Artificial Intelligence Making Inroads on Wall Street:  Blackrock Moves to Algorithms!

Dear Commons Community,

Laurence D. Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, has become convinced that the company must bet big on the power of machines, be it algorithms; big data; or artificial intelligence.  As reported in today’s  New York Times:

“BlackRock laid out an ambitious plan to consolidate a large number of actively managed mutual funds with peers that rely more on algorithms and models to pick stocks.

The initiative is the most explicit action by a major fund management firm in reaction to the exodus of investors from actively managed stock funds to cheaper funds that track every variety of index and investment theme.

Some $30 billion in assets (about 11 percent of active equity funds) will be targeted, with $6 billion rebranded BlackRock Advantage funds. These funds focus on quantitative and other strategies that adopt a more rules-based approach to investing.

“The democratization of information has made it much harder for active management,” Mr. Fink said in an interview. “We have to change the ecosystem — that means relying more on big data, artificial intelligence, factors and models within quant and traditional investment strategies.”

As part of the restructuring, seven of BlackRock’s 53 stock pickers are expected to step down from their funds. Several of the money managers will stay on as advisers. At least 36 employees connected to the funds are leaving the firm.

You can assume that a number of other Wall Street brokerage firms will follow Blackrock’s lead.

Tony

Elon Musk Launches Brain-Machine (Neuralink) Company!

Dear Commons Community,

Elon Musk, the pioneering entrepreneur who has started companies such as Tesla and SpaceX, is now turning to brain-machine interfacing and is funding the start-up, Neuralink.  As reported by various media:

“Neuralink was registered as a “medical research” firm in California last July and is being privately funded by Musk. According to reports, leading academics and neuroscientists have been brought in to work on developing the neural lac, a technology that involves implanting electrodes into the brain in order to create a wireless brain-computer interface, capable of augmenting natural intelligence by downloading or uploading thoughts to or from a computer.

Musk has spoken frequently about the existential risk artificial intelligence poses to humans. At the 2016 Code Conference, Musk warned that humans risk being treated like house pets by artificial intelligence unless we had neural lace technology to compete with them.

“I don’t love the idea of being a house cat, but what’s the solution? I think one of the solutions that seems maybe the best is to add an AI layer,” Musk said. “Something I think is going to be quite important—I don’t know of a any other company that’s working on it seriously.”

Musk said a neural lace would work “well and symbiotically” with the rest of a human’s body, acting as a merger between biological and digital intelligence.

The concept of a neural lace was first described in the 1987 ‘Culture’ novels by science fiction author Iain M. Banks, who detailed a futuristic mesh that molds to the human brain in order to allow neurons to be programmed. The technology now has a basis in real science, with one version of the interface idea published in Nature Nanotechnology in 2015.

The paper described a flexible circuit that could be injected into the brains of living mice in order to interact with neurons.

“We’re trying to blur the distinction between electronic circuits and neural circuits,” said Charles Lieber, a researcher at Harvard University and co-author of the study. “We have to walk before we can run, but we think we can really revolutionize our ability to interface with the brain.”

Experiments using this technology on mice have been demonstrated in very rudimentary ways.

Something for the human race to keeps its eyes on!

Tony

Book:  “The Islamic Jesus…” by Mustafa Akyol!

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims,  by Mustafa Akyol, a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, and contributing writer for the New York Times.  As someone raised Roman Catholic, I was familiar with a number of the stories that Mr. Akyol presents, however, I found it interesting to read them from the Muslim perspective.  His book, while getting a bit into the weeds of religious writings especially the New Testament and the Qur’an, provides insights into the religious Jesus, as seen by three major religions.  As stated in a New York Times book review:

“Akyol frames it this way: “The three great Abrahamic religions of our battered world, despite all the past and present tensions between them, come together” in the story of Jesus. “Whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, we share either a faith followed by him, or a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him.”

He makes the basic point that Jesus is seen as:

  • Neither the Messiah nor God to the Jews;
  • As a Messiah but not a God to Muslims; and
  • As the Messiah and God to Christians.

