Thursday, November 8, 2018

Fifteen Years

Today marks fifteen years since November 8, 2003, when I sat down to set up this blog on Blogger and wrote the first post of Bark Bark Woof Woof.  Back then I was living in a little apartment in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, I was a little over a year into my job with the public schools, and I was in my early fifties, single, and had visions of becoming part of the burgeoning blogosphere and a famous writer.  We were a year away from the 2004 election and outraged at the excesses of the Bush administration and vowing to take our country back from the warmongering and arrogant GOP.  I drove a Mustang convertible and had a Pontiac station wagon in the parking lot awaiting restoration, knowing it would be another ten years before it would be considered old enough to enter in antique car shows.

Well, fifteen years later, I’ve moved twice, changed servers twice, updated the blog from Blogger to WordPress with the invaluable guidance and expertise of my brother, and, according to the stats counter, written over 28,000 posts.  With a few exceptions due to weather and internet access, I’ve written every post and written something (or at least put up something) every day, be it a simple observation — How about those Tigers? — or a long essay on something that strikes me as important and worth sharing, be it marriage equality or nostalgia about leaving my old home town.  Much water has gone under the bridge, but some things have not changed: I still work for the public schools, I still have a Mustang convertible (though not the same one), and I still have the Pontiac, now restored and going to car shows.  And I’m still finding things to wax long or short about, and I’m still getting up at 3 a.m. to look at the world and try to find some way to make sense of it all.

This is the place where I say thank you to you, the reader, for coming here whenever you do and seeing what I’ve put up, and for those of you who comment, a sincere thanks for your support, your guidance, your corrections, and your indulgence.  I’ve gotten to know many of you in real life and I truly appreciate your friendship and support.

By the way, when I started this blog I made a somewhat diligent effort to keep my real name off the pages because I was pretty sure that writing an opinion blog while working for the public schools could cause issues.  Well, I’m less than a year away from retirement, I’ve rarely if ever written about anything to do with my work (and when I have it’s been supportive), and it doesn’t take a crack team of cyberanalysts to figure out who I am.  So I’ll tell you: my real name is Philip Middleton Williams, and if you want to know about my playwriting, you can look me up on the New Play Exchange.  I will still blog under the name Mustang Bobby and credit my alter-ego Bobby Cramer with all the work because he’s still a large part of my creative writing.  He will get his turn on stage next March when “Can’t Live Without You” opens at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton.

Anyway, fifteen years down and many more to come.  What’s next?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sunday Reading

To Tell The Truth — Timothy L. O’Brien in Bloomberg about Trump under oath.

Trump held an impromptu press briefing in the White House early Wednesday evening, popping into a meeting of reporters and his chief of staff and telling the group that he’s “looking forward” to speaking “under oath” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

That’s the Robert Mueller who is overseeing a Justice Department investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Kremlin to tilt the 2016 election in his favor. That’s the Robert Mueller who is examining whether Trump and others in his orbit obstructed law-enforcement efforts to examine that matter. And that’s the Robert Mueller scouring the president’s businesses and finances. He’s already indicted four former Trump insiders for a variety of crimes, including lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Yet the president mustered the bravado to tell reporters last night that he “would love to” sit down with Mueller in two or three weeks.

Sometimes love is blind.

Whether he realizes it or not, Trump is in a perilous position. He presides over a chaotic White House stocked with competing interests and egos, he’s mired in a complex investigation and he’s advised and protected by a relatively scanty phalanx of private attorneys. If the president goes mano-a-mano with Mueller, the outcome of that encounter is likely to hinge on how careful, credible and capable he is under oath.

Speaking from experience, I think the president’s attorneys should grab their worry beads. Trump sued me for libel in 2006 for a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” alleging that the book misrepresented his business record and understated his wealth. Trump lost the suit in 2011, but during the litigation my lawyers deposed him under oath for two days in 2007. We had the opportunity to ask Trump about his business and banking practices, his taxes, his personal finances and his professional relationships.

Trump’s attorney then was Marc Kasowitz, who also briefly represented the president when the Justice Department investigation first got rolling in Washington. My attorney was Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor steeped in many of the same legal traditions and courtroom experiences as Mueller. It didn’t go well for the future president.

Hammered by White and her deputies, Trump ultimately had to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff: how much of a big Manhattan real estate project he owned; the price of one of his golf club memberships; the size of the Trump Organization; his wealth; his speaking fees; how many condos he had sold; his debts, and whether he borrowed money from his family to avoid going personally bankrupt. He also lied during the deposition about his business dealings with career criminals.

Trump’s poor performance stemmed in part from the fact that he was being interrogated by shrewd attorneys wielding his own business and financial records against him. But there were lots of other things that went wrong as well.

