The New Senate (Minority) Majority

Once again, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “When are people going to learn . . . democracy doesn’t work.”

In an American biennial tradition this week, a fraction of eligible voters trudged to the polls to cast votes to select candidates for all type and flavor of political office, and to give thumbs up or down on dozens of ballot initiatives (my favorite was question #2 in New York which asked whether the state should amend its constitution to allow the legislature to bypass printing millions of pages of documents on paper and use instead some new-fangled thing-a-ma-jig called “digital technology.”)

Anyway, the big, big, big news was that the Republicans took back control of the U.S. Senate, grabbing enough seats from timid Democrats to build a 53 seat majority. Every committee seat will be chaired by a Republican, and the Majority Leader will undoubtedly become Mitch “The Turtle” McConnell. Republicans cheered, Democrats moaned. The American public had spoken!

But in all the excitement no one seemed to notice one salient fact. The 53 Republicans (many from states with small populations) represent 140.8 million Americans, out of a total population of 308.7 million (using 2010 Census data).

In other words, the 53 percent of the Senate that is Republican represents 45.6 percent of the people. Only in America (and maybe Myanmar) does such “democracy” compute.

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Draining Barrels of Ink for Empty Scoops

beat1In the summer of 2004 as the presidential race between party nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry was moving into higher gear, attention of the die-hard political whores turned toward the question of whom Kerry might choose as his running mate. Kerry’s camp had informed the press that the decision would be announced on July 6. And on that morning the New York Post ran a banner headline proclaiming, “Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate.” Later that afternoon, Kerry picked John Edwards – perhaps further dooming his chances but also making the Post’s editors look like a bunch of clowns.

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I never could figure out what the Post was trying to accomplish by running a speculative story just a few hours before the actual story was set to be revealed. The news didn’t really qualify as a scoop because within hours everyone was going to know the result anyway – with or without the Post’s advanced premonition capabilities. To my knowledge, no desperate soul was trembling on a ledge threatening to jump off lest he be given the name of Kerry’s running-mate right . . . this . . . instant.

The Post simply wanted to flaunt their investigative prowess, insider mastery and superiority over the timid competition – and it blew up in their faces. Not as bad as “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but plenty embarrassing nonetheless.

Reading newspapers over the past couple of weeks, I’m feeling the same vibe: publishers and editors devoting tremendous time and copious ink on election speculation, when the actual, 100 percent correct outcomes will be available to all on November 5. The New York Times has for the past three months produced near-daily polling analysis and Bayesian logic on the likelihood that Democrats will lose (or retain) the Senate after the 2014 mid-term elections. Ever since the Times employed statistician Nate Silver (of the blog The FiveThirtyEight ), and followed his departure with a new column called “The Upshot,” the paper has engaged in all variety of statistics-based analysis along the lines of Freakonomics.

As Upshot contributor Damon Darlin aptly wrote the other day, “Here at The Upshot, we’ve been cranking out articles and interactive graphics on the midterm elections all week and show no sign of letting up.” Now that’s an understatement.

Again on Sunday, the Times offered an article titled, “Both Parties See Campaign Tilting to Republicans” in which they analyze the outcomes of several election scenarios with probabilities running from 0.8 percent to 5.6 percent – as though the vagaries of politics could be ground down to such precision.

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A suggestion to the Upshotters: Take your eight or nine hotly contested states and do an honest side-by-side of each opposing candidate’s views on a dozen significant issues (clue: flag-burning and prayer in school are not significant). Analyze what might happen to the direction – good, bad, indifferent – of the country should either candidate prevail. Leave the horse-race calling to the pro’s at Saratoga and Belmont. Dispense with the patter on what a win or loss by Candidate X might mean to the fundraising ability of some unknown, Orwellian-named 501(c)(4) cabal. Occasionally refer to the dictionary for the definition of “news-worthy.”

I suppose in a country where one can bet on which Super Bowl team will be the first to use a coach’s challenge, or where a horse named “American Pharaoh” has already been named the front runner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby next May, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a full-fledged political speculation industry would come to flourish.

Which begs the question: what’s the over-under on how many hours into the first session of Congress before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell excoriates the Democrats for shamelessly launching a partisan filibuster against repealing Obamacare?

New Independence

A new TV ad for Chevrolet dubbed “A New Journey” by the car company’s agency depicts 30 seconds of split screen comparisons of real life and its equivalents in the virtual world before stating rather sanctimoniously that “Chevrolet is merging the physical freedom of the car with the virtual freedom of wi-fi.” Chevy passengers are shown messing around on tablets. The spot ends with a voice-over of the tag line, “It’s the new independence.”

But wait. Just before the concluding voice-over, the ad shows a teenage boy sitting on a log in a pastoral setting, sun just about to dip below the distant mountains, massive Chevy truck parked nearby – and the kid is Skyping with . . . his mother! “Hi Mom,” he says eagerly, even waving like a geek to her image on the laptop.

Now, when I was a teenager out cruising into the woods – case of malt liquor in the trunk, Pink Floyd on the 8-track, the pungency of Patchouli redolent, with the sultry night poised to pounce upon the languid summer heat – the last thing I needed was a fast, reliable, high-speed tether to my mother. (And as I write this, I suspect the feeling was mutual.)

In fact, outfitting a vehicle with 4G LTE wi-fi as Chevy has done with its newest line-up of cars, trucks and cross-overs will certainly serve to accelerate the downward spiral away from freedom toward an abyss of “always-on-connectivity” that has come to engulf our homes, workspaces and idylls of recreation.

A teenage boy on the cusp of manhood Skyping with Mommy? The anti-thesis of “new independence.” Yeesh.

$55 Million Impression of a Chalkboard

I’m not a big Cy Twombly fan, but someone out there is. On November 12, Christie’s will be auctioning off Twombly’s “Untitled, a 5×6 foot canvas done in grey house paint to look like a chalkboard upon which four rows of loops done with a wax crayon sweep across from left to right. It resembles something you very likely saw in grade school.

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Christie’s has placed a gavel-down estimate of $35 to $55 million for the piece. (Coincidentally, the high end estimate is about the same as the price of the most expensive residential property sold in New York City last week – a $59 million spread at the exclusive and desirable new high-rise One57 on 57th Street overlooking Central Park and the lesser mortals who are not worthy to gaze upon the building.)

$55 million is approximately what the average American would earn had he or she started working in 914 AD. I wonder what it works out to in dollars per inch of loop?

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Luxury Never Sleeps

bcdownload_luxury-brands-free-font-screenshot_luxury_brands_specimenThe theme of this blog is “Culture Justly Scrutinized,” and nothing acts as a barometer of culture quite like the ebb and flow of luxury items. Curiously, a lot of activity has taken place in the past several days with luxury brands. Here is a brief review:

Fiat Splits off Ferrari

Last month, Ferrari – which is wholly owned by Fiat Chrysler – announced the departure of Luca Di Montezemolo who was the sports car maker’s chairman for 23 years. Many reasons for Montezemolo’s resignation were floated, but the one that seems most pertinent is that Ferrari’s Formula 1 team hasn’t won a championship since 2008. For those familiar with the fabled luxury brand, it was Enzo Ferrari who founded the company in 1947 to produce race cars – a costly venture that would be funded by the sales of derivative road vehicles. The race cars would showcase the road cars, and sales of the road cars would fund the racing division. In short, racing – and winning – has always been the key part of the business model.

Fiat Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne indicated that Ferrari was too important to the parent company to ignore the troubles.

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Montezemolo steps out of Ferrari – in more ways than one.

Then just the other day Fiat Chrylser, after repeatedly voicing commitment to the Ferrari brand, announced they would be spinning it off instead, ahead of a major IPO. So much for the headaches of running a specialty brand that produces 6,500 gorgeous cars a year inside a behemoth company that cranks out 4.5 million boring ones annually.

Patek Philippe Celebrates 175 Years

High-end wristwatches have long been a symbol of wealth, taste and heritage. Although the category is awash in top brands – Cartier, Bulgari, Audemar-Piguet, Baume & Mercier, A. Lange & Sohn, Ulysse Nardin – it may be argued that the grand-daddy of all luxury wristwatches is Patek Philippe. With the advertising slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” Patek seeks to establish the notion that their watches belong to the ages. And given the prices, one can understand why an owner would never consign his watch to a dusty drawer to be lost after a couple of household moves.

The Grand Complications Perpetual (5270G-013) goes for $160,000 new, the Grand Complications Perpetual Calendar Moonphase Chronograph (5004R-014) is $236,000, and the Grand Complication Tourbillon Perpetual (5207R-001) will set you back around $850,000.

Now on the 175th anniversary of the founding of the company, Patek announced last week the offering of the Grandmaster Chime (5207R-001), a double-sided watch with 20 complications and a price tag of 2.6 million Swiss Francs (about the same in dollars). Only seven watches will be made, one of which will be consigned to the Patek-Philippe museum in Geneva.

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How is it possible a wristwatch could cost $2.6 million? Well, if you have to ask . . . but since you did, watch the fascinating and lovely movie detailing its creation from precious metal blanks to finished product.

Steinway Moves to New Digs

Founded in 1853, Steinway & Sons has long been the premier makers of fine pianos, played by virtually all noteworthy pianists in the most prestigious concert halls of the world. In 1925 they opened their flagship New York store called Steinway Hall at 109 West 57th Street in a grand, three-storied building down the street from Carnegie Hall. The Hall, which serves as both showroom and concert facility, has since been the site of countless performances by famous virtuosos like Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Now, Steinway is making the move to new digs after having sold the building for $195 million a couple years ago. (Management also sold the company around the same time to billionaire hedge-funder John A. Paulson.) Steinway will take over space currently occupied by the International Center for Photography (ICP) at 43rd and 6th in a fifteen-year rental agreement.

Somehow, the move seems to diminish the standing of Steinway. And given the company is in the hands of a hedge-fund manager in a period where inexpensive digital keyboard products have cut into the business of selling classic stringed instruments, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

LVMH Opens a Fabulous Paris Store

Architect Frank Gehry continues to be the go-to guy for stylish and stunning museums. Added to his lengthy list of clients – Guggenheim Bilbao, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Vitra Design Museum, Weisman Art Museum – is LVMH, the huge purveyor of luxury brands that include Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, Fendi, Hublot, Dom Pérignon, and Dior among dozens of other major labels.

Several years ago LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault conceived the notion of creating a museum-like showcase of the conglomerate’s seminal and influential products. Now, this month, Fondation Louis Vuitton opens in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne – a $143 million, 126,000 square foot homage to the finer things in life.

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Paris has had a rocky relationship with modern architecture, largely seeking to maintain the status quo of Napoleonic elegance against brash new ideas. The inclusion (intrusion?) of glass pyramids at the Louvre by noted architect I.M. Pei caused a major stir at the time of installation. And Gehry’s design for Fondation Louis Vuitton garnered like-minded loathing by Parisians who saw the asymmetric sail-like glass-and-titanium structure as an affront to the sensibilities of the Bois de Boulogne.

Still, luxury talks. And LVMH has raised a stunning edifice to itself.

Renzo Rosso Makes a Risky Hire

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Newly-restored Gallian.

Renzo Rosso, the billionaire owner of Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf and Marni, broke with conventional wisdom recently and hired as creative director for one of his houses none other than John Galliano – formerly of Christian Dior until he was fired for his drunken, ant-Semitic rant caught on video. The foppish and brilliant Galliano found himself out of a job for the past three years – my guess is less for what he said, and more for getting caught saying it.

In any event, occasionally in the world of luxury goods cultivating the “bad-boy” image is necessary to corral the next generation of high-end buyers who don’t want to dress, drink and smell like their grandparents.

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Pablo Picasso Never Got Called an Asshole

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“He was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare – Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.”

This declaration by Jonathan Richman on the seminal 1972 album The Modern Lovers could not be more true today as seemingly dozens of museums and galleries trip over one another to display and (ultimately) auction off the Cubist master’s works, both famous and obscure. Consider this sampling of current and future Picassorgasm:

From October 31 to January 10 the Pace Gallery will show Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style, a presentation of Picasso’s devotion to his muse and (later) wife Jacqueline Roque, and his homage to Henri Matisse. According to Pace, “The exhibition begins in 1954 when the 73-year old Picasso started living with the 27-year old Jacqueline. That year also marked the death of Matisse, an early rival and later friend of Picasso, who had been the only living artist that Picasso considered his equal. In an unprecedented burst of creativity, Picasso put forth scores of paintings and drawings.”

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 16 will be showing Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection which represents a rich assortment of pieces by the essential Cubists: Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and, of course, Pablo Picasso whose works make up more than 40 percent of the exhibition. Lauder, a son of make-up magnate Estée Lauder, amassed a formidable collection which he donated to the Met in 2013.

Picasso and the Camera, curated by John Richardson and running from October 28 through January 3 at The Gagosian Gallery “explores how Picasso used photography not only as a source of inspiration, but as an integral part of his studio practice. Spanning sixty years, this show will provide an unprecedented survey of his unique relationship with the camera.” Imagine had he lived long enough to buy a GoPro.

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Employing the somewhat tedious device of putting works of art from different artists “side-by-side,” The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida will show a collection of works by Picasso and Salvador Dali from November 8 to February 16 (after which the exhibition moves to Barcelona.) Consisting of over 80 pieces, the show, Picasso/Dali Dali/Picasso “shows how these artists were shaped by the currents of their time.” The juxtaposition of these two strikes me as somewhat odd. Dali considered Picasso’s works adefesios esperpentos (monstrosities), arguing that “Picasso, who is afraid of everything, went in for the ugly because he was afraid of” being conventional. Maybe the curator of Picasso/Dali Dali/Picasso wanted to get edgy, but more than likely, packaged the two together to maximize ticket sales.

On November 3, Sotheby’s will be running an auction in their New York offices titled Picasso Through the Eyes of a Connoisseur. Available for bidding are drawings, linoleum cuts, painted plates and vases, terra cottas and gold medallions – 119 lots in all – ranging from low estimates of a few thousand to upper bounds of several hundred thousand dollars. Given that Picasso’s “La Rêve” ($155 million), “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” ($106 million) and “Garçon à la pipe” ($104 million) are among the most expensive paintings ever purchased, one can only imagine that the Sotheby’s gig represents some pretty trifle works in Pablo’s oeuvre.

A Red Haring?

Imaginative graffiti-artist Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990, leaving behind a collection of simple and funky paintings and drawings that captured the wonder and exuberance of life (both human and non.) Although semi-popular in life (he did an ad for Absolut vodka), it seems as though interest in Haring and his work has risen in recent years – at least when it comes to commercial ventures. Wander into the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue and you’ll be overwhelmed with tee shirts, socks, jackets, blankets and tote bags – most emblazoned with Haring’s trademarked squiggly line drawings.

Today I noticed that on October 28 the Phillips Gallery is auctioning off among other works, Haring’s Untitled 1-5 (The Fertility Suite) , a set of five colorful screenprints signed, dated `83′ and numbered 7/100 in pencil. The estimate for the set is $120,000-$180,000. In a Haring bull market, I have a feeling the winner is going to pay a lot more. Check back later for the actual sales price.

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(By the way, going on the block at Phillips alongside five Haring works are 33 Picasso pieces. Damn, you just can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something fashioned by the man who never got called an asshole.)

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Have You or a Loved One Been Injured?

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A staple of cable television advertising is the legal profession’s call to action for viewers suffering from the side-effects of popular drugs and common surgical procedures to rise up and get litigious. Mesothelioma has long been a stalwart malady for ambulance-chasing law firms to bloviate over. So have problems associated with AndroGel, Risperdal, Stryker Hip Replacements, Vaginal Meshes, and NuvaRings. Even Skechers toning shoes haven’t escaped the wrath of the personal injury lawyers.

And the just the other day I caught yet another TV ad denouncing the evils of a commonly used product: “Just for Men” hair dye – a product that’s been on the market since 1987. Apparently, some vain dudes applied the hair coloring concoction and wound up with rashes, blisters, chemical burns and cordovan-colored sideburns.

It should be noted that the warning label on “Just For Men” says that some may experience “rapidly spreading skin rash, dizziness, faintness, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, tightness of chest, hives or swelling to eyes/face, blistering of skin or scalp weeping, seek immediate medical attention.” (Shit – did they plagiarize this from a pack of Lucky Strikes?)

Yet despite the dire warnings some guys chose to slather the goo on their heads and faces just so they could acquire that virile Keith Hernandez/Walt Frazier look.

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Anyway, immediately following the recruitment ad for “Just for Men” sufferers came an ad extolling the virtues of a new drug called “Osphena” which is targeted at menopausal women who find sex painful (no, it’s not a pill the husband takes to improve his technique.) According to the ad Osphena enables a number of wonderful things, including promoting the growth of vaginal tissue. How could anything go wrong with that?

Needless to say, the side effects include some scary shit: stroke, blood clots, and cancer of the lining of the uterus.

Within five years expect to see one long string of advertisements from the personal injury law industry calling for Osphena sufferers to line up and have their cases assessed. Millions of dollars of compensation will be at stake, and that’s just covering the men who will accidentally take Osphena and become hermaphrodites.

Just Obeying Orders in Armonk

IBM’s stock just tumbled $20 per share to $163 in the two days since poor third quarter results were announced, shaving billions off the company’s market capitalization. Much has since been written about weaknesses in the company’s product line, delays in getting into new markets, and of course, the troubles behind IBM’s long-stated goal of achieving $20 earnings per share by the end of next year – a plan dubbed “Roadmap 2015. Now, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has formally abandoned Roadmap 2015 which most observers considered a distraction from the fundamentals.

Many reporters and analysts exclaimed, “it’s about time,” as most sentient beings recognized long ago that IBM was performing some tremendous stunts of financial engineering (as opposed to growing the business) to make the goal.

But one thing that caught my attention in the reporting was the way the writers seemed to give a pass to Rometty.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times: “To be fair, Ms. Rometty has been following a goal set by her predecessor, Samuel J. Palmisano, to return $20 a share to stockholders by 2015.”

Julie Bort, Business Insider “As part of IBM’s disappointing quarterly earnings, she (Rometty) said the company is not going to hit $20 earnings per share in 2015, as IBM has been promising for years. This wasn’t a promise made by Rometty, but by her predecessor, Sam Palmisano, a couple of years before Rometty took the helm in 2012.

ReCode “The promise of 2015 — one that Rometty inherited from her predecessor Sam Palmisano — is looking more difficult and unlikely every quarter.”

David Grossman, Stifel Nicolaus, “I don’t think it’s fair to put it all on her, She inherited the roadmap and a business that takes a long time to turn around.”

Jessica Menton International Business Times “Rometty is clearly in the hot seat, but is working hard with the hand she was dealt.”

The hand she was dealt??

Do these “industry experts” not recall that when previous CEO Sam Palmisano proclaimed “Roadmap 2015” five years ago, the senior leadership team – the people no doubt placed into conclave by Palmisano to help develop the Roadmap – included Ginni Rometty who held the title of Senior Vice President and Group Executive Sales, Marketing and Strategy ?

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Source: IBM Annual Report for 2010

Ginni Rometty may eventually work things out at IBM, but no one should see her as an innocent bystander who was unfairly shafted by her predecessor. She was a co-architect of the Roadmap that she has now, thankfully, disowned. (Sidebar: I wonder if the decision to drop the plan was motivated by an acknowledgement that it was counter-productive for the company, or found to be mathematically impossible to achieve.)

For all those holding IBM paper, but more so for the employees and customers of Big Blue, let’s hope it’s not too late.

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Fear of Flying

A tourist poses for a photo next to Jeff Hulbert from Annapolis, Maryland, dressed in a protective suit and mask demanding for a halt of all flights from West Africa, outside the White House in Washington, DC on October 16, 2014. Top US health officials faced a grilling Thursday by lawmakers infuriated over the nation's fumbling response to the Ebola outbreak, as the Obama administration scrambles to contain the disease's spread. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has become the most prominent target of the criticism, which has mounted as it emerged that a second Texas health care worker infected with the deadly disease was allowed to board a commercial flight despite reporting a low-grade fever. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOVMLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty ImagesWith another case of Ebola recently confirmed in the United States, the number of infected people on American soil jumped 50 percent to three, thus advancing the deadly disease into a full-blown epidemic. And coupled with the surprising (well, maybe not) ineptitude of the CDC, it’s no wonder calls to ban flights into the U.S. from countries known to harbor the virulent virus (Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone) have grown apace.

A petition on WhiteHouse.gov titled “Immediately stop all incoming flights from Liberia and other West African countries where the Ebola virus is present” calls on the Obama Administration to “wise up and immediately stop all flights to and from the United States and Liberia and any other West African country where Ebola has been found until this epidemic is over.”

That’s right: “Stop the Flights” is the new slogan of the panicky princes on the political tightrope.

But consider this: The first person not under quarantine to arrive in the U.S. carrying Ebola – Thomas Eric Duncan – flew from Monrovia, Liberia to Dallas, Texas by way of Brussels, Belgium. No doubt travelers from all over Europe connected in Brussels along with Duncan. Should we “wise up” and stop all flights from West Africa, even those that connect through other cities? If the U.S. did bar all direct flights in from the Ebola zone (possibly a violation of international treaties covering transportation, but so what – desperate times call for desperate measures), people will simply board connecting flights of which there are many.

Suppose you’re hanging around in Dakar, Senegal with a desire to travel to the New York region to visit relatives, attend a conference, or just come home. Here are just some of the flight options:

Turkish Airlines (stops in Istanbul)
Iberia Airlines (stops in Madrid)
Brussels Airlines (yeah, stops in Brussels)
Air France (stops in Paris)
Delta (stops in Paris, then in Amsterdam)
TAP Portugal (stops in Lisbon)
Royal Air Moroc (stops in Casablanca, but you might need to see Rick to get letters of transit to go on to America).

Given that Air France alone runs about 50 flights a week from Charles De Gaulle Airport to JFK, a complete moratorium on allowing entry to travelers who may have co-mingled with the sick and dying in Africa would be a monumentally difficult and disruptive exercise with little likelihood of solving the problem. Calling for a travel ban, as such political luminaries as John Boehner have done, and as was done in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, will likely get stronger as elections approach, but the cooler heads say it won’t amount to much. Better to focus on containing the outbreak in West Africa, developing cures and vaccines, and improving hospital procedures here.

Still, I expect greater not lesser agitation to “stop the flights.” But if the number of stricken Americans breaks into the hundreds, don’t be surprised if other countries ban flights that originate here. And expect John McCain and Lindsay Graham to demand airstrikes in retaliation.

Bryan Ferry: In Concert and on Vinyl

Bryan Ferry performs at the Lowry Salford

I caught Bryan Ferry and his superb band October 1 at the Beacon Theater in New York. The former front-man for Roxy Music took the audience on a mostly-nostalgic voyage through early Roxy works as well as gems from his solo career: “Love is the Drug,” “Casanova,” “Virginia Plain,” “Editions of You,” and “Take a Chance with Me.” (Photos and set list here. )

Ferry was coming off a throat infection which forced him to cancel a previous engagement, so his voice was at times strained, but the trio of backup singers who have toured with him for years carried him through tough spots.

In addition to performing several popular tunes known to all fans, he introduced two tracks from his forthcoming album Avonmore which debuts on November 17. As has been the hallmark of Ferry’s solo albums starting with Bête Noire the songs suggest Avonmore will again offer a line-up of lush sophistication.

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Listen to “Loop De Li,” one of the two songs from the album performed at the Beacon.

What Mitzi Saidel Wrought

As the proprietor of The Comedy Store in 1972 in West Hollywood, Mitzi Saidel was an instrumental force in the success of numerous stand-up comedians who performed there early in their careers, including Robin Williams, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Sam Kinison, Richard Belzer and Jim Carrey. She also had an outsized hand in the inexplicable rise of a complete buffoon who should never have gone further than assistant manager at White Castle: Pauly Shore.

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Pauly Shore today without his clown make-up

Pauly Shore is perhaps most notable for the moronic movies in which he’s appeared, many of late where Shore was cast as himself – presumably so as not to stretch him too much artistically. One particularly crappy movie was 1992’s “Encino Man” in which Pauly plays the role he always plays – the annoying, laid-back, stoner-skater-dude. “Encino Man” scored a lowly 16 percent on RottonTomatoes “TomatoMeter,” certifying it as junk. The consensus of critics of the film: “whether or not it works for you will largely be determined by your tolerance for Pauly Shore.”

Pauly Shore was in nearby Woodstock this week for the annual Woodstock Film Festival to shill for his latest project, a documentary called “Pauly Shore Stands Alone.” Once again, a movie in which he “plays” himself. According to the WFF press release, “The film is a true-life road documentary that follows him as he performs in obscure towns throughout Wisconsin while dealing with his personal life back home.”

Sounds to me like a bad reality TV show that should run at 3 AM somewhere around channel 600.

So how was it that Mitzi Saidel came to advance the career of a patently untalented clown? She married comedian Sammy Shore and gave birth to one Paul Montgomery Shore.

Nepotism – can’t beat it with a stick.

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Barack Hussein Ebola

ebola-obama-virusISIS is a crisis and Ebola is spreading faster than the virulent Macarena craze of 1995. According to the xenophobes who fear for the future of America, the only thing we can do now is . . . seal the borders!

TownHall.com rants, “Any day, any minute, illegal immigrants sick with Ebola could be walking across our border. Worse, how easy is it for our radical Muslim enemies to send Ebola infected terrorists across the border?”

NC State House Speaker Thom Tillis notes, “Ladies and gentlemen we have an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors who can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.”

One-time and wannabee-again senator, Scott Brown advises, “One of the reasons why I’ve been so adamant about closing our border because if people are coming through normal channels, can you imagine what they can do through a porous border.”

Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command predicted “If it (Ebola) breaks out, it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States.”

And then there’s right-wing skank Phyllis Schlafly who said Obama allowed Ebola to enter the United States so the country would be more like Africa. “Obama doesn’t want America to believe that we’re exceptional. He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too.”
Goddamned porous borders!

The scourge is at our door, but the solution is simple (like all slogans): “Seal the border.”

What does it mean, though? What would it entail? Those are questions that the ranters fail perennially to explain. I presume the concept is that no one gets in or out of the U.S. without proper documentation, but given the vastness of the frontiers (thousands of miles of Mexican and Canadian borders, plus the hundreds of ports of entry like Hartsfield, O’Hare and JFK airports), travel and commerce would have to grind to a halt to ensure this. You think it takes an eternity to fly places now – imagine a truly sealed border.

And for those who like to eat fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter: start acquiring a taste for Bird’s Eye frozen waxed beans, because most of that produce comes in from south of the border which would be sealed to such an extent that food would rot in the truck before it could pass legitimately into the United States. (Of course, while bona fide foods were idling at the sealed border, somehow I suspect illegal drugs would continue to pass through unfettered, illustrating the power of the law of supply and demand over fences and wigwags.)

Consider these stats:

More than $1 billion worth of goods crosses the U.S.-Mexican border every day – 85 percent of it by truck. Even if that were easy to cut to zero, expect xenophobes like Texas governor Rick Perry and trigger-happy John McCain of Arizona to shit a brick once their business constituents feel profit pain.

Border fencing, which is arguably not up to the task of truly sealing the border, cost on average $4 million per mile in 2009 – and in some areas of tough terrain goes higher than $15 million a mile. Quite a costly burden for an over-taxed populace. Furthermore, building impermeable fences means taking peoples’ land, building massive, unsightly infrastructure, and putting up a barricade that impedes the movement of flood waters which usually damage the U.S. side.

Of the many illegal immigrants coming into the U.S., about 40 percent arrive legally through airports on temporary visas – then simply overstay. No wall is going to curtail that influx. How do you seal it? Deny visas across the board? Empower a Gestapo-like entity to monitor every visa holder like something out of a bad John Grisham novel?

Best stat of all: $28 billion per year. That’s the estimated price-tag to “seal the border” according to Bloomberg Government. I suspect the element of the population that clamors for a sealed border has no clue.

Bottom line: With about 70 million travelers entering the U.S. each year, and ISIS masterminding the internet to recruit home-grown jihadists, Ebola and terrorism are coming to America. And no fucking fence on a “sealed border” is gonna stop it.

Bad Toe Cheese

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Dick “Toesucker” Morris has a new book out titled “Power Grab.” Although you may be inclined to think it’s about an experience Dick had in a prison shower, it’s actually an expose of how Obama is secretly executing a plan to turn the U.S. into a single-party (ie. liberal Democratic) nation. Per the advertising, “In this blockbuster book, Morris exposes Obama’s true agenda — to turn America into a banana republic ruled by one party.”

One heinous example? “Obama is secretly pushing legislation in different states that would effectively abolish the Electoral College — allowing liberal states to bind all their electoral votes together for the Democratic candidate.” Of course, this same legislation would allow conservative states to bind all their votes together for Republican candidates – but that doesn’t help Dick’s case.

Here’s Obama’s plan, per Dick Toesucker:

• Pushing radical immigration plans that will tip the delicate political balance in favor of the Democrats in crucial states and in national elections
• How this new “health” law helps create a permanent government recipient class who will vote Democratic time and again
• Gaining more control over private business by granting the EPA global governance in the name of climate change, affecting every aspect of our lives
• Blocking energy independence, thereby slowing economic growth and breeding more dependency
• Gutting welfare reform and keeping millions on the dole
• Turning over regulation of the Internet to the United Nations

Nevermind that Obama has presided over the biggest exodus of illegal immigrants ever, and that domestic oil production is at a 25-year high while foreign oil imports are at a 17-year low such that production exceeded net imports in 2013 for the first time since 1995, and that the biggest moochers of the government tit reside in Red states, not in Obama’s treasured base.

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Morris rails full-speed against Obama’s fiendish attempts to alter the status quo in which:

• Republicans own the House of Representatives (234 to 201) with no chance of a change due to gerrymandering and voting restrictions.
• Republican governors run 29 of the 50 states.
• Republicans completely own the legislatures of 27 states versus 18 for the Democrats. The rest are split.
• The Supreme Court is made up of 5 Republican-nominated Justices. The Court has had a majority of Republicans since 1995.

In other words Obama wants to set up single-party hegemony where one already exists. Damn him!

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Saint Derek of Jeter

jeter saintNow that Derek Jeter, New York Yankees long-time short-stop and team captain, has retired from Major League Baseball, it seems a near certainty that he will achieve sainthood well ahead of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. For a sense of the headiness surrounding Jeter’s exit, digest some of the encomiums that have appeared in the press in the last several weeks leading up to Jeter’s final game in which his bloopy single saved the day once again.

NY Post – “More than anything Jeter seems like a nice guy who is unimpressed and uninterested in the accoutrements of his celebrity status.”

Fox Sports – “Derek Jeter is the most universally respected player of the modern era in baseball, and perhaps in all of sports.”

NPR – “If Jeter’s career has shown anything, it’s that utter reliability has a strangeness about it, and it has beauty. And among those who witness it, it can breed devotion. When Jeter retires, that’s what they’ll miss.”

NY Times – In a particularly fawning article: “Jeter is (to be) assumed into the baseball heavens, to be greeted at the Players Entrance by the Yankee Clipper, the Mick and the Sultan of Swat.”

Former teammate, Nick Swisher – “The man is an absolute god. The way that he went out will never ever be replicated.”

Perhaps professional sports figures have become so universally venal, with expectations of being treated like royalty, that a player who simply acts like a normal, dedicated person is elevated to Ghandi-like status.

Given Jeter’s illustrious record (five World Series rings, 14 All-Star games, all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,465), doubles (544), games played (2,747), stolen bases (358)) and his steady, non-offensive professional lifestyle, pure as the driven snow for a multi-million dollar sports figure, no way will he have to wait around for beatification and canonization – next stop: straight to sainthood.

Clearly, Jeter has performed the requisite two miracles necessary for sainthood. The first came in game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s when Jeter miraculously appeared in the middle of a relay play out of right field to home (despite his position being on the other side of second base), flipping the over-thrown ball to Jorge Posada a nanosecond before Jeremy Giambi touched the plate.

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Photographic evidence of St. Derek’s levitation miracle.
The second miracle occurred in the top of the 12th inning against the Boston Red Sox on July 1, 2004 when Derek the Jeter levitated into the stands after snagging a ball hit by Trot Nixon. Jeter stumbled out of the clutch of fans with a bloodied face and the Yankees went on to win 2-1 after scoring two runs in the bottom of the 13th inning. Rumor has it that a female fan dabbed Derek with a cloth that later came to bear an imprint of his face.

As the church requires miracles to be documented, look here for the immaculate flip, and here for the feast of the dive.

There is even talk within the Vatican that God may call up Saint Derek (posthumously, of course) to replace the Holy Ghost on Team Trinity. It seems H.G. (as he is known around heaven) has been a little too obtuse over the past millennium or so, granting just two interviews since the Inquisition and spending way too much time playing Baccarat at the Bellagio.

Memo to Jesus: If Jeter joins the Holy Trinity, watch your back. God didn’t assign him #2 for nothing.

Time to Short Netflix?

Forbes Magazine boasted a disturbing headline the other day: “Adam Sandler Deal Cheers Netflix Stock, But Will It Prove To Be A Blockbuster?” The very concept that association with the genetically unfunny Sandler could cheer any company’s stock seems as foolish as, well, casting Adam Sandler in a movie. After all, the man has appeared in one-after-the-other moronic dud movies, each a defilement of the very celluloid upon which it had been rendered.

Consider his starring movies which received sweeping dogshit ratings from RottenTomatoes.com, an aggregator of professional movie reviews:

Billy Madison – 46%. Sandler was the screenwriter
Happy Gilmore – 60%. Again, the screenwriter, as well as self-plagiarizer.
The Waterboy – 35%. Yet another retard-makes-good story.
Little Nicky – 22%. Screenwriter. The pattern has emerged. The fucker can’t write.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry – 14% (!)
Grown Ups – 10% (!!)
Grown Ups 2 – 7% (!!!). The original dud-quel.
Jack and Jill – 3 fucking percent (!!!!). Virtually unheard of, until . . .
The Cobbler – 0%. (5x!) Even more despised than Ebola.

happyGetting back to the Forbes story: the report is that Netflix had announced that it recruited Adam Sandler to produce and star in four movies that will premiere exclusively to Netflix subscribers. That might be dumber than the Food Network signing up Jeffrey Dahmer to host “Iron Chef”: “Contestants, you have 30 minutes to create a meal using all the ingredients set before you – spleen, cerebellum, fava beans, brook trout, rectum, and Belgian chocolate.”

The idea that Netflix, which leads the industry in streaming movie content and has made inroads against competitive providers like HBO with the “Orange is the New Black” series, would cut a deal with perennial loser Sandler calls their sanity into question. Or maybe not. Despite the long-running series of critical disasters, Sandler’s movies have done OK financially. Perhaps Netflix is banking on the notion that its subscribers are predominantly idiotic. Brainless chickens that will peck for whatever schmutz that’s tossed in their faces.

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter called this move “prudent” for Netflix, because they’re paying for the right to premiere Sandler’s work but not taking on the risk of distributing the films in case they are duds.

In case they are duds? C’mon. If Adam Sandler were a stock on NASDAQ, the symbol would be DUDS.

My guess for his first movie: “After Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore have a menage a quatre with Chuck and Larry, they reminisce in drag about the old days.”

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The Wormholes Behind the Wainscoting

piersonobamaEveryone who has ever bought an older house has probably been shocked at one time or another by the discovery of vermin and rotted wood so well-hidden behind burled paneling, or beneath lacquered flooring. Until that point of discovery – usually following what was anticipated to be routine maintenance – the homeowner lived in a state of blissful ignorance confident that his or her house was in good order.

The other day a disturbed Iraq War veteran hopped the fence surrounding the White House – a place long-believed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world – and managed to run all the way to the East Room one floor below the Presidential residence. The vaunted Secret Service was revealed to be inept stewards of the safety of the Commander in Chief. And once again Americans were stunned witnesses to the wormholes behind the wainscoting. As is often the case with such failures, the Secret Service started out by downplaying the entire event. The intruder was unarmed they said, and quickly apprehended. Neither of these claims was true. Early doubters questioned why attack dogs were not unleashed, given that their presence on the grounds is maintained just for such intrusions. Soon enough the façade had completely fallen down, and the rotting smell of the Secret Service began wafting across Washington, even overpowering the stink that emanates daily from Congress.

As with an old home, evidence of rot might be detected if someone actively looked for it. Remember the Secret Service detail caught servicing prostitutes in Cartagena, Columbia? Or how they took four days to discover that the White House had been hit by seven bullets? Despite the assurances of the Director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, during her Congressional inquisition yesterday, I have to believe any political figure currently receiving SS protection has to be thinking about hiring some personal bodyguards as an extra precaution.

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The Secret Service incident reminds us of the myriad failures of once-trusted government agencies that came on suddenly and significantly, calling into question whether there exists a single government agency or department that is competent.

Were it not for Hurricane Katrina, would we yet know how hollow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was? Would it have become common knowledge that the head of FEMA, Michael “Brownie” Brown was a totally unqualified stooge? Clearly, sooner or later FEMA would have been exposed, if not by a hurricane then perhaps by a collapsed dam built in the 1800s and known to be weak, but whose condition had been ignored. Which raises the question: “Who’s gonna fuck up next?”

We already know that the following agencies were hiding structural rot behind a pretty wall:

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – exposed as clueless, lazy and unimaginative in the Bernie Madoff scandal.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – shown to be flat-footed and unprepared on 9/11 as they lost plane after plane, and who just the other day watched Chicago’s two airports go dark because of lightly-supervised contractor sabotage.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) – had to be quarantined after old stocks of pathogens including smallpox and ricin were discovered sitting unsecured in a shoebox in some lab.

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A “major malfunction”

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – destruction of the Challenger shuttle revealed callousness and decidedly unscientific decision-making. And that’s after they blew it on Apollo 1 which burst into an inferno on the launching pad.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – although GM kept a low-profile on info regarding faulty and deadly ignition switches in some of their vehicles, NHTSA wandered incuriously about in the dark for years.

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – shown to be more helpful than hurtful to criminals in the ill-fated and stupidly-named “Fast and Furious” sting operation.

Veterans’ Administration (VA) – mired in scandal by failing in their mission to aid sick and injured vets, while falsifying wait-list records.

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Government Accountability Office (GAO) – instead of being accountable to taxpayers, this lame-o organization blew hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on boondoggles for their hard-working employees.

National Security Agency (NSA) – Nothing bad here (they’re probably watching).

Federal Election Commission (FEC) – this poorly thought-out regulatory agency is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and does absolutely nothing.

The alphabet-soup of agencies, departments and regulators in the U.S. government overflows with political cronies and deadbeat lifers. Which of these supposedly valuable organizations is actually a scenic lake hiding abandoned cars and junked appliances just below its glassy surface? CDC? CIA? OSHA? FDA? NTSB? CPA?

My guess – all of them. And although I acknowledge that numerous governments around the world suffer from the same disease as the U.S., none spend anywhere near the kind of coin Americans do in return for such rank incompetence.

Who’s to blame? Democrats have a long history of churning out department after department from the acronym factory going back to our first acronym president, FDR. Republicans claim government can’t do anything right, then ensure that outcome by slashing budgets and installing assholes in positions of leadership.

I think we’re doomed. Time to create the DPA – Doomsday Preparation Agency.

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This Week in Ingrates

good-deedimagesClare Booth Luce (or was it Oscar Wilde?) famously warned, “No good deed goes unpunished.” These days that seems like a tautology. Is there anyone of privilege left willing to accept the best and final offer without throwing a hissy-fit because they believe they somehow deserve better?

Today you’re invited to vote from three corpuscular cretins for this week’s most despicable ingrate. The candidates: outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai, former AIG chief Hank Greenberg, and one-time asshole-buddy of Bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Consider their stories and vote your heart (or perhaps another organ closer to your alimentary canal.)

karPointy-hat-wearing Karzai rose to the top spot in Afghanistan after the United States ran the much-reviled Taliban out of the perennially-failed state, and installed his worthless ass into the office of the presidency. This incompetent fool has “run” the country since 2001 when the U.S. embarked on the worthy goal of extricating Afghanistan from the clutches of some medieval tyrants. He and his people owe whatever semblance of normality they enjoy to the Americans. Earlier this year, after a dozen years, the U.S. wanted to call it quits in this god-forsaken country and urged Karzai to sign a transition plan – which he naturally spit upon. Karzai pushed out the date for agreement so far that the U.S. had no choice but to leave lock, stock and barrel. That outcome was completely the result of Karzai’s mind-boggling intransigence.

The other day, Karzai made a farewell speech in which he thanked India, China and Iran (?!) for their help while snubbing the U.S. which since 2001 has been Afghanistan’s biggest donor and most strident protector. This ungrateful cocksucker said in his speech, “America pursued its own interests and did not want peace in Afghanistan.” What were our interests? Cornering the market on gravel? As the Wall Street Journal reminded its readers, “The war against the Taliban has claimed the lives of more than 2,360 U.S. service members, and Washington has so far spent more than $104 billion to fund Afghanistan’s government, its security forces and development projects across the country.”

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham got it right when he commented, “I think his remarks, which were uncalled for, do a disservice to the American people, and dishonor the sacrifices Americans have made here. Not recognizing the many contributions that Americans have made and that our partners have made working with us, that’s the part that is ungracious and ungrateful.” Translation from diplomatese: “Karzai is an ungrateful fuck.”

aig_greenberg_0615Eighty-nine-year-old Hank Greenberg once ran the insurance giant American International Group, better known as AIG. AIG grew into a behemoth by creating and selling credit default swaps which were essentially insurance for bonds – a lucrative endeavor when the bonds in question are issued by top-notch blue-chip firms. After all, what are the chances a bond issuer like GE or Boeing will default? The problem: AIG insured a lot of bonds and related instruments that appeared blue-chip on the surface but whose core was total brown-cow-chip. Furthermore, although CDSs were essentially insurance, regulators treated them as an esoteric financial invention exempt from the normal rules governing insurance – like having enough capital on hand in case lots of companies come in with claims all at the same time. That’s what happened in 2008 – as the financial system imploded and dogshit bonds fell apart, lots of CDS holders (firms that had paid their “premiums”) came forward demanding payout. But because AIG was so poorly run, they didn’t have the capital to comply. Enter the U.S. taxpayer.

Unable to pay rightful claims, AIG floundered around until the Treasury Department came in with $182 billion to back-stop the claims. Had that not happened, hundreds of institutions holding worthless (but insured) bonds would have collapsed. In other words, Hank Greenberg’s AIG was perhaps the biggest infection in the economy. Yes, the terms of the bail-out were harsh (high interest payments, government intrusion in company governance), but shit – the alternative was for AIG to go bankrupt, most of its top brass open to civil and criminal penalties, and epidemic market pandemonium. The fact that the Treasury eventually made back $22 billion is irrelevant – AIG survived thanks to the humungous generosity of Joe Average American, the type of person Hank Greenberg wouldn’t piss on if poor Joe was on fire. Hank the Skank should have crossed himself every day after the bailout, thankful his remaining years would be spent outside a prison cell.

But noooooooooooo. Hank and some backers have been allowed to proceed this week with a lawsuit against the very government that bailed out his bony ass. No good deed, they say. While acknowledging that the $182 billion bailout was the right thing to do, Greenberg is suing for $40 billion on the grounds that the government was just too tough on little ole AIG. Ungrateful Greenberg, who resigned from AIG in 2005 amid some dicey accounting behavior, simply cannot let go. His lawsuit against the government that ensured the ongoing existence of AIG is world-class chutzpah.

ABUGHAITHweb-master180Right after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and a bunch of his sycophantic dirtbags holed up in a cave to chit-chat about the towers that fell in Manhattan that day. Among the dirtbags was a cretin named Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law to bin Laden (but given the rampant polygamy, half the population of Tora Bora was probably an in-law to Uncle Osama.) Although an illiterate, Ghaith became the spokesman for bin Laden, calling on Muslims (but not himself) to join up as suicide bombers in the fight against infidels.

Fortunately this evil zealot was captured, put on trial and found guilty. He received a sentence of life imprisonment this week. During the trial he showed no remorse as he blathered on about the righteousness of jihad.

But ultimately, Ghaith is an ingrate. For all his bullshit, he only got a sentence of life in prison. No one would bury him up to his neck and hurl stones at his head. No one would push him to his knees and saw off his head. No one would bury him alive, as he claimed the court was planning to do.

Now it’s time to vote for Ingrate of the Week. Which cretin nauseates you the most?

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Standing On Line Behind the Human Hemorrhoid

line01On occasion I’ll stop at a local inconvenience store in the morning to pick up a newspaper and a cup of tea – a transaction that, once I get to the register, takes all of 20 seconds. But because this particular store sits less than 50 yards from a senior citizen residence, I must invariably endure a lengthy intercourse involving a sullen cashier and a four-foot-three blue-hair seeking to purchase half a Social Security check’s worth of scratch-off lottery tickets. It’s worse than standing behind a person buying a dozen donuts. “I’ll take a Double Triple Cashword, a 777 Jackpot, a $2,500 A Week For Life, no, forget that, give me a, uh, hmm, let me see, a Break the Bank, a Big Bucks Multiplier, no, make that two Big Bucks Multipliers, and a 777 Jackpot – oh, I already asked for that. . .ok, then, I’ll take a $2,500 A Week For Life.” The cashier tears cards from the dispenser and places them on the counter – and only then does the blue-hair begin the process of producing the money to purchase these certain-losers. By then, I’ve finished the national news, the business section, the editorial page, and half the cross-word puzzle.

Everyone gets on line behind a human hemorrhoid now and again, but because I am an innately impatient person, I am keenly aware of the irritation – not unlike a person who detects a foul odor that no one else can smell. As a service to those who may not notice their lives frittering away, seconds turning into minutes, minutes into hours, until years of wasted time has accumulated, I offer my take on the fifteen most annoying situations interfering in efficient commerce.

1. The person ahead of you who is not ready to pay. They’ve stood on line, placed the goods on the conveyor belt, studiously observed the register for a mispriced item, and watched the cashier bag up the entire order. Somehow in all the excitement they forgot they too have a role to play to complete the transaction. Like paying for the goddamn stuff.

2. The person who insists on paying the exact total. The cashier rings up the goods while the customer waits patiently holding a $20 bill. The total comes to $17.87. Does the customer hand over the double sawbuck? No. She says helpfully, “I think I have 87 cents in here somewhere,” proceeding to dig out one by one the pennies, nickels and dimes wedged in the corners of her purse, proudly producing the exact change when she should be in her car driving out of the parking lot.

3. The person who checks out and then wants to buy one more thing. Not willing to go back to the end of the line or to forego the forgotten item altogether, this selfish bastard assumes the ten people behind him don’t mind if he runs back to pick up that oh-so-necessary can of chunk-light tuna in oil.

4. The person who splits the goods into two orders because they’re also buying some stuff for a friend. Rather than reconcile the bill back at the ranch, this ninny requires the cashier to double the transactions, and pack the goods separately. It’s like an invisible person cut in front of you.

5. The cashier who is just about to hand over the change but turns away to answer another customer’s/worker’s question. You’ve spent half an hour shopping, and another fifteen minutes on line. All the goods have been tallied and you’ve paid the bill. Mere seconds remain to completion. You think you’re 99.5 percent done – until someone steps up and asks where they might find cocktail onions. The change sits in the cashier’s hand just waiting to be turned over to you, but instead she embarks on the grocery store version of “The Hunt for Red October.”

6. The person without enough money to pay who picks out the stuff they want to leave behind. The bill comes to $145. The customer only has $100. And soon you’re the rapt observer of a desperate soul trying to decide whether cottage cheese is more or less important than a package of hot dogs.

7. The cashier who insists on getting a price check on an item known to cost less than a quarter. You come to the counter with a power drill, ten sheets of plywood, a five-gallon can of paint, and a nail. Everything but the nail has a barcode. Guess who’s gonna have to wait ten minutes while a dimwit in a blue apron runs around the store before coming back with “it’s four cents.”

8. The person who buys scratch off lottery tickets and then proceeds to scratch them at the counter. This offensive behavior is thankfully almost extinct, but you still on occasion end up behind a slovenly derelict, scratching like a dog with mange, who can’t wait ten seconds to find out that he’s a newly minted millionaire. (Sidebar: if the guy happens to hit it big and wins $5, he’ll immediately cash in the card for another card.)

9. The cashier who struggles to crack open a new roll of pennies so as to be able to give back $4.01 in change. You’d gladly take $4 and get out, but I suppose corporate headquarters fears an audit if their quarterly report is mysteriously off by one cent.

10. The cashier who knows you well but still asks every time you come in whether you have a loyalty card. And when you say no for the thousandth time, she asks if you’d like to apply for one.

11. The cashier who when handing you change drops a coin on the floor, and instead of taking another one from the drawer, begins crawling around looking for it. You were so close to getting out of there. That nickel was mere inches from your palm. Now you have two choices: forget the nickel and walk out like an ungrateful douchebag, or stand there pretending to be patient.

12. Stores that require a manager to intervene when a customer buys a six pack. Some stores post an alcohol sale policy: “If you look under 30, we’ll card you” – even though the legal age is 21. But others take a more fascist approach and card every damned person who wants to buy some beer – even those who use their AARP card to prove their age. Silly. But when you’re in your fifties, and you must wait for a manager to come from the office to validate your right to purchase beer, you’re shopping in a store run by lawyers.

13. The person in the express check-out lane who insists on writing a check for $4.75. “Express” is a two-way street, but some people fail to understand that. Check-writers in the express lane deserve a shock of 20 volts; 40 if they don’t start writing the check until the order is rung up.

14. The person who goes nuts over the scanned price of an item that is five cents higher than the price posted on the shelf. I don’t have a problem if a customer takes issue over a big price differential AND they are right – but time is money. And it ain’t worth holding up the people behind you to investigate the case of the missing nickel.

15. The customer at the specialty counter (fish, deli, meat) who makes the worker cut and weigh the product five times until it weighs exactly 1/2 pound. You’ve seen it. “How much does that piece of tilapia weigh? 10 ounces? Can you give me half a pound?” The fishmonger slices off an infinitesimal piece. “Just a bit over 8 ounces.” Not good enough. Now the fishmonger is doing arthroscopic surgery on the tilapia to get it to exactly 8.000 ounces. “Gee, that doesn’t look like very much. Can you give me another piece the same size please.”

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Lesson from Vietnam: 105 Degrees in the Caliphate and Rising

NVISISRory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam,” like so many excellent historical documentaries (think “The Fog of War” and “Harlan County, USA”) clarifies context and reveals critical details that often elude the cursory treatment offered in high-school and college curricula from which most people learn whatever it is they know. Focused specifically on the actions (and inactions) following the March 1975 “Spring Offensive” invasion of South Vietnam by their enemies in the North, “Last Days in Vietnam” lays out the riveting story of how the United States hesitantly and slowly prepared for and eventually executed under pressure an evacuation of U.S. personnel and South Vietnamese contractors from Saigon.

By this time, the Paris Peace Accords had established a type of armistice that had been put in place between the North and South Koreans, setting up a mutual ceasing of hostilities but not a lasting peace. In order to get the South to go along, Richard Nixon guaranteed to reenter the fracas should the North violate the Accords – but after he resigned in 1974, the North believed correctly that a worn-out U.S. would balk (or renege), no longer led by a president “mad” enough to drop the big one.

The story is told mostly by servicemen, CIA station agents, State Department officials and South Vietnamese citizens involved in the evacuation. And the continuing thread throughout most of the movie is the ever-growing frustration of the military men assigned to the U.S. Embassy with the Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, who steadfastly refused to accept the inevitability of a North Vietnamese blitzkrieg. Even the mere development of an evacuation plan was anathema to Martin, a man who was perhaps too invested in staying the course after having lost his only son in the Vietnam War conflict.

With the South looking vulnerable, President Gerald Ford appealed to Congress to approve $722 million in military aid for the one-time allies, but it was a futile effort. Virtually no member of Congress wanted to expend (waste?) more treasure and American lives on a war that had dragged on for a decade. That rejection no doubt further emboldened the North.

Given the rapid progress the North was making (within a month they had sacked Hue, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay) it is surprising that wholesale evacuation of Saigon was never fully considered until it was almost too late. But then again, maybe not so surprising given the long history of fatal U.S. hubris and ineptitude in Southeast Asia since the 1950s. Low-level military and State Department officials independently drew up four options for personnel evacuation, the preferred one being C40 airlifts from Tan Son Nhut airport. But after the North bombed the runways rendering them useless, Martin was forced to capitulate; by that time, the only viable option remaining was number four, the least practical: helicopter airlifts of 50 people at a time from the embassy grounds. They would go on to move close to 5,000 out of danger.

Most surreally, the secret clue to the general military personnel that evacuation was being initiated was a radio broadcast stating that “It’s 105 degrees in Saigon and rising” followed by the playing of Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas.” Bizarre.

It is this part of the movie that is probably most familiar to people. We see footage of South Vietnamese civilians scaling the embassy compound fences, and evacuees clamoring on the rooftop awaiting the next Chinook helicopter to arrive. And of course the famous shots of sailors pushing helicopters off the deck of the ship into the South China Sea to make room for more landings. The chaos is palpable. So is the sense of futility.

For me, the meticulous detail of the evacuation of Saigon portrayed in the movie filled in numerous blank spots in my recollection of the incidents which occurred when I was 18 and about to graduate from high school. By that time, the U.S. had suspended the much-hated draft, and guys my age were looking beyond the fears of going to the other side of the world to fight a pointless war. And the fact that the Congress had thoroughly rejected the idea of handing $722 million more to the South Vietnamese government proved that it wasn’t just me who wanted to move on.

As we know, a day after the last U.S. soldier departed the Embassy, the Communists from the North rolled into Saigon and hence began years of turmoil and despair for many in the South who were sent to “re-education” camps or summarily executed. In some ways, the methods by which the victorious North ran their country parallel those that cretins like Al Qaeda and ISIS would love to inflict upon the defenseless populace in their neck of the woods.

But think about this. Despite the depravity and incompetence of the Communists who took over all of Vietnam, the U.S. refused to go back in and try to save the day. We left the mess behind, allowing the Communists to prove their mettle – and by 1986, they had failed miserably. Things were going so poorly for the country that the ruling and wobbling Communist government changed direction and encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, and pushed for economic deregulation and foreign investment. Today unified Vietnam is an economic engine of growth and a destination location.

Is there a lesson for would-be interlopers into the miasma that is the Middle East? Would it be better in the long run to let ISIS have a go at running the lives of 50 million people who disagree with them, and fail miserably? If ISIS went ahead with their brutal oppression unimpeded by a foreign nation upon which they could lay the blame for all the world’s ills, would the masses rise up and vanquish them on their own?

I’m inclined to believe it to be so.

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Execution Before Exoneration

bafunguA grade-school riddle went like this: Where does seven come before six? Answer: In the dictionary. The same riddle could be altered to ask when execution comes before exoneration, but the real answer to that unfunny joke is the United States of America.

OK – That may be an overstatement, but the continual discovery of men on death row who did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced suggests that many innocent people have or will be snuffed out by order of the state. With more than 3,100 people on death row in the U.S., it is not hard to imagine several dozen innocents (a couple percent) rotting away at enormous financial cost. The only things working in favor of innocent inmates are the sluggish nature of executions in the U.S. (California, which leads the nation with 726 death row members has executed a whopping 13 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978), and the indefatigable exoneration efforts by various “Innocent Projects” established at universities and within non-profit organizations in states where capital punishment remains on the books.

September 3rd brought to an end some more unjustified death row imprisonments when two black guys in North Carolina – Henry Lee McCollum and his half-brother Leon Brown, both of whom spent the last 30 years awaiting a stroll down the green mile from the time they were teenagers – were released after it was confirmed by DNA evidence that they had not committed the heinous crime for which they were incarcerated. The evidence incriminated another man who lived near the scene of the crime: Roscoe Artis who is now serving a life sentence for committing a similar crime to the one ascribed to McCollum and Brown. How Artis escaped while McCollum and Brown got snagged is a sordid tale of police coercion, crappy investigation and slipshod representation. The fact that the two suspects initially “confessed” obviously didn’t help their case, but as is becoming clearer, many bogus confessions are proffered under duress. It would not surprise me if dozens of death-row (and regular-row) inmates are sitting in cells today because they mumbled “yes” after being deprived of sleep, food, water and a lawyer for hours or days on end.

In February 1994, then-Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, apparently uncomfortable with capital punishment in the U.S. wrote an opinion stating that the death penalty as currently administered is contrary to the Constitution of the United States. Not one to sit back and stare at heresy, Justice Antonin Scalia responded with a stern defense of the status quo.

Returning to McCollum and Brown: the pair were accused of murdering 11-year-old Sabrina Buie whose raped and beaten body was found in a soybean field. This was a crime so heinous that Scalia cited it in his contrarian blast at Blackmun the liberal pussy. Scalia wrote, “The death by injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable . . . It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional–for example, the case of the 11-year old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat.”

I wonder what Scalia would say today had the two falsely-convicted men gotten the needle before their exoneration became official. My guess: not a fucking thing. Instead he probably has his clerks off right now combing the files for a new death row case to substitute in for the now-debunked illustration of depravity. No doubt there are hundreds – let’s hope for his sake that he doesn’t land on another embarrassing example of U.S. jurisprudence gone off the rails.

(Sidebar: for more hilarity on this light-hearted subject, check out this recent article in Business Insider titled “Justice Scalia Says Executing The Innocent Doesn’t Violate The Constitution.” Even if by Scalia’s tortured logic this is technically true, shame on someone.)

RIP Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers died the other day at age 81 of complications during a “routine” throat procedure. To her credit, she didn’t look a day over 30 – for a cat, which after several facial procedures she began to resemble.

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I think one of her more edgy, acerbic remarks captures much of the snark you’d expect to read in the obits and “in memoriams” to come: Just days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Joan supposedly called an acquaintance and suggested meeting for lunch at Windows on the Ground.

It brings a wry smile today, but at the time it bordered on bad taste. But that’s humor. After all, didn’t at least a dozen famous people claim credit for saying “Comedy is tragedy plus time?”

Joan had a lot of time and tragedy to work with. Shortly after her husband Edgar Rosenberg killed himself, Joan had dinner at Spago, an LA hot spot, with her daughter Melissa. Presumably offended by the exorbitant prices on the menu, Joan reportedly said to Melissa, “If Daddy were here and saw these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.” Tasteless and funny? Hell yeah.

Countless female comedians (far removed from the time they were called “comediennes”) owe their careers to Joan Rivers – Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, Kathie Griffin, Lisa Lampanelli.

And thanks to Joan they all may now say “cunt” without fear of retribution. RIP.

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It’s Titanic in the Sky – Oh, the Humanity!

mejgFNn3RFRHeZF5wisR1yAWerner Franz, the last surviving crew member of the ill-fated German dirigible Hindenberg died a couple weeks ago. Franz was a 14-year-old cabin boy working in a lower deck of the dirigible who managed to kick open a hatch Indiana-Jones style and jump a few meters to the ground just before the flaming aircraft touched down.

Dead at 92, Franz was not quite as old as the fictional Rose Bukater, star of the movie “Titanic” when she was introduced to the world on a thousand silver screens. Like Werner, Rose was a disaster survivor. Her story of the sinking of the Titanic was told in real time (by actress Gloria Stuart) and in flashback (by Kate Wislet). It was a story of forbidden love no doubt inspired like countless others by “Romeo and Juliet,” set upon the stage of the most famous nautical disaster of all time, presented by a director-technician, James Cameron, who sought to ground his movie with scientifically-based facts culled from his personal under-water investigations of RMS Titanic’s final resting spot. The movie went on to win 11 Oscars including Best Picture and amass three-quarters of a billion dollars at the box office.

In some ways the fate of the Hindenberg mirrors that of the much more deadly disaster that befell the Titanic, an elite ocean liner that sank to an icy grave on its maiden voyage in 1912. Each vessel was a form of transport built for the upper classes who demanded a civilized way to cross the Atlantic from old Europe to the modern, future-facing United States.

Decades ago, in early May of 1937, the Hindenberg – pride of Germany and of the upwardly mobile Nazi party – disintegrated in Lakehurst, NJ in a famously-photographed hydrogen-fueled conflagration. The huge, phallic-shaped floating Zeppelin, which at 800 feet long was more than three times the length of a Boeing 747, collapsed slowly like an empty gift box tossed into the fireplace on Christmas morning. Thirty-five of the 97 passengers on board died, as well as one unlucky bastard on the ground. (Although it might seem inevitable that a huge tube filled with flammable hydrogen would succumb to an errant spark or inconvenient lightning bolt, in fact the Hindenberg flew 62 uneventful trips before exploding ignominiously near its earthbound tether.)

Unlike the Titanic however which was feted in an Oscar-scarfing movie driven by the lusty narrative recalled by nonagenarian Rose, the Hindenberg was the subject a mediocre thriller film that hit the screens in 1975. It’s received a grade of 40 percent on Rottentomatoes.com.

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Given the dramatic opportunity to develop a romantic plot between a lowly occupant of the doomed Hindenberg and a famous passenger, their desire to fall in love thwarted by evil fascist antagonists, the producers of “The Hindenberg” settled instead on a run-of-the-mill story of intrigue that blames the explosion on sabotage perpetrated by a disgruntled Nazi. The cast is actually quite impressive: George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Burgess Meredith, Charles Durning and Gig Young. But the movie proceeds like an obvious game of Clue, introducing several characters designed to be suspects who are transparently not suspects, and ending with an unlikely twist in which the agent charged with protecting the Hindenberg decides to abet the perpetrator. Too bad.

With the passing of Werner Franz, perhaps some renewed interest in making a more fitting film with the doomed Hindenberg as the backdrop will kindle among Hollywood’s writers and producers.

The pitch? It’s Titanic in the sky – oh, the humanity. Look for it in 2017 on the 80th anniversary.

(Sidebar: A TV docudrama that came out in 2007 is called Hindenberg: Titanic of the Skies. As one reviewer noted: “An overlong rather bland production with no surprises except one fine performance.”)

Should it be Called Twit.tv?

Last week I took issue with the market valuation of Snapchat, a company that peddles a smart-phone app allowing users to send temporarily-viewable content (photos, videos, drawings, etc.) to other users. Supposedly the content is deleted permanently after a few seconds of viewing, but the variety of ways to circumvent the primary value of Snapchat would seem to render the app – and by extension the company that produces it – largely useless.

Days later Amazon announced its intention to purchase for the fat sum of a billion dollars a company called Twitch.tv that offers viewers an app to watch other people playing video games. Twitch reports 55 million subscribers watch the mesmerizing virtual action each month. Just when you thought the further devolution of the human race had tapered off, Amazon discovers a vast underserved subspecies whose slothfulness surpasses all previously recognized levels.

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Will Twitch become over time another useless app. Probably not; there would seem to be possibilities for extending the service to other applications. But the concept that a billion-dollar business could be built upon the proposition that people want to watch others play a virtual game is sad if not mind-boggling.

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Now You See it, Now You . . . Still See it?

SadchatAlmost a year ago Facebook offered $3 billion for Snapchat, a tiny company that had made almost no money since its founding in 2011 – and in typical hubristic Silicon Valley style, Snapchat’s founders told Facebook to fuck off. Now, based on an investment by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the so-called “Street” values the upstart company at a whopping $10 billion. Who couldn’t feel a bit sad to think that a company that offers an app for sending photos that self-destruct after 10 seconds is worth more than Nikon, or Kodak, or both together?

The Snapchat app was developed to enable users to send content (photos, videos, text, drawings) that would have an ephemeral lifespan – presumably addressing a pressing requirement of people seeking to shock, titillate or offend someone else without leaving an embarrassing trail. The market for such a tool is large, as Snapchat boasts that its subscribers are sending about 700 million “snaps” a day.

Apparently those fecund Snapchat users operate in blissful ignorance, because anyone with half an imagination can see how the promise of temporariness cannot fundamentally be guaranteed. Recipients of “snaps” must keep their finger on the touchscreen while viewing the content which hinders their ability to take a screenshot. But if the recipient takes a screenshot anyway, the only protection for the sender is to receive a handy note from the Snapchat app announcing that the video of his girlfriend in the shower has been captured. But forget all that. As anyone can plainly understand, the recipient of a snap can easily take a picture of the “temporarily visible” picture against the wishes and expectations of the sender.

Such a breach befell a Brooklyn high school teacher in East Flatbush in June. It seems that 44-year-old science and math teacher Sean Shaynak sent a “snap” of his Johnson to a 16 year old female student – presumably relaxed in the confidence of knowing his lascivious photo would soon and forever be expunged from the universe, courtesy of Snapchat, leaving behind not a scintilla of evidence. Unless of course the student took a picture of the snap which she most surely did. Because Shaynak trusted the word of the $10 billion company, he faces up to seven years in prison.

Which begs the question: how can a company whose sole value proposition can be sidestepped with ease be worth even a million bucks, let alone ten thousand times as much? I say it can’t be.

In addition to offering a specious product, Snapchat has also been a conduit for “snap spam” consisting of bullshit weight-loss ads and bogus contests, and for child pornography. And this past May they were the dubious recipient of a lowly, one-star rating from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that ranks internet companies on how they respond to government data requests. More stars are rewarded to those that rigorously guard user data. Basically, with one star to its name, Snapchat can be expected to bend over to every government request for users’ personal data, which could be voluminous, and in many cases embarrassing at least and possibly incriminating.

Soon enough, the founders and investors in Snapchat – like their cohorts at Groupon – will rue the day they turned down Facebook’s generous offer.

Pitfalls and Prodigies

A couple weeks ago the world was captivated by the performance of 13-year-old Mo’Ne Davis in the Little League World Series, one of a just a handful of girls who have played in the contest, and the first to pitch a shut-out. Then yesterday at the US Open Tennis tournament, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis became the youngest player since 1996 to win a match there, defeating 12th seeded Dominika Cibulkova in three sets. All of this is good for the games’ sponsors and the networks that broadcast the events (ESPN reported record-breaking viewership for Davis’s final game.) But is it good for the youngsters?

Based on what I’ve seen and read, I would say yes in these particular cases. Both young women seem to have poise beyond their years, and supportive families. But too often the urge to move the kids along the fast track to fame and fortune ruins it. Parents become greedy, professional handlers interfere, trainers get aggressive.

Consider Michelle Wie, the golf phenom who debuted in 2000 when at ten years old she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. A few years later in 2003, she became the youngest player to make an LPGA cut, and then later that year she became the youngest to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. The tall, big-hitting Wie was on such a tear that in 2004 she got a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Sony Open – a men’s tournament on the PGA rotation. Although she missed the cut, she shot a 68 on day two, the lowest ever carded for a woman in a men’s event.

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From there, it seemed Michelle Wie could go anywhere, and no doubt pressed by parents and advisers, turned pro just before turning 16. Hell – she was touted as the female Tiger Woods. Then in what seemed to me to be an attempt to make some kind of statement, Wie got one sponsor exemption after another to play in men’s tournaments. Unfortunately, despite her tremendous talent and skill, the experience was humbling. She missed cuts by wide margins and I suspect her confidence suffered. Soon, Wie was in a slump, unable to perform well even when playing against other women. No doubt the low point came in 2007 when she withdrew from the LPGA Ginn Tribute tournament citing a wrist injury – oh, and she happened to be 14 over par after 16 holes at that moment. The move was controversial because had she played the final two holes she may have put up a score that would have disqualified her from playing in LPGA contests the rest of the year.

Today, Michelle Wie has recovered her game and is a solid, mature player sticking to the LPGA – but in the intervening period her performances seemed more like a sideshow spectacle, which certainly set her back. The pressure on her to beat the men must have been tremendous.

The fate of childhood stars often turns out grim after a certain age (think Danny Bonaduce); let’s hope Mo’Ne Davis and the other talented kids coming up through the ranks get a chance to enjoy the game before middle-career cynicism sets in.

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The Savage Wiener on Ebola

ebola savA couple weeks ago on a drive out of New York City, knowing that the fast-moving but densely packed traffic could well be leading soon into a stopped up jam, I flipped on the AM radio for a status on road conditions. Tuned to WABC 770, the radio at this time of day began to spew forth the annoying voice of Michael Wiener aka. “Savage,” the right-wing personality who replaced the nearly-as-vile Sean Hannity in the 3-6:00 PM slot. The topic of Savage’s contempt this day? That a couple American health workers serving in West Africa were being transported back to the U.S. to receive treatment for Ebola.

Relying on his credentials in the field of nutritional ethnomedicine, Dr. Savage railed against the madness of importing the dangerous and often fatal Ebola disease into the United States. Savage argued that the preferred approach would have been to treat the two patients, Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol, in Africa – he mentioned Nigeria as a place of advanced medical capability – where facilities to manage the disease were more than adequate to handle it. I understand the visceral fear of allowing the virus entry into the U.S., even though the precautions taken in transporting the victims involved complete isolation of their infected bodies in protective gear out of “Gravity,” but the notion that African options for treatment were satisfactory seemed ill-conceived. Health workers in West Africa have been abandoning hospitals in droves leaving behind leaking corpses on the floors. That’s a far cry from the state of facilities at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) where Brantly and Writebol were sent. And even though Nigeria is not inundated (yet) by Ebola and the accompanying angst, might not the intrusion of Ebola patients there be met with fierce obstruction as well?

Also, since when did conservatives like Savage start getting bent out of shape over an exercise that demonstrates American “exceptionalism”? Or start seeking to interfere in an individual’s taking “personal responsibility” for his or her health? And don’t you think that if the U.S. government blocked the return of citizens – even (or especially) sick ones – that ranters like Savage would have a conniption fit over an “imperial” presidency?

Anyway, I listened to Savage’s arguments (and his constant reference to an article he wrote a day earlier titled “America’s Ebola response is ‘madness’” that appeared on the website WND Commentary) until he seamlessly connected the situation to a conspiracy fostered by Obama, the man who personally invited terrorists to cross into the American Southwest and who caused safety failures at the CDC. By the time Savage conflated the Ebola outbreak to Obamacare – regardless the merits of his argument that bringing the illness to America was madness – he lost my interest. I flipped to WCBS 880 just in time to catch “Traffic and Weather on the Eights.”

I waited to blog about the Savage Wiener to see what came of the two Ebola sufferers who had been likened to a more virulent Typhoid Mary. Did the disease jump the hospital walls? Did any doctors, nurses or other hospital personnel succumb? Did Al Qaeda breach the perimeter, lick the sick, and abscond with the killer virus? Well, now that the results are in we can say without fear of contradiction that Michael Savage is an asshole.

Both patients have recovered from the insidious disease, which was far from guaranteed had they stayed on the African continent as called for by Savage. And the opportunity to study Ebola up close in one of the world’s best hospital facilities – Emory University Hospital – no doubt provided researchers valuable insight that may lead to a vaccine or cure.

Dr. Bruce S. Ribner, the Emory infectious diseases specialist who coordinated the treatment of Brantly and Writebol said it was “the right decision” to bring the patients back to the U.S. to receive the superior care offered here, and because the lessons learned might lead to guidance in assisting doctors treating Ebola patients in the field – thereby one day obviating the need to bring sick people to the U.S. (and satisfying Savage in a roundabout way.)

Ribner added, “We cannot let our fears dictate our actions. We must all care.”

At that moment, trying to conceive the inconceivable notion of caring, the savage head of Michael Wiener exploded.

Thank the Lord they didn’t go with Travel + Leisure

A couple blogs ago I poked fun at a bunch of prudish mothers who were appalled to find an unwanted copy of “GQ” magazine in their mail – the gift of retailer Lands End. The noise from the mothers excoriating Lands End for exposing their tender adolescent sons to the sight of a scantily clad girl on the cover was strident, if not kind of funny.

Under pressure, Lands End CEO Edgar Huber admitted “a mistake” and announced the delivery of a replacement magazine – “Conde Nast Traveler.” I joked at the time about the possibility that “Conde Nast Traveler” might further expose the boys to sinful images should they do a feature on Bali.

Literally the next day I picked up September’s issue of “Travel + Leisure” in which the magazine did a spread on Africa, accompanied by a couple photos of topless young native girls ala old-time “National Geographic.”

Oh how I wish Lands End would have gone with “T+L” instead of “Conde Nast Traveler.” Just too delicious.

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The Lesson of Prime Numbers

graph3Prime numbers – those divisible by none other than themselves and 1 – have fascinated mathematicians going back millennia. For thousands of years mathematicians have labored – ciphering tedious, error-prone calculations deep into the oil-lamp-illuminated night for months on end prior to the invention of the electronic computer – to discover the next largest prime, and to produce methods for automatically generating them. Early on, many believed that the number of primes might be finite – after all, as numbers get bigger it would seem less and less likely that no smaller number could be found to divide them. Simply enumerating the primes illustrates that they quickly get further and further apart as they get bigger (of the 100 integers between 1 and 100, 25 are primes, but of the 100 integers between 10,000,001 and 10,000,100, just 2 are prime), so intuitively one might conclude that at some point there are no more to be found. That some number would represent the Mt. Everest of primes.

But as is so often the case with mathematics, intuition turns out to be wrong. Euclid is credited with the first proof of the infinity of prime numbers; later on others including Euler and Paul Erdős developed alternate methods. Whenever a new largest prime is discovered, necessarily accomplished today with computers, the hunt is on for the next one. And good luck with that – the largest prime currently known is a 17 million digit monster: 257,885,161 – 1.

The concept of infinity has long challenged rational thought. The notion that there is always one more “thing” – bigger and better – to be discovered can be hard to comprehend, at least until that “thing” arrives. After all, didn’t Charles Duell, Patent Office commissioner at the turn of the last century, and a man faced with a deluge of invention proposals, famously say, “Everything that can be invented has been invented”? (No, that’s an urban legend – but the statement captures the sentiment well.)

Getting back to mathematics, it might seem that after thousands of years of development and discovery in the field that humans could have logged everything that could be known about numbers. From simple arithmetic to algebra and trigonometry to calculus to group theory to topology and multidimensional spaces – the covered ground is expansive. Yet every four years brilliant mathematicians under the age of 40 receive the coveted Fields Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. Often considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal has recognized some truly ingenious and far-out work, all of which has stretched the boundaries beyond what had been thought impossible.

200px-FieldsMedalFront

I write about this because just last week, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to capture the Fields Medal which was first bestowed in 1936. Mirzakhani, a native born Iranian who teaches at Stanford specializes in the theory of moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces which she parlayed into an asymptotic formula to express the growth of the number of simple closed geodesics on a compact hyperbolic surface. In honoring Mirzakhani, the International Mathematical Union said of her findings, “It is astounding to find that the rigidity in homogeneous spaces has an echo in the inhomogeneous world of moduli space.”

Mirzakhani
Maryam Mirzakhani explains it all for you.

OK, Mirzakhani’s work may seem a bit more esoteric than Aristotle’s fundamental pronouncement that “A is A,” and Pythagoras’s indispensable proof that a2 + b2 = c2.

But that’s how it works. The world today is dense with derivative ideas and plagued by a dearth of new ideas – not because people are necessarily lazy and stupid, but because so much fundamental work has already been established. Why do you think so many movies suck? Yet, it’s comforting to know that like the prime numbers there are always bigger ideas waiting to be discovered with a bit of dedication and imagination.

Coincidence or Cosmic Alignment?

Last Tuesday driving into a blazing sunset following a delightful meal at the Rhinecliff Hotel I approached the mile-plus-long cantilevered Rhinecliff Bridge that crosses the Hudson River as Rufus Wainwright’s pained song “Vicious World” started to play on my iThing.

Just then I smelled a dead skunk.

And yes, it was in the middle of the road.

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Puritans Get Their Panties in a Bunch

crucible“For an erection lasting more than four hours.” Every day on TV, in day-time and prime-time, on weekdays and weekends, this once-titillating phrase is uttered quite casually by an off-screen narrator in advertisements for Cialis, a “daily use” medication to assist men with “erectile disfunction” to get it up on a moment’s notice. (They should have called it Boing!)

In 2014, it is not only common, but impossible not to hear and see a tumult of references to sex, sexy people, sexual activity and sex, and more sex. What would have appalled uptight parents, teachers and clergy in 1950s, and perhaps drawn censorious condemnation from government officials, is now commonly displayed on billboards, the sides of buses, in movies, and yes, even magazine covers. In a world in which the Discovery Channel airs a survivor-like reality show where intrepid contestants are dropped naked into a jungle and followed around by a camera crew; where cartoon kids from a place called “South Park” frequently spout “goddam it” and call each other “assholes”; where grocery stores offer “Cosmopolitan” magazine at child-eye-level with its cover advice on “75 sex moves men crave” – is it possible that modern mothers can still get outraged over a picture of a scantily-clad woman?

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This Calvin Klein ad caused innumerable cases of angina in the 1980s.

Apparently so. Recently Land’s End, the purveyor of white, middle-class preppy clothing, luggage, and home furnishings, offered its customers a complimentary copy of the July issue of GQ magazine – and from the immediate outrage it stirred up, you’d have thought Lands End sent out DVDs of “Deep Throat.” In fact, the cover of GQ features nothing more than actress Emily Ratajkowski wearing a Hawaiian lei over otherwise (shame!) bare breasts.

emily-ratajkowski-gq-cover-2014

Here are some of the complaints registered with Lands End, whose CEO Edgar Huber quickly kowtowed by admitting “a mistake” and announcing the delivery of a replacement magazine – “Conde Nast Traveler” (let’s hope they’re not doing a cover feature on Bali this month.)

“My 14-year-old son brought in the mail today & was quite disturbed & fascinated by a ‘gift’ Lands’ End sent us — a copy of GQ magazine with an absolutely OBSCENE cover!!!”

“I am appalled that Lands’ End — which I have always thought of as a ‘wholesome,’ family- oriented company — would be the one to expose my son to pornography!”

“We received your ‘Lands’ End Bonus’ of GQ magazine this weekend, and we are absolutely horrified. How can buying something as family friendly as school uniforms lead to soft porn in the mailbox? I’m thankful my son did not bring in the mail.”

“I ordered Christian private school children’s uniforms from your company and you sold my home address to a magazine company that peddles in soft porn for men???”

(Although I didn’t read all the complaints, I noticed that none of the outraged mothers were concerned for their daughters. Only adolescent sons appeared to be in mortal danger of spying the cover.)

Do these mothers not realize their sons have already been masturbating to internet porn for three or four years? And that they’ve been sexting with friends since they received their first smart phone? And that they’re probably close to surpassing their Puritan parents in the number of times they have sex each week?

Memo to Lands End: given the nature of your customer base, consider adding chastity belts to this year’s school uniform collection.

Speaking of Cialis

The guys in the Cialis ad aren’t having trouble getting laid because of E.D. – they can’t get laid because they’re downright creepy. The way they awkwardly close in on their wives and girlfriends at odd moments indicates latent perversity at best. The worst is the fellow with the thin grin who just finished tennis doubles and makes a clumsy move to plant a sweaty kiss on his partner. Damn yuk.

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In real life, for these two to consummate, the pill in question wouldn’t be Cialis . . . and it wouldn’t be taken by the man.

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La Commedia è Finita!

Robin-Williams.-006Immediately following the report that Robin Williams killed himself, the news and entertainment media launched into the predictable frenzy of non-stop coverage that by law must include speculation from psychologists, staid reports bereft of content from law enforcement officials, interviews with shocked colleagues, loops and clips of the actor’s antics, and reminiscences from “friends,” most of whom bear tenuous relationships with the deceased. The most common theme was the incongruity of a frenetic, eternally child-like comic who seemed to find joy in making people laugh, and suicide. News people placed heavy emphasis on Williams’s role as TV alien “Mork” and his histrionics alongside fellow comedians Billy Crystal and Whoopie Goldberg.

Whenever Williams’s screen acting career was discussed it was largely to recall such comedies as “The Birdcage” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as his vocal work on “Aladdin” and “Happy Feet.” Although reports mentioned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the serious drama “Good Will Hunting,” most of the coverage served to highlight Williams’s career as a comic. Perhaps in doing so the networks were amplifying their preferred story of the sad clown Pagliaccio.

As the reports progressed, I wondered if anyone would mention Williams’s treacly performance in the stomach-wrenching “Patch Adams,” or his take on Peter Pan in Spielberg’s “Hook,” which one critic called “weirdly creepy when it’s not being bombastically boring.” The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that Robin Williams was much more effective (on screen at least) not in comedies but in serious dramas and thrillers. To test my theory, I mapped movies starring Robin Williams on a grid that compared genre to the associated Tomatometer rating published by Rotten Tomatoes , an amalgam of reviews by several critics.

As shown, there is a cluster of good movies in the upper right corner which represent a good deal of his career in serious films. Paradoxically, most of the bottom feeders are comedies in the lower left.

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Undoubtedly a comic genius, more sober news coverage has clarified the extent to which Robin Williams was also a tortured soul. By hanging himself in his closet, perhaps Robin Williams was exclaiming like Pagliaccio in Leoncavallo’s famous opera – “La commedia è finita!”

RIP Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall died the other day at age 89. Her obituary in the New York Times started on the front page with a classic photo of her with husband Humphrey Bogart, and continued inside with a full page treatment. A well-deserved tribute to a stunning actress who harkened back to a Hollywood era that long ago ceased to exist. My only complaint was that the obituary didn’t mention one of her last roles – as herself – in an episode of “The Sopranos.”

Mobster Chris Moltisanti wants to get into the movie business and heads to Hollywood in search of a name actor to attach to his splatter movie. He and another Mafioso snag a brief meeting with Ben Kingsley who is clearly confused and a bit annoyed to be in the company of cheese. Lauren Bacall walks by and Ben jumps up to pay homage – as well as to escape the meeting. Later, frustrated by the Kingsley blow-off and disillusioned with the clubby, insider nature of Hollywood that treats him like the amateur he is, Chris seeks revenge. He stakes out Lauren Bacall as she leaves a party with a huge bag of swag. He makes a grab for the swag, but Lauren resists as you would expect her to – until Chris socks her in the jaw and makes off with the loot.

Distressed and sitting on the pavement, attended to by her assistant and a limo driver, Lauren exclaims, “Jesus, my fucking arm!”

Perfect.

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Holy Toledo!

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Every day is like St. Paddy’s Day in Toledo.

Call it the stoplight syndrome. Only after a pedestrian is crushed to death at a notoriously dangerous intersection do the authorities decide to install a stoplight. Prior to death, hand-wringing in the form of traffic studies and cost-benefit analysis serves as a substitute for resolute action.

Last week the city of Toledo, Ohio – a place of 400,000 inhabitants – shut down the water supply. Yeah, you can wash your car or flush your toilet, but don’t drink it, give it to pets, or let your thirsty children bathe in it. And for god’s sake, don’t boil it – the toxicity will only redouble with the release of every molecule of gaseous H2O. How did such a plight befall the hapless denizens of Ohio’s number 4 city? Time for a new stoplight.

Toledo, like many cities and towns along the shores of Lake Erie draws drinking water from the shallowest of the five Great Lakes which together are the source of 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water and 54 percent of the world’s liquid fresh water by volume. Soon these precious lakes could also become the reason why so many people who blithely abandoned the “Rust Belt” for the low-tax, business-friendly, provider of cheap housing (but ultimately parched) “Sun Belt” will return tail-between-legs to the once-forsaken land that now offers something Texas, Arizona and increasingly, California can’t – reliable access to potable water.

But not so fast. While 11 million U.S. citizens who live near the shores of Lake Erie depend on it for drinking water, recreation and commerce, a tiny fraction of rural folk far from the water’s edge who are supported legislatively by a sympathetic yet clueless Congress which in turn is backed financially by special interest groups with deep pockets like the Fertilizer Institute are pouring tons of chemicals into the watershed that eventually drains into the vulnerable lake. For the benefit of some farmers tilling in the Ohio interior – most likely growing soybeans or corn, much of which will be refined into unnecessary ethanol – a vast society along the water’s edge must suffer the poisons and stench of the downstream effects. What happened in and around Toledo was the formation of an algae bloom covering dozens of square miles of Lake Erie surface that produced sufficient levels of toxins to force the city to shut down its water system. Hundreds of thousands of residents, no longer able to rely on the convenience of indoor plumbing, were forced to seek bottled water wherever they could find any. Naturally, the government had to pick up the slack at taxpayer expense which presumably did not offend Tea Party activists in Ohio this particular time.

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Illiteracy on the Fertilizer Institute website.

Nearly a half-century ago I recall the slow but inexorable demise of Lake Erie at the hands of industrialists like paper producer Hammermill and coal-sucking energy producer PennElec. These and other rapists of the land used Lake Erie as a dumping ground for toxic waste, oxygen-snuffing chemicals, and hot effluence that seduced fish to their deaths. Through the mid-1960s my family’s cottage on the shore of Lake Erie in Millcreek Township was a bucolic, summertime-only oasis where we enjoyed water-skiing, built Teutonic bonfires, shot off fireworks, and swam, and swam, and swam. That is until the death-blooms of bloated, silvery fish corpses polluted the surf, and thick, smelly ropes of seaweed overtook the shoreline.

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Wanna buy some beach front property?

My grandmother dumped the property in the late 60s for a song, and died 20 years later just as Lake Erie started to come back and the value of the cottage soared to a figure 10x what she sold for. Hammermill went out of business, PennElec moved on to cleaner fuels, laws went into effect limiting the use of phosphate-based products. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie quickly washed away the detritus and revived.

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Hammermill dumps paper-making waste into the lake.

Now the Lake faces another challenge – this time from farmers who use cost-efficient fertilizers that easily wash away, but because they cost so little to implement the surface loss does not concern the farmers. Will the forces of agriculture prevail? I would bet against it – water is thicker than beef – but the special interests will fight hard to retain their hegemony over the downstream victims.

Perhaps it’s time to pull out the old photos of the fire that raged years ago on the Cuyahoga River. Truly a demonstration of how bad things can get, and a warning not to venture further down the road to irreversible devastation.

River-on-Fire

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