Monday, April 14, 2014

The Crank’s brother out-cranks the Crank. And the laugh’s on Republican recruiters.

If a Republican recruiter calls you, don't
hang up. There are better ways to stick it
to them.
The Crank’s little brother, himself an old fogey these days – and with lots of time on his retired hands – called last night to tell me about his latest foray into politics.

He had joined the Republican Party, he told me, and for only forty bucks.

“Why would you give them a plugged nickel?” I asked him. “Why would you even join them for free?”

“It’s worth it in entertainment,” he assured me.

Seems a Republican lady called him from some call center and asked him if he’d be interested in joining the party. Before she could tell him why, he was telling her.

“Wow! That means I could pitch in and help the Republicans with all their good work!”

“Absolutely,” she said.

“Like we could abolish food stamps,” he enthused. “I’m sick and tired of people eating off the government dole. Let ‘em get a job, or if they say they can’t get a job, let ‘em starve to death in the street, wouldn’t you agree?”

His retort was clearly not in the Republican telemarketing script. The Republican lady sounded flustered. “Well, um, I’m not sure if…”

“And what about all those sluts who want us hardworking taxpayers to pay for their birth control so they can party at our expense? If they get pregnant and have babies, that’s their problem, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Um, well uh….”

“And if they do have the babies, let the babies starve to death. That’s not the government’s business, as long as they weren’t aborted, wouldn’t you agree?

“Err, well…”

“Also, this country needs a flat tax. A flat 20 percent on every penny of earned income, except for people making over $500,000 a year, because those are the job creators and we don’t want to slow down their important work, wouldn’t you agree?

At this point, the poor woman was getting overwhelmed.

“Also let’s do away with Social Security and Medicare. People ought to take care of their own damn selves. If they can’t, let ‘em die in the street, wouldn’t you agree?”

The recruiter tried to change the subject by getting down to brass tacks. She explained the virtues and benefits of a $70 membership as opposed to a $40 memberships.

“I’ll take the $40 membership,” he said. “There’s no way in hell I’m giving $70 as long as the Republican Party is infested with liberal pinkos like Mitt Romney and John McCain. Throw those lefties like that out and replace them with real Americans, like Ted Cruz and then I’ll pay $70. Did I mention how sick I am of people being deprived of their rights to stand their ground? If somebody plays loud music in your face, you should have a right to blow their faces off with a goddamn shot gun, wouldn’t you agree

And so poof, he’s a Republican. 

“I still don’t much like the idea of giving those guys $40,” I told him.

“Believe me, they’ll spend it all on postage and begging me for other things fore six months are up,” the Crank’s little brother said.

Personally, I would have left it at twenty minutes – or maybe with any luck, 60 minutes worth of fun. I say with luck because the object of my game whenever Republicans call, is to see how long I can keep them unproductively on the phone – unproductive, that is, except for my entertainment.

Never hang up on a Republican. Keep them on. Keep them talking. Keep them wasting their time. Make them hang up on you.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The $250 hamburger: yet another demonstration of why we need an excess wealth tax for the greedy one percent

While homeless folks sleep on the streets only a few blocks away, the One Percent,
who will bribe a Congressman with "campaign contributions" to stop a nickel's
worth of extra taxes on their own fortunes but love to see Congress tax the poor
and cut food stamps, can indulge in a $250 "B&;B Indulgence" hamburger at
the Court Hotel in New York City.
Squint at the picture if you must but note, you're reading it right. At the Court Hotel on Lexington Avenue and 39th Street in Manhattan, you now can blow $250 on a hamburger, if you have that kind of money to blow on a hamburger.

Sure, I have no doubt it's better than a fast food joint burger. It's made with kobe beef, not gray slime. Plus it's made with the liver of a force-fed goose sautéed in Sauternes, plus fresh truffles and Beluga caviar. And it's served on a "homemade" "artisinal" bun. Natch. For $250 you get all the gastronomic buzzwords they can stuff into your mouth.

Is it worth it? Probably, in terms of the cost of its ingredients. But remember, only a few blocks up Lexington Avenue, at the side of Grand Central Station, homeless people with home made signs and worn paper coffee cups beg for quarters to they can get a few scraps to eat.

Meanwhile, Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican lackey of the One Percent, resists raising taxes so much as a nickel on the rich, while proposing a budget that would cut food stamps for the poor.

What's that you say? The one percent are job creators, so they're entitled to eat obscenely expensive trifles while others starve? Yeah, maybe they've created a job for one minimum wage worker from Ecuador to pat the Kobe beef into $250 patties and slice the truffles. But that isn't going to change our economy one iota.

However, I cannot resist pointing out that even on her last day on earth, Queen Marie Antoinette (of "let them eat cake" fame) was a job creator, too.

The job she created for one of her subjects, however unintentionally, was Guillotine Operator.

Cross-Posted at No More Mister Nice Blog

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Technology has come to collect its pound of flesh. Start coughing up the cash, sucker.

This is the Silicon Valley business model
I am now the not-particularly-proud owner of four Mac computers. Please note that I am a guy who lives alone in a small apartment and works mostly alone in a small office. All I need is two computers. I could get away with only one, if I had to. All I’d need to do is slip a laptop into my briefcase at the end of the day, and slip it back in at the start of the next.

So why four computers, especially when there’s nothing physically wrong with any of them? As best I can tell, they all still work up to the manufacturers original specifications. The problem is, manufacturers specs are moving goal posts these days, and you have to move with ‘em or die. Maybe even literally die.

My old Mac “clamshell” laptop still writes and reads the Microsoft Office and Quark Express programs I installed on them the first day I owned them. But both Mac and Microsoft– and for that matter Quark Express – have had digital behavior changes since I bought those two oldies.

In the case of the Year 2000 Mac clamshell, document written in the latest Microsoft Word, the one that labels all its documents “.docx” instead of “.doc”, will not open with the current operating system. Nor can you buy an electronic update that will let you convert incoming .docs to .docx. Nor can it deal with the oodles of changes to the way the Internet works. Nor will it work with the latest versions of Quark.

So my old nearly $2,000 clamshell is now essentially an expensive old typewriter.

My 2004 machine is not much better. The old Microsoft and new Microsoft office programs still work on it, as does my 2004 version of Quark Express. But Apple has decided it will no longer support the operating system with security upgrades and other fixes, not even if you or I will pay for them. 

Which means that, if I turn it on, pirates somewhere out there on the Internet can jump into my wi-fi, board the computer, steal my address book and passwords, and stuff their pockets with my bank and brokerage accounts. For a geezer whose earning capacity and savings capacity is now limited, that’s not even a near-death experience. That is death, unless I can figure out how to live on Social Security.

Mind you, most of the changes don’t make the computer do anything I need it to do., or anything most of us need it to do. Nor is this like the “planned obsolescence” that scandalized the public in the 1950s. That kind of obsolescence was merely psychological. If you wanted to drive an old car, you could still get by with your old Studebaker.

The changes in computer technology today exist, I suspect, almost entirely to make sure that people have to go out and buy the new stuff, or else. And the “upgrades” affect Windows users as well as Mac users.

Apple is now sending out warnings that I need to upgrade my third computer, which used to be my office computer until my old home computer became too dangerous to my financial security to plug in. Meanwhile, to avoid lugging a computer to and from the office each day, I’ve gone out and bought the fourth Mac.

Each time this happens, I pay Apple and Microsoft a combined Right-To-Live-In-The-Modern-World Tax of between $2,300 and $3,000. 

If a street thug walked up to you, pointed a gun at your head, and demanded $3,000 to let you live, he’d be guilty of armed robbery. But although corporations are now legally people when it comes to funding multi-million dollar campaigns to support their pet lapdog politicians, they’re not people when it comes to highway robbery.

You see, when Apple and Microsoft demand your money or else – well hey, that’s the way it is sucker. Stand and deliver. Pay up or die.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A musical ode to financial manipulation

If Congress would only restore the Steagall-Glass Act, which separated the FDIC-insured money of depositors from the high-stakes, high-flying money that hedge funds and investment bankers play with, this performance would not be necessary.

A few notes:

• If you slow this performers down and take careful note of every word, you’ll find that the technical descriptions are just about perfect.

• There once was a time when banks could never be too big to fail because each bank was limited to operations in one state. No longer.

• How to stop the financial thugs throwing the equivalent of knives at us to see who can miss by the least? This can be done either through restoration of the Steagall – Glass Act, or restoration of now repealed prohibitions against Interstate banking, or preferably both. But this would be what the Republicans call “Needless, job-kiling government intervention with the free market.” Draw your own conclusion about Republicans.

• The performers in this video work under the unfortunately klunky name, Fascinating Aida. They're clever enough to think of better. Nevertheless, I wish some enterprising Broadway producer would bring these three over to the United States for a limited run on Broadway. They’d be a smash hit. I’ve displayed one of their performances previously, in a piece explaining how consumers are getting nickeled and dimed. (Go here, and scroll down to the end.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

IRS rules bitcoin ain't money. Luddites like me feast cold-bloodedly on the news.

The IRS has ruled on bitcoin
–and some folks ain't gonna
like the rule.

So listen to me, Mr. Hotshot Wave Of The Future:

You think your stash of bitcoin is money?

You think that all us poor schnooks who stuff our wallets with paper greenbacks and plastic are relics of a rapidly dimming past, people who ought to toddle off to the old age home to suck on our false choppers and play bingo?

You think that by keeping bitcoin on a cloud that you access with your computer or your smartphone, that you’re outsmarting us?

Have another think on that, Mr. Smartypants.

I’ve been saying all along ­– well, if not all along, then at least since I began writing about it in late February – that bitcoin is bad economic mojo. I likened it to bubonic plague.

I was not so far off. Turns out, that swelling on your head is a bitcoin bubo in your brain, and that it’s going to give you one hell of a nasty headache.

That’s because the IRS has just ruled that bitcoin ain’t money. No sir, pal. It’s property, of the same variety that penny stocks are property. I suspect that conclusions was arrived at through astute observation by the IRS

At any rate, say you buy one bitcoin for a buck, watch it double in value, then buy a buck’s worth of chewing gum with it and get a dollar change. You now owe the IRS either a buck’s worth of capital gains taxes, or of ordinary income tax, depending on whether you can prove you owned your bitcoin for a at least year before you got your yen to chew on something.

Buy a bitcoin for $581.80, the current rate as I write this afternoon of March 25th, and if the exchange rate falls by $125, you’re also shafted. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if the shaft is getting sped to you on a high speed train. Bitcoin is as ripe for pump-and-dumpers as a mushy banana.

Now I admit that paper money loses value, too, over time. You can thank inflation for that. Currently, every dollar bill in my wallet loses me roughly three cents a year. So if I have a buck in my wallet, I know that by this time next year I’ll still have 97 cents, give or take maybe a penny.

But when you carry bitcoin around in your electronic cloud in the sky, what have you got? Well, probably either a stunning loss in value and its already limited purchasing power on this volatile, umm, property, or a capital gains tax bill and higher accountancy fees for figuring it all out. 

True, even after taxes you could make a handsome profit. But given how volatile bitcoin can be, you could also make a handsome bankruptcy case.

Long live Ned Lud!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Yet another rich guy leaves a mess for the middle class and poor to clean up. And New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo must be thrilled.

Rich guy Michael Bloomberg. He broke
all the toys, and his friend Andrew Cuomo
won't come to your rescue.

It’s the same story over and over again. The rich kid comes over to your house, takes all your toys out of the toy box, smashes them to pieces, and leaves. No apology. No note from his mother. No offer of restitution. No nothin’. In fact, he probably blames the breakage on you.

Somehow it’s usually that way in politics, too. President George W. Bush broke the whole setup, diving into Iraq for no authentic reason at all, “paying” for the billions it cost by cutting taxes, nearly bankrupting the nation, and now sitting at home, nonchalantly painting pictures of his feet in the bath tub.

John Lindsay, a popular Republican mayor of New York back in the 1960s, at least until he was out of office and people started counting the broken toys, left New York such a financial basket case that it essentially went into receivership. The economic fallout from that deeply wounded the local economy and caused a precipitous drop in the city's home prices. Recovery took a decade.

And now we have former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, against whom I have railed almost since this blog was born. The damage Bloomberg has done is more subtle – or should I say more insidious?

Bloomberg hasn’t left his city bankrupt. At least not on the surface he hasn’t. But he seems to have done everything in his power to make sure that the next guy would have to deal with one humongous financial mess.

For one thing, like a rich kid who takes the broccoli on his plate and surreptitiously shovels it onto the plate of the kid sitting next to him, Bloomberg quietly and deliberately postponed all labor contracts until after his third term expired.

There isn’t a union in town representing city's employees that’s working under a contract. Most of the contracts expired five years ago. Some ran out years longer ago than that.

Clearly, employees who haven’t had a raise in five, or six, or even seven years have a beef. And clearly, if they don’t get a raise, they’re going to strike. So de Blasio will have to eat Bloomberg's broccoli and find the money, either by raising taxes, if the governor and the state legislature let him, or by cutting city services. 

There are quite a few other broken toys and plates of broccoli that Michael Bloomberg left in his wake, but let me point to one program that heaped mountains of praise on Bloomberg and is leaving de Blasio with a heap of broken wheel spokes and brake levers.

 I’m talking about the city's bike share program, immensely popular, but now mired in a mess. There is insufficient money to make bike repairs, expand the program, or eventually replace worn out bikes.

Turns out that, with the exception of New York, in every city – in every city that has a bike share program, government kicks in some cash.  How much did Bloomberg kick in? Nada. Zilch. Not a plugged nickel.

To be fair, some of the program’s troubles stem from the brutal winter we’ve had here in New York, which rendered the streets un-navigable for many days. And even when the streets were clear, all but the heartiest New Yorkers found it just too cold to ride a bike through the subzero winds.

 Equally to blame, according to officials, is that tourists aren’t renting the bikes in the numbers expected. Well hell, you’re limited to a 45-minute ride, which doesn’t take you far in New York traffic. And the price is $9.95, which is pretty steep. (Yes, you can return the bike to a bike stand and pick another one up later the same day, for your $9.95. But c’mon, we’re talking about tourists out for a day’s fun, not cost-efficiency experts gaming the klunky bike system.)

And even when you're talking about local folks, the program is too limiting. You can't ride a Citibike from the East Village to the Upper East Side, because when you get there, there are no Citibike racks. And you can't do it in reverse, because there's no place to rent a Citibike on the Upper East Side.

So why is all that Bloomberg’s fault? Because Bloomberg gave not a nickel! Nor did he ask a cent of state or federal government. He got all of the glory but refused either to write a check, or to find another government entity that would.

Hey, why should Bloomberg have worried when somebody else would get stuck with the broken bike share system? That person is Bill de Blasio, whose pressed, pressured, and soon-to-be-clobbered budget has to deal with keeping all those union workers paid, keeping the cops on duty, the firemen on the ready, and the city offices humming – without help from New York’s supposedly Democratic governor, actually a Tea Party yahoo in disguise.

Whatever Governor Andrew Cuomo thinks he’s going to run for next, he doesn’t intend to run for it with any tax increase for anything on his record. And already he’s justifying his inaction with the kind of doubletalk and logical non-sequiturs that would make a Tea Party patriot proud.

The New York Post, which is most certainly far to the right of center, quotes Cuomo talking about the injustice – O the injustice! – of taxing the rich, as Mayor de Blasio proposes.
[Cuomo] charged that de Blasio’s proposal is more regressive than the property-tax system that steers more funding to schools in wealthy suburbs than to poorer parts of the state. 
“If you haven’t come up with a system that is less equitable, this would be it. A surcharge on millionaires,” Cuomo said.
Little wonder that far from the city in upstate New York, protestors at the State Capitol are calling Cuomo "Governor One Percent.

Sorry kids, but Michael Bloomberg is gone, Cuomo has gone Tea Party rogue, and the toys are all broken. Maybe you can put your hand in an old sock and pretend it’s a puppet.

Cross posted at No More Mister Nice Blog

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hand wringing at the Associated Press: neutrality, politics, Pussy Riot, Ukraine, Cossacks, Sevastopol, Crimea, and the nomenclature of geography

O, the handwringing agony AP goes through,
explaining where Crimea is.

The Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, wherever their borders begin and end (the borders keep moving around), are not my favorite parts of the world.

My grandparents fled from that general vicinity, a genetically-challenged horde of remorseless barbarians and rapists called Cossacks chasing them down on horseback from behind, cracking what were probably the very same whips they used on Pussy Riot a century later.

So I have not the slightest yearning to visit the aulde sod. Not ever. Screw ‘em. Chernobyl was what they richly deserved.

As you might gather from what I’ve written so far, I am not a purely unbiased observer. In fact, anybody who can remain unbiased about that part of the world, in my opinion, has a brain made of equal parts of machine parts, fried microchips and sawdust. So far as I’m concerned, everybody there – pick whatever political flavor you prefer – is an odious turd until incontrovertibly proven otherwise.