Trump is impatient and has never been an avid or dedicated reader. That’s OK if you’d rather play golf, but it’s not OK when you need to absorb abundant or complex details. Lawyers typically prepare binders full of documents for their clients to pore over prior to a deposition, hoping to steel them for an intense grilling. My lawyers did that prior to my own deposition in the Trump lawsuit. But Trump didn’t appear to be well prepared when we deposed him, a weakness that my lawyers exploited (and that Mueller surely would as well).

Trump, for example, had submitted a document to the court from his accountant outlining his assets and liabilities. He was proud of the document’s glowing conclusions but hadn’t seemed to have read most of it prior to sitting down with my lawyers – including a section that said that the report wasn’t a reliable gauge of his wealth. Trump seemed surprised when my lawyers pointed that out.

Trump also has a well-known inability to stick to the facts and a tendency to dissemble and improvise. While under oath, he’ll try to avoid saying that he’s lied in the past until he’s presented with documentation proving otherwise.

“How do you differentiate between exaggeration and a lie?” one of my lawyers, Andrew Ceresney, asked when discussing inflated sales figures Trump had used to promote a property.

“You want to put the best spin on a property,” Trump replied. “No different than any other real estate developer, no different than any other businessman, no different than any politician.”

Ceresney pointed out that there was a difference, though: the actual sales figures for the property being discussed, which Ceresney possessed. This is relevant today, because Trump probably doesn’t know which documents Mueller has collected. If the president sits down under oath and lies, it’s likely that Mueller will have a raft of paperwork on hand to document that fact.

Trump has also courted the spotlight for so long that there’s an ample public record going back decades of statements he’s made on a wide array of subjects. That’s not true of most people sitting for a deposition, but it’s true for Trump and it’s a problem for him. My lawyers unearthed wildly conflicting statements Trump had made about his wealth over the years, for example, but they only had media and books to rely on. Mueller can dig into the president’s ill-considered and possibly damaging Twitter rants about what he calls the Russia “witch hunt,” the FBI and his life in the Oval Office.

Trump’s campaign and White House aides may have done any number of problematic things without Trump knowing about them, and that could protect him from being charged with setting illegal things in motion (like obstructing a federal investigation, for example). But another Trump weakness is that he basks in the perception that he’s the man in charge and everyone else follows his orders.

At moments during his deposition in my libel case, Trump would have been well served to acknowledge that others in his organization – like his chief financial officer – had independently decided to gather and report certain problematic financial information. But Trump couldn’t resist saying that his minions at the Trump Organization and elsewhere were just following his orders, a boast that also raised the legal stakes for himself (even if he didn’t realize that’s what he was doing).

Trump’s enthusiasm for a get-together with Mueller clearly freaked out his lawyers, who scrambled to roll back the president’s statements shortly after he made them. His lead lawyer, Ty Cobb, said that the president was speaking off the cuff and that a more considered approach to Mueller and his team might be taken.

“He’s ready to meet with them, but he’ll be guided by the advice of his personal counsel,” Mr. Cobb said of the president.

I’m not so sure. Cobb’s client hasn’t often been guided by advice from anyone. He’s probably not going to start now.

Unfriend This — Ethan Zuckerberg on Facebook’s self-service.

Facebook’s crushing blow to independent media arrived last fall in Slovakia, Cambodia, Guatemala, and three other nations.The social giant removed stories by these publishers from users’ news feeds, hiding them in a new, hard-to-find stream. These independent publishers reported that they lost as much as 80 percent of their audience during this experiment.

Facebook doesn’t care. At least, it usually seems that way.

Despite angry pushback in the six countries affected by Facebook’s algorithmic tinkering, the company is now going ahead with similar changes to its news feed globally. These changes will likely de-prioritize stories from professional publishers, and instead favor dispatches published by a user’s friends and family. Many American news organizations will see the sharp traffic declines their brethren in other nations experienced last year—unless they pay Facebook to include their stories in readers’ feeds.

At the heart of this change is Facebook’s attempt to be seen not as a news publisher, but as a neutral platform for interactions between friends. Facing sharp criticism for its role in spreading misinformation, and possibly in tipping elections in the United States and in the United Kingdom, Facebook is anxious to limit its exposure by limiting its role. It has long been this way.This rebalancing means different things for the company’s many stakeholders—for publishers, it means they’re almost certainly going to be punished for their reliance on a platform that’s never been a wholly reliable partner. Facebook didn’t talk to publishers in Slovakia because publishers are less important than other stakeholders in this next incarnation of Facebook. But more broadly, Facebook doesn’t talk to you because Facebook already knows what you want.

