Thursday, December 30, 2010

Celebrating Donn B. Murphy's Career in Video

Last October, Georgetown theatre alumni from across the decades gathered on the Hilltop to celebrate the more-than-half-century-long career of Dr. Donn B. Murphy, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this year and is now retiring after some 35 years as president of the National Theatre in Washington.

Dr. Murphy not only taught theatre at Georgetown beginning in 1955, he was theatre at Georgetown.

When I arrived at Georgetown as a freshman in 1977, Dr. Murphy was no longer artistic director and faculty advisor to Mask & Bauble, but his influence was felt strongly in Poulton Hall and wherever Georgetown students decided to mount a performance.  Having heard all the terrific stories told about him as a teacher, I now regret not taking a theatre class as an undergraduate.

What sparked this blog post today was an article about Dr. Murphy in Wednesday's Washington Post by Jane Horwitz, which begins:
Donn B. Murphy is a man of the theater in every sense. As the National Theatre's president and executive director since the early 1980s, he has hobnobbed with such stars as Helen Hayes and Cherry Jones. Katharine Hepburn offered to paint the National's ceiling, he says.

Murphy also taught theater to five decades of Georgetown University students before retiring in 1999. Two alumni, director Jack Hofsiss and playwright John Guare, went on to win Tony Awards. At the end of the month, Murphy, who turned 80 in July, will step down from his posts at the National, though he'll remain on the theater's board.
Horwitz goes on to note:
Former students celebrated his birthday with a weekend of tributes at Georgetown in October, including panel discussions looking back his teaching career.

The tributes, viewable on YouTube, show a common thread: Murphy encouraged students to try the impossible. "Astonish me," he would say when they worried that they'd taken on too big a challenge. How to create a battering ram for a play at the last minute? Just hold three students up horizontally, and make them the battering ram.
Her mention of the videos on YouTube made me realize that, although I was behind the camera that day and posted the videos on a dedicated YouTube channel ("DBMat80video") a few weeks later, I hadn't written anything about the weekend here, nor had I posted a link to the videos or embedded them in an easy-to-find place.

Now I will.

There were three panel discussions during the afternoon of October 23. Those are currently on YouTube in several segments. That evening saw an entertaining series of tributes to Dr. Murphy, which included musical selections from various "Calliopes" -- the original, student-written musicals -- from over the years (including Senior Prom, discussed in Horwitz's article in the Post). The videos from the evening remain to be edited (my fault entirely) and will be posted on YouTube soon.

The panel discussions, which are about three hours long altogether, are very much an oral history of theatre at Georgetown since 1955.  

The first panel features several Georgetown alumni who have made a career in the performing arts: Louis Scheeder of New York University's Tisch School for the Arts moderated the panel, which included director Joe Banno; New York-based actress Victoria Bundonis; scenic designer Tony Cisek, Chicago-based director/producer Chris D'Amico; Tony Award-winning director Jack Hofsiss; Gus Kaikkonen, artistic director of the Peterborough Players; and Robert McNamara, cofounder of the Scena Theatre in Washington. This panel has four segments.

Panel I, Part 1

Panel I, Part 2:

Panel I, Part 3

Panel I, Part 4:

The second panel, also divided into four segments, features several Georgetown alumni who have become playwrights and writers, or who have participated in the Donn B. Murphy One-Acts Festival. It is moderated by Karen Berman and Susan Lynskey.

Participants are: Gus Kaikkonen, artistic director of the Peterborough Players; journalist and non-fiction author Robert Sabbag; children's and young adult novelist Rachel Vail; playwright Paul Notice; Georgetown senior and playwright Miranda Rose Hall; and playwright Jerry Mayer.

Panel II, Part 1:

Panel II, Part 2:

Panel II, Part 3:

Panel II, Part 4

The third panel ran a little longer than the others and consequently is divided into six segments.

It focuses on Calliope, for the better part of two decades Georgetown's tradition of creating and producing original musical theatre. Introduced by Lynne McKay, it is moderated by Donn B. Murphy and Donna Scheeder.

Participants are alumni Bill Bremer, Tim Fischer, John Gore, Jack Hofsiss, and Bryan Williams, and current student Meghan McCormick, as well as members of the audience who shared their own reminiscences, anecdotes, and recollections.

