Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tech allows change?

Why do histories of science discovery include biographies of the discoverer? I found it revelatory when it was pointed out that it was new technology related to glass which allowed the discoveries made via the microscope and telescope.  I feel like I missed this because I was too distracted by text discussing who the discoverers were.

I’m not saying that the lives of the scientists are not worth studying. Discovering, via Keynes, that Newton believed in alchemy is relevant to many questions, the fact that one scientist could do his work because he was wealthy, that another was persecuted while others of his time weren’t due to where he lived, is all worthy of study, for many reasons.

What I am saying is that in trying to cram everything into a textbook, we run the risk of readers getting turned off. I was.

I was.

Most of what I’ve learned about history, and other areas, I’ve learned despite the textbooks.
What if curious children and adults were introduced to the story of science in another way? What if science history was framed by the history of the technology available to the investigators, rather than by the investigators lives?

What if telescopes and microscopes got a chapter, perhaps the same chapter? I didn’t understand it when the ability to see inside of cells was credited to a person rather than to a technology. The person deserves some credit, but since the person was the focus I lost sight of the fact that it was the technology that allowed the insight. Likewise the telescope: Galileo’s place is secure because he used the telescope more effectively than his predecessors, but the larger point, the take away, is that the new technology is what allowed him to see new things.
In an era where science funding is cut, this is not an insignificant point.

There was a Time Magazine special edition that discussed the results of scientific discoveries. The laser, for example, led to new audio/video tech, new eye surgery, and supermarket checkout scanners. This was more helpful for my understanding of the world, or of how science and technology can effect society, than if that discussion had been clogged with names. There was nary a one. So I could focus on the ideas, and I said, "WOW! THAT'S NEAT!"

What if a discussion of modern discoveries and theories was framed around how the cpu --starting with the 4004, say--- allowed calculations previously too complex and lengthy for humans to do? It’s true: in more than one field, calculations that would have taken _teams_ of researchers _years_ to accomplish can now be done in hours or minutes. And in field after field, ---iPhones to mass marketing to the age of the universe to cancer--- this has made all of the difference.

If you want to study how science is done, study how the great scientists worked. But if you want to learn how discoveries changed our lives, focus on the technology. Trying to do both at once confused me and discouraged me. Separating them opened the world to me.

Is it just me?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

petition today!

If you sign it today, you might help stop Trump from taking office.

*The US military is seriously concerned about climate change
*Trump saying that protesters are paid by media
*Trump refusing security briefings
*Trump 3am tweets indicating someone who is too thin skinned to be given the nuclear codes.

Monday, December 12, 2016


It snowed yesterday. I missed it because I was reading. And then I looked out, and it was magical. Partly because, wherever it's cold enough, it's an experience that people share.

Did you know that Christmas trees were celebrated before the time of Christ because these trees remained green despite the snow? That makes evergreen trees magical, too.

Have you ever seen a snow globe? A hollow ball the size of a crystal ball, with a flat base below a clear glass dome, a diorama inside which is a snowy scene when shaken. Ever imagined what it would be like to get inside of one? My friend Peter Samelson does a fine theatrical piece, elegantly simple, in which he creates this image, always a closing piece, because what is more magical than snow?

Magician David Copperfield told Peter that he admired his piece, and a year or two later David premiered a much more elaborate theatrical experience of seeing snow for the first time. It closed David's Broadway show, and has even been quoted in a novel.

Theatrical magic, done as well as David or Peter can do it, can open us to the memories of the beauty of snow even in summer.

It's just as magical to look out the window, remember childhood sledding or wonder if any two snowflakes are the same, when it is snowing and you are indoors. I missed this yesterday.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Societal knowledge

Of course human beings continue to learn more about the world: the ancient Greeks couldn't put a human being on the moon, the germ theory of disease wasn't fully accepted by doctors until, what, a  a century and a half ago?

But we also lose knowledge:
*archological sites give us new knowledge of human origins and the timing of human accomplishment. Bombs obliterate this, as was done in the first US Gulf War a quarter century ago, and more recently in Syria.
*the notion that everything is made up of atoms --which led eventually to the atomic bomb and plastics, amongst many other things--- was first proposed hundreds of years BC: but, by luck,  Democritus's writings were lost, and Plato's (among others) were preserved, all by accident. What if it had been the reverse? (From Charles Van Doren's _History of Knowledge_).
*I read, somewhere, in English, that there are languages that are only spoken by a few senior citizens, that once they die, the language may too.
* So-called primitive people sometimes know that an obscure plant will treat a particular symptom. Pharmaceutical companies investigate this, and it can be the origin of some new wonder drugs. If the peoples, or the plant, go extinct, so does that knowledge.
*The Pinkerton Detective Agency protected the President of the United States before the Secret Service did. The Pinkerton detectives were also involved in a vast array of issues, from labor strikes to investigating fake psychics. So is the burning of their records insignificant?
*Which isn't as bad as the case of the massive scale of records destruction in the Chinese cultural revolution. Historians of China are at a loss: the records of earlier times were systematically destroyed.
*Houdini was one of the highest paid entertainers of his era, and remains an icon 90 years after his death. Too bad he was buried with some of his family correspondence in his coffin.

Can you think of other examples of knowledge that was destroyed, permanently, by accident or on purpose?

(Note: Source: the concept of "lost knowledge" was introduced to me by Peter Burke's _Social History of Knowledge_. I don't know if he discusses any of my examples).

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Does it count?

Is measurement, numbers, taking over our lives?

