Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr. Gilliam

On Saturday, my wife and I went to the Sunshine Cinema to see "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus". We had a lot of holiday movies to choose from, but most look flat out BAD and we love Terry Gilliam's work.

He's often accused of being excessive, but that's one big reason to go see his movies. I want the excess: with excess, there's a spectacle to be seen, and "Dr. Parnassus" doesn't disappoint. There is an impossibly remote and yet, immense monastery, a tawdry yet fantastic traveling theater that looks centuries old, and extended scenes that take place in the "Imaginarium" - a dreamscape that's set off - though not well-controlled - by the imaginations of the souls who enter it. All this is a visually fascinating treat, and the movie looks and feels unique.

Where Gilliam really IS guilty of excess is in the script department. Scenes take place that set up the action admirably, but the film often returns to expository storytelling. It's totally unnecessary. One reviewer noted that Gilliam throws you into the action with the first scene; he does. Why then does he return to tell you more about the background? We get it.

Once "Imaginarium" gets going, it really goes and pulls you along. With a plot that involves wagers with a derby-wearing devil, an imperiled family, a shady and mysterious stranger, and rich ladies lusting after spiritual fulfillment, Dr. Gilliam is like Dr. Parnassus's storyteller; he has to keep spinning his tale, or the world will collapse. He's a good spinner.

There's a haunted quality to the film that's clearly intended - and one that isn't. Heath Ledger as Tony is the one of the three main characters in the story. He drives the action forward, though we don't know until the climax what his motives are. By that time, Ledger is gone from the movie.

When he lost his young star, Gilliam finished the small number of un-shot sequences - unfortunately, they are key scenes - with different actors. The explanation for why Tony has a different face is plausible - in the Imaginarium, people look the way YOU want them to. The device works, but ultimately it reminds you that Ledger is dead and every mention of mortality - an important theme in this film - has a discomfiting edge.

Christopher Plummer hands in a wonderful performance as a boozy, decrepit Parnassus that put me in the mind of King Lear. He's an actor that seems to truly inhabit his roles more and more. Tom Waits as Mr. Nick is a scrupulously fair scoundrel. Waits is not just underrated - he rarely seems rated at all; but his concert and album work is so character driven, that it never surprises me when he turns in a great performance like he does here. He's understated yet seems to be having more sly fun than anyone. The model Lily Cole as Parnassus's daughter looks like a doll's head sewn on a gawky body, but she's quite good and perfectly cast. Verne Troyer, who'll forever be known as Mini-Me, is the best he's ever been; he understands the style and he keeps the pace up.

Heath Ledger is harder to assess. His arrival on the scene as the victim of a failed murder attempt is unsettling, but his magnetism wins you over. In the scenes where he takes on the role of Parnassus's carnival barker, he's persuasive, appealing, and ultimately, wonderfully insidious. That his performance leaves you wanting more is probably the saddest thing about this meringue of a movie.

Yes, it's flawed. Yes, it's Heath Ledger's last screen work. As long as you go in knowing that, you'll find it's really a touching little story in a huge, fantastical universe spun out of one of the best imaginations to ever work in film.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Big Apple Circus

We try to hit the Big Apple Circus as often as we can, because its the big local show, its a non-profit that does good work in the community, and it employs great circus acts from around the world. Ringling has always felt too big and impersonal - and I can only take Cirque de Soleil's Espirantu-esque commentary so often.

This years show is a jam-packed two hours that nonetheless feels shorter. Consummate entertainer Eddie Cantor used to say, "Always leave 'em wanting more", and the Big Apple's directors take that advice to heart.

Highlights include a dog act we always look forward to - a little short this year - that finds its actors by rescuing strays at animal shelters (bravo, Big Apple). The act includes Russian cradle aerialist Regina Dobrovitskaya, who in her other turn has nothing but a bolt of purple cloth protecting her from a drop of more than seven stories, and she wows the audience. The Long Twins - contortionists from China - somehow wriggle in and out of tin tubes no wider than a small dinner plate; what they do looks horrendously painful, but they also make it look easy.

Other standouts include the Curatola Brothers (acrobats from Italy), the Aniskin Troupe (a Trapeze family from Russia) and Picasso, Jr. (an AMAZING ping-pong ball and plate juggler from Spain). The rest of Big Apple performers hit the same high-degree of professionalism and polish that just throws you back in your seat and amazes you. Ringmaster Kevin Venardos - whose father and sister I know very well - makes a great successor to founder/ringmaster Paul Binder, and I hope he stays with them for a long time.

