Saturday, October 31, 2009

Review: August: Osage County

August: Osage County is a very good play. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, it has received great reviews, and is the rare play with a successful national tour. The tour, staring Estelle Parsons as family matriarch Violet Weston, is really top notch. The Saturday afternoon performance I attended at the Paramount Theatre was packed (to my regret, as I had a partially obstructed view) and filled with laughter. It's cliched to say, but the 3 hour play (two intermissions!) seemed to fly by. The pacing seemed nearly perfect.

In some ways there is not really anything very special about this play. The topic--a dysfunctional family, with secretes and affairs and drug problems brought together and torn apart by some tragedy--doesn't exactly break novel ground.

But, the execution is spot on. The dialogue is snappy yet realistic enough featuring angered and hurt and vulnerable characters spewing forth the lines we wished we could ourselves say. The subject matter is rather dark, with some revelations at the end appearing without support. Despite this, the play is deeply funny without seeming cheap. A real audience-pleaser

When simply diagrammed out the plot seems one step above a sitcom. Yet it is hard to imagine a better representation of the form. This treatment of the American family and the changing of generations will be read and performed and written about for many years to come.

One can already imagine the English class essays to be written by future generations of students analyzing what this play says about the Greatest Generation, of Native American's and the white middle class of the 1990s, of parents' relationships to drugs and alcohol and their children's use of the same, of the peoples perceptions about the nature of love and affairs and sex and age and childhood, and what, exactly, it means to be from the great plains of the central United States.

The problem is not that those course essays will be written, but that they will be too easy to write. The themes and symbols and references of the play are systematically laid out for all to see without nuance or real introspection.

I'll reiterate: this play doesn't break new artistic or thematic ground. It didn't even make me think deeply about anything. But, that is ok. Better than ok, really. It is an excellently crafted example of a familiar form. Perhaps a real modern-classic. If this tour happens to be nearby then definitely go see it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The Atlantic November 2009

Selected thoughts on the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic:

Seeing Too Much (by Jamais Cascio)
Cascio discusses "augmented reality" technologies and worries that such technologies will lead to increased cultural tribalism: only interacting with people with similar political beliefs or only going to restaurants or places highly rated by your "group". I'm not sure that technology is really playing a role in driving this. Much has been written elsewhere about The Big Sort in American life.

Shots In The Dark (by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer)
Brownlee and Lenzer take a contrarian position on a contentious topic. The release of Superfreakonomics has provoked a lot of discussion about contrarianism recently (see, eg, here, here, and here for three takes on the issue). Instead of climate change or drunk-driving, Brownlee and Lenzer take on the efficacy of the influenza vaccine. They begin their article with the breathless prose that is emblematic of calculated contrarian analysis:
But what if everything we think we know about fighting influenza is wrong? What if flu vaccines do not protect people from dying—particularly the elderly, who account for 90 percent of deaths from seasonal flu? And what if the expensive antiviral drugs that the government has stockpiled over the past few years also have little, if any, power to reduce the number of people who die or are hospitalized? The U.S. government—with the support of leaders in the public-health and medical communities—has put its faith in the power of vaccines and antiviral drugs to limit the spread and lethality of swine flu. Other plans to contain the pandemic seem anemic by comparison. Yet some top flu researchers are deeply skeptical of both flu vaccines and antivirals. Like the engineers who warned for years about the levees of New Orleans, these experts caution that our defenses may be flawed, and quite possibly useless against a truly lethal flu. And that unless we are willing to ask fundamental questions about the science behind flu vaccines and antiviral drugs, we could find ourselves, in a bad epidemic, as helpless as the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
There are some good points raised in the article, but I'm not sure they are as revolutionary as made out. For example, vaccines work by inducing an immune response in the recipient so that if, in the future, the individual is exposed to the real pathogen their body is set up to fight it off. This, of course, means that for the vaccine to work the individual being vaccinated must have a robust enough immune system for this response to be initiated. To confirm this, in some cases (such as among health workers), an analysis is done after vaccine administration to determine the person's antibody titer and confirm that a sufficient immune response was initatied. This means, of course, that those individual most at risk for the flu--people with weakened immune systems--are also those individuals for whom the vaccine is least likely to be completly effective. This is why those who work or live with individuals at risk are themselves encouraged to get the seasonal flu shot in an effort to limit risk of passing the infection on.

