Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Category Archive: 'rant'

Seeing Red for a Different Reason

Written By: cahwyguy - Sun Nov 08, 2015 @ 6:47 pm PDT

userpic=schmuckEarlier today, I posted the following comment in response to one of the many responses I have seen to the Starbucks Red Cups this holiday season. If you don’t know about this latest skirmish on the “War on Christmas”, the skinny is this: Starbucks, this holiday season, is using plain red disposable cups with their green logo. Many Christians are up in arms about this, seeing it as yet another attack upon Christmas. One response going around (the one that I shared to start my commentary) seethed about the upset in a very good way, noting: “Because, seriously, do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?” [By the way, that commentary is well worth reading]. However, much as I agree with what was said, I saw a deeper issue, and thus I posted the following:

I keep seeing this going around, with various messages: either from Christians upset at Starbucks, or people asking whether Jesus would care about a red cup. What I see, however, is a presumption that infuriates me. Why do we assume a business must venerate Christmas? After all, we’re in a country where there is freedom to practice your religion. In fact, we see devout Christians going to the courts for the right to practice their religion, even when it trods on the rights of others. We’re also in a country where there is no official national religion. So why are we getting upset at a business that might choose not to even tangentially observe a Christian holiday. I’m not insisting that the cups be blue and white. I’m not insisting that they be the colors of Kwanzaa. I don’t care what color they are (I use a refillable mug). Starbucks has as much right to make their cups devoid of holiday symbolism as In-n-Out has of printing bible verses on each cup (which they do). The hidden “Christian Privilege” in this country is amazing. Observation of any religious holyday is a personal matter, not something to plaster on cup. … or be upset if it isn’t there.

The subsequent discussion has been far ranging, with many agreeing, and many not seeing the Christian privilege in this country. If you don’t see it, try looking at things from the someone who is not Christian, and especially who is not of an Abrahamic faith (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) or Atheist. In fact, the number of likes and the discussion surprised me — I have no idea who reads what I write. But there is a strong notion in this country that businesses are expected to do something to observe Christmas and that everyone is expected to hold “Christian” values — and that expectation bothers me in a country that is so proud of its heritage of having freedom to worship. [Of course, that emphasis is actually new. Just look at the history of Catholics in America. I never knew that at one time, the most popular novels were exposes written by nuns.]


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Vigilantes, Mobs, and Bullies, Oh My!

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Aug 04, 2015 @ 11:35 am PDT

userpic=soapboxReading the news over lunch the last few days has been very upsetting. I’ve read articles about trophy game in Africa, potential underage sex, anti-abortion activists, and much more. What has been upsetting me most, however, is not the ostensible subjects of the articles — the killing of animals, the sex, and such. What is upsetting me — and what is prompting me to climb up on my soapbox and write this article over lunch — is the way that the Internet is turning people into cyberbullies, cybervigilantes, and cybermobs.

Let’s take the case of the dentist, Walter Palmer, who admits to shooting a lion with a bow and arrow. Long before he has had his day in a court of law, where it would be determined if he actually violated the law, his personal information was placed on the Internet. He has received death threats; his practice has been harassed and shut down. This has impacted not only Palmer, but his employees, his family, and his patients — none of whom are guilty of any crime. It has gone beyond Palmer. Even different dentists who happen to share the same last name are being harassed and threatened. Other game hunters — who hunted legally — are being harassed.

We’ve seen this happen in numerous other areas. Consider Jared of Subway fame. Claims have been made, and even before they are investigated, there is harassment. This harassment has extended to Subway franchises, who have done nothing other than try to run a business. It is even true in the case of Bill Cosby. I’m not trying to say that Cosby is innocent. But displays of African Art collected by Cosby are being boycotted — this doesn’t benefit Cosby at all, and financially hurts the art institution that was viewing the items as art.

Growing up, we all read books like The Ox-Bow Incident, where we learned about the dangers of vigilante or mob justice. We work to teach our children that cyberbullying is wrong. Yet on the Internet, we participate in it. There are people who troll comment forums, attacking anyone who expresses an opinion they disagree with. There are people who dox other people, disclosing home addresses and phone numbers to permit personal harassment and threats and expansion to family members. There are people that organizes attacks on businesses they do not like. There are people that go undercover and illegally film events, to disclose identities that put people at risk. These people are all, essentially, taking the law into their own hands.

I’m not trying to argue that Cosby’s actions, or Palmer’s actions or whomever’s actions are right. I’m saying that the Internet is not the place to try them. They need to be judged in a court of law, against the laws that are on the books, not someone’s personal moral code. If you don’t like the law, get the lawmakers to change the law. But we are a civilized society, and we do not take the law into our own hands. That means no trials in the court of public opinion, no sharing of rumors and heresay on the Internet, no doxing, no online harassment, no trolling, no cyberbullying. We — as a society — are better than that.

