Sunday, December 16, 2012

Architects' Sketches

•                                                                  •                                                                   •

When one travels and works with visual things - 
architecture, painting or sculpture - one uses
one's eyes and draws, so as to fix deep down in
one's experience what is seen.  Once the 
impression is recorded, it stays for good, entered
registered and inscribed.  The camera is a tool for 
idlers, who use a machine to do their seeing for them.

To draw oneself, to trace the lines, to handle the 
volumes, organize the surface... all this means to 
first look, and then to observe, and finally perhaps 
to discover ... and it is then that inspiration may
come.  Inventing, creating, one's whole being is 
drawn into action, and it is this action which counts.

Others stood indifferent - but you saw!
                                                   Journey to the East 
                                        Le Corbusier 
                                                                 (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret)

sketch by Le Corbusier

Recently my nephew, Brooklyn Architect, Nicholas McDermott,  gave me Le Corbusier's Journey to the East.   The text is lucid and interesting, and as you can tell from the excerpt above, it can be inspiring as well; but as interesting as as the narrative can be, it's the architect's sketches which grab hold of the attention and won't let go.

Architects' sketches are not designed as ends in themselves  but as means to an ends.  While an artist tries to transform reality in his drawings, an architect is trying to render faithfully either some artifact as it already exists or some idea he wants to bring into being.  In the latter case, it can be either be some idea already worked out, or it can be his thinking through his idea there on the page.

For this reason, an architect's sketch gives us a much better  sense of how the eye sees space than
does a sketch by a typical artist.  the structure os sight is there for anyone who would explore it.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Money in Politics

•                                            •                                            •

Given the fact that so much of the Super-Pac money spent
by the Republicans was spent of the losing side, many
are arguing that money in politics doesn't mean that much
after all.

But commentators may be looking at the wrong end of the
primaries.  In retrospect, some GOPers are saying Jon
Jon Huntsman was their strongest candidate.  Given that
he was the only moderate, you'd think he'd place at least
second or third  from the beginning.  There's only one catch.
He didn't have enough money to make a credible candidate.

Money won't seal the deal for a weak candidate, but
lack of money will slam the door for a strong candidate
who doesn't have enough.  Simply put:  a strong but
cash poor candidate has no chance.  Big money is still
the admission ticket to politics; and we're talking lots
of money:  remember Huntsman is rich, and his father
put quite a bit of money into his campaign.

•                                            •                                            •

Saturday, November 3, 2012

River North Chicago

•                                                       •                                                     •

There's a block along Huron taken up almost entirely by a Whole
Foods.  There are almost always two pandhandlers on the block,
one at either end of the block.  Both are usually silent and sit with
bowed heads while wearing a sign explaining his predicament.

One day there was a third man, standing near though not exactly
in front of the store.  He had a can and clipboard indicating he
was raising money for a cause other than himself.

As I came closer I was relieved to see he was only approaching
women.  I was safe from solicitation.  As I came near I heard him
say to one lady, "Are you and I going to get together tonight."

"I'm afraid not, " she said, barely registering his presence as
she passed.

"That's a sad shame," he said cheerfully.

I'm sure she felt differently about the matter.

•                                                       •                                                     •

Saturday, October 27, 2012

At The Farmers' Market

•                    •                    •

Oh, to reach out and unerase
The beauty of
Your disappearing face.

•                    •                •

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Paul Ryan Baptizes Ayn Rand

Now we see what an Ayn-Rand-Paul-Ryan form of Christianity would look like.  After a soup kitchen closes for the evening, Paul Ryan pretends to clean dishes which have already been washed to further his own political career.  In other words, a cut rate performer imagining himself as a Nietzchean superman exercising his will to power feels  no compunction to a dupe the christian suckers who while ironically still holding power over him continue to espouse a slave's mentality.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing but MacBeth

•                                                          •                                                          •

It's tempting to become an Oxfordian, ignore inconvenient dates altogether
and say the title of Much Ado About Nothing is obviously a direct reference
to MacBeth's claim that

Life's but a ...a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In any case, the two works are obviously inverted twins of each other.  
Beatrice with her desire to be a man and her offers to eat any soldiers 
Benedict killed at war has the potential to become a second Lady MacBeth,
and Benedict like MacBeth himself is often in danger of falling into
ineffectiveness without his woman's stiffening influence.   Both women
order their men to kill.   Both men accept the charge.  Only one becomes
a murderer.

One of the most maddening tendencies in the orthodox Shakespearean 
literary criticism is to view Twelfth Night as a great comedy while viewing 
Much Ado About Nothing as a bit of fluff whose insignificance Shakespeare 
clearly trumpets in the title - as if there were anything more terrifying than 
nothingness.    Perhaps critics are thrown off by Benedict's bit of moralizing
at the end where he seems comfortable accepting all that has happened 
under the justification that "Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion,"
as if that washes away all the suffering we have just witnessed.  The point-
lessness of the suffering makes it more troubling, not less so.  The energy with
which Claudio inflicts it, leaves a bad taste in the mouth and soul even after
the supposed happy ending.