Final note - Barry Lubin as Grandma the Clown is just wonderful, as always, and the star of the show is Bello Nock. Bello was called "America's favorite clown" by Ringling for the years he was with them, but he's not a clown so much as a one-man circus. He never gets too obtrusive, but he can do it all, from playing the fluegel horn, to trapeze, to bungee, to trampoline, to a ridiculously scary daredevil act involving two rotating circles - Wheel of Steel - that reach fifty feat up into the big top - he and his partner run inside the circles, outside the circles (!) and fly off them (!!!) weightless into the air up at the top of the tent. Frightening. Seventh generation member of an old Swiss-Italian circus family, Bello's 13-year-old daughter has joined the troupe this year. It almost sounds like one of those circus stories you hear when you're a kid; "But doc, I AM Grimaldi"!

I always loved circuses, there's something miraculous and mysterious about them, and I always feel like I'm being allowed to see something rare, being let in on a world that's a little bit removed from the rest of us.

So go - you'll get in the holiday spirit because you'll feel like a kid within two minutes of the band starting the opening march.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sesame Street

I was one of those kids who was just a *little* too old for Sesame Street when it debuted in 1969. I didn't see it all that often, so when I watched it with my kids a few years ago, I saw a lot of really funny things for the first time.

I always enjoy it when I come across one of the things I missed, like this cameo by Smokey Robinson - which my friend Kateri Hunter posted earlier today.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

City Buys 7 Acres of Joe Sitt's Coney Island

Well - its about time! New York City finally bought the heart of Coney Island, as the Times reported today.

But even though the city needed to buy Joe Sitt's Thor Equities out, it's only a first step and not enough to ensure that Coney Island stays "Coney Island". You see, Joe Sitt is that odd breed of developer who buys land and then - doesn't develop it. Instead, he sits on it until the value goes up. He's what we used to call a speculator.

This time around, the real estate market was been pretty terrible, and on this sale, Sitt was told if he didn't take the initially proffered $110 million, the price wouldn't go up, it would only go down. It did. First, it went to $105 million; then, a little more than $95 million. That's the offer Sitt took.

It's great news, but it isn't quite enough, as Save Coney Island's Juan Rivero points out in a statement issued today.

Stay tuned...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Music for a Frenetic Day

You're familiar with this lousy phenomenon. You have a day off scheduled, so the day before you leave, in an attempt to make sure you've completed everything you need to, you tear through today's work AND tomorrow's. You straggle off for home around 8:30.

I'm trying to avoid that these days, but, with a day off tomorrow, the familiar pattern repeats itself. At times like these, I need to bring in the black coffee, the heavy artillery of musical motivators, the Balkan brass band.

So, enjoy the act of the day, Fanfare Ciocarlia, my favorite Roma (Gypsy) band from Romania.

If you saw Borat, you may remember their ridiculously fast and rowdy version of "Born to Be Wild" from the credits. Here they are from a concert with Jony Ilev, the Bulgarian clarinetist; the legendary Esma Redzepova; and the last, in Spanish, with the French group Kaloome.

They kick ass.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

This Is Burlesque; Happy Birthday Angie

If you haven't seen "This is Burlesque", you once again have the chance and you shouldn't miss it.

The show's driving force is the dynamic and lovely Angie Pontani, whose birthday it is tomorrow. I've brought several friends to see the Pontani Sisters (Angie, Helen - the Tapping Tornado, and the amazing Peekaboo Pointe); their truly hysterical MC Murray Hill (the Hardest Working Middle Aged Man in Showbiz); the delightful Little Miss Lixx; occasional guest MC Miss Astrid, the "Wiemar Fraulein"; and their guests, who have included the amazing acrobatic duo from Baltimore Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey and our own Little Brooklyn (who is like the Lucille Ball of burlesque), among others. I think by now, almost everyone I know has heard about this from me, but maybe YOU haven't.

They open tomorrow night at Sweet Caroline's with a performance to benefit "Save Coney Island". What does Coney Island need saving from, you ask? A poorly thought out development scheme, is what.

It's high-powered dance, it's satirical, it's sexy, and above all, it's the kind of funny where tears roll down your face.

For your daily moment of zen, here's a little of what you might see...

You should go. Tomorrow night. And wish Angie a Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's My Birthday

Yeah, yeah, yeah...

It's that time of year again for yours truly. This time I turn 46, but I don't care how old I get, as long as the presents and German chocolate cake keep coming.

