre, but something has been lost. Admit it.
I was just lamenting this to a friend of mine. I had just seen a show that was disappointing for many, many reasons and I was saying how burnt out I was feeling. As someone who spends a lot of time in his day job helping artists realize their visions, and then in this “off” hours going to see and experience a lot of art, it is easy to become jaded. It can be hard to hold on to the optimism, idealism and excitement that art can bring. I think part of it is true in any profession – if you know about the “man behind the curtain” then some of the mystery evaporates. But as an arts worker, dedicated to the idea that the creative impulse is something unique and worth celebrating, that the experience of aesthetic arrest is a vital part of the human experience, then burn-out feels really devastating, like you’re losing the center around which everything is built.
Whether you’re a maker or administrator – or both – how do you deal with those moments when you lose that lovin’ feelin’?

There's actually two things going on in Culturebot's response, as opposed to the initial thing. They are:
  1. It's wearing to see a lot of mediocre work, and takes away some of the passion for going out to see theater constantly (this is particularly a critic's disease).
  2. Knowing how sausage is made can damage your appetite.
To tackle them one at a time:

Mediocre Work: 90% of everything is crap, has always been my belief. I don't think you can have genius without the 90% of stuff that comes out that is crap. For every beautiful thing on Youtube (I'm mostly thinking of Validation here) there's tons and tons of stuff which is mediocre. And that's the beauty of Youtube, is that it allows the 90% of crap to exist that is necessary for the 10% of its genius.

Now, the outside world doesn't have to see the 90% of crap. They have a screen of insiders to tell them how to avoid the 90% of crap. Whereas Time Out New York and the Village Voice have to see every crappy thing that might be worthwhile, the non-theater insider gets to go to StageGrade and hopefully bypass the crap.

On the other hand, critics and theatermakers will have to see the crap. And it will wear. I had that experience when I saw the mediocre play last weekend. But you know what? My heart was still renewed when I saw another play do everything right.

Proposed Solution: If you have a disheartening play experience, you should poke around with people you know to hear what play has gotten them excited recently. And then force yourself to go see it.

Knowing how the Sausage is Made: There really are times where I'm sitting in a play and all I can think of is how I would have done things differently/better. I'm trapped in a theatermaker mindset. It can ruin any show -- sometimes particularly a good one.

Proposed Solution: Go see something that isn't a play that you love! For instance, I really do like music. A lot. But I have absolutely no idea how it is made. So if I'm blocked on theater, maybe I should go see a jazz concert that's well recommended, or go see a visual art exhibition. And while I'm there, I should keep my theater brain stimulated. "How would I do that in my field?"

Lately, my writing brain has been fatigued. Between my thesis and my independent project, it has felt like it needed a rest. But the play I saw (the good one) got my thesis brain thinking. And you know what booted up my theatrical writing brain?


I don't know why. But it got me thinking again, it rebooted me in a way. It got me to wipe aside alot of the heady, critical things that are between me and writing things I enjoy.

Another thing I saw reminded me of an old class project I did once that I might want to revive and do properly:

Having no idea how to auto-tune, and very little background in music, makes me interested to see how to approach the same thing in my field, with my skills.

One last helpful solution, from my playbook:

Talk to People! If you're on a down-swing of creative/passionate energies, figure out who in your circle is on the upswing. Be generous with your time and listen to them. Sometimes buying in to someone else's project can help infect you with their passion, and then get you passionate about everything all over again. One of my cast-members is super excited about Peer Gynt, so until I get something of my own that's complete and ready for me to be passionate about, I'm willing to buy into her passion.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This may be my favorite thing of 2010, other than Luis Suarez' Hand of God II:

Things which it has that I love:
  1. Dry wit.
  2. A cheeky visual gag.
  3. A non-human central antagonist.
  4. Landon Donovan.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Israel's Three-State Solution III

[T]he concept of a model Arab democracy is still latent within the cynical circles of the pro-Israel wing of neoconservatism. SO let me pose a question: where is there a fledgling Arab state whose leaders are now focusing on the humdrum details of housing and economic development and better policing? Where is the state that could be used to show the benefits of cooperation with the West - as opposed to the brutality of Hamas?

It's sitting right there on the map just to the East of Israel proper. Its leaders want more autonomy, its population is showing signs of economic vitality, Europe, Russia and China would be eager to join the US in aiding and helping the nascent state, and it would help resolve one of the core issues fueling Jihadism worldwide: the Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank.