An strong critique of the article has been offered over at the Effect Measure blog. In the comments, there is long response from Brownlee and Lenzer. This is worth checking out, I think it illustrates one of the main problems: the conflation of shallow evidence of vaccine efficacy in the elderly with the usefulness of a general vaccination program in the face of a global pandemic. This stance is unfortunate.

Additionally, I am slightly disappointed that Brownlee and Lenzer did not put their article in the context of the growing opt-out rate for childhood vaccines--a problem which is starting to lead to out-breaks for such old fashioned ailments as Measles. I fear that the anti-Vaccine movement will be fortified by this article.

There is a detailed discussion of additional flu vaccine issues at Science-Based Medicine. It is worth reading.

Brave Thinkers
The cover feature this month is a brief profile of 27 people who may be responsible for ideas which will 'upend the established order.' I find such list-based articles rather unsatisfying. The article does not really tell you enough about any of the ideas promulgated by these people to form an opinion. Plus, the colored backgrounds used in the magazine for this piece made the text hard to read in the low-light environments I often end up trying to read in (a bit nit-picky, yes I admit).

The Devil's in the Details (by Benjamin Schwarz)
I have been watching Mad Men recently, so Schwarz's piece on the show to be very timely. Schwarz's includes a thoughtful discussion of the trend toward more literary, 'megamovie' television series. The review points out the glaring errors in the otherwise nearly-fetish level realism of the show, and I feel correctly points out Betty Draper as the most problematic of the characters.

Review: The Believers

The Believers, written and directed by Jim Bovino and currently playing at the ANNEX Theatre, is a flawed play. It tries to say something high-minded about the nature of our own control over our lives. In stead, is just sort of shuffles along from one unconnected scene to another. That could work, but in this case it doesn't. At times, the actors are speaking directly to the audience, but it is never made clear what is really going on. Later, some of hidden meaning are illustrated in a heavy-handed way with a literal roll of the dice.

I think this play is trying too hard. My advice: master the basics first. Then experiment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, is not a Victorian novel. It was written in 1905. By an American. I continue to be surprised by how quickly Victorian social norms appear to have changed. Wharton's novel focuses on the life and loves of Lily Bart, a New Yorker socialite who has manged to get married yet. She is beautiful. And graceful, with a keen sense of style. And, mostly vacuous with out any real skills or ability to get by own her own. Of course, that is the way she was brought up, so it is unfair to blame her to much. Mostly, though, this struck me us a book for about women and their relationships. This is particularly so in the descriptions of Bart's own awareness of her tactical flirtations.

I enjoyed the story, but I'm not sure it left any deep or lasting impressions. It does offer a great sense of the society of the time, and the changing nature of the era. I see the points that Wharton was trying to make about social mores and the circumscribed roles for women, but think those lessons are better described elsewhere.

Selected thoughts on The New Yorker October 19 2009

Selected thoughts on the 19 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Mail
(Susan Butler)
In regards to the previous story about Amelia Earhart, Butler offers a reminder not to impose our modern prejudices onto the past. Butler argues against over-interpretation of Earhart's sexuality.

Talk of The Town: You've Got Mail (by Lizzie Widdicombe)

Widdicombe jumps off from the Letterman blackmail story to raise an interesting point: why is it illegal to threaten to do something that is, itself, legal.

Talk of The Town: Scratch and Sniff (by Ian Frazier)
Frazier writes an interesting report on the New Jersey Department of Correction's use of dogs trained to smell and detect cell phones. Interesting that there is, apparently, such a specific smell.