I enjoyed Akyol delving into Mary (Jesus’ mother) who appears in more passages in the Qur’an than she does in the New Testament.  Mary’s husband, Joseph, is never mentioned once in the Qur’an. Akyol’s exploration of the differences between Jewish Christians who followed Jesus’ brother James and the Hellenic Christians who followed Paul’s teachings, is well done.  His interpretation is that the Jewish Christians were closer to Islam in their teachings.  The last chapter is also a good review of modern times and how religion differences might be overcome.  A reach to say the least.

Tony

 

U.S. Supreme Court Decision Upholds Rights of Special Education Students to a Meaningful Education!

Dear Commons Community,

Too often, kids with disabilities are left behind. Last Wednesday, a unanimous Supreme Court took a step toward ensuring that students with disabilities can receive their right to a meaningful public education.   In Endrew F. v. Douglas County Sch. Dist.,  school districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, “appropriately ambitious” progress, the Supreme Court said in its  8-0 ruling.  The decision could have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.

The case centered on a child with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents removed him from public school in fifth grade. He went on to make better progress in a private school. His parents argued that the individualized education plan provided by the public school was inadequate, and they sued to compel the school district to pay his private school tuition.

The Supreme Court today sided with the family, overturning a lower court ruling in the school district’s favor.

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to all students with disabilities. Today’s opinion held that “appropriate” goes further than what the lower courts had held.

The case drew a dozen friend of the court briefs from advocates for students with disabilities who argued that it is time to increase rigor, expectations and accommodations for all.

“A standard more meaningful than just above trivial is the norm today,” wrote the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The ruling seems likely to increase pressure from families and advocates in that direction.

Since its passage, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required state and local schools receiving federal funding to provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Currently, over 6 million students across the country with various types of disabilities benefit from the IEDA’s protections. But parents, school districts, and the lower federal courts have contested exactly what that actually requires. 

Congratulations to the U.S. Supreme Court!

Tony

Must Read Maureen Dowd Letter to Donald Trump – “The Dupe”!

Dear Commons Colleagues,

Maureen Dowd has a “Dear Donald” letter in her column in the New York Times today.  It is a must read for those who want a little more of a Washington insider’s take on what is going wrong in the Donald Trump White House.  In her style, Dowd provides a number of zingers such as:

“I was born here. The first image in my memory bank is the Capitol, all lit up at night. And my primary observation about Washington is this: Unless you’re careful, you end up turning into what you started out scorning.  And you, Donald, are getting a reputation as a sucker. And worse, a sucker who is a tool of the D.C. establishment.” 

And

“You sold yourself as the businessman who could shake things up and make Washington work again. Instead, you got worked over by the Republican leadership and the business community, who set you up to do their bidding.

That’s why they’re putting up with all your craziness about Russia and wiretapping and unending lies and rattling our allies.

They’re counting on you being a delusional dupe who didn’t even know what was in the bill because you’re sitting around in a bathrobe getting your information from wackadoodles on Fox News and then, as The Post reported, peppering aides with the query, “Is this really a good bill?”

You got played.”

The entire column appears below.  Read, enjoy and then cry at what has become of the American presidency.

Tony

==================================================

New York Times Sunday Review | OP-ED COLUMNIST

Donald, This I Will Tell You

Maureen Dowd 

MARCH 25, 2017

WASHINGTON — Dear Donald,

We’ve known each other a long time, so I think I can be blunt.

You know how you said at campaign rallies that you did not like being identified as a politician?

Don’t worry. No one will ever mistake you for a politician.

After this past week, they won’t even mistake you for a top-notch negotiator.

I was born here. The first image in my memory bank is the Capitol, all lit up at night. And my primary observation about Washington is this: Unless you’re careful, you end up turning into what you started out scorning.

And you, Donald, are getting a reputation as a sucker. And worse, a sucker who is a tool of the D.C. establishment.

Your whole campaign was mocking your rivals and the D.C. elite, jawing about how Americans had turned into losers, with our bad deals and open borders and the Obamacare “disaster.”

And you were going to fly in on your gilded plane and fix all that in a snap.

You mused that a good role model would be Ronald Reagan. As you saw it, Reagan was a big, good-looking guy with a famous pompadour; he had also been a Democrat and an entertainer. But Reagan had one key quality that you don’t have: He knew what he didn’t know.

You both resembled Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, floating above the nitty-gritty and focusing on a few big thoughts. But President Reagan was confident enough to accept that he needed experts below, deftly maneuvering the strings.

