Technology & Elections

vote, voting, election

A set of articles in the current issue of Wired discuss the part technology can play in improving our elections. Skeptical, all things considered? You should be. Still, here’s what to watch for.

Candidates and Facebook

James Barnes, a Facebook employee embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016 (think about that a moment), has had second thoughts and is now working to promote Joe Biden at the political nonprofit Acronym. It produces digital media campaigns for progressive candidates and causes. By the end of summer, though, very few voters were undecided, so their campaigns weren’t making converts. One can only hope that the Trump campaign’s October efforts to outspend Biden on Facebook ads in several battleground states, according to this CNBC story, will fall flat too.
Read: PW Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media.

The Voting Process

To be a state election official is to be plagued with nightmares. “We all knew we were headed into what would be a contentious election year,” said Arizona’s Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs, in a model of understatement in this Wired article by Lily Hay Newman. Plus, they know they have a derailing technical problem or two: In Georgia’s disastrous primary, for example, all 159 counties were using new machines for the first time. Plus, the pandemic. Officials have had to scramble to find polling places. Traditional venues—schools, community centers, churches—balked. Experienced poll workers? A vanishing species.

Texas election officials and a team of university-based computer scientists, Wired reports, have devised a way to use advanced encryption technology—homomorphic cryptography—to improve our notoriously vulnerable voting machines. (Just using the term, I’ve already approached the limit of my understanding of how it works.) The machine assigns a lengthy ciphertext to each vote and prints out a short identifier, akin to a bit.ly link. Voters can use these to verify their votes are “in there.” Part of the beauty is that votes do not need to be decrypted to be counted, so privacy is maintained.
Read: James McCrone;s Faithless Elector, about a member of the electoral college who doesn’t stick to the script or McCrone’s brand new book, Emergency Powers, about how far someone will go to hang on to the presidency. Hmmmmm.

Secure Vote Counting

In this election, several states will use “risk-limiting audits” to validate results. These methods link the scale of the audit to the victory margin. If a candidate wins big, even a small sample of randomly selected ballots can confirm the results. In closer contests, a larger sample is needed. Bottom line: Unfortunately, processes, equipment, and practices vary widely, state to state, and nationally, the lack of investment in improving them contributes to a loss of faith in our elections that eventually damages every one of us.

Back to blogging–yay!

Good Health

People’s varying reactions to Covid-19 and the quarantine amaze me. Not always in a good way, though I still laugh when I recall Kellyanne Conway’s criticism of the WHO, “This is Covid-19, not Covid-1, folks. You would think that people charged with the World Health Organization facts and figures would be on top of that.” She followed up that jaw-dropping misunderstanding with “People should know the facts.” Spokespeople too.

I hope you and your family have stayed well and am happy to report good news on that front for my family, so far. Even though New Jersey is a peanut of a state, we have seen more Covid deaths than our big brothers, Texas and California.. The county where I live has suffered more Covid deaths than 16 entire states.  

Bad Politics

Starting in April, I took a break from 4-day-a-week website posting. I I felt oddly speechless in the face of the pandemic, the politics, the gun-toting protestors in state capitals, hurricanes battering the South, the West ablaze.

I was heartsick in the aftermath of our massive social upheavals. Now that political correctness isn’t politically correct any more, we find how much ugly stuff it hid. Yes, it occasionally strayed into eye-roll territory, but it reinforced norms about what is acceptable in a modern society made up of many threads and strands. It expressed how we should treat each other. Maybe it kept the lid on, a bit. And since behavior lags attitudes, it may have helped at least a few people break the habit of reflexive hostility and censorious opinion.

Now, of course, Americans feel empowered to give their malicious attitudes and beliefs free rein. I wish I didn’t know this dangerous river of ignorance and prejudice still flows through our country. I would have preferred to continue deluding myself that we are moving beyond the corrosive views of the past. Maybe this time, more people of good will are paying attention.