The Secret Keeper (by William Finnegan)
This article is an interesting example of a great New Yorker archetype: a detailed, intriguing, largely complimentary profile of an individual which, at the end, drops some less than complimentary information about the subject that leaves you wondering who the real person is. The subject this time is Jules Kroll, the former head of a detective agency focused on corporate intelligence. The offers a peak into a world that I generally don't give a lot of thought to. Kroll comes across very positively. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the piece, Finnegan relates the involvement of Kroll's firm with R. Allen Stanford (recall this from TPM).

Offensive Play (by Malcolm Gladwell)
Say what you will about Gladwell (and lots of people have much to say), but his articles don't fail to be engaging and interesting. This time, Gladwell discusses the risks of football to the long-term health of its players, particularly in terms of brain damage caused by repeated head trauma. Gladwell's narrative alternates back and forth with a discussion of dog-fighting. The reason for this inclusion is clear, but not really necessary. There is a lot to recommend in this piece. I was also heartened to read about the protein Tau in the New Yorker, and to learn what former Brown's coach Butch Davis is up to now.

The main thrust of the claim is that brain damage is not an unfortunate, and potentially avoidable, risk for football players. Rather, it is an intrinsic, expected, and routine result of the game. Is this true? It seems that a case could be made, and the importance of the adjacency of individual players choosing to play must be considered. This is piece if freely available online. The dog-fighting comparison may be a little too easy, but I recommend reading it.

The Gossip Mill (by Rebecca Mead)
This piece is a very good depiction of Alloy Entertainment and how novels for teens are manufactured. Manufactured is the right word--ideas and plots are fleshed out in conference rooms. The writing is farmed out (sometimes without credit to the 'real' author). Commercial concerns are paramount. The method doesn't produce groundbreaking literature. But, they know how to give readers what they want. Worth thinking about for anyone with thoughts about producing art or other cultural products.

The Defiant Ones (by Daniel Zalewski)
A New Yorker article about the nature of contemporary parenting, and the mores reflected in popular children's picture books. It is hard to imagine a more rarefied target audience. I found this article undefinably interesting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Selected thoughts on The New Yorker October 12 2009

Selected thoughts on the 12 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Mail: Crime and Punishment
(by Adam David Cole)
Cole, a former public defender, writes in about the recent story about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. His frank account is jarring; I hope it isn't true:
It touches on things most people find hard to believe: once you’re accused of a crime, you are actually guilty until proved innocent (and sometimes the presumption of guilt is so strong that it actually overrides compelling evidence of innocence); police, witnesses, and experts often lie, fudge, cover up, or do an inexcusably poor job (as do even some defense attorneys, sadly); prosecutors routinely vilify a defendant just to get a conviction; even family members turn away in shame. Maybe Willingham’s case is easy to write off as exceptional, but those of us who have worked in criminal defense know that it has elements similar to every case we’ve worked on.

(by James P.M. Paquette)
Paquette, follows up with a reminder that we should not conflate distinct issues by putting the condemned on pedestals. Paquette's opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with a naive understanding of the character of criminals. As Coates said, opposition does not come from love for the condemned.

Inconspicuous Consumption (by James Surowiecki)
Surowiecki doesn't believe that the economic crises will lead to any fundamental change in patterns of savings and consumption. I agree.

Searching for Trouble (by Ken Auletta)
The rise of Google to near total dominance when it comes to managing information online is rather remarkable. Here, Auletta explores the nature of how Google makes money (advertising), how the company is managed, and the challenges and opportunities it faces in the future. More interesting, Aueletta offers profiles of the founders and leaders in the company, how they interact and manage.

This is an interesting article. One point to highlight: the major advancement that Google's tools provide precise information to advertisers about the effectiveness of their ads. Thus, companies know exactly what those ad's are worth, and pay for them accordingly. The suggestion that the ads that have/continue to sustain other media (print, television) are sold at drastically inflated prices.