You’re just careering around on your own, crashing into buildings and losing altitude, growling at the cameras and spewing nasty conspiracy theories, instead of offering a sunny smile, bipartisanship, optimism and professionalism.

You promised to get the best people around you in the White House, the best of the best. In fact, “best” is one of your favorite words.

Instead, you dragged that motley skeleton crew into the White House and let them create a feuding, leaking, belligerent, conspiratorial, sycophantic atmosphere. Instead of a smooth, classy operator like James Baker, you have a Manichaean anarchist in Steve Bannon.

You knew the Republicans were full of hot air. They haven’t had to pass anything in a long time, and they have no aptitude for governing. To paraphrase an old Barney Frank line, asking the Republicans to govern is like asking Frank to judge the Miss America contest — “If your heart’s not in it, you don’t do a very good job.”

You knew that Paul Ryan’s vaunted reputation as a policy wonk was fake news. Republicans have been running on repealing and replacing Obamacare for years and they never even bothered to come up with a valid alternative.

And neither did you, despite all your promises to replace Obamacare with “something terrific” because you wanted everyone to be covered.

Instead, you sold the D.O.A. bill the Irish undertaker gave you as though it were a luxury condo, ignoring the fact that it was a cruel flimflam, a huge tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill. You were so concerned with the “win” that you forgot your “forgotten” Americans, the older, poorer people in rural areas who would be hurt by the bill.

As The Times’s chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse put it, the G.O.P. falls into clover with a lock on the White House and both houses of Congress, and what’s the first thing it does? Slip on a banana peel. Incompetence Inc.

“They tried to sweeten the deal at the end by offering a more expensive bill with fewer health benefits, but alas, it wasn’t enough!” former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau slyly tweeted.

Despite the best efforts of Bannon to act as though the whole fiasco was a clever way to bury Ryan — a man he disdains as “the embodiment of the ‘globalist-corporatist’ Republican elite,” as Gabriel Sherman put it in New York magazine — it won’t work.

And you can jump on the phone with The Times’s Maggie Haberman and The Washington Post’s Robert Costa — ignoring that you’ve labeled them the “fake media” — and act like you’re in control. You can say that people should have waited for “Phase 2” and “Phase 3” — whatever they would have been — and that Obamacare is going to explode and that the Democrats are going to get the blame. But it doesn’t work that way. You own it now.

You’re all about flashy marketing so you didn’t notice that the bill was junk, so lame that even Republicans skittered away.

You were humiliated right out of the chute by the establishment guys who hooked you into their agenda — a massive transfer of wealth to rich people — and drew you away from your own.

You sold yourself as the businessman who could shake things up and make Washington work again. Instead, you got worked over by the Republican leadership and the business community, who set you up to do their bidding.

That’s why they’re putting up with all your craziness about Russia and wiretapping and unending lies and rattling our allies.

They’re counting on you being a delusional dupe who didn’t even know what was in the bill because you’re sitting around in a bathrobe getting your information from wackadoodles on Fox News and then, as The Post reported, peppering aides with the query, “Is this really a good bill?”

You got played.

It took W. years to smash everything. You’re way ahead of schedule.

And I can say you’re doing badly, because I’m a columnist, and you’re not. Say hello to everybody, O.K.?

Sincerely,

Maureen

NY Times Editorial:  The TrumpRyanCare Debacle!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday, we witnessed what can be described as a “debacle” when Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were forced to withdraw a new American Health Care bill because there were not enough Republican votes for it to pass.  This after a couple of weeks of arm twisting and threats from President Trump.  Later in the day, Trump commented on the defeat and rather than be gracious, blamed the Democrats for the failure of his and Ryan’s healthcare bill.  Below is a summary of this sad state of affairs as analyzed by the New York Times editorial board.

Tony

 

——————————————————-

The TrumpRyanCare Debacle

New York Times

Editorial Board

May 25, 2017.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act was meant to be the first demonstration of the power and effectiveness of a unified Republican government. It has turned out to be a display of incompetence and cruelty.