Panel III, Part 1:

Panel III, Part 2:

Panel III, Part 3:

Panel III, Part 4:

Panel III, Part 5

Panel III, Part 6 (Conclusion):

Watch for more videos from the DBM@80 celebration to be posted here -- soon, I hope!

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Announcing the Carnival of Live Theatre

After participating in quite a few blog carnivals over the years and hosting one or two myself, it occurred to me that there was a hole in the blog carnival universe.

There are blog carnivals about books, about money, about politics, about pets, about humor, about taxes, about Christmas, about music.

What I have not been able to find has been a blog carnival about theatre.

I hope to change that with the introduction of "The Carnival of Live Theatre," which, if all goes well, will debut here on Sunday, January 2, 2011.

What will the Carnival of Live Theatre be?  Or do?

I would like it to be a gathering place for bloggers who write theatre criticism, who review plays and musicals, who interview actors and directors and the occasional techie.  If things go well, it will collect blog posts that discuss Broadway and West End productions, regional theatre, college and high school theatre, even community theatre.

The only limitations are that submissions should be about live theatre -- not film or television, as tempting as those other art forms might be -- and that they should not be overtly self-promotional.  (In other words, no press releases, please.)

I have created a page at the Blog Carnival index, where bloggers can find a submission form.  That page is here.

My plan now is to have a monthly carnival, with the deadline on the last Friday of each month and publication on the first Sunday of the month.  (That may change.)

I will host the first Carnival of Live Theatre but I am open to letting other bloggers host subsequent editions.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

DADT in Perspective: Franklin Kameny Looks Back at the Gay Military Ban

Today's long-awaited vote in the U.S. Senate to repeal the policy known colloquially as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was the culmination of years of effort by gay Americans and their allies who have opposed overt discrimination by the government on the basis of sexual orientation.

The vote was made sweeter by the fact that, in both the House of Representatives earlier this week and the Senate today, the vote was truly bipartisan. In the House, for instance, prominent Republicans such as the ranking member (and incoming chair) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) voted for repeal, as did Ron Paul of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. In the Senate, the newest GOP member, Mark Kirk of Illinois, joined with Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and several other Republican colleagues to overturn the ban on openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

Franklin Kameny in Washington on May 5, 2010
For many people, especially those born in the last decade of the 20th century, the idea of ending the ban on openly gay and lesbian Americans serving in the armed forces may seem to be a new one. Even older Americans may not have become aware of the issue any earlier than 1993, when Bill Clinton tried to end the ban but ended up signing the law that made it permanent.

The fact is, not only the ban but attempts to end it go back much farther than the early 1990s.

On May 5, I interviewed Franklin Kameny, one of the pioneers of the modern gay rights movement, at the National Press Club in Washington.

Kameny, who celebrated his 85th birthday on May 21, cautioned, first, that we must “keep in mind” that the gay ban “became statutory law in ’93 [but] has been military policy for very, very, very much longer than that. You can arguably bring it all the way back to 1778 and George Washington.”

Kameny encountered the gay ban for the first time during World War II, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“I personally ran into [the ban] on May 18, 1943, when a few days before my 18th birthday, I enlisted in the Army at the height of World War II,” Kameny said. “They asked; I didn’t tell, even though as a healthy, vigorous teenager there were things to tell. (Not terribly much, it was a different era in all kinds of ways.)”

Kameny added: “I have resented for 67 years that I had to lie in order to serve in a war effort that I strongly supported. I did serve and I saw combat in Europe.”

In 1957, Kameny – a Harvard-educated physicist and astronomer – was fired from his job with the Army Mapping Service because he was gay. He spent the next several decades in temporary jobs because he was unable to get a security clearance to do what he was trained to do. In fact, he said, there were some months when had only 20 cents to spend per day on food. (The story of Kameny's life during this period is told well by historian David K. Johnson in his 2004 book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.)

By 1961, however, he began to get involved in the then-fledgling gay rights movement, founding the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society and setting the stage for pre-Stonewall activism.

One of the first issues he and his colleagues tackled was the military gay ban.

