South Jersey, windfall apples

This Thanksgiving season I’ve been thinking about childhood summers at my late grandmother’s place. Remembering her too, of course, but my thoughts of her, while loving, are complicated and separate from my recollections of her South Jersey home. There are never any relatives in evidence when I revisit those summers; my life is private and free from anxiety or oppression. Even now, in my real life, I instinctively surround myself with those Jersey sights and smells. I was content there, in the quiet presence of typical country things: 

Windfall apples and a mulberry tree
Tomato leaves and pine needles when you rub them and smell your fingers
Dill growing in the sun
Sheep and hogs (I can recognize them by smell alone even today)
Horses, tack, and manure
Birdbaths surrounded by zinnias
Box turtles, and cattails by the lake
Queen Anne’s lace, rose of Sharon, moss rose
Decrepit barns and roadside hamburger stands
Footpaths through the woods with orange shotgun shells on damp mulch
Chickens and turkey buzzards, cardinals and blue jays
Monarch and tiger swallowtail butterflies, Japanese beetles, fireflies
A cement front porch

Okay, turkey, too. And a wonderful stuffing. 

Have a wonderful holiday.



(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Dianne Rosete, Thanksgiving Day Turkey CC BY-ND 2.0 / DSC01285 andrew leahey CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mystery of the Next Great Mystery

I was one of those adolescents who had to read everything they’d ever heard of, including the entire rack of Penguin classics at the local bookstore plus everything else by each of those authors, all the NYT bestsellers I could get my hands on, and ancient editions of Dickens and Thackeray from the used book alley. But mysteries, especially traditional whodunits, always held a special attraction for me, and that’s no mystery: I know exactly why. The theory’s been repeated since the genre first emerged: mystery stories are essentially morality tales.

I’m familiar with all the usual suspects, of course: Christie, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Poe, Collins, Sayers, Queen, Tey, Stout, everyone. I like Caleb Carr, Martha Grimes, Jane Haddam; I’ve enjoyed Sue Grafton, Donald E. Westlake, and Stieg Larsson’s original Dragon Tattoo books. I read less of the genre these days, but I remain loyal to a few select favorites.

Good mystery series are all about the relationships. Well, after Christie the solution is always secondary; it’s not that no one else ever did it as well, it’s that no one else has ever done it. Dame Agatha taught me that with psychology and observation I could see beyond appearances to the truth, I could prove myself right and everyone else wrong, unmask the real villain and solve the puzzle of my own life. And there’s the attraction, of course, that vicarious vindication. Mysteries are about moral confirmation, not the reveal.

By the pricking of our thumbs we know that evil’s always afoot, but what and where and exactly who’s behind it? The wicked uncle or exotic foreigner, the master criminal or crude mobster? Maybe the over-friendly neighbor or loving spouse, the business partner or new love? It could be the government, or some giant international corporation, and never mind police corruption! Is it about money, love, power, or fear? Observe carefully; no one can be presumed innocent, not even your kindly Grandma, because something somewhere is not what it seems. And maybe all this seems a rough kind of magic, a cheap trick, but something interesting is going on here and it’s relentlessly progressive.

They’re all exposed in turn: the racist, social, and sexual repressions of the Victorians (and God bless the British everywhere and all they’ve done around the globe, including their current Monarchial rebranding as a Disney franchise); the mob violence of Prohibition; the post-war anomie and alienation (any war); the innately treacherous machinations of romance, especially among the wealthy; the seething dynamics of the perfect family or ideal village; the corruption that seeps down or else crawls up from the streets. All good writing takes its inspiration from the society it influences, establishing truth with stories. Mere suspicions develop into fictional evildoers who are suddenly here among us, real and undeniable and even obvious.


Now that CSI, DNA and phone cameras are picking up so much of the slack the private eye seems obsolete, a professional Peeping Tom spying on adulterers. As for that protagonist of the cozy story perennially outsmarting the authorities – please! So what’s left for the adherent seeking a fix? Well, that’s the real mystery, isn’t it? Today we’re in the era of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and The Woman in the Window. New secrets are being exposed, new sources of evil recognized and, at least in the pages of a satisfying mystery, vanquished. Now that feminism is having a star turn, I sometimes wonder if we’re not reading in here, projecting doctrine where none was intended, but then I remember how that’s impossible if a woman authored the book to begin with.

All this time and we never realized.

And I wonder what’s next, because obviously we’re not at the end of moral evolution and its resulting moral reevaluation, and that means the mystery novel is evolving as well, finding new wrongs to expose. What crimes of the heart and soul, of society and politics, of history and the intellect itself will they uncover next?

Only the shadow knows.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)


Photo credits: paul stumpr, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd CC BY-SA 2.0 / Stewart Black, 14 CC by 2.0


Robot Rule of Law

I’ll admit that I’m fascinated by the rapid integration of tech and law, but my interest, though fervent, is largely academic. My profession is being transformed, but I don’t mind; I’m intrigued and entranced but not especially concerned.

I’ve read a great deal about how lawyers are becoming extinct, or else they’re not, or else they’ll have more time for persuasion and advocacy blah blah blah. Time will show, but I suspect the traditionalists are in for a shock. There’s something in their protestations that’s like the sound of heels scraping as someone’s dragged from the room. And while I have an argument to make in their favor, it’s probably not the one they think.

My passion lies with rule of law, that one ring of the human Venn diagram big enough to enclose them all. There’s less tech chatter on this subject, some disparaging, some optimistic and progressive, and all of it coming to the expected trite conclusion: technology is what we make of it, good or bad. But good how and bad how, exactly?

But first a definition of sorts, and here I’m deferring to the World Justice Project which identifies the following four core principles as necessary to rule of law:

1. Accountability
The government as well as private actors are accountable under the law.
2. Just Laws
The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property and certain core human rights.
3. Open Government
The processes by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced are accessible, fair, and efficient.
4. Accessible & Impartial Dispute Resolution
Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are accessible, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

Legal AI encompasses machine learning, natural language processing, legal analytics, and bots, just for a start. Machine learning means just that – machines capable of continual self-improvement through deep data dives via which they abstract information and use it to make intelligent connections. Sounds like a description of human thinking, or even human imagination, doesn’t it? Machine learning is accelerated courtesy of natural language processing, which lets computers understand, integrate, and analyze human documents: scan, comprehend, and integrate every word in the Library of Congress, for example.

Legal analytics is all about big data, algorithms, trends, and predictions. LexisNexis owns both Ravel Law and Lex Machina, systems dedicated to forecasting probable outcomes in litigation or judicial decision-making. And bots are interactive online programs designed to provide any user anywhere solutions relevant to a particular location, circumstance, and area of law.

This is now, not the future; I stress that because the actual future of law could be anything or unimaginable, and don’t bother listening to anyone who thinks they know better. Today Fortune 500 companies and big law firms are supporting AI because they have to – there’s already too much data out there to be handled any other way. If you want to get a grasp on what’s going on, here’s a link to the inaugural issue of Legal AI Leaders, a 2018 supplement to The National Law Journal, which profiles some of the companies leading the legal world in AI:

Listed among them, Ross Intelligence (now partnering with leading immigration firm Siskind Susser, the first in the field to create artificial intelligence-based immigration law products); Judicata, Bloomberg Law, Brainspace, Beagle, Atrium, IBM, iManage, Legal Robot, Lex Predict and Lex Machina (both from LexisNexis) and NEXTLAW Labs, the first such enterprise from a law firm, created by Dentons in 2015). Not included but still prominent players include Consilio (now merged with Advanced Discovery), and Catalyst (merged with Total Discovery). Access Data offers a forensic toolkit, mobile services, eDiscovery processing, workflow analysis and managed services; Apperio will run your law firm for you; Docasaurus automates your documents; FairClaims is online dispute resolution again, and LegalSifter performs one hour contract review. Integreon acquired Allegory and now offers full-scale litigation management and discovery; Text IQ applies machine learning techniques to language analysis, and you already know about Legal Zoom

Getting the picture?
So what about those four pillars of rule of law?

The most obvious benefit of AI is accessibility. Microsoft and the U.S. Legal Services Corporation are developing pro bono civil law legal portals: logon to your lawyer. Soon enough, if you have a computer or a smart phone, you can have not only an attorney but also the acquired data of the best law firms in the world combined, plus the forms and documents (we all know about Legal Zoom) you need and you probably won’t need them anymore anyway. Welcome to electronic court! It’s affordable and efficient, but first check the analytics to see if you’re likely to prevail.

As to the judicial role, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld the use of algorithms in sentencing decisions. How likely is it that the jury system itself will give way to technology? Maybe a better way to weigh the evidence? Should personality and bias play any part? I really want to think that near-future court will be more impartial than any human ever could be; blind justice goes to the heart of rule of law. But remember that Amazon algorithm that decided it didn’t like women? Well, perhaps you’d prefer to avoid the courts entirely? Let me recommend you to Modria Online Dispute Resolution, recently acquired by Tyler Technologies.

On the face of it, then, AI promotes the World Justice Project’s rule of law core principles, offering much improved accessibility, impartiality, and timeliness. Open government? Well, there was the 2016 election, but the tech involved there isn’t really part of the current discussion, although it’s as well to remember that humans are as easily programmable as robots, creations of our own media, and Americans, at least, are morally and intellectually lazy. The four principles ultimately rely on the laws we enact, and those in turn depend on whatever underlies our assumptions about who we really are.

When we [Americans] talk about the rule of law, we assume that we’re talking about a law that promotes freedom, that promotes justice, that promotes equality. —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Interview with ABA President William Neukom (2007).