And lest you think I'm fishing for birthday wishes, here's a gift for you. This is an interesting, rare 'Happy Birthday', so I thought some of you might enjoy hearing it. It's hard to tell, but our four lads are singing "Happy Birthday dear Saturday Club", which was a BBC radio broadcast that used to showcase up-and-coming recording and performing talent, which they were, once.

Anyhow, Happy Birthday to all scorpios out there. Let me know when yours is so I can hoist one on your special day. :)

Monday, November 2, 2009

MTA Subways Play Leonard Bernstein

It's true. It took me awhile to believe it when my wife kept telling me, "New York City subways play the first three notes of 'Somewhere' from West Side Story."

Now, at first I thought she'd heard some isolated aural anomaly, but once while I was with her, I heard it, too. In fact, for the last couple of years, I've heard it every time I take a subway train. NYC trains always play the first three notes of "Somwhere" and then another note, a long discordant whine. You can hear it here; just wait for the doors to close and the train to start moving:

I take that particular train to work most days, but I've found dozens of videos on you tube (some much longer and believe me, far less interesting, if that's possible) and all trains leaving an underground station make this odd music.

What is making this noise? Are there others out there who've got any ideas?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie

I was at a protest yesterday morning at JPMorgan Chase headquarters for Waterkeeper, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. They're trying to get the investment bank to divest from mountaintop removal mining, which devastates communities and the environment throughout Appalachia. John Wathen, the Hurricane Creek Keeper, pictured here on Gothamist, eloquently expressed the reasons why mountaintop removal is so pernicious, casting it not only as an environmental disaster, but also as a social issue of rich banks vs. people too poor to defend their rights. He's very convincing because he's lived it and fought the banks in court.

Waterkeeper calls the myth of 'clean coal' a Dirty Lie.

The protest was supported by the Rude Mechanicals Orchestra who have a nice Shakespearean name and get the musical clip of the day with their version of a klezmer standard:

These musical agitators are available for raucous parties for a cause and all your protest needs. And if you play the serpent - especially the tenor, your should get in touch with them.

Music from the Little Rascals

I never know if others are already aware of things I feel I've "discovered", but this is one thing I'll take the risk on.

If you grew up on Hal Roach comedies, the Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, maybe even Charlie Chase, you remember the music. You may not even realize that you remember it because it was background music in certain scenes, just there, sort of sneaking into your subconscious. At other times, the music really underscores the action, whether a chase, or perhaps one of those improbable love scenes where Chubby goes all soft for Miss Crabtree.

About ten years ago, my wife brought all those Little Rascals memories up fresh in my mind when she gave me this record:

It turns out that all this was written by someone called Leroy Shields. When I listen to these little airs, I'm struck by how good they are. The credit for these tunes getting a fresh hearing goes to the Beau Hunks, a tight group of talented Dutch musicians who specialize in unearthing forgotten swing and modern jazz of the the 30's and 40's.

Listening to these is like finding a lost toy you forgot how much you missed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Look who it is!

I'll never forget the first time I heard Helen Shapiro sing this song. I was driving my 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air (a sierra gold and adobe beige 4-door) home after a date. It was 1985 and as usual for a Saturday night, I was listening to the Wolfman Jack show on the Philco car radio. To the uninitiated, Wolfman Jack was on in the middle of the night.

Helen recorded this song in 1963 when she was 16 years old and Britain's top female singer, two months before I was born. The Londoner recorded her first hit at age 14, "You Don't Know".

Years later, I'm still struck by her deep voice - incredible for a teenager, her impressive poise, and of course her marvelous beehive. I can't help but wonder who those three guys are in that "Top of the Pops" clip, though.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Five Years Old...

If you're like me (and who isn't?), you remember being five years old and lying on your parents oatmeal colored shag carpet in the dining room (odd color choice for a dining room rug in an Italian household; its like inviting disappointment). More often than not, I'll hear an old song that will take me right back to where I heard it. That rug is where this 1968 song, by Beatles protege Mary Hopkin, always takes me.

Now, you may find yourself thinking, "Shouldn't this be sung by a much older, much more Russian woman?" Yet somehow, she seemed much older than me at the time, and now, I have all those years "gone rushing by" to give me enough perspective for this song to have quite a different effect on me now than it did then.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Help of the helpless...

...Abide with me.

As an American atheist, I can't help but wonder why I love this very English hymn. Most Brits know it from the FA cup final, and Yanks probably know it from the Full Monty

This summer, I kept humming Abide with Me to myself as I drove from London, to Salisbury, to Evesham, to Liverpool, to Keswick, to Nottingham, to York and back to London. It somehow reinforced the beauty of the English countryside. Now, at work in Manhattan, I'm humming it again. Here's a 1932 recording, and several other versions of it -

Its a great, simple melody entwined with stirring harmony. It makes Amazing Grace sound tinny and hollow. I really hate Amazing Grace.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

@#$!0*& Blogs!