Every Worker's Woes Are Our Woes! II

I posted about technology taking our jobs in the arts. Butts In Seats has another example of automation in the arts:
[W]hat happens when we abdicate our aesthetic judgment to technology? Via Tyler Cohen’s Marginal Revolution blog, is a link to a prototype camera that rates the aesthetics of the picture you are about to take. Move the camera around to different angles to improve the percentage to achieve a better picture. According to the Today and Tomorrow web page, right now the camera, Nadia, communicates via Bluetooth with a Mac that does all the evaluating. The camera was created as something of a statement about the artistic experience, but you know it won’t be long before someone develops this as a feature for digital cameras. I’ll bet they get it linked up with Google Maps to automatically create notes about the best place for tourists to stand in relation to monuments.
From that, it's not hard to extrapolate out to, for instance, a camera that, when pointed at a painting, rates its aesthetic merits. Granted, this prototype camera has a huge advantage in the fact that it is working within a particular realm -- realism -- but why not.

Still, I have a feeling that when we automate our criticism, it's going to look a lot less like Nadia and a lot more like Instead of hiring an expert to sit and put a highly subjective opinion that may not be accurate -- why not invite an advance audience of randomly selected people -- say, through a contest -- and simply have a snap poll?

After all, film already does this with research screenings. Why not simply release the numbers?

Rotten Tomatoes is already a step in that direction; it stands on the theory that people in aggregate have a more accurate understanding of a film's merit than any single critic. And for newspapers with shrinking budgets, it's much easier to hire someone to simply hand out forms and count results than to hire Frank Rich or Roger Ebert.

It's enough to make you grab your pitchfork and cry out, "Dey dook er JAWBS!"

Legal Commentary: Jailbreaking and the Library of Congress

If you've been following the techno-libertarian movement that's basically centered around, you'll know that one of their central tenets is that "If you buy something, you should own it." This has been their central argument against DRM (where you buy music, and the music determines your rights), and also against End User License Agreements, where you basically agree to whatever the company wants you to agree to in order to use that product you bought.

This has been part of their disdain for Apple, who basically tell you to jump off a cliff if you want to fix your iPhone/iPod/iPad/etc. yourself.

One of the more recent reasons against letting you pop open your phone and look at its innards, either in a software or a hardware manner, is because of Apple's relationship with AT&T. The exclusive deal with the iPhone obligated both parties to do whatever is possible to prevent "jailbreaking"; modifying an iPhone to work with other networks.

Well, no longer, Apple:
The Electronic Frontier Foundation won regulatory approval for three exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, including one that covers jailbreaking smartphones.

The Copyright Office of the Library of Congress agreed with the EFF's argument that jailbreaking phones to allow the installation of unapproved software constitutes fair use.

While the ruling applies in theory to any smartphone, the only manufacturer mentioned is Apple, which wrote to voice its objections to the exception, saying the iPhone's restrictions are necessary to protect consumers. The Library rejected Apple's arguments, saying that "if Apple sought to restrict the computer programs that could be run on its computers, there would be no basis for copyright law to assist Apple in protecting its restrictive business model."

As a practical matter, jailbreakers -- including this reporter -- haven't been facing any legal threats up until now. Still, it's nice to have the government's explicit blessing.

As part of the same announcement, the Copyright Office also gave its blessing to video editors who use excerpts of copyrighted movies in online mashups.
You'll notice, by the way, that that is a huge shift in legal precedent -- previously, the inclusion of a 1 second clip of The Simpsons on a television in the background of a documentary was considered infringement. Now, the Copyright Office is stating unequivocally that the use of a clip of film for non-profit purposes (specifically online mashups) is parody, and therefore fair use.

Really, jailbreaking or not jailbreaking is not the important part of this story. The important part of this story is that a consumer advocacy group (Electronic Frontier Foundation) was able to create a broadening of fair use through the Library of Congress' Copyright Office.

Not being connected to them, I don't know exactly how easy this was relative to the other two paths -- Congressional legislation and court rulings. I'm guessing, however, that it was easier than both.

Congressional legislation, as we've all seen, is a grueling process that allows a lot of special interest money -- and the anti-fair-use lobby tends to be much larger than the pro-fair-use lobby. And Congress has inertia about just about everything, especially in these combative times.

Court rulings are a more even playing field, but they can be expensive, and they crucially need a convincing test case -- a case in which it was clear someone's rights were infringed by a crackdown on jailbreaking. There just aren't any actual damages yet, since the reporter observes that this is mostly a theoretical battle. Therefore it would be hard to get a case into a court.