Nothing makes the seriousness of Much Ado About Nothing so clear as its
clear kinship with MacBeth.   Lady MacBeth and Beatrice are both only 
unhappily consigned to the female sex.  Both express a fervent desire to be
a man and free to work within the realm of violence which is socially
open only to men.   Both get swept up in the speed with which events 
unfold,  and each tries to harness that momentum to her own ends.   

In each case, the woman must work through the man and push him to 
act, but while MacBeth gives himself over as fully as he is capable of 
to his wfe's bloody vision, Benedict complies with reluctance.  Both
plays are about speed, the rush of events with no pause to think.  

Benedict is the one exception to the rule, the one character who doesn't
automatically react.  (There is a hint he can take this caution  
sometimes too far.  Perhaps this reluctance to act is what keeps him
from committing to Beatrice and makes her so resentful of him.)  In
any case, despite the fact that Beatrice is definitely smarter than he
is - anyone denying this refuses to accept the evidence of the play that
she wins every battle of wits into which they enter - he is a more 
independent thinker.  In an early scene at a mask ball she sees the 
dance go by and says, "We must follow the leaders."  Even in this
trivial instance he can't help but qualify her statement with "In all
good things."  He is circumspection personified.  His humor is a
delaying tactic.   

Of course the other great delayer in Shakespeare is Hamlet, with
tragic results; but in the Bard's work, it's usually speed which leads
to disaster:  characters as disparate as Romeo and Hotspur both
die from the onrush of events.  

And of course so do the MacBeths, who never take a breath 
and ask themselves what the witches might be up to - as if any
answer can be given to that question beyond obviously 
nothing good.  In the end all that serparates the violence of
MacBeth from the comic ending of Much Ado is Benedict's
capacity for delay.   As for the nihilism at the heart of both
plays; laughter is all Shakespeare can offer to fend it off:
as Benedict says, "Man is a giddy thing, and that is my 

•                                                          •                                                          •

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rahm and Freedom From the Press

•                                                   •                                                   •

Rahm Emanuel seems to have come to the rather surprising
conclusion that he does not need the Chicago press in order to
shape Chicago public opinion.  If anything, he seems slightly
antagonistic to the news media.

He seems to have made the calculation that the public will
side with him in his conflict with labor which is shaping up as
the defining issue of his administration.  Rahm was not elected
to be a nice guy.  He was elected to deal with the looming
fiscal crisis created by previous mayors' unaffordable  largesse
to city workers in the matter of pension benefits.

Rahm sees that the public understands that in a funny way the
insider-outsider dynamic has been reversed in this instance.
Chicago's reporters know the union leaders; they have become
the bastions of the old guard who do not want change.  It's
the Mayor who is the outsider fighting for reform.

Perhaps because people live longer than expected when the
contracts were negotiated, or perhaps because previous
mayors put political expediency before Chicago's long term
health, Chicago is stuck with pension obligations which
will cripple the ability of the city to invest in schools,
public transportation and environmental initiatives.

Do we pay for the future or past?  Chicago elected Rahm
get us oriented to the future again - as painful as that is
given both Chicago's and Illinois's huge debt.  The public
realizes pensions will have to be renegotiated.  This is not
a matter of "throwing the workers under the bus"; it's a
matter of necessity.

Rahm and the electorate understand this.  The Chicago press
by and large does not.

•                                                   •                                                   •

Monday, September 24, 2012

Chicago Teachers Strike: a coda

•                                       •                                       •

  In the life of every civilization - and in the life of any
truly civilized individual human - there is at least a stage
in which the belief in education transcends any economic
value, and education is valued for its own sake and its
role in making the educated a better person.

  Although the failure of the educational system in the
United States to consistently meet the economic needs
of a leading innovating nation has kept the focus of our
educational system on meeting the basic economic needs
of businesses and students in a challenging world
environment, we would still hope that teachers to some
degree try to safeguard and uphold the tradition of edu-
cation as ennobling.

  That's why it's somewhat depressing to see that the
teachers felt they had to vilify the opposition, most
notably Rahm Emanuel, in order to stand up to him.
They had many just complaints to make against him,
but to act as if he didn't want to improve the schools
and his motives were all just to cut costs is plain
nonsense:  all this trouble started because of  desire
for a longer school day and year - and because of
the aggressiveness of the reforms he wanted to make.

The most refreshing political discourse I heard all
summer was Bill Clinton's contention that no one is
right all the time and that the two political parties
needed each other.  It would have been great if the
union could have squared off with CPS aggressively
sure, but with the acknowledgement that both had
worthwhile goals they were trying to achieve.

•                                       •                                       •

Monday, September 17, 2012

Do the Chicago Teachers Know What They're Doing?

•                                               •                                              •

Setting aside the merits of the teachers' demands, there are
among the ways the CTU handled the events of the weekend
some troubling signs that the Teachers union doesn't
know why they are striking or what they will settle for.  


