Joho the Blog

July 12, 2014

This morning

foggy sunrise on like

canoe in the fog

Thank you, Gravity, for keeping the water — most of it — in the lake, and for making sure it reaches all the way to the bottom.

1 Comment »

July 9, 2014

Request for app: Annotation inhaler

During this seemingly-endless interregnum when we have e-books that suck at letting us take notes, I buy paper books when I’m doing research. I have a complex little application I’ve endlessly developed over the years that lets me type notes into a plain text editor or OPML-based outliner using a minimal markup. The app turns the notes into a database that I can then slice ‘n’ dice. Someday I’ll get it stable and done enough to publish. And that day is never.

A couple of years ago I wrote a Chrome extension (“Kindle Highlights Exporter”) that scrapes all of the passages you’ve highlighted with your Kindle, exporting them as a csv, xml, or json file. The only problem is that I seem to be the only person it works for. More precisely, it crashed for the only person I ever showed it to, my supersmart developer nephew. It still works for me, though. If you want (yet another) chance to laugh at me, feel free to download it and install it. Suckers.

So, how about if someone were to write some software that lets me import photographs of the pages of a book that I’ve highlighted in, say, yellow. The app finds the highlighted portions of each page, looks for the page number, does the requisite OCR, and returns a well-marked-up set of those annotations. (These days, outputting in the Open Annotation standard, as well as the usual suspects, would be extra cool.) That way, when I’m done with a book, I could snap images of all the pages with highlights and get a list at the end, instead of doing what I do now: type them in as I read.

I’d give it a try, but processing images is waaay beyond my hobbyist-programmer capabilities. As for the possible copyright violation: OH FOR HEAVENS SAKE WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH US? (Note: The previous sentence should not be construed as legal advice.)

In any case, as the digital/networked world continues to develop its superpowers, the mud wall that confines the physical becomes more and more aggravating.

3 Comments »

July 5, 2014

Convert Javascript to an HTML table

I was writing a long-ish tutorial about how to use LibraryCloud that refers to bunches of Javascript. I wanted a way to refer to that code in the HTML document. So I wrote a converter that turns Javascript code (and maybe others) into HTML tables you can just plunk into your document.

Here’s an example of some code:

function init(){
// get textarea to accept tab key
// thank you http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6140632/how-to-handle-tab-in-textarea
	$("#rawjs").keydown(function(e) {
		if(e.keyCode === 9) { // tab was pressed
			// get caret position/selection
			var start = this.selectionStart;
			var end = this.selectionEnd;

			var $this = $(this);
			var value = $this.val();

			// set textarea value to: text before caret + tab + text after caret
			$this.val(value.substring(0, start)
						+ "\t"
						+ value.substring(end));

			// put caret at right position again (add one for the tab)
			this.selectionStart = this.selectionEnd = start + 1;

			// prevent the focus lose
			e.preventDefault();
		}
	});
}

And here’s what it looks like once converted into an HTML table:

1

function init(){

2

// get textarea to accept tab key

3

// thank you http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6140632/how-to-handle-tab-in-textarea

4

$(“#rawjs”).keydown(function(e) {

5

if(e.keyCode === 9) { // tab was pressed

6

// get caret position/selection

7

var start = this.selectionStart;

8

var end = this.selectionEnd;

 

9

var $this = $(this);

10

var value = $this.val();

 

11

// set textarea value to: text before caret + tab + text after caret

12

$this.val(value.substring(0, start)

13

+ “\t”

14

+ value.substring(end));

 

15

// put caret at right position again (add one for the tab)

16

this.selectionStart = this.selectionEnd = start + 1;

 

17

// prevent the focus lose

18

e.preventDefault();

19

}

20

});

21

}

There’s definitely some clunkiness to this. For example, if you click on the “toggle line numbers” button it hides or shows the line numbers for every such table in your document. (I’ll fix this eventually.) By the way, the “Toggle” button is there so your readers can select the code and not get the lline numbers.

Also, in order to get the formatting totally encapsulated within your document, I clunkily add a “<style>” section before each table. I couldn’t figure out any other way to do it without making your HTML document dependent on my server being up.

The utility is here: http://hyperorg.com/programs/convertJStoTable/convertJStoTable.html. The code itself is up at Github (but not quite up to date at the moment).

Please let me know all the ways it’s broken and sucks, although I don’t promise to do anything about it. It worked for me.