I'm sure there are difficulties with the Library of Congress approach, but it's worth noting that -- as when the Library of Congress accepted the Americans for the Blind request for exceptions to copyright for the visually impaired -- agencies whose jobs including interpreting the law are also places to push for change.

Banks know this -- and that's the uncertainty at the heart of the Financial Reform bill.

Environmentalists know this -- and that's why there's a lot of talk of the EPA having to take action in the absence of a Climate bill.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Other Things I Realized This Weekend

Strasberg, Meisner, and Adler were teaching the same things about acting in the same way that Episcopalians, Baptists, and Catholics teach the same things about Christ.

Pragmatic Aesthetics III: "Interpretation" Pt. 2

I wrote on Saturday a missive about interpretation after seeing a poor show that night. I'm glad I saw that poor show, because last night I saw a show which did everything right that the poor company did wrong: The Brick/Piper McKenzie's Theater of the Arcade (NYT review here of the festival it was a part of).

Well, not all of the five sub-plays did it as well, but the evening's three gems -- the Williams-style adaptation of Donkey Kong, the Mamet-style adaptation of Asteroids, and the Sondheim-style adaptation of Pac-Man managed to do these on key.
  • An "interpretation" is when you add something to the text that does not progress alongside the text.
Each of these "worlds" progressed in interesting ways. The best example of it was the Asteroids adaptation; ironically, the static-ness of the game it is based on (for God's sake, you just break up asteroids) became the core metaphor for how the characters have their world rocked to the very core.

Particularly, there's a central metaphor drawn between the way you have to break apart asteroids into smaller and smaller pieces until they break down into nothing, and the effect that the corporate/Wild West environment of the "asteroid demolition company" has on the people who work there -- they are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.

One pilot is a star; like Glengarry Glen Ross' Roma, he's at the top of his game. The other pilot is an old hand, and is falling apart: like Levene, he's clearly falling apart, and he clearly has committed fraud (the crime being committed). The star pilot implicates the old hand, and eventually he's driven out -- leaving the star pilot in a position to blackmail his boss and begin to commit the same fraud himself. He too has been broken down into smaller and smaller pieces.

  • If you took away the text that you're working with, would anything be happening with the characters and world you've created apart from the text?
This was basically guaranteed by the fact that the source material (the games) had no words to begin with, so the playwright was forced to put the progression and change into the new world they were creating.
  • Only keep the elements of the outer world or inner text that support whatever goal you're trying to achieve with the work.
This was a little bit more tricky -- sometimes it seemed that the video game elements were kept in for a joke, but didn't necessarily move things forward. This was what made the last piece, a Shanley-style adaptation of Super Mario Bros., not nearly as effective as a piece. In order to include the fanciful elements of Super Mario Bros., the characters took magic mushrooms at the beginning, and elements of the game were introduced as hallucinations. It was the least true to the characters, the least true to Shanley, and the least helpful for the story at the center -- two brothers who put aside their differences to chase the girl they both desire.

On the other hand, there was something deeply hilarious about how the playwright managed to incorporate the wooden barrel into the world of the Donkey Kong world -- not just as a weapon that happened to be at hand, but as the cause of his downfall -- he's fired from a wooden barrel factory that is shrinking because everyone uses steel barrels now.
  • Figure out why your outer world needs your inner world, and why your inner world needs your outer world, and why the two of them force each other to progress.
The biggest success was here. Each play -- even the Shanley one, that didn't impress me as much, or the Beckett-style monologue about Frogger (that I think could have been shorter, but worked overall) -- managed to distill the game into a central existential message, connect it to a playwright that reflects that, and make that progression work. For instance, for the Pac-Man musical:
  1. Pac-Man is essentially something that eats, and tries to avoid ghosts.
  2. Pac-Man is greed incarnate -- unable to escape the race to eat as much as possible, although haunted by specters.
  3. Pac-Man is a wealthy bastard who does nothing but eat while he destroys the lives of others, who return to him as ghosts.
  4. Because Pac-Man is, therefore, essentially a grotesque morality play about the few who are rich and the many who are poor, it's basically Sweeney Todd.
  5. Pac-Man is a rich industrialist who must continuously consume to avoid the diseases (such as jaundice, which turns him yellow) -- making him a fat (round) character. In his greed, he has created enemies of those who have starved from poverty -- thus becoming ghosts -- and he is afraid of them.
  6. All of this would be funnier in Germany.
There you have the progression of how Pac-Man becomes a gritty opera about the working class.