  1. The Union Leadership led Chicago Parents to believe the strike was largely settled and that school would resume Monday Morning.  Then it turns out their membership is so far from being happy with the proposal that they're not even ready to vote it up or down.
  2. The Leadership doesn't even meet with the delegates until Sunday afternoon, allowing the false impression to linger almost all weekend that schools will reopen Monday, again adding on to the pressure on parents at the last moment to find day care alternatives.
  3. The impression is that the Leadership is now flying by the seat of its pants, not sure what the goals of the strike are.  Chicago Public Schools have to deal with a moving set of targets from the teachers.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Do Chicago Teachers Strike In Own Best Interest?

•                                     •                                     •

It's no good pretending strikes take place out of social
context?   The Chicago Teachers' Strike is taking place
inside a city and state that have been hammered by
unsustainable pension commitments and economic
malfeasance at the highest level.

Illinois is at or near the bottom of almost every
measure of a state's financial health used by the
Federal Government.

The schools can not remain healthy if the state
and city are going down the tubes.  Yet the teachers
are only the first city employees to be negotiating
contracts over the next few years.    As David Brooks
points out, by middle class standards, teachers are
astonishingly well remunerated, but they have not been
remarkably successful:

The average Chicago teacher makes $76,000 a year in a city where the average worker makes $47,000 a year. Rising school costs have helped push the system deep into the red. Meanwhile, the outcomes are not good. Forty percent of students drop out and 8 percent of 11th graders meet college readiness standards.

Rahm Emanuel was elected to bring labor, especially pension
costs under control.  The generosity of this contract (a 16%
pay hike over 4 years), especially given the $3billion shortfall
that CPS faces over the next several years may make it more
difficult to obtain concessions from other unions while
negotiating fair contracts, the tightrope act the Mayor will have
to pull off to be a successful public servant.

Make no mistake, if Mayor Emanuel fails to pull it off, then
Chicago faces a Detroit-like future of slow dispiriting decline.
If the teachers have pushed for concessions beyond what is
affordable, they have worked against their own self-interest
in the long run.

•                                     •                                     •

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Chicago Street Incident

•                                 ••                                 •

I was coming back from the grocery, my cane of
course in my right hand, trailing a little cart with
my left.  I had entered the cross walk at the inter-
section of Eugenie and Wells.  I was having a little
difficulty maneuvering the cart and my head was

Looking up I was headed right at young woman
on her cell phone.  She was looking straight at me.
In a moment her eyes de-focused and she shifted
her eyes to my right.  She didn't change her path.

I moved right, and we passed without incident, but
in that moment her eyes lost their focus I could see
that she had absolutely no interest in me as a human
being.  She made no adjustment for me.

 I might as well not have been there.

Maybe she wasn't really there.

•                                 ••                                 •

Saturday, September 1, 2012


A Motion Picture Treatment
by Callahan Cleanwood

the basis of a true story


NITT ROMEY'S boyishly handsome, exuberantly happy face.  He
is listening to words of praise pouring out of Hollywood Icon
CLINT EASTWOOD who is addressing a crowd of ROMEY SUPPORTERS.

It's clear the praise of this legend is like a drug - he can't get enough
of it - to a man who has allowed himself very few of life's pleasures.
After the speech, SUPPORTERS gather around NITT to congratulate
him on the words of the Man with no Name.   

Although anxious to work his way to the star, NITT can't help asking
EACH WELL-WISHER, "Did you hear what Clint said?"  As NITT 
basks in the glow of the moments-old memory,

CLINT looks back from a SIDE DOOR.  Behind him stand TWO 
CLINT sizes up NITT:  "do you think he'll bite?"  

"Reckon he will."  Spit chewing tobacco.

THE THREE  slip out, letting the door close behind them.


NAN stands behind ROMEY buckled into his SWIVEL CHAIR.
They are surrounded by CAMPAIGN AIDS, all in shirt sleeves
with loosened ties.   

It's perfect.

The risk seems too great.  

What risk?  What could go wrong?




for the MYSTERY GUEST.  

ON A MONITOR - AN ANCHORWOMAN rubs her hands like
Simon Legreed, wondering who the MYSTERY GUEST will be.

CLINT  stands ready to walk on.   NITT comes up BEHIND  him.  
Without turning around, CLINT starts talking:

Imagine, Governor, a movie star who wanted to break into 
performance art.  Being a star, he's used to having his whims
indulged.  Not wanting to start from the bottom and work
his way up, he imagines performing in public the first time
before a huge national audience.    Who knows?   It may be 
the last.  Still he wants to make a splash, so what would be
the best venue to leave his mark.   Not a regular tv show: 
with cable the audience is too splintered; not a sporting 
event: he doesn't want to play 2nd fiddle to a sports event.

He's got it:  a national political convention, the night the
candidate accepts the nomination.  The big cuhuna, the 
one night Americans still watched tv together as a nation.
Only one problem:  how to upstage the candidate.  The
Star wants to be the star, not the supporting player,
but he's just the opening act.  What to do?  What to do?

Suddenly he gets it.  What is Hollywood?  It's the dream
factory.   And where do dreams come from?   The unconscious.
The unconscious is much more powerful  than the conscious
as a storyteller.    Let the candidate represent the conscious
aspect of the Republican mind, he, the STAR, would embody
the unconscious fears, resentments and assumptions which 
actually motivate the Party.  He would bring forth the true
dreams of the GOP.  He would show fully in the sleep of 
reason, what nightmares have risen.