Facebook collects information on a person’s every interaction with the site—and many other actions online—so Facebook knows a great deal about what we pay attention to. People say they’re interested in a broad range of news from different political preferences, but Facebook knows they really want angry, outraged articles that confirm political prejudices.

Publishers in Slovakia and in the United States may warn of damage to democracy if Facebook readers receive less news, but Facebook knows people will be perfectly happy—perfectly engaged—with more posts from friends and families instead.

For Facebook, our revealed preferences—discovered by analyzing our behavior—speak volumes. The words we say, on the other hand, are often best ignored. (Keep this in mind when taking Facebook’s two question survey on what media brands you trust.)Tristan Harris, a fierce and persuasive critic of the ad-supported internet, recently offered me an analogy to explain a problem with revealed preferences. I pledge to go to the gym more in 2018, but every morning when I wake up, my partner presents me with a plate of donuts and urges me to stay in bed and eat them. My revealed preferences show that I’m more interested in eating donuts than in exercising. But it’s pretty perverse that my partner is working to give me what I really crave, ignoring what I’ve clearly stated I aspire to.

Facebook’s upcoming newsfeed change won’t eliminate fake news… at least, it didn’t in Slovakia. People share sensational or shocking news, while more reliable news tends not to go viral. When people choose to subscribe to reliable news sources, they’re asking to go to the gym. With these newsfeed changes, Facebook threw out your gym shoes and subscribed you to a donut delivery service. Why do 2 billion people put up with a service that patronizingly reminds them that it’s designed for their well being, while it studiously ignores our stated preferences? Many people feel like they don’t have a choice. Facebook is the only social network, for example, where I overlap with some of my friends, especially those from my childhood and from high school.

I don’t want Facebook to go away—I want it to get better. But increasingly, I think the only way Facebook will listen to people’s expressed preferences is if people start building better alternatives. Right now, Facebook chooses what stories should top your news feed, optimizing for “engagement” and “time well spent.” Don’t like the choices Facebook is making? Too bad. You can temporarily set Facebook to give you a chronological feed, but when you close your browser window, you’ll be returned to Facebook’s paternalistic algorithm.This fall, my colleagues and I released gobo.social, a customizable news aggregator. Gobo presents you with posts from your friends, but also gives you a set of sliders that govern what news you see and what’s hidden from you. Want more serious news, less humor? Move a slider. Need to hear more female voices? Adjust the gender slider, or press the “mute all men” button for a much quieter internet. Gobo currently includes half a dozen ways to tune your news feed, with more to come. (It’s open source software, so you can write your own filters, too.) Gobo is a provocation, not a product. While it’s a good tool for reading Twitter, Facebook only allows us to show you Facebook Pages (the pages that are being deprioritized in the news feed changes), not posts from your friends, crippling its functionality as a social network aggregator. Our goal is not to persuade you to read your social media through Gobo (though you’re certainly welcome to try!), but to encourage platforms like Facebook to give their users more control over what they see.

If you want to use Facebook to follow the news, you should be able to, even if Facebook’s algorithms know what really captures your attention. There’s a robust debate about how Facebook should present news to its readers. Should it filter out fake news? Prioritize high quality news? Focus on friends and family instead of politics? Facebook’s decision to steer away from news is an attempt to evade this challenging debate altogether. And perhaps we were wrong to invite Facebook to this debate in the first place.Instead of telling Facebook what it should do, people should build tools that let them view the world the way they choose. If regulators force Facebook and other platforms to police news quality, they’ll give more control to a platform that’s already demonstrated its disinterest editorial judgment. A better path would be to force all platforms to adopt two simple rules:

  1. Users own their own data, including the content they create and the web of relationships they’ve built online. And they can take this data with them from one platform to another, or delete it from an existing platform.
  2. Users can view platforms like Facebook through an aggregator, a tool that lets you read social media through your own filters, like Gobo.

The first rule helps solve the problem that Facebook alternatives like Diaspora and Mastodon have faced. People have a great deal of time and emotional energy invested in their online communities. Asking them to throw these connections out and more to another network is a non-starter. If we can move our data between platforms, there’s the possibility that some of Facebook’s 2 billion users will choose a social network where they have more control over what they read and write. The second rule allows developers to build real customizable aggregators, not toys like Gobo, which would let people control what they read on online platforms—helping them live up to their aspirations, not down to their preferences.

Obviously, Facebook is filled with people who care deeply about these issues. Some are my friends and my former students. But Facebook suffers from a problem of its own success. It has grown so central to our mediated understanding of the world that it either needs to learn to listen to its users stated desires, or it needs to make room for platforms that do.

An Appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin — John Wray on the writer who defied categorization.