All of this has made me rethink how I approach narrative, and I'll be rewriting the sections in my thesis about narrative to accommodate it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics III: "Interpretation"

Tonight, at a rather poor show that I will not name, I realized what makes an "interpretation" stand out terribly, rather than working with a text to create a new work.

An "interpretation" is when you add something to the text that does not progress alongside the text.

So for instance, when I was in high school and I was in a production of Romeo and Juliet set in the Kashmir region (one family was Hindu the other family was Muslim), it did not work because that layer -- the Kashmir layer -- did not progress. After a few minutes, it became forgotten, only remembered when it came to be at odds with the Shakespearean Text (like in the Leonardo di Caprio R+J, whenever they refered to "Swords").

If you took away the text that you're working with, would anything be happening with the characters and world you've created apart from the text?

For instance, West Side Story is a Romeo and Juliet interpretation that became real enough on its own that it didn't need the text anymore. Which is pretty bold to say about Shakespeare, but I think it's fair to say that West Side Story can stand on its own. It would not be improved with "But soft what light through yonder window breaks?"

Only keep the elements of the outer world or inner text that support whatever goal you're trying to achieve with the work.

When we produced our Hamlet directed by John Kurzynowski, one of the levels that tied everything together was that the play Hamlet was actually being staged -- at the beginning by the Ghost of Hamlet's father, and at a certain point by Hamlet herself.

You know what he didn't do? Make the Ghost of Hamlet's father a big-shot director whose son is cast in his father's play as Hamlet, justifying this existential backdrop with "real life details" and creating a whole other persona that is at odds with the reality of the play. Hamlet as Waiting for Guffman.

Give the text every bit of its reality, give the outer world all the reality it needs, craft the two to work together to serve your goal.

Figure out why your outer world needs your inner world, and why your inner world needs your outer world, and why the two of them force each other to progress.

Otherwise, your show is a one trick pony for two and a half hours.

MoMA "Tags" the @

"By the time I landed, it was like a volcano eruption," says [senior MoMA curator] Antonelli. Commentators were in a lather on account of the unusual nature of the acquisition: the @ symbol, the tiny "pig's tail" that resides above the number two on the QWERTY keyboard. The acquisition cost nothing, was freely available to everyone, and didn't add anything material to the museum's collection. Inserting @ into MoMA's collection, Antonelli wrote, "relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world."
I like the idea of museums becoming artists in themselves -- because let's be clear, putting the @ symbol on a wall and saying you've "acquired" it is a work of performance.

Parks IV: Law Upheld

I mentioned Parks Commissioner Benepe's move to limit the number of art vendors in public parks here. Via the Art Law Blog, the AP reports that a city court upheld the law and it took effect five days ago.

Dear New York Times

Dear New York Times,

This is not an interactive feature. It is a diagram. Diagrams are not interactive.

Thank you.

Every Worker's Woes are Our Woes!

Via Playgoer, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a feature on how bread-and-butter industry voice-over jobs are leaving for the global market, and it is straining the local theater scene:
"The market for industrial films and corporate videos is bad. Commercial work is way down. All the things that we generally do to cobble together a living has been affected, so it's harder to live the same middle-class dream as other Americans."
It's a common complaint from the rest of the labor market that globalization means increased competition as it becomes possible for anyone in the globe to do your job.

However, I also spotted this rather chilling Soundcheck debate about virtual orchestras. Subject line:
From Broadway theaters to opera houses and Hollywood production studios, digital orchestras are providing controversial alternatives to real-life musicians. The most recent example concerns the Broadway revival of West Side Story, which will soon lose half of its string section for a synthesizer.
The debate was about even parts artistic (the synthesizers don't sound as good! you're robbing them of the real orchestra experience!) and labor (musicians jobs shrink!).

My first thought, as I watched the video, was -- wait, why does this process still need people? Can't we build a robot to do the job of picking a box up, scanning the code, and putting it on another rack?

With things like the fauxharmonic (here's their pitch for how it saves you money), artists too can be cut back on in the name of efficiencies.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Intellectual Property Has Gone Mad

Another symptom of the fact that having a 78+life copyright term is insane: you literally can't imagine what those rights will mean by the time they expire:
The problem is that it’s still unclear — at least to Random House — who has the rights to publish the electronic versions of older titles, whose contracts don’t specify those rights because e-books simply didn’t exist when they were drafted. Random House sent a letter to literary agents in December 2009 asserting ownership of those rights, citing clauses in older agreements that allow the company to publish texts “in book form… in any and all editions.”
People who signed away their rights when the Soviet Union was a cool new experiment had to figure out what their rights would mean on the internet? What will the rights we deal with today mean in the 2100s?