1 Comment »

July 1, 2014

[2b2k] That Facebook experiment

I have an op-ed/column up at CNN about the Facebook experiment. [The next day: The op-ed led to 4 mins on the Jake Tapper show. Oh what the heck. Here's the video.]

All I’ll say here is how struck I am again (as always) about the need to leave out most of everything when writing goes from web-shaped to rectangular.

Just as a quick example, I’m not convinced that the Facebook experiment was as egregious as the headlines would have us believe. But I made a conscious decision not to address that point in my column because I wanted to make a more general point. The rectangle for an op-ed is only so big.

Before I wrote the column, I’d observed, and lightly participated in, some amazing discussion threads among people who bring many different sorts of expertise to the party. Disagreements that were not just civil but highly constructive. Evidence based on research and experience experience. Civic concern. Emotional connections. Just amazing.

I learned so much from those discussions. What I produced in my op-ed is so impoverished compared to the richness in that tangle of linked differences. That’s where the real knowledge lives.

1 Comment »

June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to "small pieces loosely joined."] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis - such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that "did" HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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[aif] Re-imagining public libraries

I’m at an early Sunday morning (7:45am) session on re-imagining libraries with John Palfrey of the DPLA, Brian Bannon (Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library), and Tessie Guillermo (Zero Divide) . It’s moderated by Sommer Mathis (editor of CityLab.com. My seat-mate tells me that many of the people here are from the local library and its board.The audience is overwhelmingly female.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

SM: Libraries are being more used even though people can download books. Are libraries shifting away from being book collections to becoming community centers?

BB: Our missions are so much bigger than our traditional format for distributing knowledge. Over the past 144 years of Chicago Library’s history, we’ve been innovating all along. How many 144-year-old institations are experiencing record-breaking use?

TG: I was on the Aspen Institute’s sessions on libraries that wrote a report around three pillars of libraries: People, place and platform. Platforms are emerging now. They’re gathering up networks of people that can join together to continue to add value.

JP: I agree with Brian’s historical take and Tessie’s theoretical. I’m not as sanguine, though. Libraries are more important in digital age, but support for libraries could erode. Turning into community centers is risky for libraries. A community center is an open space that can be anything, but libraries are specific: in access to knowledge, in what immigrants need to find their way into a new country, to people seeking jobs [and more]. And all these are bound to the specifics of the community.

BB: When I think of community space, we’re Chicago’s largest provider of access to open, free technology, helping new economies, etc., but we do it through the lens of the library. It starts with the idea that everyone should have free and open acess to the leading ideas of the day. We think about our communities and how we can support these aspirations in very specific ways.

TG: Libraries are central to ideas that are shared across communities. We work with Web Junction as a content pusher to libraries around the enrolment of people in the Affordable Care Act. First, people need to enroll and can go to the library for the computer access. They need insurance literacy. Once you choose your plan and see a doctor, you might find out about a health problem, and you can come back to the library to get info curated for you, and then find out where to get community services. All at the library.

JP: Libraries should be the center of communities, but not be community centers.

BB: People are reading more today and in lots of different formats, and libraries have been great conveners of those conversations. On the other side, as the world of information changes, we’ve been experimenting with learning through experience. We wanted to explore the importance of manufacturing to the city. We opened up a lab that exposed people to ideas that would have been hard to understand simply through print.

JP: I saw your awesome innovation lab. Will you have 3D printers in there perpetually or always have the latest tech?

BB: It was supposed to be a 6 month experiment that’s been extended. We do not believe that Chicago Public Library [CPL] should be the city’s hub for 3D printing. We’re now starting to do experiments in data visualization to help people understand Big Data.

TG: It’s hard to talk about the future of libraries without talking about what places in the future will be like. Zoos, museums, etc., are all changing. There will be a lot of experimentation about how residents and community members organize themselves. At yesterday’s Market Future there was a lot of joking about librarians and the sense was that you can only get recommendations through algorithms. [Ack. That was my session. See this Atlantic post, and my comment there..]

Q: Atlanta libraries are helping people complete GEDs and LA libraries are going one step further and are granting HS diplomas. What innovating programming are you hearing about?

JP: Libraries helping people complete GEDs makes total sense. I like the model where libraries are connecting to learning — connected learning like at CPL. A lot of the learning that kids do is interstitial on mobile devices, and libraries can help with that. Hybrid spaces that connect what’s going on online to the real world is a great model.