So I watch with some cold-blooded amusement as the Associated Press gets its knickers in a twist deciding what and where the hell Crimea is, and how to locate it geographically while remaining unbiased. Or at least while maintaining the appearance of being unbiased.

Of course, all news reporting must have some kind of bias. Reporters and editors choose what to observe and report, and what to leave out, and how to arrange what they do report. Otherwise, an AP report of a public execution might begin, "Edmund 'The Thug' Cossackova was hanged in public today in front of a crowd of 1172 people, 42 percent of whom were wearing brown shoes and 61 percent were wearing black shoes while most of the remainder wore sneakers, except for a woman in purple pumps...."

But I’m wandering off-topic. Well, only sort of.

In a recent post on its own blog, those cog-brained Makers Of Important Decisions at the AP wrung their hands and declared:
Previously, we wrote “SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP).” But Ukraine no longer controls Crimea, and AP datelines should reflect the facts on the ground.Therefore, effective this week, we are using the city name and “Crimea”: “SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP).”
 But wait a second, you totally unbiased, always accurate, AP neuterheads. Russia is in the process of annexing Crimea, if not the whole Ukraine, right? So shouldn’t your stories be datelined, “SEVASTOPOL Russia, (AP)?”

Well, err, ah, um, uh, n-n-n-nooo says the AP. Why?  And they explain that, too.
Why not “SEVASTOPOL, Russia” if Russia formalizes its annexation of the territory? The reason is that Crimea is geographically distinct from Russia; they have no land border. Saying just the city name and “Crimea” in the dateline, even in the event of full annexation, would be consistent with how we handle geographically separate parts of other countries. For instance, we just say “Sicily” and “Sardinia” in datelines — “PALERMO, Sicily (AP)” — even though they are part of Italy, and “Guadeloupe” in datelines
So, uh, let me see if I understand this then, AP. When you report from Alaska or Hawaii, which are geographically separate from the lower 48 of the USA, you don’t consider them part of the United States? 
Well, yeah, I get it that you dateline stories “Honolulu, Hawaii (AP)” and “Anchorage, Alaska, (AP) but that’s no different from datelining stories “Buffalo, New York (AP),” or “East Yipsilanti, Michigan (AP)” and both of those are geographically contiguous with the rest of the United States.
And what about Nantucket, Massachusetts? It’s an island, that is detached from the rest of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So shouldn't you be datelining stories from there, “Nantucket, Atlantic Ocean (AP)?” Or, “The Independent Island and Primarily Wealthy Peoples’ Republic of Nantucket (AP)?”
And what about the island of Manhattan, which is not only separated by water from the mainland United States, but also from Brooklyn and Queens and the rest of New York State? If you follow your own stupid rule, shouldn't the dateline from a story about Times Square be datelined, "Broadway and 42nd Street, Manhattan (AP)?"
Once you start going down this road to nonsense nomenclature, dear editors, you're going to get lost  in a knotted tangle of your own underwear. And don’t expect the rest of us to find and untie you.
We’re all too busy wondering what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and whether Putin is toying with World War III. You’ll have to count the angels dancing on the head of a pin all by yourselves, while we look at news reports written by people who concern themselves with the news, not with appearances and politically neutral nomenclature.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Success at last for Sarah Palin! (She makes it to a graffiti wall in Paris.)

Sarah Palin fans now can find her in Paris. She's up against the wall, just off the Seine, in the 5th Arrondissement, either in a narrow dark alley called Rue du Chat Qui Peche or on another narrow street parallel to it. I forget which.

I do not know whether or not the object that the skeleton is holding is a spear. Nor do I know why whatever it  that the skeleton is holding happens to be pointed at Sarah. I can tell you that the cat who fishes, if it ever actually existed, is dead – probably since the 16th Century.

I find it oddly appropriate that Sarah's portrait appears on a 16th Century wall, in a dark alley named after a dead cat, and is being pointed to by a jolly skeleton. Especially since Sarah reportedly has no love for cats and vice-versa, but says she likes to hold fish. You can't make this stuff up.

I have no further comments, nor do any come to mind, but feel free.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Evil Empire strikes back: Mayor De Blasio, New York charter schools, Eva Moskowitz, and the million dollar anti-De Blasio smear campaign

There's something behind the current
TV smear campaign against New York's
 Mayor Bill De Blasio – and concern for
    kids isn't it, despite what the hate ads say.

It was during the televised debates for the last New York mayoral campaign when Joe Lhota, the candidate of the moneyed interests, grumbled that Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio was guilty of “class warfare.”

Lhota did more than lose with that kind of thinking. The outraged city’s voters all but clubbed him to death, with de Blasio taking 73 percent of the vote

We New Yorkers had our say. De Blasio promised, and we wanted an end to outrageously ubiquitous stop-and-frisk policies. We wanted a pre-K program funded by a tax on the very wealthy that would cost the one percenters an average of $973, the equivalent of a small soy latte a day. And although New York’s voters in general had no objection to charter schools per se, we didn’t want these schools operating at the expense of the city’s public school system

Lattes, gelato, and revenge

De Blasio set to work fulfilling his campaign promises. And now, like the Evil Empire’s death star in space, the one percent is striking back. Hey, tax a guy the price of a latte he sips in his limo, and the next thing you know the government will be coming after him for the price of a gelato, too. No wonder the rich are furious.

The vengeful counterattack started with Eva Moskowitz, a one-time city council member, whose current $450,000 salary puts her squarely among the one percent

Moskowitz makes her $450,000 as the head of a charter school corporation that now is benefiting from an onslaught of attack adds that have their death rays aimed at the mayor. More than a million bucks of media spending is reportedly behind the ad campaign. All of that money is getting spent in New York television.

You can’t turn on the TV in the morning, or go to bed a night, without being exposed to the hate commercials launched by De Blasio’s enemies in the charter school establishment. The TV spots are not only relentless, they’re also designed to toy with New Yorkers’ emotions. Who could fail to feel heartbroken for the nicely dressed little kid, a minority kid at that, who looks into the camera and says, “Mayor De Blasio, don’t take away my school?”

There are only, a small handful of problems with this appeal. For openers, most of the public school kids are minority kids, too. And the mayor isn’t trying to close down charter schools. He’s trying to accommodate most of them – even though charter schools currently teach  only a total of 70,000 kids in a school system responsible for 1,100,000 of them. Moreover, the charter schools are using space in the public schools free of charge.  

In order to help a few kids
screw the helpless ones

You can bet the free space is a problem, says Mayor De Blasio. In order to accommodate these charter schools in public school spaces, the mayor says  [warning: lengthy video clip] he has been been forced, in various cases… 
  • To deprive public school students of a science lab
  • To take away the public school kids’ gym
  • To hold lunch hour at 9 a.m. so that the lunch space could be used at noon by a charter school.

In particular contention is P.S. 811, a special needs school, serving severely disabled kids. Eva Moskowitz wants to steal space from those disabled kids for 194 students taught by Moskowitz’s corporation, which, let me remind you again, pays no rent to the city. And she has been pushing for this for quite some time.

A secret motivation? 
Follow the Koch money.

In all probability, Moscowitz’s corporation could take the millions they’re spending to attack De Blasio and use it to rent commercial space for their school. The fact that they don’t do so could make you wonder. Is this really an attempt to get a relative handful of kids educated at a charter school?

Or is it really the campaign for the next election gearing up more than three years too early – all in hope of slamming De Blasio for having the gall to demand the rich ante up the price of a soy latte for pre-schools? And wouldn’t you imagine the education-minded charter school folks would favor pre-schools?

Given that there was big Koch Brothers money backing the trounced Joe Lhota during the last mayoral election, you’d have every right to suspect that this whole charter school fuss has nothing to do with educating a few charter school kids, and has everything to do with getting even with Bill De Blasio for having the temerity to win the election and propose a tax hike that would cost millionaires some of their loose change.

Friday, March 07, 2014

How’s your big interruptive mouth? Maybe my fist could improve it -a nostalgic reprint

Somebody asked me the other night what my best post ever was. Hard to say, dude, but my favorite is my very first, posted June 7th, 2006. It's an event you never forget, like the birth of a first child or a first sexu...nevermind. Anyway, here it is again, inspired by a fit of nostalgia.

You know who I want to bust in the teeth? The waiter who sticks his face between me and the people I’m dining with and interrupts the conversation and the mood to ask, “And how is everything, sir?”

Who’s the idiot who teaches these guys to do this?

The truth is, when the food turns out to be cold, or there’s a parboiled cockroach in the linguini, or you ordered steak and some assistant to the chief assistant bus boy brings a piece of liver to your table instead, lots of luck trying to find the waiter.