99Seats-at-Parabasis brings us the needed pallative that Old Spice's Mustafa may be the hottest thing in the world right now, but at the end of the day -- he sells nothing.

I'm just worried. I'm worried that, in the face of the fact that advertising can up name recognition but not sales of recognized products (which is my firm belief), advertisers will stop trying to be creative. They'll just keep the drumbeat of repeating their names to us. Head-On. Apply Directly to the Forehead.

Anyways, if Old Spice sticks it out, there's the possibility that when today's tweens get older, they'll mature into Old Spice buyers when they're 20. Keep up the hope, Old Spice!

Thin Thought

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Quote of the Day

There are sometimes when I can't really find much worthwhile to say, and content myself with quick posts. Then there are times when there aren't enough hours in the day for me to get out everything that has to be said -- this week is one of those. Stay tuned for some posts later today (hopefully) but in the mean time, the quote of the day:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt. RTWT.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anger III: The Way-Back Machine

99 Seats turns lemons into lemonade, using this dispiriting Shirley Sherrod affair to reflect on struggling with biases within ourselves. It's a RTWT thing. There's a lot of interconnected stuff, but there's one dimension that touches on something that we've debated before that I thought it might be useful to return to:
You can't engage in a society or make change or reach anyone coming out of that place of anger. I couldn't live there and maintain any mental integrity. I've been reading some Ralph Ellison essays and plan to tackle Invisible Man again, but I know I'd wind up like him: living in a cave, shut out from the world. I didn't want to go there. have to start somewhere.
I've been meaning to write a post since Chris Bodenner (who was guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's blog) wrote (in reference to the NAACP's resolution calling the Tea Party Movement racist):
I agree with him that a subtler and perhaps more insidious form of racism has seeped into many of the TPM chapters. But for me the issue is a practical matter; was the NAACP resolution helpful for race relations? Based on the immediate and inflammatory backlash showcased in the MSM, I think not.
I've long taken the position that anger is typically not a useful mode of discussion:
It's true that people who cry don't normally solve their problems. But as we're seeing out in the right-wing fringe, the angriest in our society have not been the change-makers. And it turns out we have enough anger out there today. Even though I think we all love Howard Beale's rant about being "Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," let's not forget where that movie leaves him. I don't deny that often, the change would not have come if they had not come first, but at the end of the day, power is the fuel of history.
But specifically, in terms of the discussion around race, I remember clearly our big discussion around Thomas Garvey. Specifically, I remember at the time I took issue with his expression of rage at Garvey, which I defended here:
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.
It seems like at every juncture of this story, people seem to be forced with the choice that Chris Bodenner is implying exists: the choice between what is right, and what is tactical.

Take the NAACP, and their resolution against racism. Many bloggers responded that it seemed a poor use of tactics--that it would just start the sort of "You're a racist!" "No, you're a racist!" spat that leads nowhere and directs attention away from an actual discussion of race.

I, personally, was in this camp, for the same reasons that I felt anger was pointless in the diversity discussion. It's not the same thing -- the NAACP was not being "angry," they were stating facts. But looking back only a few days later, I realize I was wrong. Because it turned out that the choice between being right and being effective was not a real one:
When a group called the National Tea Party Federation took it upon itself to read California radio host Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express out of the insurgent movement because of Williams’s mocking and racially tinged attack on the NAACP, the media seized on the episode as evidence of the tea party movement’s struggle to purge racism from its ranks.
Though Williams is still listed as a spokesman on the Tea Party Express's website, Sal Russo, the owner of Russo Marsh + Rogers said Williams "stepped down a month ago and he is not affiliated" with the PAC.
The lesson which I learned from my mother, and which I struggled to keep in my mind every day since then, is that if you are calm and right, you can prevail a lot more than what people will tell you is possible.

Often it will be frustrating, and no you can't always win, but the idea that you have to choose between being right and being effective is not a choice. Now, I still think that choosing between expressing rightness angrily and being effective is often a choice, but this NAACP thing reminded me that you should never, ever think twice about speaking the truth. It's never a useless thing.

I guess I need to reread Vaclav Havel's Power of the Powerless, and remind myself that there is power in living in truth, even in a world where lies have a depressing amount of traction.

And you know who else could stand to go back to those roots? Barack Obama. This whole Shirley Sherrod affair was treated not unlike the Yosi Sargant affair -- don't bother fighting the smears because there are "bigger battles to fight." They didn't even take the time to review the facts of the case -- they just kicked her to the curb.