Just then the Theme from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly 
suddenly sounded its opening notes.

"Listen, Clint, maybe you shouldn't go on," said Romey.  "It doesn't
look like you're feeling well."

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Clint Eastwood!"

"Never better," and the man with no name strolled out under the 
bright, bright lights.


Monday, August 13, 2012

My Favorite SNL Alumni

•                                             •                                             •
 I certainly don't claim these are the 3 greatest  Saturday Night Live
Alumni in the show's history - just that they are my favorites for the
reasons outlined below.   I present them in no particular order:

Bill Murray has had quite simply the greatest motion picture career of 
any alumni.  Unlike Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell who are perpetually 
stuck in films which play as a little more than extended comedy sketches, 
Bill Murray has caught the eye of some of the best directors of our time 
from Michael Almereyda to Jim Jarmusch to Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, 
not to mention such stalwarts as Richard Donner, Ivan Reitman, Sophia 
Coppola, Sydney Pollack and Harold Ramis.   

Still even his frequent forays into messy, high-concept, low production values comedy reveal a sensibility which appeals to the imagination like no other SNL alumn's crotch humor.  The scene I've included from the early Meatballs captures the essence of Bill Murray for me:  a profound belief that it just doesn't matter.  An insouciant willingness 
to fail is the source of Murray's strength, and it's what makes his work in his "throw-aways" sometimes as compelling as his most   "serious" work.

Mike Meyers does not rank as one of the greatest performers from the alumni ranks - though he is a very good performer - but for my money he has the most original comic mind to come from the main cast.   The very late night sketches on SNL are usually, putting mildly, of the second rank - that is unless they were Mike Meyers sketches, in which case they were often just too weird to go into the prime time of the show.  

Even when the sketches don't quite work, such as a time machine sketch in which a young man finally gets in synch with an attractive woman and a competitive male via the time machine in a bathroom stall, they still hold and intrigue the imagination and linger in the memory.

Although Wayne and Dieter are Meyer's most popular creations, for me the epitome of the Mike Meyers character will always be Simon, the hapless, cheerfully unloved British schoolboy who loves drawering.  

But what made Mike Myers most special for me was that  no other SNL alumn has ever showed the same talent the classic but rare comic tradition of developing and then sustaining and building a sight gag.  Just think of the various fruits Austin Power holds up to cover block Elizabeth Hurley's breasts in the first Austin Powers' film, or this one from the second:

SNL deserves credit for launching Chris Rock, although his special talents do not lie comfortably in the usual skills  around which the show is designed.

Quite simply Chris Rock is the hardest hitting social satirist left since George Carlin died.  He is the best of today's stand up comics.  His remarks on male-female relationships are probably the source of his popularity, but it is the distinctions he makes between being wealthy and being rich, or between having a job and pursuing a career which really have bite.  His remarks on racism, by contrast are so carefully nuanced, whites might well be surprised they are not made more uncomfortable.

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

FLOAT: a super short Chicago story

•                                             •                                            •

He had one of those laughs which sounds like an assault when it
comes up unawares behind you on the street, but as he passed her
she found her hatred of the abrasive laugh melting into an
undeniable sense of oneness with the still laughing man and his
fatuous sideburns, so sharply delineated along a 165º angle.

In another moment she grabbed at the air she lived in to keep
her balance as she found herself - right there on the sidewalk
on Wells outside the stucco busts of Second City - melting into
a strange oneness with all those coming and passing.  Did they
feel this oneness all the time?  No surely not.  Had anyone
ever felt it before?

Still she kept melting, struggling to keep her head up and her
lungs open,  feeling the danger was real, and she might really
go down under a single, infinite wave into this sudden ocean.
Had it always been there?  Could it continue to exist if she
drowned in it?

She wasn't panicking exactly, but she couldn't stop struggling
either, despite the voice inside her which kept counselling:


•                                             •                                            •

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is This Supposed to be PROFESSIONAL Baseball?

Am I the only one who feels the celebrating at the end of major league
baseball games, especially those ending in a walk off have gotten a little

These guys are supposed to be professionals after all, and often they're
jumping around like popcorn in hot oil in games that have little long
term significance and don't affect post season play.  It goes against the
understated stoicism which has long been part of the baseball myth, not
to even bring up an arcane idea such as it's poor sportsmanship and
disrespectful to the team which has just fallen short.

Here's an interesting coda to this posting:  players hurt while celebrating.

Friday, July 20, 2012


•                                         •                                         •

Anyone who knows me will tell you that of all the cultural
institutions I love, including my alma mater (boola-boola),
the absolute closest to my heart is WFMT.

I think it is simply the best classical music station in the
United States.  I'd almost go as far as saying that given
today's cultural climate, it's the best possible classical
radio station.   It's one of the glories of Chicago and a
real gift from the heartland to the cultural capitals of
America on the Coasts.