Four years ago, on a midsummer Sunday, I rang the doorbell of an unassuming Victorian perched on the north slope of the Forest Park neighborhood of Portland, Ore., and waited for Ursula Kroeber Le Guin to come to the door. I’d grown up with — and in no small part, because of — her writing, from “Earthsea” to “The Left Hand of Darkness” to “The Dispossessed” to “Lavinia,” and the moment felt appropriately otherworldly. Not everyone is lucky enough to find himself ringing the doorbell of one of his literary heroes, let alone with a decent chance of being let in, and I was somewhat dumbstruck at the privilege. My host, when she came to the door, was decidedly less solemn.

“Come on in, Wray,” she said. “You get here all right? Good. Watch out for that [expletive] cat. He’s a terrorist.”

(Ms. Le Guin’s vernacular, I’d soon discover, was saltier than might be anticipated from an 84-year-old with a pixie cut. From here on, let the reader insert invectives into our dialogue at will.)

Fittingly for a writer of speculative fiction, Ms. Le Guin’s house seemed larger on the inside than it was on the outside. I entered cautiously, and not only because of the cat. I was there to spend a long weekend conducting an interview with her for The Paris Review, the highbrow literary journal known for its in-depth conversations on the craft of fiction, and I’d had to lobby the editor for a month to get him to consider featuring a writer whose work was so tinged with genre. Ms. Le Guin, however, was distinctly beyond caring what literary New York thought of her — if the thought, in fact, had ever crossed her mind.

“Where I can get prickly, Wray, is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer,” she said. “I’m not. I’m a novelist and a poet. Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions. If there’s ever been a better description of Ms. Le Guin’s astonishingly diverse and adventurous body of work, I’ve yet to come across it. She’ll doubtlessly be remembered for her sophisticated, nuanced and profoundly humanistic speculative fiction, and of course for her series of magical coming-of-age novels, the Earthsea series, without which the Harry Potter megafranchise could scarcely be imagined. But she was more than a sci-fi or fantasy writer, much more. She was more than her identity as a trailblazer in the overwhelmingly male (and chauvinistic) field of 1960s and ’70s science fiction, as well, and more than an iconoclastic thinker on gender, or on ethics, or on the material world. The much-discussed fluidity of gender in her most famous novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness,” could serve as a metaphor for Ms. Le Guin’s entire approach to living, thinking and creating: She reserved the right to think, and write, and react as she saw fit — and to inhabit a completely different role as the occasion, or the project, demanded.

Ms. Le Guin cared passionately about many things, as is clear to any reader of her books: the rights of indigenous peoples, the search for alternatives to our pitiless economic scheme, the myth of innate gender difference, our slow collective murder of the planet. But what she cared about above all, it seems to me, was the paramount freedom — if not obligation — of all thinking individuals to define their personal enterprise strictly for, and by, themselves. By the time I came to know her, Ms. Le Guin had made peace with the nature of her legacy, and with the reductive effects of the passage of time. But it was, to the end, an anarchist’s peace.

I learned many things from Ms. Le Guin in the course of that first day, which we spent drinking tea and chatting on her slightly vertiginous veranda, with its glorious view of the snowy cone of Mount St. Helens. We talked about the usefulness of whispering one’s writing aloud when revising, and how it somehow functioned better than reading at a normal volume, when trying to get the music of a sentence right. We talked about the advantages an interest in ethnography can give to writers interested in imagining entire societies, if not whole worlds. We talked about the mysterious power of artists in the last stages of their creative lives, when they were writing to please no one but themselves.

I was working on a science fiction novel of my own at the time — my first — and I confessed to her that it seemed to be turning into something too complex, perhaps even convoluted, for the rollicking page-turner I’d hoped for. Her response shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did.

Entertaining them is all well and good, Wray, but does it make them think?”

I answered, a bit defensively, that I thought my book did — maybe more so than most readers might be looking for. That snort came again.

“We don’t know what we’re looking for when we pick up a book, no matter how clear-cut the genre,” she said. “We think we do, but we don’t. Don’t ever give people the thing they expect just because they expect it. Our job is to surprise them, to shake them — to turn their expectations on their heads. And do you know why, Wray?”

Why, I managed to mumble.

“Because that’s when the MRI of their brain lights up, and they begin to see.”

Don’t try to fit Ms. Le Guin into your pigeonhole, posterity — or even into two, or three, or half a dozen. Her tentacles are coming out in all directions.

Doonesbury — Advice for the road.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Take Your Kids To Work Day

The White House announced with great fanfare that today, Thursday, April 27, is Take Your Daughter and Son To Work Day.  (In the Trump regime, that’s every day, isn’t it?)