Oddly, Barack Obama already demonstrated the higher path on this affair:

He took the time to speak calmly and with nuance, and he risked substantial liability to himself by refusing to simply throw aside his church. And Reverend Wright had said something actually offensive to a lot of people (no one ever argued that "God Damn America" was taken out of context).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rules of Engagement VI: Israel pt. 2

I normally make it a policy not to repeat the stuff that Andrew Sullivan posts simply because if you're on the web, you should be reading Andrew Sullivan, but until you read this sentence, you don't truly understand Israel today:

"Beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it’s unbearable."

That's Prime Minister Netenyahu in 2001 describing his approach to Palestine. Or how about his view on the Oslo Accords:

"Why is that important? Because from that moment on I stopped the Oslo Accords."

Silly Netenyahu, don't you remember how it was all Arafat's fault?

(Update: in my irritation, I forgot to actually link to the article.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The High Ground Maneuver

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame talks about Steve Jobs' use of language:

I'm a student of how language influences people. Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs' words: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.


I have long had a name for Jobs' clever move. I call it the "High Ground Maneuver." I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."
The strongest reason, I think, that Barack Obama won the 2008 election was because of this. The 2004 election speech that catapulted him into the public sphere:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America.
Bear in mind that he is using this as an argument for voting for Democrats. Or, here's another attempt to shift frame around American politics, from the inauguration address:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
In each maneuver, he tries to loosen the Republican false oppositions by reframing the debate -- and therefore be able to push his agenda further forward.

But let's not forget that this strategy does not necessarily work. Eric Massa tried to "reframe" his groping of a male staffer by saying "You can take anything out of context." As though to the people who were involved, it seemed harmless (which is not really the testimony that came out from the staffers).

And really, wasn't the failed king of this tactic Donald Rumsfeld? When asked to comment on looting in Iraq, he famously said, "Stuff happens." (Theatergoers: David Hare wrote an entire play by this title) Or what about thinking about the Iraq War from really high up:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Headlines - Flyover Statement
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

So the moral of the story is that there's some advantage to the high ground, but it's not impenetrable.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sex Offenders

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office has found that in 2008, the State Department issued about 4,500 passports to registered sex offenders -- a figure the watchdog agency says is probably understated due to data limitations.
Can we make a decision, as a society? Are post-prison sex offenders safe members of society, or are they not? If they are not, then they need to remain in jail, so raise the sentences to life. If they are, then that's that -- not GPS ankle bracelets, not travel restrictions, not being repeatedly evicted from their homes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write Like... wait, really?

Okay, so, thanks Isaac for making me get started on my morning work late. Still, I have to conclude that this analysis machine is rather bunk.

I decided to put in the one post I wrote in verse. Who did I get compared to? J.D. Salinger.

Maybe it would help if I put in narrative fiction, since that appears to be the pool of authors it was drawing from. But still, the idea that if I write in verse I'm writing like Salinger... c'mon, interwebs! You can give me bullshit comparisons better than that!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Legal Commentary IV: FCC Case

I read this aloud to my roommate, and he turned his head and said, "So... boobs and fucking on TV?"

No, Joel, no boobs or fucking on TV. The Supreme Court visited the issue in 2009, ruling that banning fleeting expletives was constitutionally supported. But this time, the 2nd Circuit court appears to have taken issue with the vagueness of the law, stating that it was "unconstitutionally vague, creating a chilling effect."

The court's makeup will have changed somewhat since the last time they heard the case (if, of course, they decide to hear it -- they probably will, seeing as it overturns their previous ruling and they are the higher court).

Also note that there has been a slight shift in the cultural norm since 2009. The case then centered around Bono describing his Golden Globe as "Fucking brilliant." This was considered indecent. Compare that to 2010, where President Barack Obama said "It's a big fucking meal" at the Press Correspondent's Dinner (it was bleeped), and said that he consults experts "So I know who's ass to kick." When Joe Biden first made his "big fucking deal" gaffe, people talked about inappropriate use of expletive, but by the time Obama had said it, there were few waves in the water.

There's an argument to be made that the FCC's standard of "indecency" is falling out of sync with the country's. They need to have clear guidelines, and I think they need in particular to be able to demonstrate that each point of those clear guidelines has a compelling interest in censoring. For instance, if you say the n word, particular in a hateful context, there's a much more compelling interest in censoring it than, for instance, broadcasting sex while blurring out the woman's nipples.