I shall now climb off my soapbox. That feels better.

P.S. If you are kid / teen facing a cyberbully, here’s some good advice on what to do.

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Retconning History

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Jul 08, 2015 @ 12:08 pm PDT

userpic=old-shieldToday, while eating lunch, I came across an article titled: “California bill would ban naming state, local sites for Confederate leaders“. This bothers me greatly, not because I support the secessionist cause in any way, but because it is yet another example of the “TL;DR” view of society. We have two primary examples of that in the news right now: Robert E. Lee and Bill Cosby.

Let’s start with Robert E. Lee. Yes, he was the leading General of the Confederacy. But he was also (as Wikipedia notes): “The son of Revolutionary War officer Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III and a top graduate of the United States Military Academy, Robert E. Lee was an exceptional officer and combat engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. During this time, he served throughout the United States, distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy…”. Afterwards he was President of Washington and Lee University. The attempts to remove his name from everything essentially say that he is only defined by the three years he was in the C.S.A. army. I understand the victor gets to write the history books, and we should not be glorifying the losing cause in the Civil War battle. But how to we do this without forgetting all the good he did for the Union side before the split.

History is ugly, and doesn’t have clean lines. People we hold up as venerable have dark sides. Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson all owned slaves. Does that mean we no longer mention them? No. What we do is not hold them up as perfect icons — we present the history, both the good and the bad. Instead of a “zero tolerance” for any confederate involvement, we look at the person and ask: for what are they being honored? Were their accomplishments outside of the Civil War worth honoring, and can we present those aspects?

Bill Cosby is another example. I’m not attempting to defend the man at all. The recent court transcripts released paint a pretty conclusive picture. But that doesn’t make the stories he told in the 1960s less funny? That doesn’t make the series he developed less educational? How do we recognize the good done while acknowledging the bad man behind the good. Cosby isn’t unique in Hollywood. We all know there are other actors who, in their private lives, have committed all sorts of violence towards women. How do we learn to see the whole picture?

America these days has been trained on scandal; we’ve been taught to focus our attention on the bad most immediately done. We’ve also been taught to think to the sound bite — the snippet characterization. The problem is: life isn’t a sound bite; it isn’t the most recent story. In the many decades of life each of us have, we do both good and bad. We need to recognize no one is 100% good or 100% bad. We need to figure out how to recognize the good aspects, while acknowledging the bad aspects.

When I hear “Piiiiiipes”, see the name “Bob” on a coverall, or hear a “thump-thump thump-thump”, I’m going to think of Bill Cosby’s humor. I’ll remember there’s a bad and disturbed man behind that humor, but I’ll still smile at the story. When I think of Robert E. Lee, I’ll think of the Confederate General and the cause he fought for, why he fought for it, and why that side was wrong. But I’ll also think of the West Point officer who before the war was friends with other officers such as Grant, and who fought for the Union.

Life isn’t a sound bite; people can’t be characterized or pigeon-holed easily. We must take the time to see the whole person — the good and the bad. Perhaps these people don’t deserve a particular honor; perhaps they do. But we must always acknowledge the person — both the good and the flaws.

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“That Kind” Takes the Cake

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Jul 07, 2015 @ 5:47 pm PDT

userpic=sheriffjohnRecently, over on Facebook, I’ve gotten into a discussion with some of my more devout friends about the recent court case in Oregon. You may be familiar with it: This is the case where the former owners of an Oregon bakery have been ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused a wedding cake. The large amount was for pain and emotional distress. The bakers had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the wedding cake for the lesbian couple. The court decision was based on the fact that Oregon law bars businesses from discriminating or refusing service based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot turn away customers because of race, sex, disability, age or religion.

The discussions on Facebook at times has been heated. To many of my devout friends (by that I mean folks who hold strong scriptural Christian views as well as Orthodox Jewish friends), this is a case of the courts impinging on the freedom to practice their religion, or upon their freedom of speech. To many of my more liberal friends, this is a case of Oregon simply enforcing their anti-discrimination laws. The whole recent issue of same-sex marriage has highlighted the tension that exists between these three legal concepts, and Facebook discussions do not easily permit a suitable exploration of the issues. As this issue is swirling in my head, I request your indulgence to do so here.