Republican leaders withdrew the American Health Care Act before a vote scheduled for Friday afternoon after it became clear that they did not have the votes to pass it. Many far-right conservatives opposed the bill because it would not have completely repealed the A.C.A., or Obamacare. And some more moderate Republicans said they would vote no because the bill would cause immense damage — 24 million people would lose health insurance over 10 years and millions of others would be hit with higher premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs. Surely, many of them were also thinking about a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing that 56 percent of American voters opposed the legislation and just 17 percent supported it.

When Barack Obama was president, Republicans in the House voted dozens of times to repeal the health care law in a symbolic exercise meant to appeal to their base. But never did they present a plan that could improve on the law for their constituents. Still, G.O.P. leaders imagined that with the House, Senate and White House in their hands, what had once been a hollow threat could become actual policy. That they failed in this legislative effort could well affect the rest of their agenda — tax cuts for the rich, changing the corporate tax structure and new infrastructure spending. The debacle shows President Trump and Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, that they can’t count on automatic Republican majorities, especially when they’re offering a destructive, incoherent measure.

Which is pretty much what happened here. Despite their ceaseless attacks on the health care act since Mr. Obama signed it into law in March 2010, Mr. Trump, Mr. Ryan and their colleagues have never had a workable plan that could gain the support of a congressional majority. That is why they rushed their turkey of a bill to the floor without going through the laborious process of holding hearings and building coalitions. The last-minute wheeling and dealing did nothing to disguise the bill’s underlying and increasingly obvious purpose, which was to reduce taxes for the wealthy by cutting benefits for the needy.

Meanwhile, the great dealmaker at the White House was completely ineffectual. Mr. Trump spent a few days cajoling and threatening lawmakers, then threw up his hands and said he had done all he could and was now moving on to other matters. Groups representing doctors and hospitals, as well as public interest groups like AARP and the American Civil Liberties Union, fought hard, and even Republican governors like John Kasich of Ohio and Brian Sandoval of Nevada opposed the bill.

In fact, as Republicans moved closer to a vote, public support for Obamacare went up — 49 percent of those polled this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation had a favorable view of the law, up from 43 percent in December. Obamacare, though not without flaws, has done a world of good. The percentage of Americans who do not have health insurance has fallen to 9.1 percent, from 16.3 percent in 2010. A 2016 Kaiser study of people who gained insurance in California found that 77 percent of them said their health needs were being met very well or somewhat well. By comparison, only 49 percent of those people said their needs were being met three years earlier.

There is no doubt that improvements are needed. Deductibles and premiums are too high for many people, and too many young people are forgoing insurance altogether. More generous subsidies for people with modest incomes could bring the cost of health care down at a relatively small expense to the government.

The worry now among advocates for lower-income Americans and the sick is that the Trump administration might seek to undermine the health care law through administrative steps. For example, officials could seek to reduce subsidies that help people earning just above the federal poverty line pay for out-of-pocket costs. Republicans in the House sued the Obama administration in 2014 to block those subsidies. That case is still pending, and the Trump administration could decide to stop defending the subsidies. Such a move would only compound the mistakes it made by trying to rush a half-baked bill through the House.

Friday’s outcome is good for the country, but humiliating for the Republican leadership. For Mr. Trump, it is a rather brutal reminder that campaigning is the easy part.

 

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry Criticizes Texas A&M for Electing a Gay Student Body President!

Dear Commons Community,

When he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican Presidential nomination, we became use to Rick Perry’s outlandish and at times less than thought through positions.  On Wednesday, he set off  a media firestorm when he declared that the recent Texas A&M student government election was rigged to secure the election of an openly gay student, Bobby Brooks.  As reported by Reuters:

“Texas A&M University said on Thursday it respectfully disagreed with comments U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry made on Wednesday when he criticized an election at his alma matter that led to the school’s first openly gay student body president.

In an opinion article submitted to the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board published on Wednesday, Perry, a former governor of Texas, said the Texas A&M student election may have been rigged to secure a result that projected diversity at a campus known for being conservative.

The comments set off a social media debate in Texas where some questioned why a member of the president’s cabinet keeping an eye on the U.S. nuclear arsenal needed to weigh in on a student election. Others applauded him for bringing attention to what they see as a problem at one of the state’s flagship schools.

“We were surprised that he weighed in on the university student body election and respectfully disagree with his assessment,” university spokeswoman Amy Smith said in a statement.