TG: The use of libraries is increasing but not always the funding. Libraries have to find new sources of revenue…

SM: … not just revenues but being able to quantify the vaue they bring. JP: CPL has led in this.

BB: We worked with Mission Measurements to do that. We looked at the core mission of the library. We’re about supporting democracy but also helping to make our city competitive. So we looked at how we’re supporting the local economy.

BB: We don’t always recognize that there’s a large portion of the world, and parts of Chicago, where people have limited or no access to tech. So we are experimenting with ways to bring the Internet home. We’re launching a program that will let you checkout laptops and a hotspot. But that’s less about the tech than about the support to understand what programs are out there to sustain it and to gain the skills they need.

Q: Both CPL and NYPL won the Knight News Challenge to enable them to do this.

BB: We’ll be lending them for a three week term. NYPL is lending for months. It’s an experiment. But it’s not just about shiny objects. CPL has been acknowledged for experiments, for R&D. The buzz is important to elevating your brand.

JP: There will have to be trade-offs. Maybe libraries will have to spend less on books, on the marginal acquisitions, in order to support these hardware lending programs. That’s controversial but we have to talk about the trade-offs.

BB: Our model for sharing knowledge is changing dramatically because of the law. Our ability to lend physical books vs. digital materials …

JP: In the physical realm we have the right of first sale that lets you do whatever you want with a book, including resell it or lend it. But for digital there’s no first sale. Libraries acquire the digital under a contract that may limit the number of lends. Libraries are in a less good position with e-works.

TG: I’m not in the library world, but maybe librarians become facilitators of networked learning. People are becoming networked through their library cards, which becomes a platform for creating and curating knowledge that’s shared across the library system. If you create a platform where card holders in the virtual space are able to come together to say, e.g., that there are transportation issues in the city that need solving, the librarian can facilitate the coming together of that conversation. The library can be a link to other institutions.

BB: Librarians are moving away from being the experts in finding stuff (research librarians excepted) and becoming more facilitators.

SM: What about curation? Is that more the job of the librarian than ever?

BB: In the traditional sense, no. Curating programs, etc.: yes.

SM: When you were in SF, you were involved in the renovation of 24 neighborhood libraries. What are the challenges?

BB: Part of it is flexibility. We renovated beautiful Carnegie libaries, but they’re not well designed for the modern flow. As the environment changes, so will the spaces. So we were concerned with designing both for today’s needs and for the future. In Chicago we’re designing spaces to support simultaneous activities. E.g., many people using our libraries are coming because they’re a single person running their own busines out of the library. How do we support that? And we have huge usage by families and children, so we’re need to support that as well. So we’re trying to design spaces that support creative play.

TG: In one instance, a yong parent kept hearing people saying they were going to the library. She was curious. It turns out that the local library has lots of family spaces, not little chairs and little books and someone reading to a group. Rather, it’s an extension of the neighborhood. She’s learning parenting and her children are learning how to play together.

JP: In St. Paul they sent up a library space right off a basketball court. I think that’s a great idea.

JP: I was director of Harvard Law Library [Disclosure: where he was my boss] which had a reading room the size of a football stadium that was always filled, but I never saw a kid take a book off a shelf. They were there to study. They have good wifi in the dorms. There’s something about coming to a common space, with librarians there who could help them if they got in trouble. But they’re there using digital materials. We need to figure out how the physical and digital coalesce, but mainly we need to have to figure out how to build collaborative spaces. Boston Public Library is renovating the historic Johnson Building. They’re putting the teens and tweens on the second floor to make the space attractive to them but also to keep them a bit out of the way.

TG: We work with a teen center in the East Bay area of SF. When you walk into the teen center the first thing you see is the library within the center — the libraries services are embedded in the space that they think of as their space.

Q: [Fred Kent, project for Public Spaces] Different African cultures are coming into Winnipeg. They put an African market outside the library. Richmond BC had to move out of their library into a large Wal-mart-like space along with other services. In Perth, the state library took all the library materials off the ground floor and put in cultural activities. The main library Houston is sponsoring an activitation event with SW Airlines. Libraries could become an integral part of the community services. The future of libraries may not be in their own buildings . The architecture of libraries may be very different.

JP: Yes. E.g., the basketball court example.

Q: I hear about the bond problems in Chicago. I don’t hear that in your comments, Brian.