Am I alone in the opinion that it's over? The bloom has faded. The shine is off the blogging rose. To be frank, aside of a few well-written and entertaining blogs I follow because I like the sensibility of the author (hello Don, Wendy and Gynomite), I can't stand reading them anymore.

Go back a couple of years. Blogging was new and undiscovered country and anything you wanted to try *could* work. Or it might not, but at least it was for you to try and fail and learn.

Watching "Julie & Julia" last week reminded me of those days. The Nora Ephron film recounts one Julia Child fan's obsessive and - eventually - career-defining effort to cook all 500+ recipes of the French Chef in 365 days. Watching the story unfold was exciting - but the whole time I kept thinking, "What's wrong here?"

I felt that you'd never get an audience for that blog today - as Julie Powell did back in 2003. It wasn't that long ago, but the fact is, not THAT many people were actually blogging then. Not like now. Cutting through the clutter now, starting from scratch as a blogger, is tough. Unless you've got a daily entry, one on a topic on which you could be challenged, but can't be dismissed, you're contributing to the clutter and noise.

And there's a lot of that now, so much so that I won't even follow new bloggers. I have my couple of favorites and leave the rest in the ever-growing, massive pile of outpouring on minutiae including what you ate for lunch, where you went on the weekend, and what you're doing now.

I'm also deeply discouraged about being another contributor to the pile of brain droppings. The more you read others blogs, the more you realize that we're less alike than we'd want to believe. A wonderful realization, but god, does it have to be such repetitive and boring trip through self-obsession to get there.

Anyone else experiencing anything different these days? If you are, I want to know. I want to know about the exciting, intelligent challenging blogs that aren't about their authors.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is this the best thing in life?

The weather this week is being called brisk and autumnal by our NYC-based weather people, which causes me to scratch my head in mild annoyance. Autumnal? Since when is 76 degrees brisk? I suppose climate change has influenced this generation of weather bunnies to believe that dry in the mid-seventies is the new 52 degrees.

Anyway, despite this bizarre interpretation, the current mild, warm weather is the perfect temperature for getting out onto a backyard patio, a roof, or sidewalk cafe in the evening and enjoying a beer or tea or dinner with friends. It's the temperature of summers when I was a youngster, and it probably won't be with us for more than a minute, or at the most a week or two.

This is it, my favorite time of year, late summer - September. You can breathe again and the smells that plague the city during high summer seem to blow away with the evening breezes.

I've realized how undemanding I am. Sitting outside and enjoying a meal or drink with friends and family in the late summer; that may be the best thing in life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The problem with blogging is that I view it as a chore. One more thing to do that takes up what little time I have between work and home. blogging has to fit into that gray area where I take care of personal business like reading and working on various projects, time is at a premium.

So, I promise to keep these shorter from now on. They have been essays, which I'm far more comfortable writing than short bytes, but if I don't have time to write an essay, I can't believe that anyone bothering to drill down here to luddite-land (where we prefer to do things the hard way, gull dang it!) has much time to read 900-word essays. So, in the spirit of curtailment...

I've just returned from the UK with my wife and our two daughters. Forget staycations: I feel like my kids need the perspective that travel provides if their world view is to be somewhat expansive. I also need to have the excitement and refreshment that being on the road can bring. I view taking trips at least once a year as essential, not as a luxury, even if I have to incur a little debt to do it.

I wonder, does anyone else feel this way? Or, are you being fiscally wise and staying home?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Save Coney Island

I sent this letter to Speaker Quinn today -

Dear Speaker Quinn,

I have taken my children to Coney Island every summer for the past several years. Every time we go, we have a great time enjoying the Aquarium, getting hot dogs at Nathan’s (the same building and location I went to when I was a kid, by the way), and – most importantly – going on the rides.

But, every year we go, we see less and less of the Coney Island from the year before. Last autumn, I explained to the kids that this might be their last time on the rides.

Next week, you are going to vote on a plan to develop the Coney Island amusement area south of Surf Avenue. I realize this has been billed as a hugely important development for the city’s economy, but is it in fact? What is the real long-term benefit, and what are the irreversible long-term impacts?

The fact is, everyone I know has heard of Coney Island. Just today, friends in Los Angeles, Holland and the UK asked me what was going on with next week’s vote. I am by no means an activist – but the lure and importance of the place in New York’s ‘personality’ is hugely important, not just to me – a guy who takes his family there – but to people the world over. I firmly believe taking land used for amusement park rides and concessions and turning it over to major development will kill Coney Island.