Lets start by looking at some constitutional amendments:

  • First Amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Next, there’s the Oregon law:

  •  659A.403 Discrimination in place of public accommodation prohibited. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age if the individual is 18 years of age or older. [A public accommodation is defined to include “Any place or service offering to the public accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges whether in the nature of goods, services, lodgings, amusements, transportation or otherwise.” but to exclude “An institution, bona fide club or place of accommodation that is in its nature distinctly private”]

Let’s start by exploring whether baking a cake is an exercise of religion. To my interpretation, free exercise of religion is a personal matter. What I wear. What I worship. How I worship. My ability to do that exercise stops at the point where it starts to infringe on someone else’s exercise or beliefs. Same sex marriage is actually a good example of this: Some believe it is not within their religion, others believe that it is. Within my church, I don’t have to do such marriages; I should not be able to prevent those that believe in it from doing it. To do so would be to impinge on their free exercise of religion. In the case of a public business refusing to bake a cake, even with a message on it, that’s impacting someone else. It is not preventing me from going to my church, worshiping my deity. It is trying to impose my view of what is proper, based on my religion, upon someone else. As I’ve said before: My freedom to exercise my religion stops when it impinges on someone else ability to follow their beliefs.

Here’s another way to look at it: In general, my religion should not care what the heathens do; my religion should only care about what I do and what I need to be a good and righteous person/get into [Heaven-concept]. Imposing my religious morality upon the heathen is imposing my religion upon the heathen, and preventing their ability to freely exercise their heathen religions (damned that they may be for doing it). [Unfortunately, the Christian majority in this country far too often wants to do just that to us “heathens” (non-Christians), and the first amendment exists to make it clear that they can’t]

What about freedom of speech? After all, what is on a cake is a message. Perhaps the producer of the cake didn’t want to deliver the message. This would be similar to a private publisher refusing to publish a letter to the editor because they did not want to appear to be condoning the form of speech in the letter. Such refusal is legally allowed — we don’t require all letters to the editor to be published, and permit hateful comments on news articles to be deleted. I think this might be a plausible argument … depending. Whether it really applies in this case depends on information we do not have, such as whether they attempted to order a plain wedding cake with no message, no topper, no decoration indicating it was a same-sex marriage after the original cake with a message was refused (the LA Times article did not say). If they did, then then only “speech” would be their delivering the cake, which could be accommodated by having the cake be picked up by the people that ordered it. The mere presence of a cake, with no attribution, provides no speech on behalf of the baker. Further, even if the cake was baked with a message, if there was no attribution to the bakery, there is no speech by the bakery. Lastly, there is nothing that could have prevented the bakery from requiring a disclaimer to be present on every cake they sell: “Any message on this cake does not represent the views of the owners and management of xxx bakery.” Put it on every cake, and everyone is equal.

Lastly, let’s consider “equal protection of the laws” and the Oregon discrimination law. When is a particular refusal discriminatory? I think a good test would be to substitute “that kind” or “them” — if that is your reason, you’re being discriminatory. For example, “I wouldn’t rent a room to “that kind”” or “I wouldn’t bake a wedding cake for “that kind””. If by “that kind” you are referring to a protected class under the laws of the nation or state, you’re being discriminatory. Just as “I won’t marry them because of their skin color” doesn’t work, “I won’t marry them because of their sexual orientation” doesn’t work. Going to the previous paragraph, if they had refused to allow the couple to pick up a plain cake, that would have been discriminatory. Refusing to pick up a cake with a message depends on attribution; without anything connecting the bakery to the cake, it is likely not freedom of speech and thus discriminatory.

What happened here? According to the LA Times:

When Aaron Klein was told there would be two brides, Rachel and Laurel, he responded that he was sorry, but the bakery did not do wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of his and his wife’s religious convictions, according to the report.

Based on the knowledge at hand, it appears the court made its decision based on the fact that the bakery was a public accommodation, and they did not provide equal privileges based on sexual orientation. We’ve shown that free exercise of religion doesn’t come into play here (as the baker’s decision impinged upon the couple’s exercise). Freedom of speech might have come into play — the article says nothing about the message requested for the cake or how the cake would be presented at the ceremony. For those who believe they should have just gone to another baker: if the issue was simply freedom of speech or freedom of religion, you would be right. If the issue was discrimination, you would be wrong. Consider the analogy of the south in the 1960’s, and a restaurant refusing to serve blacks in defiance of the civil rights laws. The black patron should not be told to just go to another establishment; under the law, they have the ability to use any public establishment of their choice. That is what seems to be the case in Oregon: The law says they can use any public accommodation. If the accommodation does not want to follow the Oregon law, they should either move to a different state or become a distinctly private organization (e.g., only members can order cakes).

Note: This simply goes to the question of whether the action appears to be legal or not. It doesn’t go to the amount of the damages for emotional suffering. Quite often, those amounts are set by the judge or jury to send a message to other groups: is this a slap on the hand (minimal damages) or something to be prevented in the future (major damages). It appears this judge and jury went for the latter. To my point of view it seems excessive, especially in light how how the public reacted to this before the decision:

The bakery’s car was vandalized and broken into twice, he said. Photographers and florists severed ties with the company, eventually forcing the Kleins to close their storefront shop in September 2013.

