All posts by BklynGuy

Am I allowed to want? and other soggy sagas

For the last couple of weeks, my flaky Internet connection at home got even flakier, to the point where it was up for only a couple of hours in the middle of the night. “Call the cable company and complain,” my wife told me.

But then I’d have to dig up their phone number, and the account number, and wait for twenty minutes on hold, and then they’d tell me, “We’ll get right on it,” and then I’d probably have to call again. It was easier to simply live without it. Pointless Web surfing is a bad habit, except that I can’t update my blog.

A couple of days ago, the connection came back up: I guess someone else complained.

* * *

All of that is rather pointless, except as introduction to my current funk. If my mother saw me writing this post, and read the title, she’d knock me upside the head. “Stop your self-pity,” she’d tell me.

*     *     *

Yesterday afternoon, my wife called me at the office: there’s was a concert in Prospect Park, and she wanted to see it. As I read the description, it was a performance of music from the movie Powaqqatsi. I was mildly interested, so I agreed.

We got to the Prospect Park Bandshell, paid our admission, and I saw that we had a choice: we could sit on seats in the bandshell, or spread out beyond it, on the lawn. This is good, I thought: I had brought a ground cloth, and we could stretch out and relax, since the performance was not due to start for another hour.

Instead, my wife pulled me toward the bandshell, to the second row behind the seats that had been cordoned off for VIPs. I really didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable metal folding chair for four hours, with no legroom, hemmed in by crowds so that it would be a major production to go to the can, but I’m the good husband, so I went.

Worse, I hadn’t brought my computer, or anything to read. But my wife had brought a play that she was studying for one of her classes, so at least I could read over her shoulder.

Powaqqatsi is one of a series of three movies about life and (although those responsible will jump up and down and swear otherwise) how modern civilization is screwing it up.  There is no plot, no dialogue, not even any visual references to specific places: we’re somewhere in Asia or Africa or wherever, but we can’t quite tell where. The visuals are a series of mostly dreary images from these exotic locales, of people doing the little things they do to keep their world going. These are interspersed with images of our modern world, chosen and edited for ugliness.

This is accompanied by grinding music that is somewhat related to the visuals, occasionally echoing the sounds that would have been present during filming, but mostly just grinding. Sometimes, the music evokes a feeling of triumph, but there is no triumph on the screen.  In fairness, the live music was the best part of the production.  It would have been stirring if it had been presented by itself, or with better visuals.

Perhaps the real art of Powaqqatsi is that it causes a group of people to assemble themselves, experience it, and feel edified.

*     *     *

And while I was writing the previous section, the Internet connection at my house went down.  About an hour later, it’s up again.  I had better finish this quickly….

I went to Powaqqatsi by default: it was my wife’s idea.  But if it was my decision, what would I have done?  I probably would have wanted to watch the tube for a bit, and then go to sleep.

But  what do I really want?  If all doors had stood open, and I weren’t tired after a long work week, what would I want to do?

Alas, I really don’t know….

And the point of this is…

New York Waterfalls

While on our evening walk, my wife and I came across the temporary waterfall that was set up on the Brooklyn shore, near the Promenade. Last week, the scaffolding was set up, but the waterfall was not in operation. Now it’s turned on, and it looks like… scaffolding with water coming out the top of it.

There is such a thing as good public art. A few years ago, The Gates, a series of wooden archways with orange curtains, was installed in Central Park. That was fun: the orange contrasted with the white and gray of the park in winter, and each archway was a new revelation, inviting one to see the park again for the very first time.

But this waterfall thing isn’t it. Perhaps the waterfall nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge looks cooler, but the ones that I could see, near the Promenade and on Governor’s Island, were dwarfed by the city around them.   (There is a fourth waterfall further north, on the Manhattan side.)  The waterfalls are not colorful, and not particularly eye-catching. They contribute only noise and humidity, two things that are already here in Brooklyn in more than sufficient quantities.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Winners Build the Monuments

An editorial piece in today’s Daily News, decrying the slow progress on the World Trade Center memorial, cited the remarks of former New York City Mayor Giuliani on leaving office in 2001, shortly after the events of 11 September:

You know, long after we’re all gone, it’s the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. It could be a place that is remembered 100 and 1,000 years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and of the United States. And we really have to be able to do with it what they did with Normandy or Valley Forge or Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. We have to be able to create something here that enshrines this forever and that allows people to build on it and grow from it.

At the time, nobody called him on it: we were still overwrought with what had happened, and Mayor Giuliani had done a wonderful job in keeping the city together after 11 September.  But now that we have some distance from the event, we might consider:

  • Normandy:  The Allies landed in Normandy as a first step to retaking France and western Europe from the Nazis.  They secured a beachhead and advanced from there to end the war in Europe in less than a year.
  • Valley Forge:  It wasn’t really a ‘battlefield;’ it was where the Continental Army encamped for the winter of 1777-1778, during which they became stronger and ultimately succeeded in driving the British out of what is now the United States.
  • Bunker Hill:  The Continental Army actually lost the battle of Bunker Hill, an effort to secure the Hill as an artillery site.  But the British took heavy losses, and ultimately lost the war.
  • Gettysburg: We remember Gettysburg for President Lincoln’s famous speech (‘Four score and seven years ago…’).  But Lincoln would not have given the speech there if the Union forces had lost the battle of Gettysburg, and we would not remember it if the Union had lost the Civil War.

The winners write the history books, and the winners build the monuments.  When there is a monument to defeat, even when built by the winners afterward, it tends to be small, understated, conciliatory.  (There is, for example, a monument at Dunkirk, not far from Normandy, where the British and French were driven out by the Nazis some years before.)

In other words, there seems something profoundly wrong with building a big elaborate monument to getting one’s own ass whupped.  On the other hand, this won’t be the first time: witness the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Have pain and suffering become the psychic coin of the realm, as triumph and exultation were in the not-so-distant past?

And what does that mean for the future?

Heroes of Independence Day

Last night, my wife and I watched Independence Day, the 1996 movie with Will Smith, in which hostile aliens from outer space start destroying major cities.  It was one of my son’s favorite movies when it came out years ago, and was a huge commercial success.  But my wife hadn’t seen it before.

She was impressed, and thought it was a very well-made movie.  As I watched it with her, I wondered why it seemed so wonderful.

“You don’t watch action movies anymore,” my son often says to me, and it’s true.  And it’s not just that I’m busier now, or that I more often see movies with my wife than with my son: the latest crop of action movies no longer appeals.  I couldn’t care less about the exploits of Spider-Man, Ironman, the Fantastic Four, Hellboy, or any of the comic-book superheroes prowling the screens today.

And when I watched Independence Day last night, I understood why.  Independence Day told the story of ordinary mortals who were pressed to become heroes.  And so it was with the James Bond movies, The Peacemaker, Armageddon, and the other action movies that my son and I enjoyed in the 1990s.  While sometimes it was the hero’s job to be a hero, in every case the hero was still an ordinary person.

I am starved for the sight of such a hero in the movies or television: an otherwise ordinary person who rises to a challenge, faces it with grace and skill, and prevails.

Last week, I went to see Get Smart with my son.  Maxwell Smart was never a hero: he was an amiable buffoon who happened to solve the problems at hand.  And while the movie tends more to action than the 1960s TV series did, it’s still more of a comedy.  So while it was fun, it didn’t hit my hero spot.

And then there’s Hancock, this year’s Will Smith movie.  Hancock is an otherwise ordinary guy with superhero skills.  But since he apparently doesn’t know what to do with them, he begins the movie as a drunken bum.

It was a truism where I used to work (a very large organization) that there are ‘no more heroes.’  In some quarters ‘heroics’ is almost a dirty word: it’s the way unsophisticated, immature organizations accomplish things.  The Disney animated movie The Incredibles took a tongue-in-cheek view, positing a world in which the superheroes were forced to retire under the threat of lawsuits.

Over 400 years ago, Sheakespeare wrote in ‘King Henry v’:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

In other words, the hero is there inside of us, waiting to be unleashed should the circumstances present themselves.

But if we’re told all our lives that there are no such things as heroes, what will we do?

Anatomy of a Hissy Fit

Last Sunday, Wesley Clark, former general and Democratic Presidential candidate, remarked on Face the Nation that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be President.” The remark related to the Republican candidate, John McCain.

It was, perhaps, a rude thing to say, but not entirely out of place.  Much of McCain’s appeal is based on his having been shot down over Vietnam and serving several years as a prisoner of war.  And as for a qualification to be President, I’d rather have a guy who flew a fighter plane and didn’t get shot down.

But the McCain camp worked themselves into a lather over the remark, suggesting that Clark was asserting that McCain’s military service did not qualify him to be President.

Well, it doesn’t!  The last President to have actually served in the military (as opposed to the National Guard) was the elder George Bush.  And there are thousands of ex-fighter pilots, and probably hundreds of ex-fighter pilots who were also prisoners of war: are all of them entitled to be President?

It was also suggested that Clark apologize for his remarks.  He didn’t, but Barack Obama had to address the issue, indicating regret that Clark had taken the campaign off-message.  Politics makes cowards of us all.

The result of this is that we got through another week chasing our tails because someone said something refreshingly honest, instead of the standard manufactured blather, or, worse yet, actually addressing the issues.

Facing Reality II-WTC Memorial

And then, there’s the planned WTC Memorial.

When the Port Authority reported that the projects on the World Trade Center site were seriously delayed, the head of the foundation building the memorial insisted that it was ‘essential’ that the memorial be completed by 2011. Apparently wishful thinking will make it so. Or is it that he fears that the rest of us will have moved on with our lives?

Of course there should be a memorial to the original Twin Towers and the people who lost their lives on 11 September. But does that mean that a dozen acres of prime Manhattan real estate should be given over in perpetuity for moaning and wailing?

After the events of 11 September, we were all in a state of shock. Some people suggested that the site be left alone. There were letters to the newspaper editors, full of resentment that the subway and PATH people set to work in the depths of the Pit to restore their respective facilities: how dare they take my loved one’s resting place for a train station!

Eventually, in this overheated atmosphere, a plan emerged, with two reflecting pools covering the footprints of the original Towers. It effectively precludes the use of the site for other purposes. While there is green space and (I’d like to imagine) places to sit, I can imagine that there will be howls of protests about letting hod dog vendors into the area, lest it spoil the somber mood of the place.

The foundation responsible for the memorial (you can read more about it at http://www.national911memorial.org/) reported in March that they had met their $350 million fundraising goal for the project. That sounds like a lot of popular support until you read a little further: about 80% of the total comes from donations of $5 million or more, and over 95% comes from donations of $1 million or more. Only a relative handful came from ordinary people who sent in a few dollars for the cause.

So I guess it will get built, eventually. But I’d rather have a useful park, where one might go for a twilight concert or something, than a monument to our pain and suffering.

Facing Reality

Yesterday’s newspapers reported what we, as New Yorkers, had already understood for a long time: that the plans for the new structures that were supposed to replace the World Trade Center were irretrievably screwed up, and that, without several months of further analysis, it would not even be possible to make a reasonable projection about when they might be finished.

We used to be a city, and a nation, of big plans and big achievements: the first New York subway was designed and built from scratch in eight years; we won World War II; we went to the moon in a decade; the original World Trade Center towers were built in eight years.

After the attacks of 11 September, we rebuilt the necessary pieces of infrastructure pretty quickly: the power grid got fixed in a few months; the IRT subway that ran through the site was reopened in a year (it would have been sooner, but Governor Pataki wanted to preside at the reopening ceremony); the PATH terminal and the tunnels to New Jersey were back in a little over two years.

And then, when it came to properly rebuilding the site, the wheels fell off.

What happened?

There are lots of things that one could point to, but an obvious one is the difference between leadership and management. The Port Authority in the 1960s, had a vision of how they would improve the city by building two really tall buildings. They held on to their vision, despite some measure of public opposition, and the original Twin Towers were built.

Today, the management of the project is fractured. The Port Authority owns the site, but is subject to direction from the state, the city, Larry Silverstein (to whom the World Trade Center site was leased shortly before 11 September), and a cast of characters. Worse, nobody seems to see anything wrong with this.

A project like this, with many competing interests, needs leader whom everyone trusts, who has a reasonable understanding of the interests involved, who can fairly decide when someone won’t get exactly what they want, and who has the authority to make his decisions stick,

But that isn’t the modern management style. There are no heroes; there are no ‘lone wolves.’ Instead there is management by consensus, a thoughtful balancing of the interests of the ‘stakeholders.’

The problem is that leads to decisions that are ‘safe,’ but really crappy:

  • The proper way to show that we refuse to give in to the terrorists is to build something as awesome as the original Twin Towers. Replicating the Towers would be a good idea, but isn’t the only alternative. But as much as the site and the New York psyche cries for iconic skyscrapers, that would be too dangerous. So instead we have a parade of boxes.
  • The actual height of the Freedom Tower (minus the spire) is actually only slightly shorter than the original Twin Towers. So it really isn’t that much less dangerous, if we’re worried about an event similar to 11 September.
  • And who gave us the name ‘Freedom Tower’? The site is still called the World Trade Center, and the other buildings will carry World Trade Center addresses. Are we really celebrating freedom in a building that had to be redesigned so as to make it more resistant to truck bombs?
  • The Port Authority, afraid that commercial tenants might not want to occupy an iconic skyscraper, has leased about 30% of the space in the Freedom Tower to other government agencies. While this guarantees a revenue stream to the Port Authority, it’s also the kiss of death for A-list tenants who would pay top dollar to occupy a building where they wouldn’t have to rub elbows with civil servants.

More tomorrow, or whenever I have some time to write….

Peaceful Saturday

I haven’t been writing for the last few days because my Internet connection at home has been flaky. (Even though I’m in business for myself, and don’t bill for unproductive time, I still can’t quite bring myself to write posts at the office.) I’ve lived at the same place since 2003 and had Internet access through the local Cable TV company. Up until this past week, we’ve had maybe one or two brief interruptions per year. But now it’s really hit or miss.

I was about to give up this morning when I decided to give the setup one last kick in the pants. I disconnected and reconnected power to my cable modem, and everything started working again. I can’t say how long it will last, though.

* * *

“I have a terrific idea,” my wife said on Friday night.

“Should I be terrified?” I asked.

“I want to go to a Polish restaurant for lunch tomorrow.”

Technically, I’m a Polish-American, but I have no desire to learn Polish, or eat Polish food, or go to Poland. I wasn’t terrified, but I was a little ticked off: I wanted to have my Saturday lunch at Bar Tabac, a French bistro place on Smith Street.

“I don’t know any Polish places.”

“Do some research.”

The Internet was working briefly yesterday morning, and I found a couple of plausible spots. I had no reason to be terrified: they generally served what one would recognize as ‘American’ food, as well as some distinctly Polish items. So we went to Christine’s in Greenpoint (the Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn) and had a good lunch.

After lunch, we went to the Union Square Greenmarket and bought some vegetables. There is one place that sells vast piles of bright magenta radishes: fresh and juicy and spicier than the tepid red balls one finds in plastic bags in the supermarket. They disappear in November or so; we’re glad to see them back.

We went to Madison Square Park and sat there for a while, contemplating the line that was waiting to buy hamburgers at the Shake Shack. I’m sure they make good burgers, but I couldn’t bring myself to wait a half-hour for one. Is part of the charm of part of the Shack Shack burger the ability to moan about waiting on line for it?

And then we went home and took a nap. I run around like a maniac the rest of the week; I need a day off.

Doing It in 15 Minutes

It’s 7:30 am.

When I first kept a blog, years ago, I had to do everything myself: I had to open up an HTML editor, write my post, then fix up the calendar page.  If it was the first post of the month, I would have to compose another calendar page and do some further housekeeping.  Then I would FTP the new files to the site and check that I hadn’t munged anything.  So there was anywhere between five and fifteen minutes of housekeeping on top of actually writing the post.

My life was calmer then, and most days I had about an hour where I could sit down, write expansively about something, and then post it.  Today, things are busier, but I’m still in the mindset about the wonderful thing that I want to write if I could sit down for an hour.  But there aren’t any hours like that, where I have time on my hands and some good energy for writing.

Fortunately, things have advanced since I was composing pages the hard way.  I don’t have to do any housekeeping: I just write, hit ‘Publish,’ and I’m done.  I still read the page after it’s posted, partly from force of habit, but even that isn’t necessary: the blogging software does not mung my text.

But I’m still in the mode of the magnificent opus that I want to write.  Unfortunately, since I don’t have the time and energy, I end up writing nothing.  I have to learn that there really is such a thing as the quick post, accomplished in less than 15 minutes, like today’s post.

It’s 7:42 am.  So I still have time to hit ‘Publish’ and check my work.

Done!

Painting the Corridors/Blackout

Last Thursday, they started painting the corridors in the apartment.  While the building where I live is generally kept in good order, the corridors could use a paint job: they haven’t been painted since we moved here in 2003.

Aesthetically, I wish they hadn’t: the old paint was a light yellow, which was pleasantly warm originally, when lit by incandescent lights, and still decent when the lights were replaced with fluorescent bulbs.  The new paint job is a blue-gray color, dismal and cold.  Did they choose such a grim color so that we’d all know they had been painted?

And then, in the lobby, someone posted a notice that the apartment doors were being painted with (gasp!) oil-based paint.  “Oil-based paint is a paint whose primary component is oil,” the notice reminds us.  (As opposed to, say, peanut butter?)

“Do you want your children  to breathe these fumes?”

At this point, my son is old enough that I can no longer control what he breathes.  But if he were younger, while I wouldn’t take him to a paint factory, I can’t get upset about the paint on the apartment doors.

When I was a kid, oil-based paint was common enough as a wall paint, and the smell of a freshly-painted apartment was part of its charm.  But I have to wonder if the people who are fear for their children from freshly-painted doors ever change their shower curtains: the funk from a new plastic curtain can make a bathroom uninhabitable for a week.

*          *          *

On my way home this afternoon, the trains were screwed up: a blackout in Brooklyn.  I feared for the worst as I took an alternate route home.  But the lights were still on when I got home.  Whew: I had loaded up on groceries this morning.

I have to wonder, though: we never had to worry about blackouts in New York City until a few years ago.  Electricity in the city was expensive, but reliable.  Now, some part of the city loses power every year: a couple of years ago, part of Queens was in the dark for over a week.

Maybe if electricity got cheaper, one might consider it a fair trade.  But it’s still expensive, and Con Ed has asked for yet another rate increase.

Sex and the City

My wife and I went to see the new Sex and the City movie today.  All the reviews of it that I’ve seen to date considered it either wonderful or horrible.  My sense of it was somewhere in between: it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s a good light entertainment.  It would have been better if it were cut about twenty minutes shorter, but I can’t complain too hard: today was the first seriously hot day of the year in New York City, and it was good to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater.

My wife introduced me to the TV series when we got married.  If I had watched it when I was a lonely single guy, I would have hated it: how could I find a decent companion when women were like that?  But ensconced in a happy marriage, the women of Sex in the City seemed unreal: they lived under different laws of relationship physics than the rest of us, and their situations were entertaining when it happened to them, but in the real world, we wouldn’t do things like that.

The TV series got formulaic after a while, and came to a reasonable end in 2004.  The movie represents a continuation of the story a few years hence, and a chance to answer the one thing that I never understood:

What does Carrie see in Mr. Big?

Throughout the entire television series, Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character, is irretrievably attracted to ‘Mr. Big,’ but I could never understand why: Big is a self-absorbed asshole with a fear of commitment.

In the movie, Carrie and Big have been living together, and decide to get married so coldly that the theater had to shut off the air conditioning to prevent frostbite among the audience.  You might have thought that a few years with his true love would have softened Big, but no: he’s still a self-absorbed asshole.  If he were as unsure of himself in his working life as in his relationship with Carrie, he’d be a total loser instead of a bigshot construction executive.  Later, he backs out of his own wedding, and we’re not surprised.

In the end, it’s all resolved, and yes, Carrie and Big get married.  (I don’t think I’ve given away much: in this case, the journey is more interesting than the destination.)  But the groundwork is there for a sequel, say 3-4 years hence, when they get divorced….

Andromeda Sprained

This weekend, I watched the remake of The Andromeda Strain on A&E. When the original came out in the early 1970s, I thought it was way cool: crack scientists in a secret underground lab, trying to understand an actual (if microbial) creature from outer space. I was curious how it got transformed for our time.

First, the story has been retuned to our current mania for death and destruction. In the original, Andromeda did almost all of its killing before the picture started: we drive around the town of Piedmont and wonder what how everyone died at once. But in the new version, Andromeda is the Energizer Bunny of microbes: we see it kill again and again. The odd thing is that its victims only die after they have passed it to someone else.  Later, it kills plants, as well. We’re supposed to believe that Andromeda is intelligent, that it has been sent across billions of miles over at least some number of years with hostile intent. Mostly, I think the scriptwriters are just lazy.

In the original, the military may have had their sinister intentions, but they were secondary to the scientists. Now we see them blundering about throughout the picture (and getting killed): they’re not only evil, they’re stupid as well. The unspoken message: they will not protect you. Meanwhile, the handsome young journalist slips through their fingers. We’re rooting for him, of course, but it’s yet another dimension of military ineptitude.

Another change was to adapt the story to our mania for instant communication. Originally, the scientists were holed up in their top-secret lab, and part of the story turned on a lapse of communication due to a trivial failure of a Teletype machine. In the current version, the scientists are on the phone half the time, even talking to our handsome journalist. What part of ‘top-secret laboratory’ do these people not understand?

Finally, in the original, the key to disarm the atomic self-destruct device is turned over to one of the scientists because he’s a single male, and the Odd Man Hypothesis suggests that single males are most likely to make the correct decision in such matters. We never knew anything about his personal life beyond that, and didn’t think anything further about it. In the current version, it’s impressed on us that the Odd Man is gay.

When I was eleven, the original Andromeda Strain was a shining illustration in the power of reason and logic, although I didn’t put it in those terms back then: it was just really cool. Even though the scientists in the new version do manage to save the world, it’s a pale imitation of the original.

Cutting the delegates in half…/Voting for Obama?

Yesterday evening, the Democratic rules committee  reached a decision about Florida and Michigan.  The delegations would be seated with half-votes instead of full votes, and for Michigan, some of the delegates (including a handful that would otherwise have gone to Hillary Clinton) were allocated to Barack Obama, who did not appear on the ballot.

As a result, Clinton nets a few dozen delegates, but not enough to make a meaningful dent in Obama’s lead.  When the last primaries end on Tuesday, Obama will be in striking distance to the nomination, but will probably not have bagged it.  But he’ll be the nominee, barring something really extraordinary.

*          *          *

I’m a registered Democrat, and I consider the Bush victory in 2000 the closest thing to a coup d’etat that our country has ever experienced.  I really don’t want to vote Republican this year, but if Clinton were to win the nomination, I’d have to vote for John McCain.

On the other hand, There’s a lot that I like about Obama, most of it stuff that seems to tick everyone else off.  I like that he listens to people who don’t believe that the US is the most wonderful country on the planet, and that he’s an intellectual with a conceptual view of the world.

Part of me likes that Obama is willing to open discussions with our enemies, but he underplays the difficulty of actually doing that: he’ll be swimming with the sharks, and if he’s not careful, he’ll get his leg bitten off.

But when it comes to Iraq, he’s lost me.  Both Obama and Clinton believe that our next task with Iraq is getting out.  While our adventures in Iraq were ill-advised at best, the next President must play the hand that he is dealt.  McCain was refreshingly honest when he remarked, a few months ago, that we might be in Iraq for 100 years.  In other words: Brother, you bought yourself a protectorate.

The Iraqi government is making progress in organizing itself and preparing to function as an independent state.  But it’s a difficult job and cannot be accomplished on a timetable driven by American politics.  It’s not, as some (including Obama) imagine, that the Iraqis are imply lazy, and if we simply hold their feet to the fire, they’ll buckle down and solve all their problems.

If we move out in 2009, we endanger Iraq’s progress, and in turn we risk destabilizing the region.   None of the advocates for withdrawal has come up with a good answer to that.

Obama has an answer, but it’s not a good one: he plans to talk to Iran and hope they’ll make nice.  It’s one thing to talk to our enemies, but it’s quite another to expect that they will act in our interest–instead of theirs–as an immediate result of such talking.

I’d like to vote for Obama, but in some respects he makes it really, really difficult.

Democrats’ Disaster

Today, the Democratic rules committee meets to decide what to do about Florida and Michigan, which were disqualified by the party because they held their primary elections too early.  In 2004, John Kerry was the clear winner after only a few weeks of campaigning, and many people across the country felt disenfranchised because they were voting only after the winner had been determined.So this year, many states fell over themselves trying to hold early primaries. New York moved its primary to early March, and Florida and Michigan moved theirs to January, in violation of Party rules. The decision had been made in 2007, and the consequences of that decision were clear: their delegates would be barred from the convention.

In response, the candidates refrained from campaigning in the two states, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. Clinton won both states, through name recognition and the fact that she had yet to endure the slings and arrows of the campaign season.

And now that Clinton is behind, she’s yelling ‘disenfranchisement’ and demanding that the delegates from these states be seated with their full voting rights. (This is why, despite the fact that I voted for Clinton in March, I’m against her now: she has no integrity.) The voters of Florida and Michigan were disenfranchised by their state Party leaders, who thought they could break the rules and then get absolution through moaning and wailing.

As far as the rules committee’s decision, sadly, I don’t think it really matters. It won’t matter how the issue of Florida and Michigan are resolved, and it won’t matter who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for President: the party will lose anyway. Maybe their candidate will be elected, but I doubt it.

The two candidates are perceived as members of a ‘disadvantaged’ groups: Hillary Clinton is a woman, and Barack Obama is black. If you favor Clinton over Obama, you’re a racist, and if you favor Obama over Clinton, you’re a sexist. Whoever wins will alienate the other half of the party’s base, and no party can expect to win that way without broad appeal beyond the base, which neither candidate has.

On the metrics, it’s hard to assess who would be the better candidate. Obama got more votes in primaries and caucuses, but in polls matching them against John McCain, the Republican candidate, Clinton does a few points better.

It’s been suggested that Clinton and Obama could both be on the ticket if the winner picked the loser to be the Vice President. Alas, I don’t think that will work either. Clinton as Vice President will be the Democrats’ Dick Cheney: the dark force that is the real power. Obama-Clinton mirrors Bush-Cheney too strongly. And if Clinton, through some degree of political legerdemain, became the Presidential candidate, many people would believe that she stole the nomination from Obama. In either case, the ticket would get lukewarm support, at best, across the Democratic spectrum, and that will not suffice to win.

Bingeing…

The Memorial Day weekend was somewhat of a lost weekend for me. No, I didn’t get drunk: instead I indulged in my secret vice, reality television.

I have been bitterly disappointed by the state of televised entertainment. I would love to watch the tube and get a good laugh, but situation comedies are populated by clueless buffoons who prattle on about pointless idiocies. The last network TV program that I made time in my schedule for was The Apprentice. At first, it was an object lesson in how to succeed in business: the characters were driven to do their best because they wanted–really wanted–to work for Donald Trump. But then it came to be about the personalities, then the alleged deprivations of sleeping in a tent. In its final incarnation before they pulled the plug, the original strivers were replaced by indifferent celebrities who were playing for charity.

So I spent the last weekend watching The Deadliest Catch, the saga of Alaskan crab fishermen. No buffoons; no idiocies; just the drama, humor, and, yes, glory of good hard work. When I was a kid, the airwaves were full of stories of adventures and characters who were not dysfunctional.

Today, such characters are the province of science-fiction series, as well as Deadliest Catch and its kin: Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, The Alaska Experiment, and America’s Port. Besides the drama of accomplishing something worthwhile, the reality shows include animations illustrating the details of fishing or logging or whatever.

Today is Wednesday, the night of my newest vice, ABC’s Wife Swap. Sometimes I go out on an evening walk with my wife and miss it, but I’ll watch it if I’m home. I want to rail at it as child abuse, but it’s strangely compelling. Perhaps it’s that the producers select two couples that are polar opposites: super slackers vs. anal-retentive achievers. With such extreme parents–of either stripe–exposing the children to something different can only be an improvement. OK, it’s formulaic, but it works.

But then, so is Deadliest Catch: launch the pots into the water, wait a bit, throw the hook, and then pause just before the contents of the pot come into view….

Back to politics and whatever tomorrow!

Saving Money? What’s That?

In Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s blog a few days ago, she wondered what happened to the habit of saving money. For a student of the world, and how it has become a more difficult place, it’s a more than fair question. The statistics are chilling: while we were able about 8% of our income in the 1980s, the figure today is less than 1%, and has even gone negative.

“Waste not, want not: my mother always said that.” Well, when I was growing up, my mother always said it. She started a savings account for me shortly after I was born; when I was older, she would tell me about growing up in the Depression. My parents saved and invested: they weren’t rich but they had a comfortable retirement. And my mother’s problem, when the end was near, was not that she was poor, but that there was nothing that she could spend her money on that would give her peace. (From time to time, when she really couldn’t take care of herself, she went to a nursing home, and hated every millisecond of it.)

For my part, when I was first making my way out in the world in 1983, saving money was not a problem for me. I deposited my paycheck in the bank, paid the rent and my bills, took $40 from the ATM at a clip, and watched my bank balance gently float skyward, even though I was barely earning $8/hour.

And then I got married (the first time) and faced the emergency of parenthood, and the wheels fell off. I’ll skip the really icky part, when I got divorced: you’re supposed to be broke when you split up.

Since then, I’ll be able to drop $50 or $100 in my savings account, but only occasionally. And then something will happen, and the money will come back out. For now, I have an excuse: I’m building my business, and my personal income is not up to where it was when I was in my last job.

But before I went into business for myself, saving was difficult, if not impossible. I think I know why, even though these sound like weak pretexts rather than good reasons:

  • Futility: Let’s say that you want to buy an apartment. Here in Brooklyn, they’re not cheap: let’s say $400,000, not to load the case. If you have to put 10% down, that’s $40,000, and if you can save $100/month, you’ll need about 30 years to accumulate it. If you can scrounge $400/month, it will still take a good few years. (Perhaps I was foolish not to take advantage of all the deals that were available a few years ago. But if I had, now I’d be bankrupt on top of everything else.)
  • Wanting to do something nice: When my wife wants something nice, I have a choice: I can be the Blue Meanie and say we can’t afford it, or I can whip out the plastic. And when it’s the end of the week, and I can relax for a bit, it’s nice to go out for dinner. OK: when you do the math, it’s a few thousand dollars a year. But would it really be worth it to be a tightwad?

But beyond that, saving isn’t cool in the popular culture. The news guy every night tells us that the economy depends on consumer spending: while I don’t take it too literally (no: it’s not my partiotic duty to spend!), it’s unfortunately true as a practical matter. And the Robert Kiyosaki ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ books suggest that the way to wealth is not through doing and saving: it’s through owning. (But how you you get the werewithal to buy something so that you can own it? I guess that’s beside the point.)

I could save money. I could brown bag it for lunch, and ditch some of the restaurant meals.

Why is that so hard?

Pleasant surprises

Last night, while playing with my new PDA, I listened to some of the music files came with the device. Some were inane, but one was compelling: ‘Perfect Weapon’ by Communique, from about early 2004. I’ve given up on listening to the radio and so rarely will popular music seep into my consciousness, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The lyrics are a little silly: “Our bodies keep sweating/We’ve found the perfect weapon.” (You mean that you shower that infrequently?) But it’s propulsive and cool, and that seems very rare these days.

* * *

125 years ago this coming Saturday, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to traffic. The Brooklyn Borough President (an amiable guy who appears to have no actual political function) noted on the news tonight that the celebration would kick off early with fireworks tonight. My wife and I often walk from our house to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, a short distance from the bridge, so we decided to watch the show.

There weren’t that many people on the promenade when we arrived, but the fireworks show was nice. It was a little chilly in the evening, so my wife and I snuggled together as we watched. I tried to take some pictures to capture the moment, although I still haven’t caught the knack of capturing fireworks with a digital camera.

Brooklyn Bridge Fireworks 2008

The last major anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge was the 100th anniversary, in 1983. I remember the time: I had just finished engineering school, and I was working on the evening of the fireworks. I watched the show back then on a black-and-white TV at my workplace, an exercise in futility if there ever was one, and followed it up with black-and-white pictures in the newspaper the next day.

Twenty-five years hence, when the bridge is 150, I’d like to believe that I’ll still be around, with my wife. We’ll be, well, old, but such is life.

It’s a vaguely pleasant thought.

New Toy

After all my hemming and hawing, I went out today and bought a new AT&T Tilt, realizing that it’s essentially the only game in town.

Now that I have it, I love it and I hate it.

The keyboard is small, but it’s functional, and it’s backlit, so that I can type in the dark.  And my first operational test of the PDF reader–one of my Giant Spec Books from work–passed with flying colors.  I’m typing this entry on the subway home from work, so I can now officially consider myself among the ranks of honest-to-God bloggers.

But there are annoyances, too:

  • It runs Windows Mobile, which includes a pocketable version of Windows Media Player.  Wonderful, I thought: I can load up some music on an SD card, and listen to it on the way home.  But even though it has Bluetooth and works with my headset, it only plays music over its speaker.  (Perhaps I’ll have to read–gasp–the instruction manual.)
  • I had a picture that I used as wallpaper on my old phone, and I thought it would work well on the Tilt, because it’s dark and the text that the system displays is white.  But for reasons that escape me, the picture appears washed-out as Tilt wallpaper, so it’s useless.  I’m stuck with the default colors of Flaming Red, Boring Blue, and Bilious Green.

But it does one good thing that none of the other PDAs in my life ever did: it synchronizes through the cell phone network, so it always displays the correct time.

I think I’ll keep it.

*          *          *

The afternoon’s e-mail brought me a missive from Personnel Concepts, purveyors of fine workplace posters.

By law, employers are required to post things like the minimum wage and one’s right to Worker’s Compensation for their employees. And it makes sense to post notices about how to work safely.

But a look at Personnel Concepts’ ‘Break Room Posters’ is instructive.  There are posters for:

  • Avian flu
  • Earthquake preparedness
  • Foodborne illness
  • Homeland security
  • Hurricane preparedness
  • Pandemic flu
  • Tornado preparedness

I have to wonder about a company where they would put all of these posters in their break room.  I would have to believe that the employer’s real motive is to discourage people from taking breaks.

Or encouraging them to be very, very afraid.

Tilting at Windmills

A couple of days ago, I got a mailing from Con Ed, the local electric company, asking if I’d like to sign up to get wind power for my home.

One of the more inane things that have been inflicted on us in recent years is the idea of ‘choice in electric power.’  Once upon a time, electric utilities owned both the power plants for generating power, and the distribution network for delivering it.  Power companies tied their networks together with the goal of keeping the lights on for everyone, as far as possible,  It may have been a little boring, but it worked.

But more recently, the electric utilities divested themselves of their generating plants: power would be generated by ‘electric supply companies,’ and we, the consumers, have a choice of which company whould supply our power.  If you’re a big industrial customer, it probably makes sense: the cost of distribution is a small fraction of the cost of the power itself.

But for one’s home, most of the cost of electricity is the cost of distributing it.  If the power appeared on the grid through elfin magic, at no cost to anyone, my electric bills would not disappear.  And if I say that I want my power from this source or that, what actually happens? As far as I can tell, nothing: the electrons are still the same color when they come out of the socket.

I rail against the American oil habit: I haven’t written about it much here, as I just started last week, but I will.  Is this my chance to strike a blow for energy independence?

Well, wind power costs an extra 2.5 cents per kilowatthour: it’s about a 10% net increase in my electric bill.  (So much for elfin magic.)  And most of the electricity used in the New York area does not come from oil: it’s mostly hydroelectric, nuclear, and natural gas.  So if I pay more, what will it accomplish?

I’m skeptical….

Meanwhile, my fruitless PDA quest continues.  From my research, there’s one manufacturer (HTC) that makes something like what I want.  An HTC machine is sold by AT&T as the Tilt, so that’s my logical choice.  But when I finally found one at an AT&T store, I was bitterly disappointed.  The device has been shoehorned into someone’s arbitrary concept of ‘small,’ and the keyboard is so tiny and contorted as to be useless.

Still, I really need a PDA.  Maybe I should get an Asus EEE: with a 7″ screen, it’s not shirt-pocketable, but it’s small, and maybe it can replace my laptop for some tasks.  But it won’t really fit in my briefcase together with my laptop.  So what should I do?  Get a shoulder bag for it?

Maybe I can take apart my Revo and replace the batteries….

Pot calling the kettle…

On Thursday, President Bush addressed the Knesset in Jerusalem, and made the following remarks…

****

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

****

Well, maybe.

The remarks were taken in the US as an ‘outrage,’ and a slap in the face to Barack Obama, who has indicated that he would be willing to talk with our adversaries.  But to talk to our enemies–to at least initiate a conversation–is not appeasement.  That’s when you give your enemy something that he wants so that, hopefully, he’ll go away and not bother you again.

Years ago, we considered communism as radical, if not necessarily terrorist.  Yet we talked with the Russians and the Chinese, and despite their far greater power to destroy us than the current threat, we were able to keep the world in one piece.

It doesn’t hurt, other than from the standpoint of national pride, of which we have more than enough, to try to talk to our enemies, recognizing, however, that they may not want to talk to us.  One of the essential reasons that our enemies are our enemies is that they believe that their cause is right, and Bush is correct in noting that it’s really unlikely that “some ingenious argument will persuade them that they have been wrong all along.”

On the other hand, if Bush is looking to lecture someone about the futility of negotiating with terrorists, he needed only to look around him in the Knesset, or in a mirror.

For decades, Israel has been engaged in one ‘peace process’ or another in which it concedes something of value  to its enemies (who are sworn to Israel’s destruction) in exchange for peace, but the peace never materializes.  (Can someone explain to me how this differs from appeasement?)

The Palestinians, with at least the tacit consent of their government, launch rockets into Israel, and Israel, for its part, keeps a stiff upper lip about the destruction they cause.  On the other hand, if Israel exercises its right of retaliation, they are quickly brought to heel by world opinion for having created a ‘humanitarian crisis.’

For his part, after his trip to Israel, Our Fearless Leader went to Riyadh, where he tried to persuade the Saudis  to open the spigots and produce more oil.  The Saudis said no.  Bush made a similar trip earlier this year, complaining about how the high price of oil was affecting the American economy, with the same result.

On the one hand, the Saudis probably see themselves as businessmen, facing one of the basic problems of any business: establishing the most satisfactory price for their product.  But then why are we trying to bend over backwards to be their friends?  (Oh, that’s right: we do that anyway: at all levels of government, we’re more than happy to help big businesses because they will purportedly help the economy.)

On the other hand, the Saudi government does things to its people that would result in armed revolution if anyone tried them here.  And Saudi Arabia is the homeland of most of the 11 September hijackers.

So are they really our friends?

I don’t know, but I guess we have to keep up the illusion that they are, because otherwise they won’t sell us oil, and then we’ll all starve.

And then there’s Barack Obama…

Before I move on to ‘the other guy,’ a final thought on Hillary Clinton: I think I understand why she refuses to admit defeat.  She knows that she’s ticked so many people off that to run again in 2012 is already a lost cause: it’s now or never.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama is preparing to accept the Democratic nomination for President.  Unless he gets hit by a truck or something (why do we worry about this now: we didn’t in the past!), he will probably be the candidate to run against the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.  (Why don’t we worry about McCain getting hit by a truck?)

Barack Obama burst onto the scene in 2004, with a speech at the Democratic convention.   When he first campaigned for President, I thought he was a good orator, but underneath it, a political lightweight.  (Or is it that I resent that he’s the first candidate for President who is younger than I am?)

What fools we all were this year!  The states were all falling over each other, trying to have their primaries earlier.  We all thought it would be like 2004, when the winner seemed apparent after a couple of states.  But it didn’t happen that way this time.

Obama inspired his supporters in a way that no recent politician has, and did especially well in caucuses.  But a victory in the big states eluded him (except for his home state of Illinois).

And then there was the matter of his now ex-pastor, the Reverend Wright, who has gone on record to denigrate this country.  He suggested that we brought the events of 11 September on ourselves: curiously, my mother would have agreed with that.  And when the issue came before the public, Obama delivered a thoughtful speech about how he could no more disown his pastor than his grandmother.  I respected him for that: I want a President who recognizes that not everyone believes that our country is always right.

I was dismayed when, in response to further comments from the Reverend Wright, Obama threw him under the bus.  But I understand why he did it.

And then there was the episode where Obama remarked that he believed that small-town Americans were ’embittered’ by the economy, which led them to vote Republican.  The chorous of disapproval was astonishing: one columnist remarked that Obama was ‘finished’ as a result of that remark.

I find this troubling.  I believe that there was a lot of truth to Obama’s observation.  It’s happened often enough that a political group has achieved success by telling its citizens that all their problems were due to something that, in reality, was quite irrelevant.

But worse than that, Obama has been recently referred to as an ‘elitist’ for these and other remarks.  No, he’s not an elitist.  He’s educated, he’s got a brain, and he knows how to use it.   But somehow we’re supposed to shun that in favor of the guy who knows how to bowl.

Anyway, I respect Obama, and I hope that he makes it to be the Democratic candidate.  But will I vote for him?

Tune in tomorrow….

Hillary Clinton Wins WV

Hillary Clinton won yesterday’s West Virginia primary election. That, plus a $2 MetroCard, will get her a ride on the subway….

Years ago, the resident wit where I used to work told this joke:

Bill and Hillary Clinton were riding through Arkansas in the Presidential limousine when they saw an old childhood friend, who worked as a gas station attendant. Bill asked to stop the car, and they talked briefly with their old friend.

After they were on the road again, Bill asked Hillary, “Aren’t you glad you married me instead of him?”

And Hillary replied, “How do you think you became President?”

We always knew that Hillary was, to a non-trivial degree, the power behind the throne of the Clinton administration. And when she started her run for President, her nomination seemed inevitable, even though a sizable part of the population hated her guts.

I voted for Clinton in the New York primary in March: I thought Barack Obama, her Democratic opponent, was a really good orator, but Clinton had the benefit of experience, and would be better able to hit the ground running.

But then the Democratic campaign devolved into a series of hissy fits, and Clinton was the lead hisser. In a spectacular blunder, she spun the tale of her arrival under sniper fire in Bosnia. And now it seems that she stands for nothing, except for getting herself elected.

If I could take back my vote from March, I’d vote for Obama today.

Still—in spite of all this—she won West Virginia. Is it that Obama, who will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee, is saving his resources for the general election? Or is there something else going on?

The PDA Quest

Some time ago, I kept a Web journal (we didn’t call them ‘blogs’ yet) about my experiences as an engineering manager in a really large organization, and a single parent.  It was interesting, but time went on: I got a new job where I had to sign a real non-disclosure agreement (meaning that the ongoing soap opera of my working life was off-limits), and I found true love and got married.  My original motives for blogging faded away, and I stopped keeping it up.

But more recently, things have changed.  The world has become a more difficult place in the last few years.  When I wrote my old blog years ago, weekends were still weekends: I could put most of my thoughts of work aside on Friday afternoon and relax for a few days.  But now, Sunday, which is a workday for my wife (a choirmistress), has become just as much of a workday for me.  I was sick two weeks ago, and am still trying to make up for lost time.

Since I wrote my pages years ago, I’ve gone into business for myself.  I’m earning a living, but it isn’t easy.  Someday, I’ll tell the story of how that happened.  Someday, I’ll also discuss my disgust with the politics of this year’s Presidential elections.

But my annoyance for today has been a search for a PDA.  Ten years ago, I had a Psion Series 5, which was a wonderful machine: it had a nice keyboard, a comfortable screen for composing text, and capable software.  If there were a machine like that today, with a few incremental enhancements (a PDF viewer, wireless networking, and a little more speed), I’d buy it.

But when it fell apart after a few years, the closest thing that I could find was a Psion Revo.  It was a cheap plastic imitation of the Series 5, but it still had a decent keyboard.  Alas, since then, Psion has moved on to bigger and better things.

When the batteries for the Revo gave out, in 2003, my next machine was a Sharp Zaurus.  It was cool being able to carry an entire Linux box in my pocket, and even though the PDF viewer wasn’t the greatest, it was a decent machine.  With a gigabyte SD card, it could easily haul around that subset of my stuff that I carry for ready reference.  But I put it in checked baggage for a business trip, and the bag was never seen again.

So now, I want a machine that includes:

  • a keyboard that I can actually type on;
  • a screen big enough to hold a complete thought;
  • word processor and spreadsheet that can at least take a whack at opening Microsoft Office documents;
  • a PDF viewer;
  • a datebook and personal phone book;
  • wireless networking;
  • a Web browser and e-mail client;
  • and it fits in my shirt pocket..

Is that so hard?

I don’t want a BlackBerry: I’ve encountered too many BlackBerry assholes, who pride themselves on the ability to instantly answer an e-mail, but don’t bother to actually read the message before answering it. 

And it’s not really that important that the device also be a cell phone.  I have a cell phone: I talk to people on it.  If someone really wants to send me a text message, that’s OK, but it doesn’t happen often.

So what’s out there?

There are lots of machines that do entertainment: playing music or video, with wireless Web browsing and texting.  But they don’t do word processing or spreadsheets.  Am I the only person who likes to sit and compose my thoughts?

For better or worse, the only machines that seem to do what I want run Windows Mobile.  But only one manufacturer makes Windows Moble machines with keyboards.  There’s also the OQO, which is a full-bore Windows machine, but it’s expensive, heavy, and doesn’t fit in my pocket.

Stay tuned….