The New York Philharmonic is syndicated nationally
thanks to WFMT.  Same with the Los Angeles Opera
and the San Francisco Opera.   It plays a very
generous selection of vocal music  - a form of music
banned from most classical stations in this country
apart from the weekly Metropolitan Opera Broadcast
on some stations - and FMT plays more opera than
anyone else, at least two complete operas per week.
The station plays contemporary music with a fearlessness
otherwise unknown in the halls of classical music.  I'm
certain when I finally get to hear the music of Natasha
Bogojevich, America's most underrated composer, on
the radio, it will be at 98.7 here in Chicago.

If you've never heard the station, I urge to start listening
now.   Still when fundraising time rolls around, I can
barely endure the endless stream of self-congratulatory
talk which is evidently necessary to keep WFMT on the
air at the high standard to which we listeners have
become accustomed.

My point is not to criticize FMT but to bemoan the
culture which makes it necessary to wallow in verbal
self-admiration in order to survive.  I recognize all
this verbiage is necessary, and I do give; but the better
part of my nature wishes the station could at least
acknowledge the corrupting influence such necessary
self-promotion subtly but inevitably exerts.

Don't let me overstate the case.  It's not that in fund
raising, as in war, the first casualty is the truth; it's
instead the loss of a balanced view.  The announcers
can't admit there are times the same music gets played
too much or that certain local symphonies which they
play don't really merit the attention.

We can no longer talk of ourselves as we really are,
because we are taught that if we don't promote ourselves,
who else can we expect to do it.  Self-doubt doesn't sell,
and selling has become the business of life.

The question is do we really want our relationships with
others to be reduced to constant selling in which each
tries to get the other to buy.  For the sake of having a
buyer for ourselves, we agree to play the buyer for the
other.  It's a diminished world we live in, but it's our
world, so start promoting - just realize the price extracted.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Henry Adams, Guest Blogger

My guest blogger this week is Henry Adams, perhaps
America's first great historian - the first I know of at
least.  The great grandson of John Adams and grandson
of John Quincy Adams, he was of the first Adams
generation to give up the ambition of being president.
(His father, Charles Francis Adams, nursed the ambition
though not able to realize it.)

Here Adams writes of the Founding Fathers's attitude
toward military spending:

Granting that the American people were about to risk 
their future on a new experiment, they naturally wished to throw aside all burdens of which they could rid themselves. Believing that in the long run interest, not violence, would rule the world, and that the United States must depend for safety and success on the interests they could create, they were tempted to look upon war and preparations for war as the worst of blunders; for they were sure that every dollar capitalized in industry was a means of overthrowing their enemies more effective than a thousand dollars spent on frigates or standing armies.  The success of the American system was, from this point of view, a question of economy.
                       - History of the United States During the
                         1st Administration of Jefferson, Part I*

Some of us still agree with the Founding Fathers that not
all money spent on defense makes America safer or
stronger.  In fact as as it diverts money away from vitals needs, 
such as educational opportunity for all, safe highways & bridges
and clean water, military spending can make us less safe.  

Too much military spending can even destroy a nation.  Look at
what happened to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 90s
when excessive spending on defense led to the collapse of the
government and the break up of the empire.  

It would be ironic if we couldn't escape the same fate for ourselves.

*Adams, Henry, History of the United States During the First Administration of Jefferson, Part I,
Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1891, p. 162.

Note: Please ignore the white highlighting.  I do not know why it
shows up and have been unable to rid myself of it.  If you have
any insight, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why I Love Mentalism

I fell in love with magic when I was over 40 years old.
This, of course, is not typical of magic which usually
attracts its adherents young.  But it was a very particular
type of magic - mentalism - not magic in general which
suddenly swooped down one evening and captured my

And it was sudden.   Very sudden.  In fact I fell in love
in the space of a single routine:

Used Car Salesmen
(Note:  This is the American version of the same routine,
which I saw in its original British form, which I prefer,
but which I couldn't find on-line.)

In the original British version, the piece is accompanied
by Derren Brown speaking on the techniques he used
to tell truth from fiction - even when the liar stays silent.
I was hooked by a single question which always grabs
me in the best of Brown's work:

Is the mind really capable of this?
And the same question in inverted form:
Is the mind really vulnerable to this?

A new way of exploring what it means to be human
opened up to me at a time when I really needed
something new, because the world seemed to be
steadily growing smaller.

It came at a time when I was disappointed by the
inability of my latest feature film, Black Mail, to find
an audience and so build my career as a writer-
director on the comparative success of my previous
film, Nightingale in a Music Box; at a time I was
frustrated in my attempts to get a new film or theater
project off the ground; and at a time when my heart
was being broken by the prolonged dying of a 
beloved brother.  

Mentalism opened a new horizon and made the world
bigger again.   It had nothing to do with psychic
phenomenon, which held no interest for me; it had 
everything to do the with the mystery of being human. 
The secrets it brings to light are not altogether pleasant,
for instance we are endlessly manipulable, but they do
inspire wonder and the realization that we have capacities
to be explored that we have been too lazy to look into.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Picture of Self-Importance

Photo by Luke Sharrett, NY Times 6/21/12

Rarely does a photograph capture a group attitude as effectively as 
this Luke Sharrett photo captures the feeling of  self-importance of  
these congressional staffers and committee chairman, Darrell Issa, 
pictured on the monitor on the wall.  