I’m sure the developer has presented foot traffic studies that show how much better it will be for the neighborhood for Nathan’s to be turned into an efficient, indoor restaurant and how great indoor bowling will be for the neighborhood. But, the fact is, we need more Coney Island rides and concession stands and amusements, not less. Those are the things that keep people coming back – the unique and important things that actually *mean* Coney Island. Indoor shopping and bowling means that Coney Island will look like everyplace else.

What I’d like to propose is that the developer’s plan be modified. There’s nothing wrong with progress and construction, but not at the expense of our city’s real and unique character. Let them build the tower, but build it NORTH of Surf, not south. A better plan is to build, but at the same time to invest in what’s there and in danger of being lost. Creating more space for more and better rides, more food stands, more open-air performances, more of a carnival atmosphere is what people want, whether NY natives or tourists. Making Coney Island more of an attraction, not less of one, will serve everybody’s needs, from developer, to beach-goers, and (especially) to our kids – and eventually – their kids.

Once Coney Island is reduced to a tiny, half-indoor, ersatz memory park, something irrecoverable will have been lost. The very things that attract people to the place will have been eliminated, and with them, any reason for going there. It’s a resource that should be built up, not chopped up and parceled out.

Please don’t let this happen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine feeding frenzy

Swine Flu. It's "dreaded", it's "deadly", and it poses a danger to you and your family.

Or is this not even remotely the case?

I put quotes around "dreaded" and "deadly" because that's how swine flu has been described by both local and national TV newscasts, national and tabloid print, and radio. But is what's being reported actually a clear picture the facts of the flu outbreak? A look at mortality figures for this and other diseases proves it may not be, and that the tone of the reporting isn't warranted.

Thousands die in New York City every year from the simple flu strain that comes back, year after year; thousands of New Yorkers in the five boroughs. How many New Yorkers have died from swine flu so far? None.

So far, the numbers we've seen from Mexico don't indicate that swine flu is a deadlier disease that many others - heart disease isn't thought of as a pandemic, but it kills millions more in the U.S. than all strains of flu combined. Somehow, heart disease doesn't inspire the kind of media pile-on that epidemics such as West Nile Virus and Monkey Pox did. Do you remember the coverage from those "deadly" diseases? Do you remember the devastating outbreaks that followed their appearance here in the U.S.? Of course you don't; they never occurred.

I do not mean to downplay any potential danger from swine flu; it may prove a difficult opponent and an intractable disease. However, the coverage has been terribly overblown, and the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notes the media's tendency to feed upon itself in his column today.

Clearly, there's reason to report this news, but, when an expert is quoted in one piece as saying, "We issue several health emergencies every week; take basic precautions," and the reporter framing the piece uses words and phrases like "deadly", "shocking", "terrible" to describe the disease, and "afraid for their lives" to describe the parents of schoolkids in the same report - then there's clearly an editorial judgment taking place to hype the danger.

Having had my executives at Audubon talk to the media about West Nile Virus during that outbreak several years ago taught me one important lesson in dealing with epidemics. Coverage of disease outbreaks too often depends upon heat, and if expert has light to offer, they will either be ignored, or their information is more likely to be used in context that neither benefit viewers and readers nor your expert.

I feel offering my client who is very knowledgeable on pandemics to the media now would contribute to the bonfire that's feeding on itself. His useful information and sane perspective will just get lost in the flames...

Friday, April 3, 2009

NY Needs a Bailout for Drivers

I’ve worked in New York City for the last 23 years. I’ve held several jobs; some were close enough to my home that I could walk to them, but most were too many blocks or miles away. To get to those jobs, I’ve depended on the MTA’s buses and subways.

MTA, facing a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall after months of fruitlessly asking Albany to fulfill its responsibility to find funding sources, last week voted on its "doomsday budget" and approved fare hikes ranging from 23 to 50 percent starting in June. Albany still has time to reverse this, but they've yet to display any leadership at all. The clock is ticking, and like a lot of commuters, I’m worried.

Although a commission led by former MTA chief Richard Ravitch came up with a solution in December that spreads responsibility for paying for transit fairly across a broad group of stakeholders, there’s an objection to one item that could scuttle the whole plan: tolling the East River and Harlem River bridges.

