Category Archives: Ephemera

Houdini at the Goodspeed Opera House

I offered this review in 1997 on my personal website, then hosted at a university. Since that site is no longer available, I'm republishing the review here.

What: Houdini
Book: James Racheff
Music: William Scott Duffield
Lyrics: William Scott Duffield and James Racheff
Magic Consultant: Peter Samelson
Where: The Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut (
When: September 24 – December 14, 1997: Wednesdays at 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Thursdays & Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 & 9 p.m.; Sundays at 2 & 6:30 p.m.
Special Events:

  • The Official Houdini Seance®, on stage on October 30 beginning at 11 p.m.
  • Magic Nights on October 2, 9 and 16, featuring the "close-up" magic of Jim Sisti beginning at 7:15 p.m.

When Sid Radner first pointed out to me that this fall would bring the world premiere of a musical inspired by the life of Houdini, I was somewhat hesitant to show great enthusiasm for such a project. It's not that I object to creative adaptations, though in the case of Houdini, historical revisions always leave me wondering why the remarkable reality of his life isn't already sufficiently dramatic. Nevertheless, I had grown to enjoy such semi-fictions as the Curtis/Leigh film.

What gave me pause, rather, was the vision of Harry Houdini breaking out into song and dance–a mental block against envisioning somber, serious, self-possessed Houdini doing the ol' Astaire. And yet, I thought, what with the success of Ragtime in LA, the 1990s are apparently, though somewhat inexplicably, the season for creative development of stage material inspired by his Roaring 20s life. The Goodspeed is well-known for staging admirable productions, many of which proceed to Broadway or London, or at least enjoy critical acclaim. So I tried to allow the theater's reputation to temper my skepticism a bit and ventured forth to remote East Haddam to see what was cooking.

I am pleased and surprised to say that Houdini works. The dramatic hinge of the story is an apparent love triangle between Bess (correctly depicted as a Coney Island showgirl), Theo ("I saw her first, Harry"– also apparently correct), and Harry ("I'm not a clown!") Houdini. This intrigue plays out against the thematic backdrop of their descent into dime-museum poverty in the 1890s and their rise to fame and glory under the guiding hand of impresario Martin Beck, played with pizzazz by a flashy P. J. Benjamin.

From the many scenes in which he sings of how underappreciated his talents and potential are, to his reluctance to give up trying to contact Harry at the 1936 Houdini seance, Theo (played by Lewis Cleale) is, unexpectedly, the play's central character. It is equally surprising to find that Theo is the antagonist, presented (as is Harry) in a rather unflattering light. Early made to feel inferior by the innocent favoritism shown to Harry by their mother (played with great charm by Barbara Andres), Theo is bewildered by Harry's egocentricity and chutzpah. He bewails at length the fact that, though he was accustomed to being one of the Brothers Houdini, and in some respects the preeminent one, his dreams are increasingly trumped by his brother Harry's driving ambition. Driven by the playwright's considerable license with the historical facts, Theo senses that Bess (played as soulful, lovelorn heroine by Barbara Walsh), too, feels displaced as Harry's fame grows, and recognizing that Houdini's intense devotion to his work and his mother have left Bess vulnerable, Theo intones to her how much better things would be for them both if she were *his* wife. Though (and perhaps because) these mutual longings apparently remain unconsummated, Theo begins to calculate ways to get Houdini out of the picture.

Timothy Gulan is remarkably convincing as Houdini, both physically [my wife's comment: "They got the hair right"] and with respect to his acting, though his voice was sometimes swallowed up by the fervent orchestral ensemble. During the course of the evening he performs the Metamorphosis, throws himself into a dazzling slow-motion bridge jump at the moment he learns of his mother's death, executes a variety of unremarkable handcuff escapes, releases himself from a straitjacket [a modern white canvas one, rather than a leather model from the period–a pet peeve of mine] while dangling in the air, performs the Hindu Needle Trick, and presents himself before audiences with the pomp and self-importance that helped make him an icon. Lovers of magic will be pleased by the panoply of production flowers, 10-foot poles, coins pulled from the air, appearing canes, vanishing persons, and other tokens which pay loving, if stereotyped, homage to the art.