To me, the vandalism was uncalled for, and should have been taken into account in the damage calculation.

[Update: It appears the damages were the norm, and were partially because the bakery owners indicated they would continue to publicly discriminate against gays.]

[Update 2: It is clear after reading this the damages were justified. The bakers doxxed the couple, subjected them to harrassments and death threats, and almost lost them the foster children they were trying to adopt. They also made clear that the refusal was because they were gay, and they clearly knew they were in defiance of the law.]

Do I think this was the right legal decision? Yes. If you are a public business, you agree to serve the public even if you find it distasteful.† Just as it would be wrong for an innkeeper in Oregon in 2015 to refuse to rent a room to an unmarried couple or to a gay couple (right, they’re just roommates 😉 ), it is wrong for a business in Oregon to refuse to serve gays because they are gays and doing what gays do. A business cannot impose their morality upon their customers. Was it acceptable in the past? Yes, and many forms of discrimination from the past are not acceptable today (such as discriminatory housing practices). Did it force the bakery or the bakery owners to send a message that they approved of gay marriage? Only if any message on the cake was accompanied by information about who produced the cake — and even then the issue could have been sidestepped through a disclaimer. This was discriminatory because there were options and ways for the business to have served the customer without implying they personally approved of the ceremony, and their refusal to serve the public like that makes it clear that it was solely because of their sexual orientation (disclaimer: at least based on the facts as I know them). [† Similarly, it is wrong for a government employee to refuse to take a Federal action because it disagrees with their religious beliefs. When you become a Federal employee, you make an oath to follow Federal laws. If you can no longer abide by that oath, you must resign.]

This case illustrates well the impact on the devout, who are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side they have an unchanging scripture, which they view as the word of God, unerring and eternal. It dictates particular societal norms, and prohibits what is perceived to be abnormal behavior. On the other side they have secular society which has an ever morphing definition of what is normal and acceptable — what was clearly unacceptable 50-60-100 years ago is now acceptable today (be that same-sex marriage, living together, children outside of marriage, interracial marriage, premarital sex, etc). The choices for the devout are not pleasant. They can attempt to find a loophole or interpretation that permits what they view as sinning. It has been done in some cases, but can’t be done in all. They can grouse about how the changes in society are preventing their exercise of their religion and their ability to impose what they view as normal morality on everyone. They would be right, but they would also be forgetting that freedom to exercise your religion has the implication that others have the freedom to exercise their religion and beliefs as well, even though you might not like it, and even though you believe your God will condemn them for their behavior. Lastly, they can isolate themselves into communities of the like minded, where the problematic issues just won’t raise their nasty head unless an interloper in the community forces it (and communities mores and pressure make that unlikely). This has been done before with numerous Orthodox, Amish, and Mennonite communities, and I’m sure there are many devout Christian communities that may do the same thing.

I also recognize that this has many faith communities up in arms. Evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews, and devout Muslims all see this as a perversion of God’s word. But the key underlying fact is: this is not a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation. It was founded by Deists, and there was no intent that biblical laws would govern. There is no government approved religion; government is secular and reflects the overall morals of society — which change over time. Much as the devout may believe that same-sex marriage will lead to the destruction of the world per God’s word, secular government doesn’t give that word authority. In fact, if someone tried to hold a particular scripture as “the authority” for our laws and decisions, I’d point out that such an action is essentially establishing a religion — it establishes one religion’s scripture and interpretation over another’s. If one wants a particular casting of God’s word to have such authority, a religious state with a state religion must be created. Although some would like that, history has shown that it is not very good for those on the short end of the favored religions. The tension we have in America between the secular and the devout is not perfect, but it is head and shoulders better than other systems. The reality (which is often forgotten) is that the devout will not use same-sex marriage, and the urge to have “God’s word” be “America’s word” is really an agenda to have a state religion with everyone subservient to the same scriptures. The better attitude for the devout is to let same-sex marriage be for the heathens that want to use it; they will get their punishment in the end (per the devout’s beliefs). For the devout communities, there should be no temptation.

Lastly, I’m sure you’re wondering what I think about same-sex marriage. My answer is that I don’t. If they want to recognize a commitment and call it marriage, it has absolutely no impact on my marriage. As for the government dictating it: as long as the government makes a distinction between “married” and “single” in any law or regulation (tax filing, social security benefits, etc.), there needs to be a common definition of what constitutes a marriage across all the states, otherwise confusion reigns. The government’s dictate only applies to government organizations and government officials. No house of worship is required to conduct such ceremonies or recognize the status from non-religious ceremonies (which is what we have now: there are sects within Judaism that won’t recognize marriages performed secularly or by different movements, especially if there was a halachic Jewish marriage before and no halachic Get).