“We picketed against it starting in ’65 both in front of the White House and at the Pentagon, and at the Pentagon again in ’66,” demonstrating, he said, “specifically against the exclusionary policy.”

The issue also came up in 1971, when Kameny was the first openly gay person to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He ran for position of Delegate from the District of Columbia, a slot now filled by Eleanor Holmes Norton.)

“In the course of all that, I was campaigning on two different fronts,” Kameny explained. “One was purely on District issues; if you’re going to run for Congress in the District [of Columbia] you have to be an expert on trash collection and everything else.

“But also,” he continued, he was running “as a gay activist,” so that in the later part of the campaign, he held “a press conference in or near the office of the Secretary of the Army, and I met with him or somebody in his staff ... in connection with the gay ban.”

Two decades later, “in ’93, it became law, which completely changed the politics entirely.”

Now, 17 years after the Clinton-era policy was instituted, the politics have changed again, by 180 degrees.  Bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the national legislature, following the majorities indicated by public-opinion polls among U.S. voters, have decided the anti-gay policy must be rejected.  The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have both argued in favor of repealing DADT, as the policy has come to be known.  The President has promised to sign the bill.

I am confident that the vast majority of members of our armed services are mature enough to treat this change in personnel policy with integrity and professionalism.  Defenders of DADT have for years shown a poor opinion of enlisted men and women, in particular, asserting that they would be unable to work side-by-side with openly gay comrades because of inchoate prejudice. 

A post-DADT military will prove them wrong, just as the naysayers were proven wrong after President Truman ordered the end to racial segregation in the military.

Credit is due to the many gay and lesbian veterans who worked hard to see this legislation get passed.  Not least of those are the World War II veterans like Frank Kameny who easily could have chosen to do something else with their time besides lobbying Congress.  Today is a great day for America.

(This article is adapted from an earlier piece published on on May 30, 2010.)

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Blog Carnival Round-Up

Several current blog carnivals have mentioned recent posts from here or from my book blog, Book Reviews by Rick Sincere.

The Salty Blogger has posted the "Anything Goes Carnival of Politics" yesterday, mentioning under the heading "From the Right":

Rick Sincere presents Remembering David Nolan posted at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, saying, “David Nolan, creator of the Nolan Chart (which upends the traditional left/right political spectrum) and cofounder (in 1971) of the Libertarian Party, died suddenly on November 21, two days short of his 67th birthday. In 2010, Nolan challenged incumbent John McCain in the race for the U.S. Senate in Arizona.”
The Skilled Investor hosts the 167th edition of the Carnival of Financial Planning, saying under the heading of "Budgeting and Economics":
Rick Sincere presents Author Interview: Jim Bacon Predicts Economic ‘Boomergeddon’ posted at Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, saying, “In his new book, 'Boomergeddon,' author James Bacon explores the coming federal credit crunch, which will 'precipitate an unbelievable series of events,' starting with 'a massive Keynesian contraction which will probably push the country into a steep recession, if not a depression.'"
The 68th edition of the Baby Boomers Blog Carnival, hosted by Baby Boomers U.S. (The Blog), cites the same article:
Rick Sincere presents Author Interview: Jim Bacon Predicts Economic ‘Boomergeddon’ posted at Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, saying, “The new book, ‘Boomergeddon,’ is ‘addressed to baby boomers,’ says author James Bacon, those who will be retiring through the next 15 years and who ‘haven’t saved enough money for our retirement.’ Boomers will not ‘come close to being able to replicate our lifestyles that we’ve enjoyed until now.’”
Reading, Reading, & Life hosted the 57th Book Review Blog Carnival on November 28, including this mention under the category "Nonfiction":
Rick Sincere presents Revisiting Eva PerĂ³n: A Book Review posted at Book Reviews by Rick Sincere

Rick Says: "Digging through my archives, I came across this review essay I wrote in 1997, coincident to the release of the film version of Evita. It discusses two biographies of Eva Peron, which both remain in print."
Finally, children's book author and illustrator Wendy Wax hosted the November Carnival of Children's Literature and notes:
At Rick Sincere's News and Thoughts, Rick Sincere reminds us that it's the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Independent film maker Mary McDonagh Murphy has written a companion book, Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, to go with her new documentary. Mary believes that teachers assign To Kill a Mockingbird to their classes year after year because of the indelible characters, social message, and race and class issues.
If other carnival citations roll in, I'll be listing them here later.

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The Subversive Power of John Lennon

Five years ago in this space, I posted my own recollections of learning about the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980.

Today the New York Times printed the memories of readers, some of whom were much younger than I was and who remember much more about their parents' reaction to the news than their own.

Two of the readers' responses to the Times query jumped out at me as particularly pertinent.

"Andrea" remembers:

We learned about John’s death in then Communist Czechoslovakia by way of Radio Luxembourg. I was 9, and I remember my parents, especially my mom, being sad. Soon after, students started painting a particular wall in Prague’s old town with images of John Lennon and his message of peace. The authorities did not like it and painted the “Lennon wall,” as everyone knew it, over. It was always renewed within hours.
And this, from "busilak":
I was in a detention cell south Manila; my captors broke the news. The violence abated as everyone took in the loss of part of their life. Then the radio began churning out Beatles songs. I was 21 then, thinking that my future was over. … The songs permeated my dreams, gave consolation in my despair. Thirty years later, I am now part of the government I rebelled against, still struggling to find solutions to my people’s problems.
How are these mini-memoirs relevant today?

The Guardian reported yesterday that one of the things learned from the Wikileaks "Cablegate" revelations of U.S. diplomatic cables that portrayals of American popular culture seen on television in Saudi Arabia are an effective brake against jihadism and extremist elements in Saudi culture.

This should come as no surprise, since we know from Cold War experience (see "Andrea," above) that East Germans who watched West German TV and Estonians who captured Finnish TV and radio through their rooftop antennae had independent sources of news, information, and entertainment that served as a counterbalance to Soviet propaganda and gave them hope for a better day, which eventually came after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  American books were passed around as samizdat, and -- as Vaclav Havel and Tom Stoppard have attested -- vinyl recordings of American rock-and-roll music were circulated as treasures in Russia and the Eastern European serf-states of Moscow.

What American diplomats in Jeddah learned is an important lesson. Here, in part, is what the Guardian says:
Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in Jeddah.

Broadcast uncensored and with Arabic subtitles alongside sitcoms such as Friends on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 channel, the shows are being allowed as part of the kingdom's "war of ideas" against extremist elements. According to a secret cable titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence", they have been proving more effective than Washington's main propaganda tool, the US-funded al-Hurra TV news channel....

Diplomats said they believed the allure of actors such as Eva Longoria, Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer meant commercial TV had a far greater impact than al-Hurra which, according to one report, has cost US taxpayers up to $500m (£316m).

"It's still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC and Rotana [a channel part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other US propaganda never could," two Saudi media executives told a US official in a meeting at a Jeddah branch of Starbucks. "Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before," the May 2009 cable says.
We now know the principle. The practical question is, how do we deploy Harry Potter, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Glee as potent weapons against terrorist jihad?

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gift Ideas for Cyber Monday

Black Friday is past.  It seems to have begun this year on Thursday, Thanksgiving.  Merchants are happy because their sales receipts for Black Friday 2010 have outpaced those of Black Friday 2009.

Increased sales of push-up bras and other lingerie items tend to indicate a recovery in the retail sector, and, reports Reuters,

Total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009, according to the survey from the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers will have spent $45 billion online and in stores over the four days, according to the survey, which includes estimated spending for Sunday. That compares with $41.2 billion in 2009.

Spending per person rose to $365.34 from $343.31 a year earlier, NRF said.
Tomorrow, November 29, is the much-vaunted Cyber Monday, when workers return to their jobs from the four-day weekend and begin using their office computers to shop on line (the honorable ones only during their lunch hours), ordering gifts for themselves and loved ones.

In between came a new shoppers' holiday called "Small Business Saturday."  The idea of that one is that consumers should visit local mom-and-pop shops and buy things there.  Even government officials got into the act.  Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, according to the AP, urged Old Dominion shoppers to patronize local small businesses.
The Republican governor says small business accounts for 98% of all businesses in Virginia, and for 75% of job growth.

He said doing your holiday shopping Saturday supports what he calls the "lifeblood of Virginia."
For my part, I visited four local businesses on Saturday:  Carter Mountain Orchard, The C'ville Market, McDonald's, and Walmart.

Lest you object that eating at McDonald's and buying things at Walmart betray the spirit of "Small Business Saturday," keep in mind that both McDonald's and Walmart started out as small businesses, respectively six and five decades ago.  And for those of you who found this blog post through the most pervasive global business of them all, Google, it's good to remember that the search engine giant did not exist even 15 years ago.

The best lessons about how small businesses succeed and grow, I suggest the South Park episodes "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes" (Season 8) and "Gnomes" (Season 2).

That second episode contains a speech about free enterprise that would put Howard Roark to shame.  As Robert Arp writes in his book, South Park and Philosophy:
In the spirit of libertarianism, Kyle proclaims something rarely heard on television outside of a John Stossel report:  "Big corporations are good.  Because without big corporations we wouldn't have things like cars and computers and canned soup."  And Stan comes to the defense of the dreaded Harbucks:  "Even Harbucks started off as a small, little business.  But because it made such great coffee, and because they ran their business so well, they managed to grow until they became the corporate powerhouse it is today.  And that is why we should all let Harbucks stay."
In short, today's small business -- or even a yet-unrealized business concept -- may be tomorrow's behemoth, and that's good for consumers, for workers, for entrepreneurs, and for stockholders.

Looking forward to tomorrow, however, I would like to make a few suggestions for Cyber Monday purchases, whether something self-indulgent or something that will be a stocking-stuffer for St. Nicholas Day or gift under the tree on Christmas. (You may want to order expedited delivery if you're buying Chanukah presents. The Festival of Lights begins on December 1 this year.)

Let me begin by recommending the four best books that I have read in the past year.  Three are non-fiction, one is fiction.  I regret not having written full-length reviews of these books yet, but I may get around to it eventually.

By far my favorite book of 2010 has been Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  The title is self-explanatory but completely understates the rich lode of historical matter that Okrent has gathered between the book's covers.  I thought I knew the story of Prohibition, and I was wrong.  So many rich details had slipped my notice over the years, including the seminal work of Wayne B. Wheeler, the pre-eminent lobbyist for Prohibition, who basically invented grass-roots political organizing and direct-mail fundraising years before Marvin Liebman, Richard Viguerie, or

Neither did I know how the forces of Prohibition had undermined the Constitution by preventing for a full decade the mandated reapportionment following the 1920 census, because those favoring Prohibition knew that a Congress that more accurately represented cities, suburbs, and recent immigrants would be less inclined to support stiff enforcement of the Volstead Act and would be more inclined to move toward full repeal of the 18th Amendment.  As a result of the manipulation of Wheeler and others, the Congress elected in 1930 represented the same districts as their predecessors did in 1912, a clear violation of the Constitution.

What's more, Okrent did some digging and discovered no evidence for the widely-held belief that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a bootlegger.  Though Kennedy had imported liquor legally at just about the time that repeal seemed inevitable, there simply is no documentary proof that he had imported illegal liquor during Prohibition.  The rumor that the senior Kennedy had been a bootlegger, and had built his family's fortune on that, seems to have begun sometime in the 1950s and, as Okrent points out, if any evidence had existed prior to that date, Kennedy -- who had many enemies in business and politics -- would certainly have been called out on it.

Another book of history that I really enjoyed was Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market:  Ayn Rand and the American Right.  Burns, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a page-turner about the Objectivist philosopher and novelist's life.

That may be hard to believe, since the outlines of Rand's career are so well-known, given previous biographies and memoirs.  Somehow, however, Burns is able to keep the reader's attention.  As I read along through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I know what happens next, but I want to find out how it happens."

Burns was the first outside scholar to be given access to Rand's personal papers and library, and the result of her research is a highly readable yet informative chronicle, not only of Rand's life but of her influence on the American conservative and libertarian movements. 

Over the course of the past eleven or twelve months, I have had at least three opportunities to see Burns speak:  once at the Miller Center, once at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and once at a forum she assembled on the idea of "liberaltarianism," or the cooperation between libertarians and liberals in the public square.  On two occasions, I was able to interview her about Ayn Rand and about her book.

In the world of entertainment, it was my pleasure last month to see TV's Craig Ferguson perform his stand-up act at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville.

In anticipation of that show, I read Ferguson's own autobiography, American on Purpose:  The Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

As the title implies, the story culminates in Ferguson's decision to become an American citizen.  I was actually a bit disappointed that, for all the detail about his life and "adventures" earlier in the book, the section on the naturalization process was thin.  It certainly was not as complete as the reports Ferguson gave about it on The Late, Late Show on CBS while he was going through it.  (That included numerous offers of "honorary citizenship" from state governors, including a then-unknown-outside-Alaska Sarah Palin, whom Ferguson described at the time as something of a "sexy librarian.")

Still, Ferguson's chronicle of his life growing up in a lower-middle-class household near Glasgow in the 1960s and '70s, his love affair with the United States that began upon his first visit here at the age of 13, his early life as a drunk and drug addict, his first attempts at performing (which began with him as the drummer for a punk rock band, leading to a stand-up act as the character "Bing Hitler") that included encounters with other beginners like U2 and Alan Cumming, through his long-term engagement as a regular on The Drew Carey Show and finally, his becoming the best of the late-night talk show hosts (in my opinion, at least).

After Ferguson's performance at the Paramount in Charlottesville, I noticed his tour bus was still parked out back and, curious, I found a cadre of fans standing outside, waiting for the star to emerge.  Sure enough, only a few minutes later, he came out of the stage door and signed a few autographs and posed for a few photographs.  Luckily for me and Steven Latimer, who was with me that night, Craig let us pose with him in the very last shot taken that night.  Naturally, I posted it on Facebook as soon as we got home.  It appears here for the first time outside a social networking context.

As the picture was being snapped, I said to Craig, "You're the smartest host on late-night TV," to which he replied:  "That's like being a tall midget."  Maybe so, but I stand by my statement.

For what it's worth, I also purchased Ferguson's novel, Between the Bridge and the River, on that night at the Paramount.  I have not yet had a chance to read it.

I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless, I simply could not put it down.

It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much:  not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.

Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).

Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now.  His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.

The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band.  People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.

The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it.  For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection.  (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.)  So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.

Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me.  I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager.  It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.

I had planned to list a few novelty items here to round out this list of suggestions for Cyber Monday gifts, but these four books probably do the job.

In any event, has set up a whole page of links aimed at the Cyber Monday shopper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The 'Next Big Thing in Economics'? Three Views

What is the “next big thing” in economics? What is it that non-economists know nothing about today but that everyone will be talking about in five or ten years?

I posed this question to three young economists following a panel discussion at George Mason University featuring three Nobel laureates: Amartya Sen, Elinor Ostrom, and James Buchanan.

The September 9 event honored Buchanan, one of the founders of “Virginia School” or public-choice economics, who taught at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville before settling at George Mason (located in Fairfax, Virginia) in the 1980s.

The tribute attracted numerous professional economists, academics, and students interested in hearing about Buchanan’s contributions to social philosophy and political economy.

In addition to Buchanan's fellow Nobel prize winners, the program included encomia from GMU’s former law school dean, Henry Manne, and the current chairman of the university’s economics department, Daniel Houser, among others, as well as an opportunity for university President Alan Merten to show off a new conference facility.

Garett Jones
Garett Jones is assistant professor of economics at George Mason University as well as BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center, which is headquartered at GMU's Arlington Campus near Virginia Square. His current research, he said, is about “why IQ matters more for nations than for individuals.”

He noted that “a person’s individual IQ has a very weak relationship and very small effect on their adult wages, but it seems as though a nation’s average IQ -- how people do on conventional IQ tests, on average -- is a really great predictor of how rich or poor that country is.” He described this as “quite a robust finding” and he is trying to discover “why that’s true.”

Jones’ prediction of what the “next big thing” comes from a different part of the field, however.

“This idea of balance sheets and net worth is being a big part of business cycles, is a really big deal,” he said.

Jones pointed to a review by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells of Richard C. Koo’s book, The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics: Lessons from Japan’s Great Recession, in the September 30 issue of the New York Review of Books, describing it as “this book that’s been kicking around for a little bit” as giving “some attention” to the topic.

Discussions like these, Jones said, are “trying to bring [Federal Reserve chairman] Ben Bernanke’s research into the broader public light,” such as ideas about “what makes it possible for us to trust each other, what makes it possible for firms to lend to individuals, [and] for investors to lend to banks.” What is necessary to make these things possible, he explained, “is that you want to lend to people who have a high net worth, people who have sound balance sheets.”

What’s “floating around,” he said, is “the idea that we’re in a so-called ‘balance sheet recession,’” yet, he added, “the absolute centrality of healthy balance sheets of individuals, of firms, [and] of governments, is something that has not made it [into] the mainstream.”

“Five years from now,” Jones said, “we’ll take it for granted in a way that don’t at all today.”

Margaret Polski
For her part, Margaret Polski of the Mercatus Center pointed to new forecasting tools that are becoming available to economists.

“The real problem that we have in economics,” Polski said, “is that we can’t forecast the things that are really interesting and really important: changes in the business cycle, when we’re going up, when we’re going down. We can’t forecast when we have shocks, big price changes, and catastrophic events.”

Polski offered the example of “the Congressional Budget Office’s record in forecasting and the error in their forecasts,” for which there’s a record dating back to 1976.

In six of the last 13 years, she said, the CBO’s forecasts have been “significantly off.”

It doesn’t end there, however, she added.

“It’s not just the CBO, it’s not just the Office of Management and Budget, it’s also the private sector economic forecasters. The practical matter is that our current tools for forecasting don’t serve us well.

“What you’re going to be hearing over the coming years,” Polski continued, “is the use of complex systems tools, agent-based models to help us develop a better understanding of what’s really happening at a micro level and how that translates into macro impacts.”

That she said, is “where I think it’s going. That’s what I think is interesting and cool.”

Polski noted that,” thanks to the most recent financial regulatory reform, we have an office of financial research,” which means that, “for the first time, we’ll actually be able to collect data. Researchers will be able to get their hands on this data and start putting these tools to work.”

These tools, she said, “will help us really imagine futures that we otherwise would have a hard time imagining, [and] imagine scenarios that are otherwise difficult for us to imagine,” so that we then “can think about what is the impact of our policy decisions in a different way that we’re able to do right now.”

The new tools, Polski emphasized, are “agent-based tools” and therefore more individualized and focused than traditional forecasting models.

“The reason the macro models don’t predict” as well, she explained, “is they’re based on historical data and they’re based on big patterns and big trends and the fact of the matter is that individuals matter, small groups matter.”

This is a point often lost on those engaged in traditional macroeconomic analysis, “because agents and small collectives of agents really do matter.”

Using the new tools, she said, these agents will not “lose that power; it’s that we don’t understand their power. That’s why our forecasts are wrong and they’re wrong in ways that cause us to make bad policy.”

The real challenge, Polski explained, “has always been to integrate micro and macro.”

In the economics profession, she pointed out, “there have always been microeconomists and macroeconomists, and never the twain shall meet,” with one exception.

“Theoretically, they meet in industrial organization theory, but that’s just not enough, because that’s very focused on business and on the structure of industrial markets. That’s not really what we’re talking about.”

What we are really talking about, Polski said, is “trying to bring those analytical tools together to understand how individual actions and small collectivities can produce macro patterns, and how there can be disruptive, unpredictable, non-linear events that occur.”

Once these tools are widely available, predictions will become more accurate and that, according to Margaret Polski, is the next big thing in economics.

Peter Boettke
Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal as “the intellectual standard-bearer for the Austrian school of economics,” Peter Boettke teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and conducts research there and at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, across the river from Washington, D.C.

Boettke singled out the work of Ostrom and Buchanan, particularly their ideas “about the nature of democracy and citizenry,” that democracy is more than just voting but more active participation, and exploring the preconditions for that.

Elinor Ostrom’s husband, Vincent Ostrom, Boettke said, “wrote a wonderful book called The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies. It’s a very densely written book, so it doesn’t have the sort of popular sway that it should,” but it establishes the way to think about “those conditions about what it means to be a citizen, or what they call an artisan-citizen.”

Following on the work of the Ostroms and Buchanan, he continued, “We’re now examining those things: how it is that you create or cultivate (educationally) individuals [so they] can become self-governing citizens or their own participants within the democratic process.”

That idea, Boettke said, “is going to get more and more explored,” and Ostrom’s Nobel Prize and other events mean that it is “going to capture the imagination of a lot of scholars [in] what Amartya Sen [calls] the ‘public reason project.'”

Looking at another discipline, Boettke noted, “if you read in philosophy, a lot of people in philosophy now are calling for an idea of ‘public reason.’ I think that idea is something that no one knows about now, but ten years from now, people will all know about it and think back, ‘When the hell did they get started thinking about that?’”

One of the developments that excites Boettke is the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of economic research and theory.

“There’s a rising trend of programs in philosophy, politics, and economics,” he said, and that is a return to “what actually took place back at the end of the nineteenth century.”

Boettke explained:

“You can think about modern economics as an hourglass shape. You start with really broad questions and then, as we believed that the role of the economist was to be a technical expert, the questions narrowed, but then we found out we knew more and more about less and less.”

Consequently, he said, “we had to open the questions up again. We opened them up to sociology, to psychology, to philosophy, to politics, so as a result the hourglass goes narrow and then widens up, and we’re at that point of the widening up.”

Boettke pointed out that “the financial crisis is a perfect example of this, because you can’t just answer it as a technician in economics. It’s a question about the legal and political rules, the culture of Wall Street.”

Citing Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, which he called “fascinating,” Boettke explained that “economists normally don’t look at those things, but now we have to. What are the implicit rules that are going on? What do these people believe that they are doing?”

Animated and smiling, Boettke returned to his hourglass analogy and concluded: “We started out, we got very narrow, we didn’t go anywhere -- or it didn’t really help – [and] now we’re opening up again.”

(This article originally appeared in three parts on on September 20September 21, and September 23, 2010.)

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Documentary Explores Cultural Impact of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about growing up amidst racism and intolerance in the Depression-era Deep South.

Independent filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy has produced a documentary called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, which was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 7.

Murphy has also written a companion book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the interviews she did for the film with fans of the novel (and the subsequent 1962 Oscar-winning film) such as Oprah Winfrey, historian Diane McWhorter, novelists Scott Turow and Wally Lamb, veteran television journalist Tom Brokaw, and people from Harper Lee’s life, including her elder sister, 99-year-old Alice Lee. (Harper Lee herself has not granted an interview since 1964.)

Why the Novel Remains Popular
To Kill a Mockingbird remains as popular as it is, particularly among teachers who assign it to their classes year after year, because the novel “novel is about so many things, and it means so many different things to different people,” Murphy told me in the lobby of the Regal Cinemas on Charlottesville's downtown mall after her film was screened.

“It has indelible characters,” she said, and “it has a social message without being preachy.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is “about race, of course,” Murphy added, but it’s also “about class. It’s about justice; it’s about tolerance. It’s also about childhood; it’s about love; it’s about loneliness -- and it’s an incredible novel of suspense.”

Impact on Civil Rights
The book also had an impact on the civil rights movement, which gained steam shortly after its publication and especially after the movie version, starring Gregory Peck as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, who is assigned to defend a black man against false charges of raping a white woman.

Murphy explained that just as an earlier “successful model,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “gave abolitionists fuel in the Civil War, many people have said that To Kill a Mockingbird provided important ammunition in the civil rights movement.”

The fact that the book “was written by a young white woman from the Deep South,” Murphy continued, did a lot “in ways that no treatise, no newspaper editorial, no politician could do.”

The reason, she said, was that To Kill a Mockingbird “was art, it was popular, it was told from the point of view of a child, and it allowed white Southerners and Northerners and everyone else to question the system and the way it was.”

While Murphy's documentary film, Hey, Boo, does not yet have a distributor, Murphy hopes that it may be broadcast as early as January or February 2011, perhaps as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS, with the possibility that it will be available on DVD or in cinemas sometime after it airs on television.

Fortunately, Scout, Atticus & Boo, Murphy’s companion book, was published by HarperCollins in May and is available in bookstores and through and other on-line booksellers.

(This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, on on November 15, 2010.)

Video of Mary Murphy's Q&A with the audience after the screening of Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, is below.  There are three segments, each about 10 minutes in length.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III

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