The success or failure of the effort to fund transit hinges on the opposition of Senator Carl Krueger and a handful of downstate Democrats. Even though the vast majority of their working constituents get to work via transit, and less than six percent drive to their jobs (most of whom don't use the East River bridges to get there), these senators are putting the interests of a tiny group of drivers above commuters. That killed Ravitch's excellent proposal, and no one else has displayed leadership and proposed an alternate plan.

Their reluctance to vote against tolls is understandable - they want every vote they can get and transit riders are used to being put upon - but it's hardly fair. Millions of New Yorkers who commute use public transit and only a small percentage of us drive to work on a daily basis. It’s clear that the needs of the many transit riders should outweigh the needs of the few drivers. It should be simple math.

Despite these facts, I’d like to suggest a bailout, but not to benefit the MTA or transit riders; despite rising prices and a shaky economy, perhaps we’ve had it easy for far too long. In the spirit of the times, I’d like to propose a bailout for those that least need help: New York’s commuters who get driven to work.

Think of it. A 23 percent transit fare hike is the right start, but it just doesn’t go far enough. Let’s raise the subway and bus fare 500% to $10, so we can make all the bridges in New York City free.

It’s not a big leap for riders to make. Right now, my Metrocard already pays to keep the East River and Harlem River bridges free. I like knowing that I’m doing something to help a small slice of wealthy NYC, Westchester and Long Island commuters who get driven to work in town cars. I hope that my fellow riders will feel the same way and gladly pay $10 per ride.

One huge benefit of raising the transit fares: lower maintenance and lower operating costs. Higher transit fares combined with recently lowered gas prices will encourage bus, commuter rail, and subway riders to drive to work. If less people use the subways, less transit system maintenance will be necessary. The MTA could take scores of buses, subways and trains offline, and no one would notice.

For those who argue that more cars on our city streets will not be easy to accommodate, one great solution is to build more highways through the heart of the city. As a resident of a Greenwich Village that is filled with new residents who own Hummers and luxury sport utility vehicles, I can say with confidence that no one here remembers Jane Jacobs and that Robert Moses perhaps had it right. Maybe it’s finally time for his planned highway across the Village. That road and others like it at 42nd and 34th streets should help solve any congestion problems caused by the $10 fare.

Luxury SUV owners also deserve a break. The price of gas may have fallen, but it still costs these SUV drivers a disproportionate amount of money to operate their gas-guzzling vehicles. By paying a $10 fare, those still forced to take public transit can help SUV owners to fill their tanks. The benefit here is that it will allow Wall Street middle managers to feel just as important as their bosses, whose corporate jets already are being subsidized by American taxpayers via the Wall Street bailout plan. Why shouldn’t lower level Wall Streeters get their fair share of the American dream?

Another great reason for a driver bailout is nostalgia. Tourists and residents like New York, but they really miss the great old days of the 1970’s, the "Fort Apache" days when the transit system didn’t work very well and pollution from the cars, trucks, and buses that choked the roads was at its worst. Who cares about juvenile asthma and pulmonary embolisms when we could have return to air with heft, color and character?

Folks on Staten Island and in parts of the Bronx have long complained that they have to pay big tolls to get to other boroughs, while drivers in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan have been getting a free ride. Rather than charging the costs of maintaining bridges more fairly to the drivers who actually use them, the doomsday budget now requires that transit riders, Staten Islanders, residents of parts of the Bronx, and those that use railroads and tunnels pay even higher tolls and fares to keep the East River crossings free. Unless lawmakers in Albany can actually come up with a legislative alternative, those hikes will stand.

Again, the MTA doomsday plan is a good first step, but it just doesn’t go far enough. My proposal to increase each bus and subway fare to $10 has the advantage of making all bridges and tunnels free. It also puts the costs of the luxury of driving to work right on the backs of those who have always deserved to bear the largest burden: the poorest 90 percent of our citizens.

It’s not only the right thing to do for our drivers. It’s the American way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why all the conservative followers?

I just realized today that I picked up three new followers on Twitter that are self-described conservatives. I'm fine with that. If you follow me, I tend to follow you unless you're an obvious spambot or someone whose name is Herb, is following 2,349 people, has 14 followers, has never posted anything, and your avatar is a woman in a bikini who is clearly not you. Even I have limits.

Back to my conservative followers. I actually have dozens of conservative followers, and if you know me, you know I'm not a conservative. But what you may not notice is that I don't describe myself as anything politically. The fact that I'm on a computer at all proves I'm not even remotely a Luddite.