If the FCC is forced not only to issue standards, but to have to justify those standards, we can have a much more honest approach to the issue of broadcasting.

Ways Not To Deal With Death: Journalism Edition

Why it hurts: What his family "described" as a 13-year battle? What part of the family's statement is the article not willing to take as fact? The 13 years, or the battle? Or maybe the family is just making up the prostate cancer itself?

Why it hurts: Okay, yes, this is strictly true. And maybe it is good to revisit the fact that for one year nobody is taxed on their estates. But for God's sakes -- the man died, just carry a freakin' obituary.

Exhibit B bonus points: The opening sentence: "George Steinbrenner never had to synchronize his bat with a major league fastball, but in death, his timing was impeccable."


Rules of Engagement V: The Problem

I took off on a series of posts about Rules of Engagement (I, II, III, and IV). The second case study mentioned in Part III (the Oscar Grant trial) just ended in an acquittal, leading to riots in Oakland.

The underlying problem with the Rules of Engagement is basically summed up in this email to Andrew Sullivan:
Something to keep in mind is that police officers are required to walk into and to participate in events from which the rest of us are entitled - and even advised - to shy away.

That fact, I think, is part of the reason why police officers are less likely to be convicted for shootings for which they would be punished if they were not police officers. I'm not chasing after a guy identified by a bloodied victim as having raped her; I'm not supposed to confront him, to physically subdue him and to take him into custody.

If I think a guy has a gun - just "think" he does - I can run away. But since I wasn't running after him in the first place I'm not that likely to be present when he pulls out what I think is a gun. And I certainly don't have to keep going toward him so that I can capture and subdue him.

Police officers get a break on their decisions to use force because they have to actually make decisions; the rest of us don't.
The idea that we can't pass judgment over police officers based on how they decide to use force negates the whole reason why we limited who can use first in the first place. We -- the public, even those of us who don't make regular personal decisions about the use of force -- need to be in the reigns of the discussion of how force is used.

For instance, imagine if we held that same standard for the macro-case of the use of force: the military. The whole point of "civillian control of the military" is to give those who are not war-makers control over war.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Myth of the Rational Consumer

Mission Paradox's quote to start the week:
If there's a new and lasting credo from the Big Shakeout (the economic crisis) it's this: People will continue to pay for quality. They will be less and less inclined, however, to pay for bullshit.

- Anthony Bourdain: "Medium Raw"
Really? It seems to me that Mr. Bourdain is placing faith in the rational consumer, that beast whose existence is getting increasingly disproved in this decade. Will people continue to pay for quality? Or does it put more pressure on them to favor the McDonald's dollar menu over cooking at home?

It's true that people will be less and less inclined to pay for what they consider to be bullshit, but is what they think bullshit actually bullshit? My fear is that to the average American, the arts are bullshit. It appears that for state governments, for instance, the arts are bullshit.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Daily Show, Sexism, Etc.

Isaac responds to the Daily Show sexism allegations here. I don't have a disagreement with how he applies it to theater, but I do want to respond to the specific analogy:
Sub in "Playwrights Horizons" for Jon Stewart and racial diversity amongst playwrights, and you've pretty much got the point I've been trying to make on this site.
I'm torn about whether I think Jon Stewart is the Playwrights Horizons in this situation. Because really, the organization that has a greater power and a greater responsibility to rectify things in this situation is, really, Comedy Central (or Viacom?).

Jon Stewart does have the onus to do as best as he can to improve hiring practices if it is within his reach, but to say that it's Jon Stewart's job to reshape the future of the industry seems to me to simply be inflating his personal position in the field. He's not an executive beyond the reach of his show. I really think that it's his employers -- Comedy Central / MTV Enterprises / Viacom that have a lot more power and sway to change the landscape of the industry to let in more women.

I'm looking at Comedy Central's lineup, and here's the list of original programming (not counting their stand-up programming) led by men:
  • The Daily Show
  • South Park
  • The Colbert Report
  • Tosh.0
  • Ugly Americans
  • Important Things with Demetri Martin
  • Futurama
Here's the list of original programming led by women:

That's Playwrights Horizons.

(Update: Ian Thal brings up The Sarah Silverman Program as being a show led by a woman on Comedy Central. Unfortunately, the Sarah Silverman Program appears to have been cancelled, which is why the Wikipedia list I referred to to generate the above list did not include it.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Circle Rules Federation Update

My Circle Rules Football team, The Slow (James K.) Polks, had our eighth game this evening (previous updates here and here). Our team was on a four-game victory rally, and we showed up a quarter of an hour early in fine numbers and we were ready to gel.