The Pay Problem (by David Owen)
Owen offers his take on the excesses of CEO compensation. The article is mainly a profile of Nell Minow, a co-founder of the research form The Corporate Library. Minow offers up several examples of tells in contracts or compensation packages that indicate trouble at a company.

The Secrete Cycle (by Nick Paumgarten)
Lots of people see patterns that aren't really there in large data sets. This is especially true when it comes to stock prices. Many of the people are crazy, and, based on Paumgarten's profile, it seems that Martin Armstrong fits the bill.

Inside the Crises (by Ryan Lizza)
Lizza continues The New Yorker's excellent coverage of the response to the economic crises in this intriguing profile of Lawrence Summers. Summers, of course, is the brilliant economist, former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard president (remember his provocations on the under-representation of women in science and engineering?), and current Obama adviser and director of the National Economic Council.

There are several great quotes and anecdotes in here. Summers has a famously abrasive personality. He has fallen asleep in meetings (even in front of Obama). Like many protagonists, it seems like he was almost born to play the role he is currently playing in helping to direct policy and navigate through the economic meltdown. This piece is well worth reading. It offers insight into Summers the man, as well as the nature of government policy and the economic challenges that lie ahead.

Not So Fast (by Jill Lepore)
Lepore relates the interesting history of the birth of "scientific management"--the idea that worker's actions can be measured and timed and plotted to be made more efficient. Apparently "business consultants" have always been selling advice of dubious value. Lepore reviews a recent book on the topic, as well as offering larger context. This paragraph pretty much sums up the whole field:
About half of “The Management Myth” is an exposé of management consulting (the emperor has no clothes); the rest is Stewart’s exploration of his erstwhile profession’s checkered past (the emperor never did), although the kind of business book people have been buying for, oh, the past half century is instruction (you, too, can be an emperor!).
It is slightly more complicated than that pithy summary suggests. Lepore goes on to describe that there were (and are), in fact, inefficiencies and rooms for improvement. Also, she explores the effect all this had on the quality of life for the workers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker October 5 2009

Selected thoughts on the 5 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Rational Irrationality (by John Cassidy)
Cassidy offers another interesting article about the big-picture roots of the 2008 economic melt down. Like others, this piece gets at the larger questions of how economies work:
A number of explanations have been proposed for the great boom and bust, most of which focus on greed, overconfidence, and downright stupidity on the part of mortgage lenders, investment bankers, and Wall Street C.E.O.s. According to a common narrative, we have lived through a textbook instance of the madness of crowds. If this were all there was to it, we could rest more comfortably: greed can be controlled, with some difficulty, admittedly; overconfidence gets punctured; even stupid people can be educated. Unfortunately, the real causes of the crisis are much scarier and less amenable to reform: they have to do with the inner logic of an economy like ours. The root problem is what might be termed “rational irrationality”—behavior that, on the individual level, is perfectly reasonable but that, when aggregated in the marketplace, produces calamity.
Examples that Cassidy gives include the issuing of subprime mortgages, of buying into a bubble, the one-upmanship nature of competition among finance firms, and the short term nature of incentives on Wall Street. A year after the height of the crises meaningful regulatory change appears increasingly unlikely. Listen to the hybrids: this has all happened before and it will all happen again.

Veiled Threat (by Anonymous)
This piece explores the role played by women in the ongoing protests in Iran. It is quite remarkable. Reading the piece reminds me that the unrest in Iran has not gone away. Interesting times indeed.

Fiasco (by Alex Ross)
It seems that every self-regarding theatre goer laments the ubiquitous standing ovation. It is in that vein that I'm joyed by Ross's recounting of the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Tosca. Not because I'm glad to read about a bad production staged, but because it is reassuring to now that, even in the most rarefied circles, some are willing to admit the obvious.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Roméo et Juliette

Pacific Northwest Ballet has been a roll lately. Their recent Stranger Genius Award seems deserved. I had high expectations for this production of Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. The show was nearly sold out, and I was not disappointed.