We’ve done that here at my office in the past, usually with kids who are middle to high school age so they can get an idea of what goes on behind the scenes to keep the school district running.  I am sure that most of the kids find it less than interesting because it’s really hard to make bureaucracy cool.  Trust me, I’ve tried putting a spin on budget transfers, transfers of expenditures (aka journal vouchers), and the other things that I do on a daily basis, and I can hear their eyes glazing over.  Explaining the bigger picture — what we do does have an impact on what they see and do in the classroom — takes a bit of understanding beyond just numbers, records, and the glacial pace of how any corporate structure works.

However, one of the things school is intended to prepare students for is becoming a part of the workplace; learning the microcosms makes the macros work.  This is true in everything from being a barista to a government number-cruncher, and while there may not seem to be much point to some of the mind-numbing tasks everyone in every job faces, finding out that there’s more to a job than just doing it is an important part of differentiating between a job and a career.

I spent last week among a lot of people who are doing what they love — theatre and writing — and who also have a job that they find fulfilling and does more than just provide an income to support their theatre habit.  There seemed to be a symbiosis between art and income; they inform and enrich each other.  Even great artists had to have some way of paying the rent.  Charles Ives, a great American composer, sold insurance, as did Wallace Stevens, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

If you take your kid to work, I’m not promising an epiphany on how the world works, but they might learn that if you look hard enough or care enough, you can find art and fulfillment in just about anything.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Copycat

Politico reports that some of Neil Gorsuch’s writing came from someone else.

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch copied the structure and language used by several authors and failed to cite source material in his book and an academic article, according to documents provided to POLITICO.

The documents show that several passages from the tenth chapter of his 2006 book, “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” read nearly verbatim to a 1984 article in the Indiana Law Journal. In several other instances in that book and an academic article published in 2000, Gorsuch borrowed from the ideas, quotes and structures of scholarly and legal works without citing them.

The findings come as Republicans are on the brink of changing Senate rules to confirm Gorsuch over the vehement objections of Democrats. The documents could raise questions about the rigor of Gorsuch’s scholarship, which Republicans have portrayed during the confirmation process as unimpeachable.

The White House on Tuesday pushed back against any suggestion of impropriety.

“This false attack has been strongly refuted by highly-regarded academic experts, including those who reviewed, professionally examined, and edited Judge Gorsuch’s scholarly writings, and even the author of the main piece cited in the false attack,” said White House spokesman Steven Cheung. “There is only one explanation for this baseless, last-second smear of Judge Gorsuch: those desperate to justify the unprecedented filibuster of a well-qualified and mainstream nominee to the Supreme Court.”

However, six experts on academic integrity contacted independently by POLITICO differed in their assessment of what Gorsuch did, ranging from calling it a clear impropriety to mere sloppiness.

“Each of the individual incidents constitutes a violation of academic ethics. I’ve never seen a college plagiarism code that this would not be in violation of,” said Rebecca Moore Howard, a Syracuse University professor who has written extensively on the issue.

Elizabeth Berenguer, an associate professor of law at Campbell Law School, said that under legal or academic standards Gorsuch’s similarities to the Indiana Law Journal would be investigated “as a potential violation of our plagiarism policy. It’s similar enough to the original work.”

“I would apply an academic writing standard,” said Berenguer, who teaches plagiarism and legal writing. “Even if it were a legal opinion, it would be plagiarism under either.”

The White House provided statements from more than a half-dozen scholars who have worked with Gorsuch or helped oversee the dissertation he wrote at Oxford University that was later turned into his book. They included John Finnis, professor emeritus at Oxford; John Keown of Georgetown University, one of the outside supervisors for Gorsuch’s dissertation; and Robert George of Princeton University, the general editor for Gorsuch’s book publisher.

The experts offered by the White House asserted that the criteria for citing work in dissertations on legal philosophy is different than for other types of academia or journalism: While Gorsuch may have borrowed language or facts from others without attribution, they said, he did not misappropriate ideas or arguments.

The White House experts don’t seem to get the gist of what defines plagiarism.  You can’t “borrow” language or facts without citing them and not run straight into it.

Bonus Track: Josh Marshall has some good thoughts on why it’s important to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination.

As Rep. Adam Schiff put it yesterday on Twitter, Mitch McConnell’s historically unprecedented and constitutionally illegitimate decision to block President Obama from nominating anyone a year before he left office was the real nuclear option. The rest is simply fallout. Senate Republicans had the power to do this. But that doesn’t make it legitimate. The seat was stolen. Therefore Gorsuch’s nomination is itself illegitimate since it is the fruit of the poisoned tree.