BB: Chicago has been struggling financially and hopefully is coming out of it. CPL saw significant reductions in 2009 and 2011, resulting in a reduction in hours. We’ve brought many of those hours back through a restructuring. It costs about $100M to run the library, but it costs $6B to run the schools. We’re a tiny piece. That tiny investment in libraries as community anchors and for after-school learning has been an important argument for keeping funding in place. Our collections budget is a little less than what we had in SF and we’re three times the size. So, we definitely have issues.

JP But you’re a cheap date. Our high school costs $100M to run and you’re running the entire library system on that.

Q: The Koolhaus-designed library in Seattle has the problem of being filled with homeless people. They’ve thought about relegating a space with showers and bathrooms and washing machines within the library. WDYT?

BB: Homelessness is part of the urban challenge. It’s important that we see libraries as public spaces open to all regardless of their background. We should not create rules to encourage some and discourage others. In SF we experimented with bringing in people to work with the homeless on finding services that can help them. So rather than creating a shelter within the library, I’d rather that we become a resource helping people to find resources.

Q: How can we make these presidential libraries less a monument and more a way to engage the populace?

BB: Presidential libraries are called libraries, but I’m very excited about the prospect of the Obama library aspiring to being a place to learn about democracy and see it in action. I think it’d be great if it happened in an urban space. We’ve been talking with all three organizations trying to bring the Obama Library to Chicago about what role the public library might play.

TG: It’s an opportunity to think about this as being more of a digital, virtual library. The discussion of democracy should not be confined to one physical place.

JP: I’d argue strongly for the blended approach especially with this president. His election combined beautifully the digital with knocking on doors. Also, the DPLA attempts to build a national digital library, backed by National Archives and the Smithsonian among others. We could do something incredibly cool by connecting the digital and the physical.

Q: In tough budgetary times how are acquisitions affected and how is that being used to shape publishers’ behaviors?

BB: Patron driven acquisitions has us buying books when users want them. The question of publishers is tough. Each library on its own doesn’t have much power. Some big city libraries have cut their own deals. We want to make materials available and also for the publishers to be successful.

JP: We haven’t talked here about the role libraries play in preserving knowledge. If all you were to do is provide what people want at that moment, you’d lose. Patron driven acquisition is a good idea in some respect, and libraires and puslihers should be making common cause, but we also should recall that publishers go out of business — major publishers two or three times came to Harvard Law Library asking for copies of their books so they could digitize them; they didn’t have copies.

TG: That’s where you have to be careful about these decisions made by the analytics of usage.

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June 28, 2014

[AIF] Beau Willimon on “House of Cards”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner is interviewing the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon. I’m not going to attempt to do comprehensive live-blogging.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The point at which SPOILERS begin is clearly marked below.

Beau’s initial artistic expression was in painting. He was good but just not good enough. He wanted to try something he would fail at, and chose playwriting. He wrote a terrible play called “The Goat Herd.” But it won a prize at Columbia U., where he was a student. He still feels like a fraud as a writer “because you’re always grasping and never quite reaching what you’re after.”

He went to Estonia for a year, the East Village for a year, worked on the Sen. Schumer campaign doing whatever he was asked, worked on the Howard Dean campaign where he was head of press advance in Iowa. He was at the Dean Scream and explains that it was actually inaudible in the room because of all the screaming by Dean’s supporters. The media picked up on it because it confirmed their narrative that “Dean was a loose cannon and unelectable.”

Six months later, he wrote the play that became the movie The Ides of March. Originally it was about Phillip Hoffman’s character, but then it became about Ryan Gosling’s character, which was based on Beau’s friend, Jay Carson. He says that he doesn’t care about whether his characters are likeable; he wants us to be attracted to them, “which is entirely different.” “I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil.” He doesn’t want to judge them. “I put myself in their shoes” and no one thinks of themselves as evil.

Beau had no interest in writing another political movie, but David Fincher, the director called. He watched the British version of House of Cards, which he lauds and says was more tongue in cheek. They worked for a year in complete secrecy on the first episode, and signed up the two stars. They went to HBO and asked for a full season guarantee. Then Netflix said they wanted House of Cards to be the first show they did, and they wanted two full seasons.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

Beau says that House of Cards is quite tame compared to the language and violence on TV today. ([SPOILER:] He says internally they call the threesome scene with Agent Meechum “the Treechum.”) Eisner (who did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, etc.) says back in his day, all that counted was likability. He then cites a highly unlikeable action by Francis in House of Cards, involving a subway. But because it was being produced by Netflix, there was no censorship. Eisner recounts an example in which Netflix pushed to include a joke Eisner didn’t like in one of his own productions; that is, Netflix supported the writers against Eisner.

The third season is now being filmed. Half of the scripts are written.

“House of Cards has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “It’s about power.”

HBO has to please its subscribers. Netflix and other producers don’t have to reach all of their subscribers with any single show.

He explains that the shooting schedule has them editing the early episodes even while they’re filming later examples. They’ll go back to fix or change earlier episodes in order to produce a better whole; you can’t do that when you’re shooting normal tv.

Q&A

Q: Was it hard to kill Zooey?

A: It was in the plan from the beginning. Beau had worked out the plot for the first two seasons. “It was important to stick to our guns on that because one of the themes of the show is how much Francis [Kevin Spacey] is capable of.” The prior murder of the Congressman had been opportunistic. So we said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. It could be a total huge mistake … but fuck it, let’s do it.” Similarly, they were warned not to kill the dog in the first episode, but they figured that if a viewer couldn’t handle that, this was not the show for them. (It was a fake dog, of course.)

Q: [missed it]

A: I do have ideas about how it will end. But you never know. E.g., Rachel started out as a minor character, but she was so good that her part was expanded.

Q: The show lets us empathize with the characters. By working through such complex characters, how has that affected your view of people in real life?

A: “When my friends turn to the empty air and start speaking, I get it.” [laughter] He says writing is narcissistic. He only wants to please himself. You hope to learn something about yourself. “I don’t presume to know anything more than others do.” “My life is just a wonderful and screwed up as anyone else’s. I don’t benefit from the investigation of the soul except that when my life is screwed up, I’m acutely aware of it.”

Q: Isn’t politics about power?

A: Politics can be used to achieve practical ends that have nothing to do with power. Everything is power, but not everything is about politics. Although I would say all works of art are about politics. My Fair Lday is political. Happy Days is political. But when you think of power, if you just think of it in terms of politics, you’re doing it a misservice. There are all sorts of power dynamics. Most have to do with our interppersonal relationships. … Unrequited love? Some of these moments are very small: if a little kid throws a snowball at your windsheld and it cracks, what do you do? Do you pull over and speak to the parents, throw a snowball back, keep driving? In that moment a power dynamic is formed. And how you react esbalishes who is in power. All of our relationships are transactional…When you mix that up with characters whose job is to have mastery over power dynamics, it makes for great drama. But I’m far more interested in the power dynamaics in Francis and Claire’s marriage than in Congress. What you remember are Frances and Claire sitting in the window smoking…”

Q: Francis talks so poetically. What motivated you?

A: Because I didn’t want it to suck? Kevin had done 9 months of touring Richard III. I stole the BBC’s version’s direct address, and they stole it from Shakespeare. Done poorly — and we’ve done it poorly at times — it takes you out of the drama. Done right, it makes you complicit with your protagonist. Sometimes it’s heightened. Sometimes it’s a Gafneyism that doesn’t even make sense: ‘Down South we say never slap a man while he’s cvhewin’ tobacco.’ What does that even mean?” By turning to the camera, he’s made us his pal and we’re able to root for him.

 


A few stray points:

1. Beau is intensely likable.

2. I like House of Cards, even though making Francis a murderer shook my faith in the show. Regardless, my main beef with it is that it portrays all of politics as endemically more corrupt than we even think real world politics are. What lends the series such great drama therefore also discourages civic engagement. And since I am highly partisan, I also think it’s inaccurate. But Beau didn’t think to ask my opinion before writing this amazingly well-written and acted series.

3. I now expect to see a scene in Season 3 in which a kid breaks Francis’ windshield with a snowball.

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Julie Taymor’s Midsummer film

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.

Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.

Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…

…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.

There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?

So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.

Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.

During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.

Ms. Taymor, you know about Creative Commons, right?

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June 26, 2014

Support the Voting Rights Act Amendment

This video remembers just a small part of the price we all paid for the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted a year ago:

My brother Andy was one of the college kids who participated back then in registering voters in the South, one of the many things I’ve long admired him for.

Support the Voting Rights Amendment Act.

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“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

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