The humanist in me is tickled that the design of, say, sailboats, is done using mathematics.

Surely university scholars are safe? 
*statistical analysis of texts to find word patterns to help identify anonymous authors
*a database that ranks scholars by the number of times their article has been cited

My physician likes to describe the nuances of his patients symptoms on his reports, he told me, but he added that his boss wants him using specific diagnosis codes ---numbers--- instead. So much for nuance. Easier for billing, perhaps, easier for epidemiology perhaps, but less human. 

I stopped going to a confidential support group in part because of the new rule that everyone had to sign in. So much for confidentiality. I'm told that this decision was made because the institution gets its funding based on ----the number of people who attend. In some support groups, that will scare people away. 

Is it a "sign" of the "times" that even the romantic places of libraries often now use statistical "tests of collection strength"? 
(One joke: if a math book is a book about math, is a library book a book about libraries? Just asking)

Then there's the danger of computers doing financial trading ---flash trading--- the owning of a stock for seconds, literally less than a minute, to make a profit. 

What happened to the craftsman who designed the boat by how he felt, the librarian who bought the books that felt right, buying stocks because you feel they will go up? 

What are we losing? 
Are we becoming numb-er? (That joke is from the delightfully thoughtful book Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, but all the other jokes, such as they are, are mine. The context in which I am using his joke is also different: the trends I  describe are not his focus in that book and, in any case,  have advanced since his book. Hopefully that does not "mean" that we are numb-er to them). 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Star Trek

A character study, Cold War story, racism, all in a compelling drama? An epsiode of the original Star Trek called "Balance of Terror" did that seamlessly and enjoyably.

I'm not a Star Trek nut, I'm not even that fond of TV, but that episode of that show was compelling.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trump vs Constitution

Hi all,

Donald Trump is dangerous, please sign the change dot org petition now, asking the Electoral College to change its vote at its December 19th meeting.

Do you think Trump is emotionally stable? Really?
Do you believe that climate change is a hoax? Land based hurricane, melting glaciers, and all?
Do you believe that journalists should be sued for stories that displease a politician?

I did not want this blog to be political, but I am making an exception, because Donald J. Trump is so dangerous. Even his appointment of alleged white supremacists, denial of climate change and support for changing libel laws to allow journalists to be sued --even these---are not my greatest concern.

I signed the petition because I am concerned that Donald Trump is not emotionally stable.
*remember when he published the politician's phone number?
*he stated on 60 Minutes last night (taped Friday) that many of the people protesting his election are paid by the media to protest and do not actually oppose him. Does he have a grip on reality?
*he has bragged about groping women, yet he threatened to sue as "liars" women who accuse him of doing what he bragged about. Is this someone who is emotionally stable?
*how did he react to petty insults, many of which were true, with 3am tweets? Do you really want him to have the nuclear codes?

Then there is this: he publicly called for the arrest, and perhaps the assasination, of his political opponent. Is that America?

I signed the petition because Trump is emotionally unstable.

More info on his positions and appointments thus far: ACLU dot org and Southern Poverty Law Center (splc dot org). Or even Trump's own website.

Change dot org petition to ask the Electoral College to change its vote at its December 19th to keep the loser of the popular vote from taking office: change dot org.

Friday, November 11, 2016

HEDY! Tuesday November 15th

First the premiere sold out, then the encore performance sold out. Now you have one last chance to see the funny and thoughtful "Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr" on Tuesday, November 15th, at 9:30pm at Theater Row theaters, 42nd btw 9th & 10th.

The time is important, because at telecharge dot com, the show will be listed by date and time rather than by show name, as it is still part of the United Solo festival.

On seeing it again, I was powerfully struck by how the show amusingly highlights the non-amusing issue of women being judged by their looks and the humor of Ms Lamarr using men's stupidity to her advantage.

For less than $25 it is a bargain, and only an hour long.

And there's intrigue: she was Jewish and imprisoned in Austria at the dawn of WWII. And she bested Louis Mayer in negotiations. And did I mention that it is funny?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

May Trump grow

I can only hope that he is more self-reflective, more willing to listen to advice, in office.

My worst fear about Trump isn't his policies ---I often disagree with politicians--- my fear about Trump is his impulsiveness.

May he grow into the responsibility he has been given.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


When I saw an advance workshop production of "Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr" the whole audience laughed so hard, so often, and the show won an award! So now it's being produced for two shows only. The November 9th performance is sold out! This is under United Solo/Theatre Row.

An extra performance, Friday November 11th @7:30pm has been added and there are a few seats left. Telecharge dot com or : 212-239-6200. It may be under date and time rather than by title.

Can you believe that a Hollywood star co-invented technology used in missile guidance and cell phones?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Humor, magic, history

And now, my friends, gather round for some moments of wit from  a book that, more than any other, changed my life, The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher. I read it first when I was twelve, in "the big people's" section of the library. And now some humor from its discussion of the 1800s :

For political reasons, the press of the day referred to President Martin Van Buren as "The Little Magician". Entertainer Signor Antonio Blitz joked that the politician was a colleague, because both "so successfully deceived the public." Van Buren pointed out that he was retired from politics, and would therefore cede the title to Blitz. Good humor. (p106)

And this from mid-century magician and pianist Robert Heller:

     Shakespeare wrote well
     Dickens wrote weller
    Anderson was _____,
    But the greatest is Heller!

Or at least the most modest.

Anderson, by the way, is the Barnum, Houdini, Trump of early/mid-century conjuring: successful in part because he went to extremes in his advertising and did not suffer from modesty, either. He allegedly put his face on pats of butter and on the pyramids of Egypt! (p 111)

At least one critic complained that Anderson relied too much on his props:
"I don't mind a man's pulling wires, but he should have the politician's skill of keeping them out of sight." The critic was comparing Anderson unfavorably with Compars Herrmann, whose greatness lay in part in his reliance on his technical skill, minimal props required. (p187)

In November of 1861, Herrmann performed at the White House. Asking President Lincoln to participate in a card trick, the President demured, passing the deck to his Secretary of War with the quip, "This gentleman shuffles the cards for me at present."(p187)

And just for fun: what magic did these magicians perform?
*Anderson was an early performer of the rabbit from a hat
*two of the magicians performed the dangerous trick of appearing to "catch" a bullet.
*two of the magicians performed "second sight" telepathy with an assistant

Last year I went back to my hometown for the first time since childhood, went to the library, and found the same copy of The Illustrated History of Magic, first edition, still on the shelf. Wow!

Of course my favorite magic quip might be too recent to be in the first edition, that of off-Broadway magician Peter Samelson: "Magic is a crime because it breaks the laws of nature."

News Policies

Knowing which candidate's policies I like better would be easier if the news covered them.

Neither presidential candidate's political positions were discussed on the NBC Nightly News tonight.

Trump laid out specific executive orders he would enact in his first hundred days. Specific ones! What were they? I don't know, the news only said that he said them, not what they were. Trump got better coverage than Clinton: from her the news only quoted a campaign slogan.

If this were an anomaly, I'd give it a pass. It's a weekend, and I'm not saying that slogans and personality don't have their place in Presidential selection. But spending more time on personality and slogans than on policy analysis is the norm for the NBC Nightly News, not that ABC or CNN seem much better.

Isn't it the JOB of the news org to go out into the world and examine the implications of a particular policy proposal? "Candidate says x. Everyone agrees that x would mean such and such, but they disagree about whether x would cause y." I'm not asking for a detailed long story, I'm asking for any coverage at all!

If the news orgs have the staff to cover every personality trait of the candidates, why don't the news orgs cover the policy positions and past records more?

It's not like the issues are life and death. Oh wait, they are!
*would a no-fly zone be practical and helpful to the people living under it?
*how many US cities are in near drought conditions?
*what percentage of Americans are at or below the poverty line, and what policies will help it?

What do Trump and Hillary propose about each?
I don't know, the news didn't cover it.

Yes, I'm angry. Lives are at stake!

Dark Nights

Batman gave me nightmares and brainstorms about reality.

Last week I finally saw The Dark Knight, the Christopher Nolan film about Batman starring Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger. The murderer and terrorist played by Ledger reminded me more of ISIS or Ted Bundy than of any comic book character.

Yes, the Joker as the villain robbed banks while wearing a clown suit, but his henchmen shot people in the head and the back--including their own partners-- and on-screen. And the Joker's monologue about preferring to kill or injure people with knives rather than guns was bone chilling.

So Gotham City turned to a vigilante to save them: a billionaire dressing up in a superhero costume with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and physical skill which is also barely human, and wealth to afford tech that even the police don't have. But the outlandishness of this premise was toned down in favor of the question: is a vigilante who, by definition, ignores laws, the answer? Is it justice?

A Wall Street Journal article compared Batman to Bush's War on Terror: a brave man saving us, ignoring a few civil liberties for the greater good.

Take away the few comic book conventions the film has left and the story could be reshot with ISIS or a real serial killer. Fewer explosions, smaller scale, but core issues the same:

*do people who murder and terrorize do it without regard for money or power? Where does that leave deterrence and negotiation? Should someone who only commits a crime in a heat of passion, or in desperation, be treated the same as one who does so from psychosis or lack of empathy?

*if the police are corrupt, does that open the door to a vigilante?
(in the film a police officer abets a kidnapping for cash to pay for health care for an uncovered loved one. In real life, what is happening to police salaries?)

*more than once, the evil-doer revels in forcing victims to fight amongst themselves: "either you all die, or one of you picks who lives." That is disturbing! Does it really happen?

*In the movie, a good guy gives up and becomes a bad guy. Do you hear about police officers being asked, or ordered, to work overtime?  So they are less alert when asked to make a split second decision on civil liberty versus safety? Is it a wonder that some cops drink, or even commit suicide?

*In the Dark Knight, there is panic after terrorism in Gotham, which has a limited number of exit bridges & boats. Thankfully, we don't have any cities like that in real life. #sarcasm.

Yes, The Dark Knight is Hollywood. But some of the issues it raises are anything but. It's not for nothing that I slept poorly that night, reminded of when I was mugged, worried about terrorism.

Have you ever seen seemingly unrealistic fiction that spoke to real issues?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friends & shells

Tonight I did more than make a friend. An acquaintance called, we discovered that we had more in common than I thought we did. So I feel like he's a friend now.

But enjoying our conversation also helped me get out of my shell. Laughing on the phone inspired a joy of people. I'm naturally an introvert. My preferred activity is studying, after which I like to relax by--- reading. In my spare time there are solo household chores to do.

But while my brain requires quiet time to function well, and reading energizes me, I am in some ways also a recovering introvert. I'm learning that, in the right doses, friends are like needed medicine: too little and I'll be lonely (sick), too high a dose is toxic. But at least some time with friends is good for me. I've known for a while that being with people can be "good for me."