A Brighter Note

While not blogging, I wasn’t doing nothing. I read a lot (reviews of the best stuff coming soon). I watched some under-the-radar films worth catching (ditto). I also escaped today’s woes by delving into the past, working on a family history. I finished and sent off a short story. I made a batch of birthday cards.

I sought advice from three experts on various aspects of my novel and took it. Then I read the whole thing through quickly, not as I usually do, interrogating every word, sentence, and paragraph. Here I’m reminded of the woman who bragged in an online advice-to-authors forum that “by the time I send my novel to the publisher I have read it through three whole times!” Three? Thirty-three is more like it. And twice out loud.

A last flash. In early March two Siamese kittens scrambled into our lives. Will and Charles. Kittenhood has been an entertaining way to spend the lockdown. We vacillate between “What was that crash?” and “It’s too quiet.” The picture? Sometimes, if you need a kleenex, you just have to get it yourself.

Closed Doors photo: falco for Pixabay

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Busy Day

For the two new members of our family. “First we tore apart this feather thing, then we went to the vet.” Hard to get a clear picture. I tell them to stand still, but . . .

Girl from the North Country

This Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre is a real treat for anyone at all a Bob Dylan fan. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, its slim but heartfelt story showcases more than 20 of Dylan’s songs, accompanying them with a small group of background musicians who let the words shine through. Though the eponymous tune is on the playlist, I somehow missed it, so here’s the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version for your listening enjoyment.

The songs from the 60s and early 70s hold up well, rather evenly balanced with more recent work. This isn’t a “best of” concert, so there were some less familiar songs too. A few get a gospel treatment, which blurred the words for my ears (in the second row), and of course, it’s Dylan’s lyrics that are so powerful. He is a Nobel Prize-winner after all!

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter 1934, “where the wind hits heavy on the border line.” There, the proprietor and residents of a down-at-heels boarding house, who seem to have been pulled straight from Dylan’s lyrics, face numerous and varied difficulties. Mostly poverty. The establishment is run by a hard-pressed Gene Laine (played by Jay O. Sanders). His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is in the early stages of dementia. While she may be a bit off and filter-free, she sees what’s going on better than almost anyone, and Winningham plays her beautifully. Their son Nick (Colton Ryan) is frittering away his youth and, when his girlfriend leaves him, his rendition of “I Want You” with his shyly pleading smile, is a heart-breaker.

Their unmarried daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), an African American foundling the Laines raised, is pregnant, and wrongly accused prison escapee and former boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) wants to marry her. This plotline provides the perfect opportunity to sing a bit of “Hurricane.” (You may have seen Scott as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway.)

There are more guests with heavy burdens, and ending with “Forever Young” provides an ironically upbeat note. All the acting is strong from the 13-member cast. The music is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and I liked the simple set with photographic backdrops, especially a bleak Lake Superior in winter.

Photo: Pixabay

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

Midwives

Photo: © T Charles Erickson

George Street Playhouse’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Midwives, directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, David Saint, opened January 24 and runs through February 16. Chris Bohjalian’s 1997 suspense novel has sold more than two million copies, and at least two previous attempts have been made to take it from page to stage. For George Street’s version, Bohjalian himself takes on the writing task. That he’s more a novelist than a playwright may account for some of my difficulties with this production.

Sibyl Danforth (played by Ellen McLaughlin), a well-respected Vermont midwife, is attending the labor of Charlotte Bedford (Monique Robinson). On hand are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George) and Sibyl’s new assistant, Anne Austin (Grace Experience). It’s the middle of the night and an ice storm rages outside and the labor is not going well. Finally, the situation deteriorates to the point that she agrees Charlotte should go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the storm has knocked out the phone lines and the roads around the Bedfords’ remote farmhouse are impassable. When Charlotte falls unconscious, Sibyl believes she’s had a stroke. She cannot detect blood pressure or pulse. CPR proves fruitless. Faced with a dead mother, Sibyl’s attention turns to saving the infant, using a kitchen knife to cut Charlotte open.