Perry said the Student Government Association (SGA) Election Commission made a mockery of the election when it disqualified the person who secured the most votes for a minor procedural violation.

“At worst, the SGA allowed an election to be stolen outright,” he wrote.

Bobby Brooks, who came in second, became student body president after Robert McIntosh was disqualified on a charge he failed to provide receipts for glow sticks used in a campaign video.

“Now, Brooks’ presidency is being treated as a victory for ‘diversity.’ It is difficult to escape the perception that this quest for ‘diversity’ is the real reason the election outcome was overturned,” wrote Perry, who as governor helped lead the charge to ban same-sex marriage in Texas.

University spokeswoman Smith said the decision was correct, adding “to suggest that the same decision of disqualification would not have been made if the roles were reversed is to deny the Texas A&M of today where accountability applies to all.”

In comments to the student newspaper The Battalion, McIntosh said he did not know of Perry’s plans to complain about the election and was appreciative of the support.

Brooks has not spoken to media about the Perry letter but has said he wanted to use his new post to help make the school more inclusive.”

Perry’s inane statements are a win for gay rights!

Tony

New York Times Editorial:  Betsy DeVos and Predator Colleges!

Dear Commons Community,

Coming on the heels of last week’s announcement of the hiring of Robert S. Eitel as a special assistant to Betsy DeVos, the New York Times has an editorial today blasting the relationship that is developing between the U.S. Department of Education and predator colleges.  The editorial gives a brief history of how such colleges survive entirely on federal loans and will likely thrive under Betsy Devos’ Department of Education.  It specifically points out the delay in implementing “the gainful employment rule” designed to provide a modicum of protection for students. Below is the editorial.

Tony


Predator Colleges May Thrive Again

New York Times

Editorial Board

March 23, 2017

Congress has tried since the 1940s to curb predatory for-profit schools that survive almost solely on federal money while they saddle students with crushing loans for useless degrees. As the industry’s scandals grew and its role in the student debt crisis became more excessive, the Obama administration established rules that could get the worst of these programs off the federal dole. But the Education Department under its new secretary, Betsy DeVos, seems ready to undermine those regulations and let predatory schools flourish once again.

The department has hired two high-level officials from the for-profit sector — one of whom has since resigned. The other is from a school, under state and federal investigation, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined last year for duping students into taking out costly private loans.

The Education Department also announced it would review and extend compliance deadlines for a rule created to ensure schools train students for good jobs by requiring that their graduates’ average debt not be too burdensome compared to their income. This delay could leave students — often the most disadvantaged and unsophisticated consumers — vulnerable to programs that are already failing the federal performance test.

The industry is trying to cast this “gainful employment rule” as onerous and unnecessary. But the abuses that prompted the Obama administration to develop this rule in the first place are well documented.

A history of the for-profit college industry published earlier this year by the Century Foundation shows how crooked schools sprang up to swindle World War II veterans out of their G.I. Bill benefits, attracting students with predatory recruitment techniques, enrolling them in sham courses and using false attendance records to bill the government.

A congressional report in 1952 noted that scores of for-profit executives had been convicted of fraud and that “hundreds of millions of dollars [had] been frittered away on worthless training.” A few years later, another federal report estimated that of more than 1.6 million veterans who had attended for-profit schools, only 20 percent had completed the course of study.

Congress eventually specified in the Higher Education Act of 1965 that career-training programs had to prepare students for “gainful employment in a recognized occupation” to be eligible for federal aid.

The gainful employment rule formulated during the Obama administration requires for-profit and nonprofit career-training programs to show that, on average, the annual loan payments of their graduates amount to less than 8 percent of their total income, or less than 20 percent of their discretionary income, after the cost of basic necessities like food and housing. Programs that fail for two out three years are supposed to be cut off from federal aid.

The test is hardly rigorous; only 9 percent of career-training programs failed it. But 98 percent of those were at for-profit colleges, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonpartisan research group.

Some of the programs failed the test spectacularly. For example, only 7 percent of the students at McCann School of Business and Technology in Hazelton, Pa., finished the “medical assisting” degree program on time. After paying more than $30,000 in tuition, graduates earn only about $20,300 per year — less than the typical high school graduate earns. According to an analysis of federal data by the institute, graduates of this program at all McCann locations had an average of more than $26,000 in student loan debt.