Our opponents were The Flying Mordecais -- I had refereed a game between The Flying Mordecais and Shock and Awe which ended in a gigantic blowout in favor of The Flying Mordecais. A number of extremely tall players and a background in basketball gives them a huge advantage in the air, and difficult to go head-to-head with when trying to hold possession of the ball.

Within the first quarter, we had pulled ahead 5-1 with a commanding lead. Alex Johnson on defense proved to have a talent for smashing the ball a great distance, even in the face of wind, helping us quickly set up a lot of quick shots on offense quickly after robbing the ball from goal.

The second quarter kept the intensity up, moving the score to 8-3. Having more players in attendence, we were able to substitute early and often, keeping our players fresh and our strategies changing. Jabari Brisport, for instance, blew out onto the field early and sprang across the field like a jackrabbit. Andrew Butler kept us pumped up by reminding us that we are all actors: so we should give as our "emotional preparation" that we were down by two points, rather than up by five.

The third quarter, thinking that we were down by 2, we managed to push one more goal in, leading 9-3 -- Mordecai's coverage of the goal was getting better, and our previous strategies to get past the defense.

I had to leave at that point, but the fourth quarter was reputedly a moment for us to catch another wind and put some more away in the net. Final score was apparently 15-5; fantastic.

And really, beyond our well-organized team and our dedication to showing up punctually and working together, the real cog that put it in place is Andrew Butler, our team captain. In addition to knowing how to keep our heads in the game (and getting us orange wedges!) he has, over the course of this season, become a consummate coach -- he adapts our strategy to the team we're playing, arranges us on the field, adjusts how we're playing as he sees (from the sidelines) what is going on.

So, onward Polky soldiers! On to the finals.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I Love It When Friends Succeed!

Movement Theatre Company include some alumnis of the program I attended, and I remember seeing a couple members' independent project at the end of the fourth year. It was fantastic. Now they're a few years out, and it is exciting to see that their latest show, Bintou, is attracting some positive press. Other than the positive hubbub, I haven't heard much about it, but I know that it is by Ivorian author Koffi Kwahule, and I know that it is supposed to be very good.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

“This is not President Obama’s war; this is America’s war,” he said, adding, “I want to separate myself from that statement. And the good news is Michael Steele is backtracking so fast he’s going to be in Kabul fighting here pretty soon.”

-- Senator Lindsey Graham, on Michael Steele's stupid, stupid comments about the War in Afghanistan.

The National Narrative and the Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day. I saw a great article in a local news source revisiting the whole Jefferson being reduced in textbooks scandal (not being able to link to the local news source, I give you Gawker instead). The best response, I think, comes from recent Onion headline: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution to Be.

We're all guilty of it. We all remember different traditions of the Constitution as upholding the best of our American spirit, whatever we feel it to be. You'll hear very little about the 3/5ths Compromise. It's not part of the usual narrative.

However alluring downplaying Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father would be, I do think there's an opportunity for the Tea Party to work their values into the founding myth more strongly without needing to detract. Particularly, rather than isolating the Framers of the Constitution (whose expressed purpose was to recreate a government with more centralized powers and effectiveness, able to levy taxes and redistribute wealth and resources) and preaching some "returning to the Founding Fathers", I think they could use this holiday to highlight their real forebears: the Anti-Federalist Founding Fathers.

There is a more powerful argument to say that, for instance, many of the fears of Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death!") and Sam Adams (key to both the Tea Party and the Boston Massacre) had for the new Constitution have come to pass. I don't particularly think Adams, Washington, or Madison would be shocked or horrified by our government, if they had the time to look through the 200 years of history they missed since their deaths. But Patrick Henry and Sam Adams and their contemporaries would go insane, tear their hairs out.

Furthermore, I think that bringing those fears and criticisms of the Constitution into the daylight would be a net positive for patriots who want to reflect on the meaning of America. Rather than tossing out the baby with the bathwater, examine both sides of the coin.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson may have separated church and state, but he also believed in constant revolution ("The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants") and was the godfather of the strain of legal thinking that provided the foundation for the South's secession. And of course the easiest pot-shot to take at him is that he owned slaves and had illegitimate children with them.

So as you have your hot dogs and launch your illegal fireworks (seriously, Brooklyn?), take a moment to think of the checks and balances that make our country strong, and the long divided history our national narrative has been -- oh screw that, go have fun!

Happy independence day.