In Act Two, Sibyl is on trial for manslaughter. Anne maintains Charlotte was alive when Sibyl made the incision, and the state’s attorney (Armand Schultz) argues that Sibyl’s intervention killed her. Sibyl’s lawyer (Lee Sellars) says, on the contrary, she saved a life.

Throughout, you have the perspective of Sybil’s daughter, 14-year-old Connie (Molly Carden). The events around Charlotte’s death and her mother’s trial are vivid in Connie’s mind almost a decade later, when she is a budding OB-GYN. While skipping around in time is rather easily handled in a novel, in a play it makes for some awkward scenelets. Especially puzzling were interactions between medical student Connie and Anne.

In ancient times, a sibyl was considered a witch, and, regrettably, the pursuit of Sibyl Danforth becomes a witch-hunt, which oversimplifies many issues. The play would have had a much-needed infusion of drama had it retained the novel’s final surprise as a surprise.

Bohjalian made another important departure from the book when he made Charlotte and Asa Bedford African American. A black preacher and his wife newly arrived in northern Vermont to serve a congregation of Q-tips (Charlotte’s description) shifts the social dynamic and raises unnecessary (and unanswered) questions.

The actors do a good job with the somewhat limited emotional range provided by the script. McLaughlin is stoic, Experience is a master of “I told you so,” and George is the most sympathetic when he declares he doesn’t want Sibyl punished. This is a story that should have been dripping with drama; I don’t understand why it wasn’t.

Midwives is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

Small Museums, Big Pleasures: South Bend, Youngstown, Cincinnati

It’s easy to love The Met, the Smithsonian, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Getty, and the nation’s many other Major Museums. But really? Are you always up for eight or nine hours of that? You don’t have to visit one of these demanding (time, energy, and $$) enterprises to have a rewarding museum experience. Smaller, more manageable, typically less crowded museums throughout the country have impressive offerings. Here are east-of-the-Mississippi examples from recent travels.

Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana

OK, granted, you may have to have a thing about cars to fully appreciate the Studebaker National Museum. Old cars, that is (Studebaker stopped manufacturing its vehicles in the 1960s). But an appreciation of history can serve every bit as well. Before it manufactured automobiles, Studebaker produced prize-winning wagons and carriages. On display is the carriage that President and Mrs. Lincoln used for their ill-fated trip to Ford’s Theater. And the carriage used by Indiana native son, President Benjamin Harrison.

There are early “station wagons,” carriages designed especially for traveling to and from the train station (luggage outside). Among the farm wagons is a miniature version for children, with a sign reading “Propulsion provided by goat, large dog, or younger sibling.” Aww.

America’s Packard Museum, located in a restored Packard dealership in Dayton, Ohio, is equally impressive, carwise, BTW.

Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

I remembered that the Butler Institute has Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap the Whip,” but I hadn’t recalled that its collection, devoted to works by American artists, includes so many other notable works, as a recent visit revealed. Some of the paintings from the Hudson River School and other mid-19th century artists are truly spectacular. There are some fun contemporary works as well, including a large painting of a dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not.

Butler—one of the few museums of its caliber that does not charge an admission fee and relies solely on community contributions—has an “Adopt-a-Painting” program in which donors can contribute to the restoration of specific works of art. That’s an exciting possibility, which may intrigue some of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Maybe other museums have programs like this, but they have escaped my notice.

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

We visited the Taft Museum of Art in 2016 and liked it, but what caught my eye recently was the announcement of an upcoming exhibition (February 8-May 3, 2020) of the works of N.C. Wyeth. The passionate early 20th century works of the patriarch, N.C., appeal to me more than those of his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. I’m drawn to their swashbuckling energy and storytelling power. The exhibit will include his illustrations for Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans (Hawkeye, pictured), and The Boys’ King Arthur, as well as standalone works of equal vivacity.

Alas, I won’t be in Cincinnati during the run of this show, but I hope you will be and that you’ll see it and tell me what you liked best.