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If It Was Good Enough for George Bush…

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 27, 2015 @ 10:37 am PDT

userpic=soapboxGimme that ol’ time Supreme Court,
Gimme that ol’time Supreme Court,
If it was good enough for George Bush,
It’s good enough for me.

(climbs up on soapbox)

With the decisions of this week, many in the conservative camp are expressing their ire at the Supreme Court. Ted Cruz is out there saying we should have referendums on justices. Others are saying that a decision such as gay marriage shouldn’t be on a 5-4 split. Some are saying that the court was going against the will of the people.

My response: If it was good enough for George Bush…

We have had a number of decisions of the Supreme Court that have gone against “liberal” positions, the most notable being Bush v. Gore, where the court essentially decided an election, going against the will of the people. That single decision singlehandedly probably brought across more negative changes to society than many we have seen. Then there was the Citizens United decision, which was also controversial and non-unanimous.

This week, we have seen equally divided decisions that have gone the other way.

That’s how it works with the Supreme Court. Sometimes your side wins, sometimes you lose. If you don’t like the result, you can see if there is sufficient support to change the laws or the constitution. You might fail there as well. Remember: Sometime God says “no” to what you want.

Just as you learned to live with civil rights and interracial marriage, you can learn to live with gay marriage. It really doesn’t affect you. It is much less impactful than that 5-4 decision I had to learn to live with: Bush v. Gore.

P.S.: As for the confederate flag, it is a piece of history. As with any piece of history, it belongs in a museum. People should be free to use it in the historical context. When it acquires other meanings, the government should not use it because it signals government support of those meanings. Individuals can still use it, but must recognize that it might convey a meaning to someone else other than what they intended. When you display that flag or symbol in a non-historical context, you send the message that you support all the meanings of that symbol, because you cannot control how others interpret it.

(climbs off soapbox, feeling better)

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Work and Hobbies: An Important Cross-Fertilization

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Jun 16, 2015 @ 7:52 pm PDT

userpic=99loveIt is a long held belief of mine that time spent on hobbies isn’t wasted. What you do as a hobby informs what you do at work, and what you do at work informs your hobbies.  Professionally, I do cybersecurity at a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. My hobbies include highways and live theatre. Today over lunch I kept thinking about this cross-fertilization in relation to the debate raging over Bitter Lemon’s decision to solicit payment from theatres for reviews, which was recently highlighted in the LA Times, and has been excoriated across the board  (from the LA Weekly (Steven Leigh Morris) to Howard Sherman (former head of the Theatre Wing) to ACTA to many others). I’ve even discussed it here.

Let me give you an example of this flow. As I noted, one of my hobbies is highways. A number of years ago, I took a day off and went to a Caltrans presentation on making safer highways. The goal was to reduce traffic deaths — reduce the number of times a CHP officer has to go to a door and say, “I’m sorry to inform you…”. They talked about a program from Minnesota DOT called “Toward Zero Death“: a program with the goal of reducing fatalities on the highways to zero. They realized they couldn’t just engineer safer highways, and as a result emphasized the Four “E”s: Education, Enforcement, Emergency Services, Engineering. Each contributed a piece. I heard that and went “Wow! That works perfectly for cybersecurity.” I ordered it differently: Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Emergency Planning. Engineering means building mechanisms in your systems to provide cybersecurity and protection; Education is educating your users on how to use those mechanisms and how not to do boneheaded things; Enforcement is having policies and making sure they are followed; and Emergency Planning is what is also called Resiliency: making sure your system doesn’t die, but can continue to support the mission in a degraded mode while being repaired. The point here is that my hobby informed my work.

It works the other way around as well. As I wrote earlier, I work for an FFRDC. We provide the government with an independent voice to ensure success of the mission. We are trusted to protect proprietary information, have the highest ethics, and to focus on independently assessing solutions — and not hesitating to tell the vendor when they are wrong, or the government when they are wrong. Note carefully what I just said: even though we are government funded (the FF in FFRDC), we have the ability to tell the government when they are wrong. This is achieved through our strong focus on ethics, our commitment as a corporation to those ethics, an immediate response when an ethics violation is discovered (as in, that person does not work for us anymore and may face penalties, depending on the violation).

Our company is depended upon to conduct independent assessments on behalf of the government, including things like penetration testing. When you look at areas like cybersecurity assurance, having that independent assessor is a must. Similarly, when you look at theatrical reviews and criticism, that independent assessment is a must. The independence of the reviewer is at the heart of the Bitter Lemons debate.