In one of the show's more memorable early sequences, Harry is frustrated and perplexed that his midwestern circus and dime-museum audiences fail to appreciate the importance of his escapes and magic. As he tries to figure out just what is lacking in his performances, he is suddenly confronted by Wild Bill Hickok and Annie Oakley, PT Barnum, and Flo Ziegfield, who, along with Cheng and Eng Bunker, General Tom Thumb, and a host of other human oddities and feathered showgirls, walk out of lithographs into the dramatic space and divulge to Harry the secrets of formula and publicity. They do this with gusto in a spirited song, "You Know It When You See It", that, in lyric and tune, is strikingly similar to "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from Gypsy. Meanwhile, Houdini strokes his chin and figures out how to reinvent himself. Harry's whirlwind rise to success is epitomized in a startling and funny barrage of challenges presented by company heads of ever increasing prominence, while his many European adventures are conflated into a single tour — Houdini buffs will note that the chronology is much abused — that leaves the police of many nations complaining indignantly, in song, that the integrity of their jails has been cast into doubt by this presumptuous American.

After the death of Mrs. Weiss, Houdini sets out on the familiar hunt for a spiritualist who can reunite them. A delightful, if not terribly deceptive, black-art presentation follows as a trio of mediums sings of "telling them what they want to hear." Although Houdini, on a rampage, exposes one after another of them, he succumbs to the physical and metaphysical charms of (of all people) Margery, who seems to be able to tell him things that only Mama would know. As it turns out, Theo has given Margery some early correspondence from their mother. He has done this ostensibly in an effort to appease his brother's self-destructive obsession with the afterlife by having Margery tell him what he wants to hear, but actually to further alienate Bess from him. This triangle erupts into a backstage conflagration at the play's climax. The famous punch to the appendix leads to the subsequent downfall of the hero while he and Theo (who urges him to perform rather than go to the hospital) are still on bad terms, and while Harry and Bess have only just rekindled their mutual passion.

The playwright has undercut the myth of the self-made man by presenting a Houdini who is chiefly, though not wholly, a product of the creativity and industry of others. When Martin Beck first turns up, Houdini has to ask Theo what kind of lock is on the cuffs with which Beck has challenged him. Later, when a backstaged Theo threatens to leave the act and strike out on his own, Houdini sets him up as Hardeen chiefly because Houdini can't work without him. Houdini is managed by Beck throughout his rise to fame in this production, and indeed right up to the end. With the ringmasterly Beck quite obviously pulling the journalists' strings and providing spin to the public, Houdini gets little credit for achieving, sustaining, or exploiting his own success. With his dependence on Theo and Beck and his oblivion with respect to his excesses and his crumbling marriage, this Houdini is all too human, quite a counterpoint to the usual lionized representation.

Voices are strong, the acting is persuasive, and the book, while not free of cliche, was tolerably original. While not life-changing, the show is certainly entertaining, giving all that one expects from musical theater. The score is an evenhanded blend of a few key songs from which leitmotifs are taken and used to punctuate the show's other tunes–a common musical formula in this post-Lloyd-Webber age, and one that seems to please audiences who have been trained by Hollywood to respond to the throbbing intonations of an expository score. The music is competently written, but there is no show-stopper, and indeed no song that one goes away singing. The first half of the show struck me as much more replete with clever staging and varietal music than the second, which tended to drag a bit and led to a climax and resolution that were perhaps a bit too easy and understated. Still, the show is entertaining and the time well-spent.

As we were leaving the theater, I overheard some audience members giving their on-the-spot evaluation. "Do you think it will go to Broadway?" asked one woman of her elderly friend. "Off-Broadway," I thought to myself. "Oh, I think it will," replied the other woman, "but you know, I didn't think he had died that way! I thought he had died doing one of those tricks!" The incorrigible legend lives on.


So, if you're a grammar Nazi, then feats of form and usage that strike you as "wrong" (or inferior, or jarring) fairly leap off the page or screen at you in just the same way that my use of "so" at the start of this sentence irks all who are by now fed up with hearing that word abused that way.

The French have an expression for obvious things and especially for things obviously wrong: ça saute aux yeux! That leaps out at the eyes! Like an eye-attacking deathfrog of death. Or blindness. Or blinding obviousness.

Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded. The Nazi is the one for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, she pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then she ducks.