This attitude is all the most noteworthy in that this committee 
meeting is a farce, a case of Congress pretending to govern in the 
absence of actually governing.  Rather than dealing with our actual 
problems, the GOP is pursuing Atty. General in an exercise likely 
to invoke the attitude of "a plague on both your houses" from the 
public at large while not really distracting attention from real 
issues, such as housing and the environment, being ignored.  

What is so impressive about Sharrett's photo is that it shows 
congressional aides acting as if these inconsequential proceed-
ings are important - and so by extension they are important - 
not so much to convince others as to try to convince themselves.  

Good luck!
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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The New Roger Taney?

•                                                                  •                                                                  •

Chief Justice John Roberts did not get to pick the Bible he held to administer the oath of office to President Obama, but he may well not be pleased with the symbolism inherent in his administering the oath with the same Bible Chief Justice Roger Taney used to swear in Abraham Lincoln.  After all, today Roger Taney is easily the most reviled Chief Justice in the history of the United States.  While there are some revisionists, including present Associate Justice and right wing provocateur Antonin Scalia, who try to defend Taney's record - excluding the central piece of his legacy, the Dred Scott Decision - to most people with even a cursory sense of American legal history, Roger Taney doesn't have any serious competition as the worst Chief Justice in our nation's history.  John Roberts may be about to put that designation into doubt.

Lincoln had been highly critical of Taney after the Dred Scott decision, and Obama was the first President to be sworn in by a Chief Justice whose confirmation he had voted against.  It's not hard to tell which of the two combatants history has sided with in the first instance.  Roberts has to be hoping that he, unlike Taney, doesn't end up being viewed as a Chief Justice with no sense of the historical moment presiding over a highly partisan court on the wrong side of history. 

When John Roberts went before the Senate Judicial Committee for his confirmation hearings, he claimed that he had no agenda, that he would be a non-partisan Chief Justice.  Famously he compared himself to an umpire calling balls and strikes, but not batting or fielding, which he presumably left to Congress and the President.  He seems not to have foreseen the attention a case like the one concerning the Affordable Health Care Act could bring to the Justices and to the Court as he suggested that "Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire."  Well, guess what: all eyes now are on the Court, especially on Justice Kennedy and the Chief Justice himself, the only two conservatives who in the popular mind might conceivably jump off the partisan band wagon and vote to sustain the Administration's health plan.  If no one knows what to expect, it doesn't change the fact that to anyone interested in the Court, this seems the most hopelessly partisan constitution of justices any living person has ever seen.  Both sides have calcified into unchanging, idealogical blocks.
To show what a problem Roberts has controlling his court: at least four of his Justices, including the liberal Justice Ruth Ginsburg, have been criticized for inappropriate political activty outside of the Court.  Three of the conservative Justices, Alito, Thomas and Scalia, have not only attended political fund raisers, but they have even spoken at such events, lending the prestige of their position on the court, to raise money for such right wing partisan groups as The American Spectator, The Intercollegiate Studies Insitute and the Koch Brothers political corporate network.  To be absolutely clear, this sort of political behavior is forbidden to all Federal Judges in the United States, except to the Justices of the Supreme Court who have exempted themselves from having to follow our nation's Judicial Code of Conduct which expressly says that “... a judge should not personally participate in fund-raising activities, solicit funds for any organization, or use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for that purpose...."  Since the Supreme Court Justices enjoy by virtue of their office by far the greatest prestige of any Federal judges, it would make sense that they would be the judges most urgently held to this standard, which instead of following they have decided to ignore.  Alito has gone so far as to tell ThinkProgress's Lee Fang that "it was not important", referring to the lending of his prestige as a Justice of the Supreme Court to the fund-raising efforts of The American Spectator, an organization which among other goals seeks to block confirmation of President Obama's judicial appointments. 

The non-chalance with which Justice Alito deals with his political fundraising suggests how comfortable the three right wing Associate Justices are with the public perception of them first and foremost as political partisans who use their Supreme Court opinions as their platform and their decisions as their political weapons of choice.  They are confident of the rightness of their cause.  They are not given pause by the fact that they are viewed by many Americans as having - against all their previous support of States Rights over Federal Perogative - intervened in Florida's State Judicial process to force upon the nation a President who ended up leading us into a costly war over the clear winner of the popular vote.
But is Chief Justice Roberts also comfortable with the partisan label which is beginning to stick to him?  Is Roberts unaware that like Taney before him he is in danger of being viewed as an inveterate obstructionist allied to special interests determined to block the most vital historical forces animating the present moment?  Both Chief Justices first served in the executive branch in politically partisan positions, Taney as first Andrew Jackson's Attorney General - from which position he fought against free blacks becoming citizens and supported South Carolina's prohibition against any freed blacks entering the State - and then as a recess appointment as Jackson's Secretary of the Treasury.  When the Senate overturned the appointment, Jackson went ahead and nominated Taney for a position as an Associate Justice on the high court.  The Senate refused to confirm him, but when the composition of the Senate changed and the Chief Justice position opened up again, Taney won confirmation to the higher position.   Roberts worked in the Attorney General's Office and in the Office of the White House Counsel under Reagan.  Under George H. W. Bush, he argued cases in front of the Supreme Court from the Solicitor General's office.  He too was first nominated for an Associate Justice position before the Chief Justice postion opened up and Bush gave him the nod.

Both Chief Justices are best known for decisions taken that have highly partisan implications at a time when the nation is fiercely divided.  For Taney, of course, it was the Dred Scott decision at a time when the nation was not only divided between North and South but also between Republicans for whom the restriction of slavery to areas it was already established was of primary importance and Democrats who were for appeasing the South to hold the Union together. For Roberts the case which has defined his Court so far is Citizens United.   In a 5 to 4 decision along the usual line, the Court delighted Republicans and horrified Democrats by re-establishing the rules of campaign financing to give a permanent institutional advantage to conservative interests.

As with the Dred Scott decision, Citizens United exacerbated a well-identified long-term problem, slavery in the first case and the influence of money in Washington in the second, while leaving Congress no tools with which to address it. 

Unlike Chief Justice Taney though, Roberts has a second case to preside over with which he can temper the view of himself as a partisan Chief using his office as a tool of the Republican party; or he can face the danger of cementing the image of himself as a second Taney wielding power to serve not the Constitution but a rigidly idealogical political faction on the wrong side of history. 

The upcoming case follows the exact same template as the earlier ones.  It offers a controversial, if so far little understood, solution to a problem with huge long term consequences.  If this attempted solution is overturned, there will be no politically viable way for Congress or the President to deal with the escalating price of health care, either from the perspective of controlling run away costs or paying for the medical coverage of the uninsured.  It's no telling how long it will take Congress to again find the political will to deal with a seemingly intractable problem.

Obama's legacy may in large part depend on how Roberts votes as does the legacy of Roberts himself, but Roberts should remember that after the Dred Scott decision, Roger Taney was the one in power, and Lincoln was left to criticize him from the outside. Still in the judgement of history Lincoln is a giant and Taney is the undisputed worst Chief Justice of all time.  Chief Justice Roberts may be the first Chief Justice in position to relieve Taney of that distinction.

•                                                                    •                                                                   •

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Voter Fraud & the Presumption of Guilt

•                                         •                                         •

When I was growing up, I was taught in American History
and Civics classes that in the United States we would prefer
for 9 guilty men to go free than have 1 innocent man unjustly
punished by our judicial system.

For this reason the presumption of innocence was considered
sacrosanct.  However the GOP justifies the new measures it
wants to pass to protect against voter fraud that so far has
not been reliably documented by saying that any fraud is too

Given that most of these measures clearly block many
legitimate voters from voting, the new formula seems to be
that it's better that hundreds or even thousands of innocent
voters are denied the vote rather than one fraudulent vote
get through.  In other words, many voters are presumed
guilty of voter fraud unless they can prove their innocence.

Of course in the eyes of the Republican legislators passing
these measures, the overwhelming majority of potential
voters these laws keep from voting are guilty of one
significant crime:  voting for  Democrats.

•                                         •                                         •

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Artists Between Projects

•                                                  •                                                  •

       Vita è breve, ma la vita artistica è da molto tempo.
                                                              -- Italian Proverb

This blog post was in large part inspired by Woody Allen, and his
prodigious output; the lessons I draw from his example will also
make clear why I did not follow my first impulse and call this
posting The Artist at Rest.

Why did I start this post by mentioning my inspiration for it?
Because I'd like to give my readers time to consider what they
think of Woody Allen's output for themselves before continuing.


One of the least considered aspects of the artistic life is the
period between projects, the fallow time.   These are difficult
times in the life of the artist, these periods of idleness, of
flatness which follow the excitement which accompanies the
culmination of a project.

As an artist finishes a book or a movie, or as her play gets
ready to go up, there's a rush of anticipation fed by the
feverish activity which is necessary to put the final polish
on a work before it goes out on its own into the world
and by the promise - or at least the potential - for receiving
some of the attention on which the artist ultimately lives.

If this attention comes, it extends the excitement of the
work beyond the period in which the artist was
fashioning it.  This can be a very enjoyable period for
the artist if it doesn't go on too long.  It can be the
stimulant which keeps him going through the lean
and difficult times.  Of course the artist may be
involved in promoting or distributing the art too.
This can range from signing books at bookstores
to speaking after showings of your movie at the
Gene Siskel Center to sending e-mails to on-line
distributors or slides to galleries.  Unfortunately, it
has become as much "the work" of the artist as the
creation of the work itself.