Independence is important in many industries. Both of my parents were accountants. They performed audits, which is an independent financial assessment of a company. Major public corporations depend on independent accountants and independent internal oversight organizations. Yet that paradox of paying the independent arm exists: the corporations pay the auditing firms, the corporations pay their internal oversight organizations. So how is that independence achieved? Typically, there is a requirement for all assessors to sign and adhere to a specific ethical code for their industry. If the organization is internal, there is typical a distinct reporting chain with perhaps only the CEO in common (and sometimes not even then; often auditors report to the Board). The British auditing association describes it thusly: “It is characterised by integrity and an objective approach to the audit process. The concept requires the auditor to carry out his or her work freely and in an objective manner.”

I’ll note that similar processes exist in numerous other industries, such as Internal Affairs departments in law enforcement, or internal investigatory organizations.

Let’s bring this back to the concern at hand: the “Bitter Lemons Imperative” and the perception of pay for play reviews. Certainly, strong ethics rules would preclude a theatre giving money (or providing anything above a nominal value, such as an information packet) to an individual reviewing their show. Yet, if we look at the financial arena, there are ways to address the concern. Let’s learn from what industry does, and insist that:

  • Anyone who writes up a show must subscribe to a code of ethics that prohibits direct payments from the theatre to the reviewer (ideally, it would prohibit providing anything other than a comp ticket or an information package (and I don’t personally support comp tickets, although that is industry practice)).
  • Anyone who writes up a show must disclose any past, present, or future relationships with the theatre or any cast or crew members, and must agree to not let those relationships color their assessment of the show reviewed.
  • Anyone who writes up a show must agree that their assessment of the show will be based solely on the story, performance and presentation, and that their assessment will be honest, even if it is negative.
  • If evidence is uncovered that their writeup was not unbiased but was influenced by a relationship, either personal or financial, then the community will be clearly informed of this so that their writeups may be skewed to take that into account.
  • A list of those writing up theatre who subscribe to these rules will be published and available to the general public.

In an ideal world, journalism outlets would assign reviewers to the shows that are of interest, and the complete independence of the advertising and editorial arms would provide separation between payment and reviewer salary. But times are changing. Independent websites that accept advertising don’t have that strong separation. Papers that still employ reviewers often do not send them to the new theatres, the small theatres, the out of the way theatres. There is no way for these theatres to get independent writeups that sway the audience, either drawing them in or warning them away.

A solution is required to address the changing journalistic and dramatic criticism world. A solution is also required to address the unknown pop-up blogger whose ethics are unknown.

[Edited to Add: Another day, another lunch, and a few more thoughts: One key difference between auditing (and the work I do) and theatre reviews/criticism is that the former can be objective, while the latter is subjective. Any theatre review reflects the opinion of the reviewer, and it not necessarily capable of substantiation with facts. This prevents confirming the independent results, and opens up the aura of “taint” if a reviewer happens to like a show whose review was requested and funded by the production. The solution here, surprisingly, is what Bitter Lemons is already doing: aggregating reviews and looking at the overall consensus. If a single reviewer out of a set of reviewers is “in the pocket” of the theatre, they will show up as anomalous in a particular production’s review set. Over time, statistics might demonstrate that reviewer is a consistent outlier statistically. Of course, this mechanism is destroyed if the community simply produces consistently good theatre (oh, the horrors of consistently good theatre).

Statistical reporting can work well to identify outlier reviews and bias, when looking at an entire season. Of course, the statistics become useless unless editors assign critics to shows they know will be horrible. If people self-pick shows (as I do, and as Steven Stanley does, and I’m sure others as well), we tend to pick shows we’re likely to like. Even if the tickets are comp, we are still investing our time and we don’t want to waste that on two hours we’ll never get back (I Caligula, The Musical , I’m looking at you). This is the most likely explanation of why most reviews are positive, even if there isn’t a financial incentive involved (unless, of course, you are just writing to appear clever — Charles McNulty, I’m looking at you).

In short it boils down to trust in the integrity of the reviewer — or as one trainer put it, you either have ethics in your soul or you don’t. Ethical and honest reviewers will honestly tell you what they think of a production, irrespective of any “bribes” from the theatre, because their goal is not to make that production succeed, but to make theatre as a whole better. Unethical reviewers don’t have that mission, and unscrupulous producers will take advantage of them (Subways are for Sleeping and David Merrick, I’m looking at you).]

The approach taken by Bitter Lemons recognized the need for such a solution, but was a flawed implementation and deserves to be shut down and reconsidered from the ground up to publicly incorporate clear ethics rules and restrictions. I’m not going to attempt to propose a specific solution here; I’ve done so in the past and had it shot down. I do think a solution is needed, and that solution needs strong publicized ethics rules that participants will follow. I’m open to suggestions in the comments (anatomically possible, please — my head won’t fit up my ass).