I have such a distrust of the labels people apply to themselves that I feel disbelief as soon as I'm confronted with them. You have to prove to me that all you are is a conservative, or a liberal, or a socialist. We're all a lot more complicated than any easily applied, overly simple ideological label allows. For example, I believe that...
  • ...the free market has the power to do immense good in developing nations worldwide as tool to lift people up from poverty and create healthier and safer conditions for people. I believe this because I've seen it work, and I've seen the failure of the alternative: long terms aid programs. Obviously, I'm pro-business.
  • ...businesses that create products or services that impact people's health and safety need to have good government oversight and strong regulation. Witness the incredible food safety failures of the FDA over the past 8 years, in which an average of 5,000 Americans have perished annually as a direct result of Bush Administration funding cuts to this vital agency. How could I be anything other than pro-government?
  • ...our society needs to take care of our weakest and most vulnerable citizens, not only with relief and welfare funds, but with the creation of jobs and agencies devoted to keeping our poorest working. I'm a Socialist.
  • ...you should be able to own a gun if you want one; they're very useful if you live in wilderness and rural areas. I'm a conservative.
  • ...any municipality or county should be able to limit or ban the use of firearms within city or county limits to prevent gun violence or to stem it. It seems I'm a liberal.
  • ...a woman should always have the right to a safe and legal abortion. I'm a feminist.
  • ...repeat offender rapists, child molesters, and other similar violent criminals should not be rehabilitated, and should be put down. I'm a violent reactionary.
  • ...Homosexuals should be granted equal rights under the law and should have the freedom to marry if they so choose. I'm perahaps a Libertarian.
  • ...the environment should not only be protected, but that working with it instead of against it provides the basis for a new economy. On this issue in the 70's, I was a conservative Republican; now I'm an Obama Democrat, and my views haven't changed *at all* since.
How do you make sense of those contradictions? Where do you even start to try to untangle these few beliefs, which I know some agree with and some don't. Think of all of us out there who similarly hold seemingly contradictory beliefs.

There's nothing to be gained in trying to pigeonhole people into little categories, so why do we even do it to ourselves? Is it so that others who ostensibly believe as we do can gather with us and feel some sense of community?

If that's why you self identify as a liberal or a conservative, I invite you to stop. Go find out about the people you don't agree with. Spend time with them. I'm an atheist and two of my best friends are Christians - we agree on more than we disagree on. In understanding each other on our common turf, we find that we have more to work on together than you could ever imagine when you approach social interaction as only "conservative" or "liberal" who will not be moved off those issues.

I applaud my conservative followers for taking a look at what I have to say and being open to a person who shares some of their beliefs, but not all. These contradictions are healthy and good - and it's plurality of opinion and debate that makes us Americans. If we were all marching in the same direction to the same drumbeat, that would be a fascist nightmare, and we've all seen how that plays out in the end.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dell: Fail

Last week, I got a virus that caused my hard drive to make a sound reminiscent of an egg on a griddle. To bring my computer back up to working order, I had to call Dell to get the recovery disks for the drivers and the operating system.

This is when things took a strange turn. That calm, Westworld-like female voice that Dell uses to assure you that everything is fine asked me two pointed questions.

"Would you like to ensure that your calls are answered in two minutes or less?"

"Sure I would," I thought. I waited for about 12 minutes for service on this call.

"Would you like to speak with one of our expert technical support staff right here in North America?"

Now that's an interesting question. Yes, I guess I would. There have been times when I ordered from Dell and talked to someone who spoke English, but not American English, and there was still a communication gap. Once, my salesperson even sent me the wrong computer.

"Stay on the line and for a few dollars more, become a member of Dell's gold protection plus platinum, or whatever-the-hell its called."

Seriously. Dell is going to *charge you* so that you don't have to speak with someone in India or the Phillipines or sub-Saharan Africa. Put another way, if you want to talk with a technician who speaks English with the same orientation and understanding of fine meaning that you are used to, than you're going to have to pay extra for that.

When I ordered my recovery disks earlier this week, the Dell technician and salesperson I spoke to did indeed drop the ball. I asked for two recovery discs for a home PC, and they sent only one disk. It was not for a home PC.

I called Dell, went through three operators/technicians/salespeople, and this time, I got the right discs. I also got two extra discs I didn't need, but which were good to have and might be useful given my problem. Clearly, this second group was on the ball, thinking about what I, the customer, needed or might need.

But, they were trying to fix a problem created by their colleagues failing to understand me the first time. I know my story isn't unique: Dell gets a lot of complaints, and the problems Dell has experienced with outsourcing are significant enough that they needed to find a solution. They found the wrong one.