There is nothing as singly intense as the pas de deux from After The Rain, but the entire evening was engrossing. It was funny (puppets in the street!), and tragic, and seductive. The stage backdrop was minimalist, featuring effective use of light and shadow. This put the focus where it should be: on the dancers. Particularly, on Carla Körbes and Lucien Postlewaite as the leads and Karel Cruz as Friar Laurence. Körbes's Juliet was more coy than I remembered from Shakespear, but it worked very well. I've gained a new appreciation for ballet fight scenes-- better than a Dr. Seuss fight.

It was beautiful. I'm looking forward to PNB's next production.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Selected thoughts on the Atlantic October 2009

Selected thoughts on the October 2009 edition of The Atlantic:

Why Goldman Always Wins (by Megan McArdle)
McArdle makes an interesting point about how those that broker 'one shot deals' can demand such high fees. The analogy with paying a lot of money for a voice over on a movie trailer seems apt.

The Story Behind The Story (by Mark Bowden)
Disecting the media roll-out around Sonia Sotomajor's nomination, Bowden conducts a recounting of our modern media environment, and sheds light on how things really work. This piece reminded me a lot of points made recently by Dan Carlin on his Common Sense podcast. Namely, the motivaiton for news media to copy stories pushed by external groups (or other news entities) rather than offer their own in depth reporting. Bowden powers through a number of points, rising up to this rhetorical ode to journalism:
In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.
The Moguls' New Clothes (by Jonathan A Knee, Bruce C. Greenwalkd, and Ava Seave)
This trio of authors explains how and why major media companies have been and likely will continue to be unprofitable. This is an intriguing piece of contrarian analysis. At least, it goes against what seems to be the common MBA perspective on growth and success.

Dear President Bush (by Andrew Sullivan)
I don't really have much to say about Sullivan's piece. You should read his blog. If for some reason you don't, then check out this piece. Behind the conceit of the concept, there is a sobering recounting of the torture and other crimes that were committed in our name.

Cheap Laughs (by Christopher Hitchens)
Hitchens doesn't think highly of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And has decidedly mixed feelings about Al Franken--a comedian who is falsely claims to be a satirist. Hitchens's close reading of one of Franken's books is wonderful. I don't watch the show any more, but do appreciate the infotainment nature of its character.

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker September 28

Selected thoughts on the 28 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Read all about it (by Adam Gopnik)
Gopnik poses a somewhat sobering hypothetical in this talk of the town piece:
The new book is, as every speed-reading reviewer has noted, the same package as before—the wise if wooden professor, the cagey babe-scientist, the oft-naked assassin, and the ancient conspiracy newly brought to life in familiar tourist destinations, this time in Washington, D.C., rather than Paris, and turning on elusive Masonic mystics, rather than secretive Merovingian dynasts. But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This they read for fun?

Gopnik ends up with an interesting contrast between the "sweet-tempered" conspiracy theories of Dan Brown style fiction and the hard edged, disturbing tenor of the proponents of real life conspiracy theories.

Ratings Downgrade (by James Surowiecki)
Surowiecki raises an important point about the role played by the ratings agencies our financial system. Ratings agencies are paid by those they rate, have quasi-government sanctionend monopolies, and many investors are legally oblicagted to only place thier money in holdings that obtain the agencies seal of approval. Also, as is now clear, the ratings were often nonsensical, and opaque. I fear that this is one of those situations when there is a clear reform that is politically impossible to implement.

The Last Mission (by George Packer)
Packer offers an interesting profile of Richard Holbrooke. This piece weaves together a recounting of Holbrooke's career with the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a precarious situation for which Holbrooke is now the United States's chief diplomat. This is the basic claim: Afghanistan is not like Vietnam or Iraq because it actually is important tothe country's national security interests to win there.