The nice thing about promoting your career or one
of your works is that it takes your mind off the fact
that you are not creating anything at the moment.
These periods may look like fun to outsiders, one of
the perks of the profession - or more accurately the
avocation, since so few artists make a living off their
work - like summer vacation for teachers; but for
most artists these periods of idleness are fraught with

Until a project engages the artist, she is adrift, at sea in
a boat without steering mechanism.   At least that's how
it feels, and when the fallow period doesn't bring any
attention for the work, it's doubly difficult.  Attention
for a work which has come out puts the artist at ease,
makes him feel his work is validated, worthwhile; and
it is if someone pays attention to it.  Rejection and
silence, on the other hand, especially accompanying the
drifting feeling the artist lives with while waiting for a new
project to engage his attention, only brings his choice of
avocation further into question.

What if I never work again? she wonders.  What if I've
shot my bolt?

Of course for most artists - those without a book contract
when they start their novel or gallery interested in their
paintings when they start a new series - it's not immediately
obvious if a work will find a modicum of success, say a
nice review, or not.  They go through the period of trying
to interest the world in their work when it's done.  It takes
patience and perseverance to survive such periods, but the
sense of purpose is at least still there, and it allows one to
stay busy during the fallows after a work is done.

Hopefully by the time one is done "selling and promoting,"
something new will have caught fire in the imagination,
something strong enough to mobilize the great energy it takes
to bring a new work into worthwhile being.  Often though
the fallow period continues past the busy times, and the artist
just has to survive, journaling, doodling, working her social
media, until something new comes along.

There is a redeeming secret here though:  the fallow periods
are necessary to full growth as an artist.  Proust has pointed
out that laziness for artists is the opposite of laziness as
usually understood.  For most people not keeping busy
is an avoidance of work.  For artists keeping busy all the
time is the avoidance of the work of delving fully into
their own experience and excavating its significance.

That is why I began with Woody Allen.  Because he has been
cursed with the ability to work whenever he wants to, and
because of his particular neuroses, he works at a feverish pace.
It has allowed him no periods in which to grow as an artist.
It's for this reason seemingly that the promise he showed
coming out of Annie Hall,  Manhattan and Stardust Memories
has largely evaporated.

                                         •                                        ^•>

Friday, June 1, 2012

Zucker Punch

Do You Trust Mark Zuckerberg With Your Data?
•                                          •                                          •

If nothing else, the Face Book IPO transfer of wealth from
users of the site to its owner, should give everyone a chance
to reconsider whether he or she still feels comfortable on
Face Book.

The fact that Zuckerberg has been the invisible man since
he made so much money and his small investors lost
so much should raise the question, "Do I really want to
let this guy monetize my life?"

Especially troubling is the way Zuckerberg fought for the
right of small investors to ...

become suckers.

By sharing with insiders FB's doubts about the stock while
pushing the initial price up, Face Book pulled off
a massive insider trade, mainly at the expense of its own
individual users.

If Zuckerberg is willing to treat his users/small investors
this way, what qualms will he have about squeezing every
dime he can out of the data he collects?   What need will the
boy wonder, who has said not a word since his IPO debacle,
feel to be accountable to the FB Users whose lives he is
turning into dollar signs?

•                                          •                                          •

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Art & Gaming: And Never the Twain Shall Meet

•                                         •                                        •
Ever since some European signed a urinal not with his
own name, the boundaries constituting what is art have
broken down, and there has been an explosion in types
of "experiences" accepted as legitimate art.

Many artists have come to include some interactive
element in their work.  For instance a few years ago,
Dred Scott Tyler lay an American Flag on the floor
of a gallery and invited people to walk on it.  Whether
they choose to do so or not, they were encouraged to
write their thoughts about the exhibit in a notebook,
which in turn functioned as part of the exhibition,
both in reading the comments or in leaving their own,
i.e., taking part as a co-creator in the artistic process.

Given the new flexibility in how art is understood,
it's not surprising that game designers might develop
pretensions to being artists, especially as a good
designer brings the same depth of imagination and
care for craft that artists bring to their creations.

Yet, it's also true that there are some crafts which
to be done well take the imagination of an artist,
but which in the end are incompatible with art.
Advertising is the primary example of a very
creative enterprise whose ends preclude it
from being art, since the two work at cross
purposes in the end.   Selling is not the end of art,
though it supports many an artist.

Tetris Study #1
© Hurt McDermott
Gaming is an enterprise which
has exploded into what seems
from the outside a Golden Age,
and certain programmers seem
intent on turning their games
into works of art.  Certain
non-narrative games might well
be used as tools in creating works
of art which have a random or
interactive component; but when
you get to games with a
narrative, the equation's different.

What does a narrative work of art do?  It takes
us through a specific sequence of events to
create an emotional experience the readers or
viewers would not have had by themselves.  In
doing so, art deepen the partakers' relationship
to their own emotions, leading us to fully live.
Fullness does not imply only pleasant exper-
iences, and a good novel or film often has an
ending we would not choose ourselves, if we
were controlling events.  The characters often
suffer or fail in ways which the partakers would
have avoided if given their choice.

Once you have a narrative experience in
which the partaker makes choices trying to
reach a desired outcome you have in essence
created an intellectual puzzle, not a guided
tour of particular experience.  You have in
other words:

A Game!
                                         •                                        ^•>