Instead of spending some time and money on increasing the quality of their outsource staff (which is clearly the right thing to do), or to discontinue outsourcing (the more expensive route), they want to charge you, the customer who already paid for a unit under warranty, to pay more, a lot more, for the promise of service you should have been entitled to in the first place.

I say "the promise of service", because even with this laughable paid upgrade from sub-standard to standard service, you have no guarantee that the technicians and operators whom Dell employs in North America will be any better than their counterparts overseas.

In fact, I know that they're no better. I've dealt with U.S. based Dell techs who are kind, anticipate your needs, and actually give you a break on certain products. I've dealt with lazy, tired, slow, American techs who just couldn't be bothered with your call.

So Dell, you fail. Your promise to give us the service we already paid for by paying you "just a little more" is ethically wrong, a poor business move. Your response to complaints that Dell outsource techs don't always get things right should have been to make sure they get things right.

The decision you made to create a putatively better quality service in America instead of improving service all around smacks of the worst decision making. One has to feel it's a weak move informed in some part by racist attitudes evinced by customers and perhaps by Dell corporation itself.

You've lost me as a customer, Dell. I'm going with another Mac next time around.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Feeling Unsociable

Every now and then, I have a Facebook friend request from someone I don't know. I'm sure you've gotten one of these on occasion. Its from someone you've never heard of, and your response is a straightforward 'ignore', or if you're feeling charitable, an email asking "how exactly do you know me?", which never prompts a response.

But what do you do when someone you know but not terribly well or perhaps don't even like sends you a friend request? What's the proper social networking etiquette when you don't particularly feel like being sociable?

I'm afraid I knuckle under. Always. I know that's not what I want to do, but it seems the best of several poor alternatives.

So far, everyone who's sent me a friend request from my past has been a real pleasure to reconnect with. I've re-established friendships with dear people and we've gone out and done things together, and that's been remarkable and good.

But its not the people in my past I want to avoid. Its the people in my present. The people I have little in common with, who I don't have philosophical agreement with, the ex-co-worker now embroiled in controversy I don't understand and don't want to be dragged into or the ex-boyfriend of an acquaintance who wants to 'hang out' and get a 'falafel' some day next week.

I don't usually equate getting a falafel from a tiny hole-in-the-wall with one table on Sullivan Street with "hanging out". First, there's no place to 'hang' and second, who IS this insta-friend that now wants to be buds via facebook? Where did this guy, whose name I don't remember and whose number I was careful not to take, find the memory cells to remember my name and put it together with Facebook?

Honestly, what do *you* do? This is the new social conundrum; a real-life acquaintance who didn't even register when you met them, who now wants to be your online bff. How do you decline sociability in the world of social media?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Racist Baker tonight on FOX 5 News at 10

A few weeks ago, my wife noticed a film crew outside our local bakery, Lafayette. Its a nice looking old Village place from the outside: stainless steel, glass counter, all kinds of cakes and cookies on display. Its the kind of place I grew up with that still uses red and white twine to keep boxes shut, instead of the cellophane tape that the high-class places in the neighborhood use. A few years ago, Lafayette become famous with 'Sex in the City' fans who wanted the same cupcakes that Carrie Bradshaw pigged out on.

As it emerged that evening, the reason for the crew's presence was that the baker (son of the nice-old-lady owner and, truth be told, more than a little on the creepy side) introduced a new cookie for Martin Luther King Day - and President Obama's inauguration the following day: Drunken Negro Head Cookies. Ugly, poorly made, disgusting and downright unappetizing, even without the added dollop of racist acid.

By now, you may have seen the story. He's been picketed by the New Black Panthers, the Community Board has been looking into his activity, and - thanks to his cryptically veiled remarks about Obama getting what Lincoln got - the Secret Service has been checking him out.

All this is warranted. Ted the baker is clearly an idiot and a racist, and he deserves to be rebuked. He's apologized in a way, but its the kind of apology that's done for expediency's sake, and to preserve his business in the light of the hit he just inflicted on himself. But my wife and I are wondering: what's the object of our protest now? To drive him out of business? What exactly are we trying to get from Lafayette Bakery?

A sincere apology, one that was felt to be real, would be good. So far that hasn't happened. I want it to happen; I want Ted the baker to realize how hateful his action was. But, at the same time, I don't want to see another old Village institution go out with a whimper, to be replaced with another martini bar for trust fund babies.

Well, tonight, Arnold Diaz will be following up on the piece he did back on January 20th. If there's a mea maxima culpa in there from the baker, good. If not, I'm afraid I still can't go back in there, and I can't do otherwise than tell friends to stay out of Lafayette as well.