Have you been watching the newish BBC series Sherlock? I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a child but wasn't passionate about them. I enjoyed them again as an adult with the same result, but with an admixture of pity and contempt for the racism, sexism, inconsistency, and lack of complexity. I enjoyed them (despite these and other flaws) because they project a world and an ill-fitting inhabitant of that world, and they spark the imagination to consider how that combination might play out– a worthwhile exercise (especially for the logically inclined).
Continue reading Nazism

A philosophical turn of mind

In a closed facebook group on analytic philosophy, someone asked a question along these lines: "How do you primarily criticize other people's reasoning?"

Here's the reply I gave. What are some other ways you approach the task of evaluating another's reasoning?

There's no definitive checklist or prescription for identifying an issue and diagnosing someone's treatment of that issue. One reason such an endeavor cannot be reduced to an algorithm is that the complexity of any single issue can be daunting, and the product of interactions among such issues is of an order of complexity too high for even the best merely human mind to address synchronously or sequentially.

Instead, we have to use various troubleshooting heuristics until we've isolated a matter of interest that fits our capacity for analysis. At that juncture, we can go to town on it, and perhaps make (micro-)progress toward clearing away the underbrush of human cognition and laying out defensible assertions about how and why things are.

Typical questions in the area of fuzzy diagnostics applied to person P include (but are not limited to):

  • What is the general domain that P is addressing, and what general domain does P seem to believe P is addressing? Do these match?
  • What are the purposes of P's discourse? To identify an assertion and rebut it? To identify a confusion and clarify it? To rant gracefully against a disfavored ideology? To note an oversimplification and introduce remedial complexity? Other?
  • What does P assume? Does P acknowledge that P assumes that?
  • When fluff and qualifications and mods and idiosyncratic terminology and other debris have been swept away, what is P's argument? What conclusion does P claim to reach? Which premises does P offer as an avenue to reach it? What evidence does P adduce in support of them?
  • What kinds of evidence are actually relevant to P's argument? What kinds of evidence does P employ? What kinds does P ignore? What kinds does P dismiss? What is the effect of this particular configuration of employment, ignorance, and dismissal on P's endeavor?
  • Which alternatives to P's affirmations and inferences does P explicitly consider? What does P prefer to them? Which explicit judgments account for P's preference? Which unacknowledged factors constrain it?
  • Does P's argument, taken as facially acceptable, pass the "So what" test?
  • If you find fault with P's argument in its given context for reasons such as those suggested above, is there something about your own approach, your own assumptions, your own preferences, or your own commitments that prompt or guide you to object in that way?
  • Is P right?
  • What would you have to know or reliably believe in order to evaluate P's discourse in each way listed above? Are you suitably positioned to evaluate it?

Note: this is not an exhaustive list– not even close. It's also given not in a chronological or diagnostically relevant order; it's given in the order in which I improvised the list while eating a bagel and superficially weighing your question.

The broad point is that there's no formula for doing philosophy. Instead, there's a set of habits of mind intermixed with some balance of generosity, skepticism, curiosity, and hope.

A Footehold on Research

 "As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search." ~ Shelby Foote1

credo ut intelligam, ambulo ut legam

Here's my favorite name for a dead-end street in France. I respect its current and former intellectual humility, and I celebrate its medievalizing wit.

l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)
l'Impasse de la Trinité (formerly l'Impasse de la Résurrection)

What's the Frequency, Flik?

The internet is pretty slick. Every attached computer has a unique address sort of like a phone number. (Sometimes, entire sub-networks lurk behind a single address through the miracles of IP and routing and such, just as entire switchboards of phones may lie behind the phone number of a main switchboard, but that's another story.)

Thanks to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), files can be sent from one address to another with amazing efficiency. The brilliance of TCP's design lies in this: the rate at which stuff is sent automatically throttles up or down in response to network latency as measured by response time!

The Office – S5/E9: The Surplus from Vimeo.