The Education Department’s delay in enforcing the rule will keep some prospective students from being warned off programs that would bleed them of student aid. Gutting the rule would keep these predatory schools in business.

Wall Street Journal:  Donald Trump – Becoming A “Fake” President!

Dear Commons Community,

The Wall Street Journal released a blistering editorial today aimed at President Trump saying he has a credibility problem and may soon be known as a “fake president.”

The editorial titled “A President’s Credibility” hammers Trump for doubling down on his wiretapping claims despite being recently refuted by the director of the FBI himself.

“Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims,” reads the editorial.

The piece argues the president has become his own “political enemy” by creating a credibility problem for himself, alienating allies such as Britain by falsely claiming GCHQ helped tap his phones.  It states that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The editorial concludes, “if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake President.”

This editorial is remarkable given that the Wall Street Journal is generally right of center, Republican-friendly, and owned by Trump associate, Rupert Murdoch.

The scathing review comes as the President took to the hill to push his replacement for Obamacare. The bill’s passing is uncertain.

Tony

 

 

Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have Casablanca…”

Dear Commons Community,

This year marks the 75th Anniversary of the release of the movie, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Just in time, Noah Isenberg has authored, We’ll Always Have Casablanca:  The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie.  The movie became a cult favorite in my parent’s generation for a number of reasons but mainly because it was a great love story that gave people hope in the early years of World War II.  In addition, it is a tense movie set in an exotic locale where people of different nationalities are fleeing the cruelty of the Nazi regime and trying to escape to the United States.   

I have just finished reading Isenberg’s book and as a Casablanca fan, I found it provided provocative insights into the movie, the script, and especially the actors.  I like the vignettes of the secondary cast such as Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson, who played Sam, Rick’s piano playing buddy.  Conrad Veidt, who played the Nazi Commander  Heinrich Strasser, out to detain Victor Laszlo, actually emigrated from Germany because he was deeply concerned about the safety of his Jewish wife. He is quoted as saying:  “I know this man (Strasser) well.  He is the reason I left Germany many years ago. He is the man who turned lunatic and betrayed his friends, his homeland, and himself in his lust to be somebody and to get something for nothing.”  Isenberg also captures well the emotions of the movie especially as generated from the music namely the refrain of As Time Goes By, and the tear-rendering singing of La Marseillaise. 

In sum, I highly recommend Isenberg’s book for Casablanca fans. Below is an excerpt from the New York Times book review by Peter Biskind.

Tony

—————————————————————————————————————-

“We’ll Always Have Casablanca” was written by Noah Isenberg, the director of screen studies at the New School, and probably best known for a biography of Edgar G. Ulmer, a B-film director much beloved by cineastes. Here, Isenberg gives us the soup-to-nuts on “Casablanca,” dutifully making his way through script, casting, production and reception, to the inevitable squabbling over credit, all the while trying to account for its enduring popularity.

“Casablanca” was rooted in a trip that the aspiring playwright Murray Burnett and his wife took to Vienna in the summer of 1938, just after they were married. Austria had overwhelmingly voted to serve itself up to the German Anschluss that March, and was busy implementing the notorious Nuremberg Laws. Burnett quickly discovered that it was not the best place for Jews on their honeymoon. But getting out of Vienna was considerably harder than getting in, especially since Burnett, wearing diamond rings on every finger, and his wife, wearing a fur coat in August, were smuggling out valuables belonging to relatives. When they reached the South of France, they stopped at a cafe full of refugees and army officers. Burnett said to his wife, “What a setting for a play.”

Burnett developed his play with his writing partner, Joan Alison, but could not get it produced. He did, however, manage to sell it to Warner Brothers, generally known for its progressive pictures, and in particular a series of anti-Nazi films like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” released in 1939, when other studios were still trying to protect their German assets.

Nobody involved with “Casablanca” had high expectations for the picture, although it was written by the colorful Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, and Howard Koch. The Epsteins were widely admired for their witty dialogue, on and off screen. Of the film, Julius once said, “There wasn’t one moment of reality in ‘Casablanca.’ We weren’t making art. We were making a living.” Nevertheless, when it was released, it became an instant hit, and won three Oscars, including best picture. It’s all in Isenberg’s account, and “Casablanca” fans will find it to be a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes.