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?

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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.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Voter Fraud & the Presumption of Guilt

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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.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Artists Between Projects

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       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.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Zucker Punch

Do You Trust Mark Zuckerberg With Your Data?
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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?

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