The U.S. is a common law country; our law evolves from custom and judicial precedent rather than statute. Put simply, our law is a living organism that grows from the ground up instead of being imposed. We tend to think of evolution as progressive but science knows better; organisms are just as likely to evolve into simpler forms.

Now our machines evolve, too, feeding on our data. As the new technologies become increasingly universal, will they necessarily become increasingly self-referential, even static? But what about the living law we want? (I know I’ve read too much science fiction, but I’ll bet it’s not what they want. They want law for machines.) Machines evolve for good or ill only because the data changes, which means we change it, which means we change. That makes our importance to the system greater than any lawyerly function of persuasion or advocacy. The imperfect human attorney must and I’m positive will remain in the courtroom and on the bench in order to take on continually emerging issues,  to push the law in unexpected directions, and keep it alive.

Just a blog entry, short and a little too sweet. I’ll be returning to both rule of law and AI later in greater depth.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)


Photo credits: Ben Sutherland All shall be equal before the law justice graffiti in Cape Town, South Africa CC by 2.0 / Esther Vargas robot CC BY-SA 2.0

So Happy Halloween without Megyn

First off, Megyn Kelly’s gambit on Halloween blackface was monstrous and ignorant, although how much of each is anyone’s guess. What follows is not any kind of defense.  I’m pretty sure I disagree with Kelly on everything except #metoo.

I was going to post a Halloween story this week, but then I got indignant watching the Today show Saturday morning. There was quite a lot of warm hoopla welcoming Peter Alexander as Weekend Today co-anchor. It was quite a genuine little love fest, and I couldn’t help comparing it with the ostensible welcome afforded Megyn Kelly last September. 

 Acquiring her was a catastrophic move for NBC, and maybe she was blindly acquisitive to accept. Maybe the recent rumors of complaints from her staff are true. But so far as I know, she didn’t deliberately unseat Al Roker and Tamron Hall (go Owls!) from Today’s 9 o’clock hour, but I do remember the move being decried as whitewashing the highly successful timeslot of two black co-hosts. I speak from a place of utter ignorance here, so please recognize that everything I say is conditioned by: “It seems to me.”

It was no accident I turned on Today yesterday morning; I’m a fan in an innocuous background noise kind of way. I sort of like these people I don’t know. But since Kelly’s arrival I’ve felt much of the Today family, along with a preponderance of the ever-circling media, struggling to expel her like the wicked stepsister at the wedding. Oh, not with deliberate intent, yet obviously, and it made me squirm.. That’s only my perception, of course, but my perceptions are pretty trustworthy.

I’ve written about virtue hoarders and virtue thieves; think about Jane Fonda’s pretense of outrage at a maybe/maybe not inappropriate question. It was sheer moralistic opportunism. (I know, I can hear the rebuttals and granted, but my point has nothing to do with plastic surgery or even interview tactics, only false outrage.) And then the fatal absence of A- or even B-list celebrities who were all too busy making a statement to engage in necessary, rational discussion. Still, on those few occasions I’ve caught Kelly’s show, I was impressed by her stubborn ability to put together an interesting hour without celebrity nonsense. It was awkward, and she was trying way too hard to be likeable, but I also thought her rather valiant.

There’s been so much satisfaction flooding the media this week, all the pundits have confirmed the opinions of their loyal followers, but there have been few insights or even questions asked. Surely there’s more to this story than scoring a political win and some Twitter schadenfreude? The treatment afforded Kelly by many at Today and in the always-delightful entertainment industry was vicious, petty, vindictive, incredibly shortsighted and literally dangerous, the self-indulgent disregard of the ethical and urgent in favor of the personal. It’s nothing short of a determined undermining of journalistic ethics, with all that implies.

I’m hearing that we can’t afford tolerance in these extreme times because, you know, you can’t fight for what’s right and respect your enemy at the same time. We need rage, which excludes true dialogue (and true dialogue does not mean filling cable time with talking heads representing both sides of a blatantly unequal argument). Kelly’s separation from NBC was inevitable; her lack of likeability and the near-universal celebrity blackballing saw to that. But just as inevitably those who can’t admit to rampant hypocrisy and self-righteousness are doomed to keep living with rampant hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

So thanks for trying, guys.

Maybe it was a Halloween story after all.



Photos: Dean Hochman skulls (CC BY 2.0) / Megyn Kelly TODAY Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue (CC BY 2.0)

Some thoughts from The Other Side of the Wind

(Originally posted October 21, 2018)

Yesterday I celebrated a culmination of sorts: I saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival. I’m one of those people who’s been anticipating this film for years, and I’ve read pretty much everything written about it. Lately that means I’ve been monitoring for reviews and updates and conversations that sometimes border on the vituperative.

Thank God for that. And kudos to Peter Bogdanovich, Filip Jan Rymsza, Oja Kodar, Bob Murawski et al for completing the film without getting in its way: I’m awestruck at their brilliant restraint. The movie is a confounding barrage of questions and fury and accusations, a scramble of profundity tossed to posterity interspersed with witty, deadly party conversation. It’s all about the business of creation and the fate of the creator, the artist compelled to transmute terror into beauty and so extinguish it. Artists, the movie tells us, are machines destined to use up more than they can ever produce. Shot between 1970 and 1976, Wind is also an extraordinarily prescient essay on intrusive media, with cameras illuminating every unwary expression, and phallic microphones brutally thrust into any private corner. It’s truly a vicious satire on pretension, and an open attack on that insatiable consumer of everything palliative and trite.

I’m not going to repeat the history of calamity that dogged Welles production; see Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead for that incredible story of despair and near-miraculous recovery. And I’m not sure I can offer a rational review at this point: I empathize with the commentators who came out of the theater ‘gobsmacked.’ This one demands multiple viewings, and even at that, I suspect it’ll remain elusive but beckoning. Not that it matters: it obviously doesn’t care what you think.

Anyway, some initial thoughts:

Despite warnings out of Venice and Telluride, I had no problem with the shifts from black-and-white to color. The cobbled-together nature of the mockumentary was, I thought, clearly explained, and that explanation was appropriate. The sound was fine. The film-within-a-film segments provided a welcome relief from the intensity of the party scenes and were neither too long nor at all tedious.

It’s all about the tragic descent of Jake Hannaford, once-legendary director adored but ignored in modern Hollywood, returned to L.A. to make his comeback film, and I’d love to know how much of the autobiographical nature of the film Welles privately conceded, how much denied. I thought it noteworthy that Hannaford shot John Dale, his leading man, absolutely gorgeous. “Directing with a mask,” Welles said of his directing Hannaford’s film, but he shot Kodar, his own lover, absolutely gorgeous, too. Maybe the mask slipped. As to Hannaford’s movie, Welles’ parody of new cinema (Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriski Point is universally cited as a target) is a deliberately terrible movie, visuals without meaning bridging on camp. Jake Hannaford (John Huston in Chinatown mode) doesn’t do symbolism, and it shows. Worse, he’s insisted on using Dale, his supposed discovery, instead of a name star: no wonder he can’t get funding. Everything he does conspires to his own destruction.

Again against expectations, I found the plot well-paced, coherent, and involving, building or rather descending naturally toward the inevitable climax: Dale is revealed as a trained if merely adequate actor rather than the beautiful lost boy Hannaford thought he’d rescued; the money runs out, and even Hannaford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake (wonderfully acted by Bogdanovich) won’t finance him; his dear friend Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer) kindly denies his virtual plea for emotional support; and the press, led by Susan Strasberg’s Juliette Riche (based on Pauline Kael), are ruthlessly bent on deconstructing Hannaford’s fragile psyche (nothing in this visceral film is more of a gut-punch than his expressed disgust of homosexuals). The power goes off but the alcohol continues to flow. Which isn’t to say this film is anything short of insane, only that there’s an expertly told story unfolding within the overall chaos. Welles does do symbolism, and the finale at the drive-in is magnificent.

But – and despite the fact that Oja Kodar was a second creative force behind this film, particularly the soft-porn aspects of Hannaford’s movie – there’s just so much of her. Is it  Welles overpowering Hannaford again? Dale’s probable homosexuality and Hannaford’s presumed repression would seem to make her secondary. Does her mysterious, observant presence represent the creative force itself? That works better, as Welles himself said Dale represented him, and Kodar draws in and coldly uses the bewitched and bewildered young  man. This is very much a film about men with men, about machismo, originally inspired by and intended as a takedown of the Hemingway type Welles loathed; maybe that’s why the feminine is triumphant while the men crumble. But as creators themselves, both Welles and his avatar evince that same ruthlessness, making use of whatever or whomever comes to hand and, as the closing narration insists, destroying as they go until finally they destroy themselves.

Now that’s a tidy ending to an essay, don’t you think? Rather cheap, rather marketable, suitable for a blog. I have a pretty good idea how The Other Side of the Wind will be reviewed by Netflix viewers, but I do love a film with a high critics’ score and low audience approval: that ratio indicates something worth seeing. The first comment I heard leaving the theater (it was loud) was: “There’s two hours out of my life I won’t get back.” What I think is: you go, Orson. Confound ‘em. Leave it what it is with all the omissions and emotions, don’t explain it into some neat narrative box. Chaos is always the beginning, and there were never any answers to this tragedy anyway, so leave all the beautiful, terrible nonsense alone.

Photo credits: Orson Welles by Chris Weige CC BY-SA 2.0 / Nicolas Sanguinetti, Oooh, Orson Welles, CC BY-SA 2.0