A few PSs to address some additional points:

  • There is an argument that any payments by theatres are a slippery slope: if one review organization does it, they all will. Poppycock. There will always be individuals who put ethics above all and refuse payment. Additionally, journalism in general is no longer so high and mighty — we’ve increasingly seen the mix of the editorial and the advertiser (Los Angeles Times, I’m looking at you and your special wrappers). It may be a matter of time, but it may also be that the wrong approach will fail miserably (witness the original attempt at paywalls).
  • There are arguments that there is an important function of an editor in being able to decide what to review. That may be the case, but it also reflects the inherent bias of the editor. They have a concern — not of advertising dollars but of readership — and they direct the reviewers to the better known theatres, the ones that will draw the eyes of the reader. They will not care about the lesser known smaller theatres at all. Don’t believe me? How often does the LA Times review the Center Theatre Group, Pantages, Pasadena Playhouse, Wallis Annenberg, Colony, or Geffen. How does that compare with how often they review intimate theatre? There is not balanced editorial assignments. The papers that attempted to do so (LA Weekly, I’m looking at you) have drastically curtailed their reviews.


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One Man’s Trash

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri May 22, 2015 @ 11:25 am PDT

userpic=televisionIt has been a while since lunchtime reading of the news has prompted me to set down my salad and pick up my keyboard. It happened today when I read an article about David Letterman. Now, I’ve mostly been ignoring Letterman — I never quite got into him or his humor, being more of the Carson / Leno / Fallon mold. But this time the problem isn’t specifically Letterman — more, it is his production company or CBS. Why? Well, with the exception of one or two pieces, the rest of David Letterman’s set has gone to the dumpster.

What a waste.

Letterman should have taken a lesson from Survivor, which for years has put props from the season just closed up for auction, with proceeds going to charity. I think that’s a wonderful thing, but most shows don’t bother to do it. Letterman certainly should have — he could have really helped charities, and cleaned out a bunch of stuff that wasn’t wanted. Hell, even Stephen Colbert (who is replacing Dave) auctioned off his desk for charity. For me, it just centers my impression of Letterman as self-centered.

It also highlights one of the few problems I have with the entertainment industry as a whole: they are incredibly wasteful. For example, think of all those car crashes and car stunts in a movie. What do you think happens to the cars? They fill up junkyards. Loads of industrial effort… that is just trashed for entertainment. Think about all the water scenes filmed and the water wasted. Think of all the fictional house and office sets for TVs and movies. Most are used once and trashed. Waste of wood. Waste of plastic. I’ll note its not just movies and TVs — the same is true for ballet, opera, and stage, although often there sets are warehoused and leased out for use to future productions.

Then there is intimate theatre, which often does reuse props and sets. However, that’s more due to the fact they need to save money than any ecological desire. In fact, in smaller theatres, that sofa you are sitting on today was probably in a previous production (and before that, rescued from a thrift store). Don’t believe me? Ask the REP where the piano in the Hydeaway Lounge came from, or the Colony where the Egyptian Coffin came from.

That’s better. Rant is out and lunch is done.

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It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride…

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Apr 22, 2015 @ 7:45 am PDT

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_ticketsWell, Actors Equity has gone and done it. Not only did they fire a shot across the bow, but war has been declared. They’ve been the aggressor, starting the fight and moving the tanks in despite the wishes of the people. Oh, and us peasants? As usual, we’re the ones that get it in the neck.

What am I talking about? Simple. Perhaps two months ago, Actors Equity (the union that represents stage actors) dropped a proposal that any AEA actor working in intimate theatre (99 seats and under) in Los Angeles must be paid as an employee and at the current prevailing minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances. There were also work place requirements and performance minimum requirements, with limited exceptions solely for membership companies and self-produced works. They claimed that (a) members wanted this, and (b) it was required under California labor law.

The problem was, however, that a majority of Los Angeles AEA actors did not want this. They understood that the nature of Los Angeles theatre is such that most theatres cannot be financially sustained under these rules. The cost for AEA actors would quadruple or more. There would only be small safe productions. Actors would lose the venue they value for the refinement of their craft and for feeding their artistic needs.

AEA held a referendum, and just under 66% of those who voted were against the proposal. Did this stop AEA? No. They voted to impose the new rules anyway.

I’ll say that again: They ignored the wishes of the actors and their members, and eliminated the 99-seat plan.