What I got reminded of tonight was that it can even be fun!

Thanks, Andrew.

[edit: it happened again. Thank you, Sara]


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Digital magic paper?

Is paper disappearing like a Houdini trick?

A few weeks ago  a magician told me that he would be delighted to send me a publicity photo, but that everything he has is now digital. A publisher of a new book on magic history told me the same, as did a magic prop seller yesterday.

With a blog to my name, I can hardly call myself a Luddite. But beyond the charm of paper publicity material, how long will a digital ad or photo be kept online? Friends own paper photos that are more than a century old.  What about material that were on cd-roms?

What will future historians do?

How will future performers know what current ones did?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Moses, Hoover, and power.

The power to destroy neighborhoods to build a bridge, the power to punish people for their beliefs. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and New York City Parks and Transportation head Robert Moses were both accused of taking on destructive projects, and both were accused of intimidating politicians in order to stay in power. In _The Power Broker_, Robert Moses is portrayed as an almost tragic figure in his last years, unable to understand why people were not more appreciative of the good work he had done.

It is thanks to Moses that New York state has many of its parks, and some of Moses early highway projects were quite beneficial. It is just as easy to forget that Hoover, when he started at what was not yet called the FBI, was almost single handedly responsible for making reforms that helped everyone, except for the drunks he fired and the bad guys he caught. Okay, _he_ didn't catch the bad guys personally, the Carpas publicity stunt not withstanding. But in his early years as director, Hoover improved the morale and efficiency of those who did (occasionally) face literal gunfire.

I'm suggesting that late career mistakes can overshadow past accomplishments, and that power corrupts. There is a good reason that after Moses, the Bridge and Tunnel Admin was separated from the MTA, and both, of course, from the Parks Department. Moses was in power for decades, Hoover for about half a century. There is a reason that the FBI director now serves a maximum of, I think, ten years.

Is anyone capable of maintaining power for that long without abusing it more as time passes?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hidden mathematical figures

Who knew that women mathematicians worked for NASA during the cold war? One of these women was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom recently, and she and three others are featured in a new book called Hidden Figures by someone named Shetterly.

Taxing tampons and pads as "non-essential" is another set of "hidden figures"--for those of you who've never bought them, they are expensive. Well, thank you, NY, for becoming the 11th US state to now not charge tax on them. Aren't periods awful enough without having to pay extra for it? And does anyone who has periods, or loves someone who does, really think that tampons or pads are "non-essential"?

Women are making progress.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Art & science

I treasure times when the "two cultures" of art and science can meet, and a November play about Hollywood star and "frequency hopping" co-inventor Hedy Lamarr will be exquisite, based on the workshop version I saw a few months ago, which was funny, thoughtful, and even a bit moving; one of the best shows ---maybe the best--- that I've ever seen.

It won
Outstanding Actress in a Staged Reading 
in the 2016 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

Here's a link to the  show's website:

It will be performed in New York City on November 9th at 7:30. The time of 7:30 is important because TICKETS ARE ARRANGED BY SHOW TIME, not by show name.  This long link below will take you there directly:

And if anyone would be so kind as to support the show financially,  Heather is doing this mostly by herself. Donations are fully tax deductible.

She needs to raise $10,000 and every dollar counts.

But the more important thing is to buy a ticket, as the show deserves a second performance and only gets a second if the first one sells out. 

She was Jewish in Austria, which she escaped after Naziis visited her home, made it big in Hollywood, stood up for herself at a time when that was unacceptable, and Ms Massie's interpretation of her life was hilarious too. 

Join me in seeing it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Trumped news

New York City lost its news to trivia again.

I'll grant that a man climbing Trump Tower without permission is newsworthy. But I was surprised that more than half an hour of the local news was taken up with this. AND I WAS APPALLED THAT THE national NEWS WAS PREEMPTED on all three major networks in NYC!

According to a poll released today, one in five Republicans want Trump to drop out!  But New York City residents who get their news by ABC, CBS, or NBC didn't hear about it on their news tonight.

Under-covered recent news includes complicated election process allegations, loose nukes, historic wildfires & floods.

What are our priorities?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Nature and shopping

Yesterday I "spent" most of the day window shopping, online, alone. I'm not going to say that I'm holier than thou because today I walked through a park and noticed motionless turtles on a log. I'm not going to say that window shopping is "bad" because, frankly, browsing books that I could not afford to buy did honor my love of antiquariana, if that's a word.

Thankfully, I don't have to choose between spending time online googling out of print bibliographies and walking through the park, because I'm not sure I could choose between them. I'd like to think that I'd choose nature, but I don't want to dishonor my appreciation of century old ephemera, either.

What I do regret is the fact that I spent almost the whole day online. Okay, I only sort of regret it.

As Jennifer Michael Hecht said in a recent talk, we force ourselves out of the house.
This morning I was tempted to stay home, but I forced myself out.

I'm glad I did today. I'm glad I saw people, I'm glad I walked through the park.
Window shopping was wonderful in one way, but how do you compare the "wow" of an old human made object --however interesting or beautiful--- to the wonder of seeing a turtle decide to sun itself, or decide to go back into the water?

In the park I walked on grass ---not concrete, not indoor carpet or wood, but grass---- and it reminded me of when I was a little girl. How many cryptology bibliographies is THAT worth? Yesterday I discovered that an 1864 Davenport Brothers broadside is available cheaply in reprint. How does that excitement, of yesterday, compare to making an acquaintance laugh, in person, which I did today? A century old trade card to a watching a real live bird, in the park, hopping right nearby?

I'm not saying I won't eat pumpkin pie, I'm saying that vegetables can taste good too. Movies AND books, time with people and solitary time. Even classic black and white movies had gray, too.

And, yes, Nature _and_ Shopping.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Magic, conjuring, escape?

When I saw magician David Copperfield on Broadway, each of the last three numbers earned a standing ovation. "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants" was called the hottest ticket in town by a leading New York newspaper--and with reason. The New York Times called magician Peter Samelson "a soft spoken conceptualist of sorcery."

I'm not saying that magic tricks often reach such heights. I am saying that in the hands of a skilled performer, magic _can_ be artistic.

Or powerful: how many entertainers have the half-life of Houdini? A recent TV series, comic book, novel, biography, and the occasional newspaper headline about someone escaping "like a Houdini." Pretty good for someone who's been dead for ninety years. (I'm a fan of the website "wild about houdini dot com by John Cox, who works hard and writes clearly about Houdini in the past and present).

Or useful: consider that Houdini exposed fake spiritualists. Imagine going to a seance hoping to contact a dead loved one. In mourning. Desperate. How heartless of a fake medium to take advantage of such grief! (Some mediums supported Houdini's efforts: better to route out the fake ones).

Or do a youtube search on Peter Popoff and James Randi. Popoff implied that God was allowing him to read people's minds, and used this as evidence that he had the power to heal people's cancer. He told people to throw away their medicine! Randi discovered that Popoff was using a radio transmitter to have someone backstage communicate with him. "I discovered two things about God that I hadn't known before", Randi joked, "One was that she was a woman, the other was that she sounded a lot like Popoff's wife!" Randi used his knowledge of magic tricks to expose a heartless scam.

Or consider the con game of three playing cards, a fast talking guy with fast hands, and a wager that you can track one of the cards. As entertainment, it may be fun. As a con, it parts suckers from their money. In AARP magazine, and in Stars and Stripes newspaper, magicians have exposed it, and other card cheating, as a public service.

Whether you like magic shows might depend on how good the magician is, or the style of magic: like music, there are many ways to be a magician: big tricks or small tricks, straight forward or artsy, funny persona or serious persona. Criss Angel is a goth daredevil magician, Lance Burton's original act was done to classical music and performed in a tuxedo.

But well done magic, regardless of the style, teaches us a very important lesson: we can be fooled. This can be fun-- a sense of pretend--- or not. An unskilled magician can do something we can't explain. A skilled magician can do something that seems unexplainable. The latter's a gift! If we can see the impossible, right before our eyes, even though we were staring at it, that means that we can be deceived even when we are on alert for trickery. And we know that, in the larger society, politicians and advertisers never ever try to deceive us, right?

But enough of this "magic can be important" argument. I'd like to stop typing, relax and watch some fun magic, taken into a world of fantasy where, as Eugene Berger puts it, "that which is broken can be made whole again". It's only pretend, but pretend can be fun.

Entertainment magic, performance magic, can be done badly, in public. But if you don't like the performance you just saw, consider that it might be the performer, or the style.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Surprising chicks

People and birds have surprised me.

Imagine sitting in a park that does not have enough trees, but does have a river view. Imagine watching the tides, another park goer on a green wooden slatted bench reading a newspaper, an occasional bird. My friend ate a muffin and tossed the muffin wrapper on the ground! Litter. But wait: a bird  began pecking at the crumbs stuck to the wrapper, and another bird joined it, and then another. The birds were the size of an egg, brown, and didn't walk so much as hop.

Then one bird grabbed the muffin wrapper in its beak, and flew several inches away with it! "I want it, I want it!" I imagined it saying as the other birds scattered, then came back. Their whole body would tilt forward as they pecked, then they would bob back up. Occasionally one would blink an eye! I stared. Then, disaster struck: the wind flipped the muffin wrapper over. The little brown birds pecked, but the crumbs weren't accessible any more.

What to do?

The birds wandered, the birds came back, looked at the upside down wrapper, dumbstruck.

I was surprised by how much joy I felt at seeing them finally flip the wrapper, gleefully pecking again. Then another bird grabbed the wrapper in its beak, and flew maybe a foot with it. This time the others did not hesitate to follow, but the new spot was under the railing. With each peck, the wrapper shifted position slightly, now partly overlapping the water. It felt like "The Perils of Pauline": would the wrapper fall to the river? But it was saved, as the birds pecked the paper further away from the water, away from the railing, and then they---

Then the birds dragged the paper behind a bench, and I couldn't see the drama anymore. I was surprised by how disappointed I was.

People I expect to like, but when I went to a new support group meeting, I felt like a "chick" (forgive the pun) out of place: in opening introductions I heard nothing I could relate to, and a bit that I disliked. One of them said something I would never say, another wore something I would never wear, a third I can't even describe my reaction to.

You can guess the punchline: I was tempted to drop out of the group,  gave it one more chance, and, could barely believe that I was feeling connected to the experiences of the ladies who, on the surface, I had so little in common with. I'm looking forward to the next meeting.

Whether it's as trivial as birds being fascinating, or as important as a support group, I've been pleasantly surprised recently.

If only I could remember this the next time I'm bored, or the next time something that might be "good for me" is a little uncomfortable. Maybe I'll start that diet the day after tomorrow, I mean next month.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Collecting "magical"

Have you ever had the feeling of joy when an awaited package arrives for you?
Can you find peace in a room of books, public or private?

Okay, so I'm talking about myself, though not only myself. About a decade ago I visited an acquaintance who graciously allowed me to visit for several hours in his home library. Some of the books were rare, they were organized, and the cases were of finely polished wood. Wow.  Last week I joined a private online forum and swooned at photos of a few more acquaintances book collections, all nicely arranged in cases of finely polished wood.

As a youth I decried the commercialism of collecting, but now I'm not so sure. What I've learned with time --I am older than I used to be :) --- is that book collecting, for me, is calming. It's not just the excitement of getting a new book for the shelves, that's just the exciting part. The larger utility, if I'm not overstating, is that I look at books on shelves, mine or someone else's, with joy.

I won't go so far as to say that I advocate collecting ---I think that advocating should be reserved for things where the consequences are life and death: water shortages, starvation in the midst of plenty, and such. And I don't doubt that buying things can be done without heart, mindlessly, to numb some sort of emotional pain. And therefore be self-defeating, of sorts, even if it is not resulting in financial trouble.

But a wall full of books about a favorite subject can stir my heart, as it has for most of my life. Just because buying _can_ be self-destructive does not mean that it has to be.

And my preferred subject, mostly, is Houdini, his predecessors and successors. They were entertainers who brought joy to people, and they brought that joy by pretending ---pretending--- to defy science....

I could wax poetic, but the truth is that a bookcase full of biographies of these mostly forgotten, mostly itinerant entertainers reminds of the precious times that I have been given joy by the performance of the impossible: Ricky Jay's graceful cheating, Peter Samelson's magic as metaphor, Doug Henning's sense of fantasy, David Copperfield's magician-as-rock-star.

I'd type more, but I want to get back to reading a book I got in the mail today about the different meanings of the word "magic." And then, I'll carry it over to my bookcase and admire it next to all the others. There have been magic books for as long as there have been books, more than ten thousand of them, and what they mean has changed with the centuries. But that's a post for another day.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A "Hedy!" experience

The inventor of your cellphone was a Hollywood star.
Called the most beautiful woman in the world,
Her name was Hedy Lamarr

From the famous Louis B. Mayer she chutzpah-ed a better contract,
but complained that her looks always did distract
in film she was a star, but in real life,
Being judged only by her looks caused her strife.

She escaped boring husbands and helped out in World War II,
performing and serving and hugging for USO,
and co-patenting a technology used by me and by you.

She meant it to save lives in the guidance of missiles
but the smart woman's invention of radio wave frequency hopping
eventually was used from cell phones to wireless online shopping.

OKAY I'm not a great poet, but I am giddy after seeing a play that I enjoyed more than any I can remember. "Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr" had me laughing almost non-stop, and thinking too, so enjoyably. It's fitting that Richard Rhodes, who could make physics a narrative, wrote a history of Hedy Lamarr and her technological contribution to the world.

It didn't come out that she was Jewish until her death, and her technological research was only declassified (?) in like 1985?

My friend Heather Massie wrote and stars in "Hedy!" I was worried that I might not like the play but I LOVED it.

The next performance is in November, so you have plenty of time to plan for it. Seriously, the audience laughed out loud through the whole performance today. And it made me think, and it wasn't even idolatry: she made some bad decisions about who to marry, and then did it again. And in addressing her life, the play addresses glamour culture, technological dependence, bureaucracy, sexism, the horror of war, the importance of self confidence. In the advance preview I saw today, Ms. Lamarr scolded a patron whose phone went off, the audience cracking up in the process. Ms. Massie's Hedy! is charming and smart.

"Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr" will be performed on November 9th, in the cool days between Halloween and Thanksgiving, in New York City.


Trees & birds

Recently walked down the street in NYC and noticed that a tree was chirping. A lot. I looked up and there were little brown chicks throughout the tree, each was chirping. Like a playground full of young children, a beautiful high pitched collage.

Trees are amazing: most trees & plants leaves will wilt in response to drought. Why? So that the leaf has less surface area for sun absorbtion. How does that relate to water? Because water for the most part gets to the leaves via the roots, replenishing what the sun dries out in the photosynthesis process. And here's a secret: tree leaves are usually brighter on the top than the bottom. I had not noticed this until it was pointed out, and now I see it everywhere...

And, strolling through the park one day, in the very merry month of --June, sorry-- a remarkably colored bird landed in front of me: it had a sleek gray body, white tail, black head, and red crown. And then it flew off before I could ask its name. Does anyone know?

So trees & plants are more ingenious than I realized, not just ---forgive me here--- for the birds.
::lass ducks, runs away::

EDIT: fixed typo.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Holocaust anger

Elie Wiesel died today, and his book NIGHT moved me deeply about one of the most important depths of humanity's history. The holocaust MUST be remembered because if it happened before, maybe it could happen again. If there are lessons to be learned, let's learn them!

I'm angry because the TV news show I watched gave scant coverage to his death, a story as short as any other on tonight's program. Maybe, maybe, his death was too recent, and they'll do a longer piece tomorrow, but they COULD have done more tonight. He is famous enough, his work well known and documented enough, there were plenty of ways they could have made the story longer.

I mean, compared to their stories on Ali, Prince, and other celebrities. Seriously!

Aside from climate change and nuclear weapons, no story is more important than the holocaust, and no one told it better ---others equally well, other parts of the story--- none told it better than Eli Wiesel. And his courage for living through it, and thriving afterwards.

I will try to write a funny or light post soon, but this tv news prioritization thing is pissing me off, and is important. It is what news is for!

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Gay execution

Saudi Arabia stones gay people to death. Legal murder! Imagine being the mother or father of someone who is kind, industrious, and happens to know in their hearts that the people they love are of the same gender. Yet, in perhaps 78 countries, same-sex sex is illegal. 

But the tide is turning: in 113 countries, it's legal. 

In some US states, it was legal to arrest people, just for who they love, as recently as 2003! 
But the tide is turning. 

The data is from The Economist magazine, October 11th, 2014. 
Respect for consenting adults is from being human. 

Love is love. 
Same sex couples can have trouble being allowed to adopt. 
If we deny parental rights to homosexuals, 
are we saying that opposite sex spousal abuse is healthier than same-sex love? 
Is that the message we want to send? 

Being straight is great, 
but straight needn't be narrow. 

Words to describe lesbian, bisexuals, gay men:
sister, brother, daughter, son. 

All of the 49 people shot to death were someone's son or daughter. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Celebrity or trade laws?

The death of a celebrity compared to a blow to international trade law? How does US TV news coverage of trade law compare to its coverage of celebrity deaths?

How many people could be impacted by the "British exit" or the TPP?
What stories were covered the most in US TV news?

It's not like the "Brexit" or TPP could affect employment prospects in many countries, is it?
Or that the TPP or Brexit has the potential to effect climate change, is it?
When a celebrity dies, what story does the news cover more?

Could the tv news humanize the TPP debate if it tried?


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Extremism: communism, witchcraft, politics

Communist spies! It wasn't that Salem suddenly decided that witches were no longer in their midst at the end of 1692, nor was it that United States anti-communists suddenly decided that there weren't any more spies or disloyal Americans in the mid 20th century. It was that the accusers had gone too far: in 1692, the governor's wife was accused of witchcraft, centuries later it was, in part, Senator McCarthy's accusation that war hero and American President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. In Salem, the overzealous judge Staughton was effectively kicked off of the witchcraft court, and later Senator McCarthy was embarrassed on television and censured by his peers. Thus ended the panics, if not the belief that they had some legitimate aims.

Staughton  and McCarthy were overzealous, and it was interesting to realize that some of their critics agreed that this had hurt a good cause. "Witches/communists remain a threat, but abuse of power has killed our will to fight the fight reasonably." It's not that different from environmentalists who booby trap trees that are in danger of being cut down, despite the fact that these traps could harm people, or abortion opponents who believe that God gives them the right to murder doctors. Many (most?) environmentalists, and many (most?) critics of abortion agree that extreme tactics hurt their cause. Caveat: "extremism" of the sit-in movement which desegregated lunch counters.

One of my favorite lines about the utility of extremism is from Malcolm X, who observed that the white establishment was opposed to Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP, but added with as much humor as seriousness, "And then the white establishment looked at me, and they proclaimed, 'Thank God for Dr. King ... and the NAACP!" The audience laughed and cheered.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ricky Jay and ancient humanity

Magic tricks and anthropology? There is currently a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC featuring drawings with miniature writing (micro-graphy): it takes a magnifying glass to tell that the curls of a drawing of a wig actually include words, sentences. Other documents have micrography featured differently. Most are by a man who ---didn't have arms. All of that man's ephemera in the exhibit is owned by sleight of hand artist Ricky Jay.

After Peter Samelson, whom the New York Times called "a soft spoken conceptualist of sorcery", it was "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" that taught me that what are too often trivially disrespected magic tricks can be performed with intellect, that my love of scholarship was not necessarily at odds with my love of fine sleight of hand and, in rare cases, love of stage illusion.

In "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" Mr. Jay performed the ancient feat of the "Cups and Balls" with a script that included Latin and comparative anthropology! You know the trick: a marble sized ball is placed under an upside down cup, and reappears under another upside down cup. It was known to Seneca (tutor of the man who became the ancient Roman emperor Nero), and was also exhibited in ancient China using cups the size of small bowls, in ancient India with miniature cups. Alluding to this, and the apparent fact that these were created without contact between the countries, Mr Jay quipped in the show that "Anthropologists love the concept of simultaneous invention."

Like the fact that before the invention of monotheism, proto religions (is that the right term?) highlighted women, and featured the symbol of the bull. In Africa, Asia, and Europe. "Anthropologists love the concept of simultaneous invention."

The script of Ricky Jay's opening number in "...52 Assistants" was, appropriately, a verbatim quote from a century old book, which seemed to me poetic. Thank you, Mr. Jay.

Cups and balls trick: see _Street Magic_ by Claflin and Sheridan
Women and the bull symbology: see _Ideas: A History..._ by Watson
On Peter Samelson, see Samelsonmagic dot com

Profound Mom

My Mom read to me when I was young, one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child. Decades later, she supported her daughter when I had a crisis. In recent years she made me laugh, like when she'd watch the news and joke that the President of the United States should call her for advice. :)

Seeing a Mother's day ad the other day was painful, because my Mom is dead. A while ago.

I'll never again hear her wonderful laugh, she didn't live to see me give a speech a year ago that would have made her proud, never got to visit my fiance and I. There are also family questions, about her life, about 1987, for example, that I'll never know the answers to.

It took me a while to figure out that it was the mother's day ad that made me so sad the other day. How could it not?

I love you, Mom.