Democrats likely have no power to finally prevent this corrupt transaction. It is nonetheless important that they not partake in the corruption. Treating this as a normal nomination would do just that. There are now various good arguments to vote against Gorsuch’s nomination on the merits. But to me that’s not even the point. Democrats should filibuster the nomination because it is not a legitimate nomination. Filibustering the nomination is the right course of action. If Republicans react by abolishing the Supreme Court filibuster, so be it. It didn’t really exist anyway. Again, they should filibuster this nomination because it is the right thing to do.

Copy that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2016

It’s time for the annual look at the best posts of bloggers as chosen by the bloggers themselves. In the words of Lance Mannion:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the “reasonable conservative” blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows…

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

My submission was my recent musing on now that Trump has actually started naming his cabinet, then what?

There’s a lot of good writing included in the roundup, so I suggest that you take your time and look through them.

A big hat-tip to Batocchio at Vagabond Scholar for doing the work to bring it all together.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

…Down to the River

It’s been a long time since I made an addition to the blogroll, but I’m all too happy to share this new one: …Down to the River.

It is written by a friend I’ve known for over thirty years through my work at camp in Colorado and a shared love of teaching, good blues, and baseball.  I hope you’ll get acquainted with his world, enjoy it, and share it.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Buy The Book

Here at the Inge Festival one thing we writers like to do is shamelessly self-promote our work while going for the full humble-brag.  “Why, yes, I’ve written a few little plays and they’ve had some productions.  And oh yes, they’re on sale in the lobby and I happen to have a couple of copies here in my suitcase.  May I sign them for you?  Will that be cash or credit?”

Scripts at Inge 04-17-15

“Ask Me Anything and Other Short Plays” (red) “Can’t Live Without You” (yellow)

Well, we’re not all as brazen as that, but hey, if you’ve got ’em, sell ’em.

Today is the scholars’ conference where I will present my paper on the one-act plays of William Inge, then go to an event in a storefront in downtown Independence called “Writers Write Here.”  The idea is for writers to show a work in progress and how they actually write.  In other words, I’ll be writing in front of an audience.  It just so happens I have a work in progress to show them… plus copies of my other works.  What a coincidence.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A New Novel From Harper Lee

Welcome back, Miss Jean Louise Finch.

On Tuesday, Ms. Lee’s publisher announced its plans to release that novel, recently rediscovered, which Ms. Lee completed in the mid-1950s, before she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The 304-page book, “Go Set a Watchman,” takes place 20 years later in the same fictional town, Maycomb, Ala., and unfolds as Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, the feisty child heroine of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” returns to visit her father. The novel, which is scheduled for release this July, tackles the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s and delves into the complex relationship between father and daughter.

Although written first, “Go Set a Watchman” is a continuation of the same story, with overlapping themes and characters. But Ms. Lee abandoned the manuscript after her editor, who was captivated by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, told her to write a new book from the young heroine’s perspective and to set it during her childhood.

Yay.  I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, taught it in Grade 8 English, and the film version was the first grown-up movie my parents took me to see when I was nine or ten.  It remains very close to the top of my favorite books of all time.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Mockingbird’s Tale

Boris Kachka looks at the life of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.  What has happened to her in her later years is a tale that is sadder and more harrowing than any novel that could be written about a writer’s legacy and the people who took advantage of her kindness.

She’d once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, “I’m really Boo”—Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.

I wish people would just leave her in peace and let her writing speak for her.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

250px-ShakespeareToday, according to the best information we have, is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare.

I’m quick to admit that as a theatre scholar, I’m not as steeped in his works as many of my colleagues.  As an actor, I’ve been in exactly one production of his play Othello, and that was forty years ago.  (I had a small part whose name began with “The.”)  Later on, I worked on several productions of his plays backstage (A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems to follow me wherever I go) and I was an assistant director on two productions at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: The Merchant of Venice in 1987 and Hamlet, which starred Val Kilmer (and he was very good), in 1988.  And of course you know of my annual pilgrimages to Stratford, Ontario, to the Shakespeare festival there.  Those began in 1970, and while I missed a couple of years in the 70’s and 80’s, I went almost every year since.

So even if I can no longer recite whole soliloquies from memory* and wouldn’t dare direct a production, and even though my field of study of theatre is largely based on works and writers who lived 400 years after him, there is no doubt that the works and the characters in his plays represent the standard by which most plays are judged, and his words are among the most discussed, debated, and lauded in the English language.  They infiltrate our language to the point that we quote him without knowing it: phrases such as “vanished into thin air” and “foregone conclusion” came from his pen.  His works have been turned into operas, ballets, films, and canvas, and characters from his plays have shown up in new garb with new names.  In short (probably a Shakespeare-ism), his work is everywhere.