In doing this, AEA showed disregard not only for their members, but for the audiences that pay the bills and for the other professionals and businesses that their decision impacts. Rosalyn Cohn, over in the private pro99 group on Facebook, posited the following for AEA’s rationale:
(posted with permission)

OMG. This is so obvious. Why didn’t I see this? This has been in the works. NYC has turned into corporate theatre, star vehicle driven like never before and non-union tours abound. Some pretty big Off-Bway houses have closed like the Promenade. LA has big bucks which is WHY AEA is making its presence more known. That’s why they now have their own building. They now want to try to make this the 2nd theatre capital – which we know it is. We 99 Seat Actors who don’t have name recognition, this is what it’s about. I lived it. I lived in NYC for 20 years. It’s now very hard to get a B’way gig if you aren’t a name. Says the Union, “Ummmm, we need dough. Ahhhh, let’s really be smart and stake our claim – you know actors aren’t great with business so they need to be taken care of, uuhhh, we’re in Power, uhhh, they’ll say we know what’s best. We’re the Adult. Uhhh, let’s go to where Film/TV is REALLY prominent. STARS sell TICKETS. Let’s DO AWAY with 99 Seat with no names. Let’s force them to Showcase Code where maybe they can get an agent, maybe a review. Let’s force the Companies who have bigger audiences to MERGE and force them to an AEA contract so we can make money. But, wait, that will cost those theatres most likely $100K+ to produce that show w/insurance bonds and all that. So, hey, aren’t we in the town where there’s lots of CELEBRITY CACHE?!!! I know! We’ll make it so that the STARS can work in Off-Broadway size houses and not have to leave LA. And those other actors with no name and not making us bank, well, they’ll work in those under 50 houses for only 16 shows.” That’s it my friends. You want this? THAT’S WHAT THIS IS.

I’ve said repeatedly: I’m not an actor, I’m a computer scientist. I envy the talents and abilities of actors, and wish that I had their skills to inhabit other personalities. I can, however, explore issues to their logical conclusion. Here are my thoughts on this matter:

  • AEA is insisting that actors be employees. Labor law does not allow volunteers to work in a position for which employees are hired. The implication of this is that a non-profit theatre company cannot simultaneously have volunteer actors and actors on the payroll. Such a situation means that those volunteer actors must be bumped up to be employees, and covered by the same minimum wages rules. This kills 99 seat theatre. It may also be illegal, in the sense that not-for-profit companies have always be permitted to have professionals provide services pro-bono or at below market rates. There is simply no basis for treating the two groups of actors differently under the law. So, either 99 seat theatres are killed by requiring all actors to be employees, or AEA’s action is illegal and discriminatory.
  • But it’s worse. Why should a particular class of work be mandated to be performed by employees in some non-profits, but not all. I posit that if the minimum wage rules apply to professional non-membership non-profits, it would apply to community theatre and other amateur theatre as well, if they charge for admission. This is a major impact, and certainly not what the law intended.
  • But it’s even worse. Logically, if labor law requires actors to be employees, how can it permit an exemption for membership companies or self-produced. The job and the work is the same.

AEA, in my opinion, either no legal leg to stand upon, or has just killed all theatres with volunteers. I personally believe the former, and hope not the latter. I believe AEA completely misses the distinction between the for-profit and non-profit theatre.

Here is my prediction of what I believe will happen:

  • Gentlemen and ladies, start your lawsuits. Except a protracted legal battle similar to the “Waiver Wars” of the 1980s, with actors suing their own union. It is going to be nasty nasty nasty, and will have repercussions for a long time (I know, to me, they have started — I’m seeing some of the pro-AEA actors in a show in early May, and I’m already afraid it will color my reaction to them). The only winners are going to be the lawyers (and the cockroaches, because they always win in the end).
  • Existing membership companies will soldier on because they’ve been granted specific exemptions, but will be unable to partner with other production groups to do innovative work.
  • Development of new work for the stage to be produced in Los Angeles will stop. This will impact not only actors but the film industry, as often such work feeds film work.
  • Non-profit non-membership intimate companies will stop employing AEA actors (and additional union actors, depending on how the 4-As handle reciprocity rules). This has already started: Both REP East (where we subscribe) and Long Beach Playhouse have indicated that — for the duration — AEA actors need not apply.
  • New companies, if they form, will not hire AEA actors. Combined with the previous point, this will mean less work for AEA actors.
  • A significant number of Los Angeles based AEA actors will either drop union membership or go Fi-Core. This means you’ll only see New York Actors in NYC and on tours. Los Angeles will not only not incubate new works, it won’t incubate new actors. In the long run, it may result in the split of the union, with Los Angeles actors creating a union specifically for the Los Angeles theatre scene, and telling AEA not only where to shove it, but how far to stick it in.

As audience members, there’s not much we can do other than to bring out the popcorn and watch. The one thing we can do is to remind our local actors that we stand with them, and that we stand with our intimate theatre community. Do what you can. Go see a show.

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