Your tearful daughter,


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Silicon econ

Is there a part of life that has not been changed by computer chips?  In the late 1980s and 1990s the most popular desk computers used Windows and, usually, Intel chips. The longtime head of Intel, chemist and businessman Andrew Grove, died a few days ago, and the NYTimes obituary made a statement that seems at odds with the notion that regulation is good:
"To meet voracious market demand...Mr. Grove insisted that Intel employees regularly work many overtime hours." Did this save the employees jobs, and perhaps the company?
The article also quoted a competing manufacturer, AMD, that Mr. Grove's "Intel goes to the edge-and sometimes over it..." in not allowing computer manufacturers to use other companies chips.

Did society benefit from practices that were impolite?

(Edited to hilight title)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Houdini publication!!!

Probable fraud in the roaring 1920s! A woman claimed that her dead brother (did I mention that he was dead?) could not only move physical objects, but overhear distant conversations (which is kinda creepy, if you ask me). Scientists investigated, and there were charges of sexual compromise and other betrayal. My review of The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World was the feature article in the March 16, 2016 issue of eSkeptic,
 the edited weekly email newsletter published by The Skeptics Society, which also publishes Skeptic magazine. I'm excited!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

"Flowers", flower petals, made of ice. They can be beautiful. And they can be made by plants, apparently on purpose. How extraordinary. And, like a fairytale magical object, they only exist for a few hours at night, then melt, disappearing. It is in this week's NYTimes "Science Times", p.D2.

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

"Flowers", flower petals, made of ice. They can be beautiful. And they can be made by plants, apparently on purpose. How extraordinary. And, like a fairytale magical object, they only exist for a few hours at night, then melt, disappearing. It is in this week's NYTimes "Science Times", p.D2.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Freedom & Oxygen (and carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen)

Freedom & Oxygen (and carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen)

Ideas can give complex topics a unity. An example from history is the contradictory interpretations of "freedom".  In nature, an example (the most basic?) is the scientific discovery of the elements of life being present in the stars.

Freedom: In the US, how did slave owners write so poetically of all men being free? Compare the early 20th century phrase "wage slavery" to the late 20th century argument that the economy needs to be "free" of government interference.  The idea that US history can be examined via different meanings of the word "freedom" gave me a way of unifying it, though there are other themes that can be used. (Inspiration: the books The Story of American Freedom and the stimulatingly different  Patriots History of the United States, among others).

"Freedom" could be seen as the "oxygen" of democracy, but that's not where I'm going today.

Compared to "freedom", the discovery that all plants and animals live by carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen is more fundamental,  all the more so with the more recent discovery that  the same four elements are "star stuff".  Biology and astronomy somehow make more sense to me now. (My limited knowledge of this is mostly from the book The Scientists by John Gribbin).

I'm not saying that US history is reducible to the above (and many more) usages of the word "freedom", nor am I suggesting that biology and astronomy are simply made of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. In US history there are varying interpretations and other themes that could be used, in the sciences the details are complex. But these two basic ideas did give me a new perspective, a new way of viewing the topics, a unity, or theme, in complex subjects.

Is there a big human idea that inspired you to see a topic of study differently? Another field with a leanse which is one of many? Or a complex field with a fact that is discovered to be fundamental?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Houdini's diverse fame?

More than a hundred biographies, almost a hundred novels,  ten times as many as any other magician can claim. A new novel, a new tv series, a new history book.  For anyone, that would be an accomplishment, but it's extraordinary for someone who's been dead for so long. There are many explanations for the depth and longevity of magic entertainer Harry Houdini's fame. During his lifetime he repeatedly risked death and survived, which often draws a crowd. That and escape are powerful metaphors. After his death his fame only increased, apparently thanks at least in part to the efforts of his widow, a fascinating theory explored by writer and researcher David Charvet in a 1995 article which is one of my favorites of all time (just as his book on Alexander The Man Who Knows is one of my favorite biographies, but I digress). I'll have more to say about all of these topics. (On his widow's efforts, see "Bess Houdini: Did the Woman Behind the Legend create the Myth?" by David Charvet, Magic magazine, October 1995). (On the number of HH novels and bios, see the  wonderful blog "" by John Cox)

While agreeing with all of these factors as partly explaining the power of the word "Houdini", I would like to add one that is, if less important, also less obvious and just as compelling: the stunning breadth of his accomplishments. He was not _just_ famous for his live performances, though he was famous for that. He was also an activist,  author, aviator and filmmaker, and dabbled in more. He made headlines for his challenges to fake psychics, wrote about magic history, was credited with being the first person to fly an airplane in Australia, and was a movie star. Anyone investigating the history of any of these topics is going to run into his name. And, in retrospect, it makes him more interesting to me.

So indulge imagination and speculate: would Houdini be as famous today if live performance was his only medium (if you will pardon the pun)? Does anyone recall encountering Houdini in history, or remaining interested in his career, for some reason other than his live performances?

[Edited to add title...]

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

On March 2nd...

On March 2nd of this year, I started this blog.
Also on March 2nd, Texas declared independence (From Mexico. In 1836.)
On March 2nd of 1904, Dr. Seuss was born. I'm resisting the urge to write a Seuss inspired poem.

Why "Humanist Chick"?

Why Humanist Chick?

Hi and welcome. "Humanist" reminds me of the values of compassion for different types of people and the beauty of nature. (Mothers in every place love their children, and poets in all languages muse on the stars). I chose "chick" because it reflects my sense of whimsy. I imagine posting on diverse topics on "Humanist Chick": books, Houdini, nature, philosophy, silliness & socio-economics (the latter sometimes separate:)