There have been debates over the centuries as to whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote all of the plays credited to him; whether or not he was just a front for someone else who was out of favor with the Court; whether or not he was gay or other such idle speculation.  Scholars far more prominent than me have spent their careers on such subjects and who am I to deride them?  But in the end it really doesn’t matter.  We have the works, we have the characters, and we have the insight to the humanity that speaks to us from those days to now.

*

*When I was in college, I was tapped into the honorary society Alpha Psi Omega.  In order to be accepted, I had to recite a speech from Shakespeare, and the one given to me was from Act V, Scene 1 of The Comedy of Errors.  It remains the only long speech of his that I learned and retained for any length of time.

It’s a good rant by Antipholus of Ephesus, and in order to really make it work, you have to recite it all practically in one breath.

My liege, I am advised what I say,
Neither disturbed with the effect of wine,
Nor heady-rash, provoked with raging ire,
Albeit my wrongs might make one wiser mad.
This woman lock’d me out this day from dinner:
That goldsmith there, were he not pack’d with her,
Could witness it, for he was with me then;
Who parted with me to go fetch a chain,
Promising to bring it to the Porpentine,
Where Balthazar and I did dine together.
Our dinner done, and he not coming thither,
I went to seek him: in the street I met him
And in his company that gentleman.
There did this perjured goldsmith swear me down
That I this day of him received the chain,
Which, God he knows, I saw not: for the which
He did arrest me with an officer.
I did obey, and sent my peasant home
For certain ducats: he with none return’d
Then fairly I bespoke the officer
To go in person with me to my house.
By the way we met
My wife, her sister, and a rabble more
Of vile confederates. Along with them
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,
A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,
A dead-looking man: this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer,
And, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as ’twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess’d. Then all together
They fell upon me, bound me, bore me thence
And in a dark and dankish vault at home
There left me and my man, both bound together;
Till, gnawing with my teeth my bonds in sunder,
I gain’d my freedom, and immediately
Ran hither to your grace; whom I beseech
To give me ample satisfaction
For these deep shames and great indignities.

Whew.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Talking About Writing

Today I have the Scholars Conference where I’ll be presenting my paper.  Unlike the last couple of years, I froze it on Tuesday night and printed it out first thing Wednesday morning before I left for the airport.  I will be delivering it acoustically… that is, I won’t be reading it off the computer as I did before but off the paper at the rostrum.

I spent most of Friday listening to writers talk about writing, so when I came back to the hotel to get rested and ready for the gala dinner, I did a little work on a play that I started a couple of years ago and haven’t gotten past Act I, Scene 2.  Thank you, Arthur Kopit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the writing process, and I don’t plan to launch into a long post about it now (you’re welcome), but coming to Inge always makes me re-evaluate the process I go through when I write.  That covers everything from your average BBWW blog rant to a novel or play.  I’ve had the chance to do that this week, too, and in a lot of ways hearing how really successful and brilliant writers do it has affirmed my own methods.

What a relief.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunday Reading

Their Pet Words — Brad Leithauser in The New Yorker tells us about some writers’ favorite words and what it tells us about them.

The word “sweet” appears eight hundred and forty times in your complete Shakespeare. Or nearly a thousand times, if you accept close variants (“out-sweeten’d,” “true-sweet,” “sweetheart”). This level of use comes as no surprise to anyone who loves the sonnets and plays: whether in moments of fondest coaxing and chiding (“When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear”) or abject anguish and empathy (“Bless thy sweet eyes—they bleed”), Shakespeare reliably repaired to a sugared lexicon. It’s similarly unsurprising to learn that “flower” and “flowers” bloom on more than a hundred occasions in E. E. Cummings’s poetry; for him, the rotation of the seasons meant that spring followed hard on the heels of spring. Likewise, one might rightly predict that within A. E. Housman’s verses “lad” and “lads” would tabulate more densely than “beauty” or “life” or even “love” or “death.” For him, “lad” was probably the richest word in the language—a modest, slender triad of letters on which he hung his deepest feelings of fascination, lust, exclusion, and (especially when regarding soldiers in uniform) envy and gratitude.

Every poet, every novelist has his or her pet words. Which words these may be dawns on you gradually as you enter the world of a new writer. The deeper you read, the more likely it is that a fresh line in effect becomes an old line, as a signature vocabulary term rings out variations on previous usages. Of course, with many major authors this process of identifying pet words can be hastened and simplified by consulting a concordance. Either way, you’ll likely discover that your author’s personal dictionary contains an abundance of amiable acquaintances, but a select few intimate friends.