Let's break it down. TCP is cool because "transmission control" sounds like "mission control" and that sounds like something NASA would have. But TCP is also cool because of how it works. Grossly simplified, it works like this:

  • You want to send that document requesting a pony to someone who has sent you a blind solicitation.
  • The networky stuff in your computer breaks the document into a bunch of "packets". Just like real parcels sent through UPS or Fedex or that other service, each packet is wrapped with a label explaining where it came from, where it's going, and so forth.
  • The packets follow various routes to their destination. As they arrive, the recipient (i.e., networky stuff on the other guy's computer) sends a receipt (called an "ack") to the sender. Meanwhile, the recipient uses the wrapper info to figure out whether all the packets have arrived, to put them in their correct order, and finally to reassemble the document. Transmission Accomplished!
  • The best part is the flow control. The sender starts by spraying out some packets and timing how long it takes to get a receipt for them. If the receipts come quickly, the sender sends more packets at a time. If the receipts come slowly, the sender sends fewer packets at a time (even stopping cold, if necessary). And since there's an ongoing flow of shipments and receipts and timing, the sender can avoid flooding the network but can also avoid letting bandwidth go to waste! Faster and faster! Slower and slower! No, faster! Slower! Strike that! Reverse it!
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life
Flik, from Pixar's A Bug's Life

Now, here's the trippy science factoid du jour: researchers at Leland Stanford Junior University have discovered that Harvester Ants (including, apparently, the most venemous insect in the world) have been using TCP all along… behind Vint Cerf's and Bob Kahn's backs! Says the press release:

the rate at which harvester ants – which forage for seeds as individuals – leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won't return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

They also found that the ants followed two other phases of TCP. One phase is known as slow start, which describes how a source sends out a large wave of packets at the beginning of a transmission to gauge bandwidth; similarly, when the harvester ants begin foraging, they send out foragers to scope out food availability before scaling up or down the rate of outgoing foragers.

Another protocol, called time-out, occurs when a data transfer link breaks or is disrupted, and the source stops sending packets. Similarly, when foragers are prevented from returning to the nest for more than 20 minutes, no more foragers leave the nest.

Further research into what these critters might teach us will be undertaken at the newly funded FourmiLab. Meanwhile, I leave you with a meditation on Proverbs 6:6 by e. e. cummings: go(perpe)go from his 1935 manuscript No Thanks (in George James Firmage, ed., E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904-1962, Revised, NY: Norton, 1994, p. 403 or thereabouts).

go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935
go(perpe)go, e. e. cummings, No Thanks, #20, 1935


Unable to flip the bird

Robert Rauschenberg, _Canyon_, 1959
Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959. Oil, acrylic, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow, & bald eagle on canvas. National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). (C) Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, via Wikipedia

2007 saw the demise of Ileana Sonnabend, a legendary purveyor of art created after 1945. Among the famous works in her considerable estate was Robert Rauschenberg's Canyon, a canonical, influential mid-century work well known from survey texts and studies of formal and thematic innovation in contemporary art. The work is neither a painting nor a sculpture, though it includes attributes of both. The artist called it a "combine", and it brings together a variety of media, art supplies, scraps, miscellaneous material, and things.

One of these things is a stuffed bald eagle.

Sonnabend's heirs tasked three appraisers, including one from Christie's, to put a value on the work. Since the bald eagle, dead or alive, is under federal protection, it would be a felony to sell the work and a felony to buy it. For this reason, the appraisers reasoned that its fair market value is $0. Price, after all, is not inherent; it is a function of market behavior. In this case, that behavior is prohibited by law.

It is perhaps no surprise that the IRS, tasked with celebrating the deceased by scrupulously taxing her legacy, disagrees with that appraisal. Stephanie Barron of LACMA, an expert adviser to the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services, parses the economic data differently:

The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered…. It’s a stunning work of art and we all just cringed at the idea of saying that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense. (NYTimes)

Au contraire, Ms. Barron, it cannot make any cents! Nonetheless, the IRS appraised it at $65M. (This is after having assessed a tax of $471M on the estate, for which Sonnabend's heirs had to sell off much of the collection in the largest private art sale ever.)

The federal government forbids the owner of Canyon to sell it, and forbids anyone to buy it. But the tax for inheriting it? Plus a penalty for daring to declare its worthless? $29,200,000.

A stitch in time

Portrait of Bianca Sforza, "la Bella Principessa", Leonardo(?), ca.1496

The controversy over the Bella Principessa takes a fascinating turn as Martin Kemp uncovers, in Poland, what appears to be the 15th-century codex from which this page was torn. Binding marks on the left edge of the page of vellum match the position of stitching in the handcrafted book.

If true, as true it seems, this announcement would seem to put to rest the claim by Christie's and assorted connoisseurs that this is a 19th-century German pastiche or a 20th-century forgery rather than an authentic early modern work possibly from the hand of Leonardo.

See H. Niyazi's overview for details of the attribution history and attending issues.