I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you’d never actually read—if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably. You might reasonably postulate that Housman was homosexual upon learning that “lad,” “lads,” and “man” together surface roughly two hundred times in his poetry, as opposed to something like twenty appearances of “woman,” “women,” “girl,” and “girls.” Or you might—a deeper challenge—presuppose the existence of an essential temperamental and creative schism between two giants upon learning that “tranquil” and its variants (“tranquility,” “tranquilizing,” etc.) materialize more than fifty times in Wordsworth’s poetry and about a dozen in Byron’s. Doesn’t this statistic present, in stark relief, the posed polarities of the poet as contemplative and the poet as a man of action?

At the end of the day, when darkness falls, a concordance turns out to be a sort of sky chart to the assembling night. It shows how the poet’s mind constellates. Even if we’d never read Milton, we might surmise something of his vast, magisterial temperament on being told that “law” emerges some fifty times in his complete poems. We might surmise something further on discovering that “Hell” surfaces nearly as often as “love.”

Bullies for Jesus — From James Hamblin in The Atlantic, a high school student feels the wrath of God for complaining about religion in his public school.

Earlier this year, while no one was looking, Gage Pulliam took a photo of a plaque that listed the Ten Commandments, as it hung on the wall of his Oklahoma high school’s biology classroom.

Pulliam emailed the photo, anonymously, to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They then sent a complaint to the school district, which asked Muldrow High School to take down the plaque.

The taste of justice was, for a moment, sweet on Pulliam’s godless tongue. Until students protested . By later in the week, his peers had compiled hundreds of signatures on petitions to save the Commandments plaque. The Muldrow Ministerial Alliance began giving away shirts that bore the Ten Commandments, in support of the protest. Parents got into the fray, too. Denise Armer said taking down the plaque was “going too far … What happened to freedom of religion, and not from religion?”

The protesters began speculating as to who was responsible for the instigating photo. Speculative whispers became cries. When some of Pulliam’s friends–who were among the cohort of openly areligious students at Muldrow High–started feeling heat, Pulliam outed himself on an atheist blog. Sacrificing himself to so that he might save others, Pulliam admitted that he was the one who sent the photo.

Pulliam later said that in the wake of his confession, his mother worried for his safety. She also worried that his teachers might grade him differently. His sister, an eighth-grader, said other students wouldn’t look at her, and “in one instance she couldn’t even get a class project done because her group members refused to talk to her.” Other students “told Gage’s girlfriend that he should stay from them or else they’ll punch him.”

Pulliam’s justification for taking the photo in the first place: “I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA) is an educational nonprofit advocacy group. They have 393 affiliated student groups on U.S. high school and college campuses. That number has doubled in the last four years. Their stated purpose is to “organize and empower nonreligious students” and “foster successful grassroots campus groups which provide a welcoming community for secular students to discuss their views and promote their secular values.” This month they launched a program, primarily in high schools, intended to counter situations like Pulliam’s, which they say are commonplace.

The Secular Safe Zone initiative is designed to create “safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.” That’s done by recruiting “allies” and training them to recognize and respond to anti-atheist bullying. The initiative is modeled off of Gay Alliance’s LGBT Safe Zone program, which was started several years ago, in that it allows mentors at schools to explicitly demarcate spaces where “students know that bullying won’t be tolerated.”

School faculty members who affiliate with the program never have to say a thing; they hang the yellow, green, pink, and blue emblem, and students come to them.

“It’s shocking how often people tell secular students that they don’t belong in America,” Jesse Galef, communications director for the SSA told me. “Sometimes there are threats of violence against students who openly identify as atheists … We’re calling on supportive role models nationwide to stand up for these students.” That can include “teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, RAs, even chaplains, who want to create safe places for people to discuss their doubts and be open about their identities.”

A Different Party — Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein follow up their book on the dysfunction of the GOP with an assessment of where they’re going now.

A brighter future for politics and policy requires a different Republican Party, one no longer beholden to its hard right and willing to operate within the mainstream of American politics. After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience. The initial post-2012 election assessment by the Republican National Committee took some steps toward frankly acknowledging their problems with the electorate and suggesting a course of action. However, with the striking exception of immigration policy, it moved little beyond message and process and in no way questioned the party’s absolutist position on taxes or crabbed position on the scope and size of government. That failure to move further made it even more difficult for the few problem-solving-oriented House conservatives, along with some of those in the Senate, to ignore the threat of well-financed primary challenges for apostasy from those absolutist causes.

Republicans have reason to believe the 2014 midterm elections will strengthen their position in Congress, even if they continue on the oppositionist course they set in the 112th Congress. Midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party, and if there is disgruntlement over continued dysfunction, voters may take it out on the perceived party in charge. But Republicans also know that there are risks associated with brinksmanship and obstruction, and they could be setting themselves up for a trouncing in 2016. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians and their parties so much as the prospect of electoral defeat and political marginalization.

Doonesbury — Conventional wisdom.