Ditto when you want the check and you’re in a rush to make an appointment or a theater curtain. That’s when Mr. And How Is Everything does his vanishing act.

But try to tell a joke and guaranteed, just when you get to the point where you’re about to deliver the perfectly timed punch line, you’ll be interrupted by, “And how is everything, sir?”

You idiot! Your moron! Everything sucks! You’ve just ruined my joke, not to mention my mood and my dinner.

No wonder you flunked out of acting school.

The trick of being a good waiter is to be there when you’re needed and to stay out of the way when you’re not. Nobody needs you to change the subject of the conversation. Got it?

Then get out of my face.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Barbarians at the political club gate! Wall Streeter makes a grab for a New York State Assembly seat the old fashioned way – with a brutally cold-blooded raid.

What's the difference between a barbarian,
a corporate raider, and a political raider?
Read on and you'll learn: not much.

Now comes the next question. Is the raider really a Democrat? Or is he a Republican or a Tea Party vandal in sheep’s clothing?

In the beginning, there were the barbarians. Not the Wall Street kind. I’m talking about the good old-fashioned kind, the ones with the swords, and the maces, and the spears, and the battering rams, and the flaming torches.

They found a target. They attacked. They burned. They raped. They killed. They pillaged. They took what they wanted and then moved on, leaving another hapless corner of civilization in ruins as they went.

Their destructive, merciless, and ultimately unredeeming method of filling theirs pockets – and passing along barbarian DNA by getting to rape women as a fringe benefit – was so unforgettable and so reviled for its anti-social brutality that it its perpetrators have lent their name to other forms of anti-social behavior ever since. These have ranged from a moniker for litterbugs in a 1960s public service advertising campaign, to the perpetrators of hostile corporate takeovers.

Wall Street barbarians:
equally barbaric for their time

You know the quintessential impression of a corporate takeover: the raider grabs a company by making its stockholders an offer they can’t refuse. Then the barbarian rapes the company, breaks it up into little pieces, ships jobs overseas, throws loyal workers with years of experience out into the street, sells off the corporate pieces like a barbarian selling off prisoners at a slave market, pockets his profits, and then moves on.

Now a Wall Street investment banker has brought almost the same technique, and certainly the same lack of conscience, to Manhattan politics.

The victim in this instance is a middle-of-the-road Democratic Party political organization called the Lenox Hill Democratic Club, in Manhattan’s chic “silk stocking district” on the Upper East Side. And the perpetrator of an entirely new variety of political travesty, according to press reports in two different newspapers, is a Wall Street investment banker named Gus Christensen.

The man who bought the votes

A story in the New York Daily News, reports that Christensen wrote a lots of small checks “to cover the dues of his pals who joined the Lenox Hill Democratic Club.”  Incidentally, it’s probably the cheapest political putsch in history. He bought control of the club for $2,600, says the Daily News. A similar report appeared in a chain of Manhattan neighborhood newspapers called The New York Press.

The new voting club “members” evidently had little or no interest in strengthening the future of the Democratic Party. In fact, says the Daily News, among them are “some who neither live on the East Side nor belong to the Democratic Party.”

By packing the membership rolls and outnumbering the legitimate and mostly long-term club members, Christensen, newly married for the second time, got himself elected to the presidency of the club.

This is important because in New York, the local political clubs supply the manpower to solicit signatures for nominating petitions of candidates for office. The Daily News reports “Christensen has aspirations to run for State Asssembly in the 76th district, and presumably will use Lenox Hill as a springboard for his campaign.”

Christensen’s former firm
aids corporate raiders

Where does this political barbarian get his bright ideas? Well, a quick check of his former investment banking firm, Evercore Partners, reveals that Evercore is no stranger to the corporate raiding business. While it has worked both sides of the street, advising some raiders and some defenders against raids, in the last few years it’s worth nothing that it has “advised” on a number of high profile attacks.

Specifically, Evercore advised International Paper Company in its hostile takeover of Temple Inland, a large manufacturer of containerboard. It also advised NASDAQ on a hostile takeover bid for The New York Stock Exchange and Euronext.

One wonders, given his Wall Street associations and his roundup of paid non-Democrats to overwhelm the vote in a Democratic club, whether Christensen is even a Democrat himself.

A secret Tea Party operative?

 Christensen’s evidently total lack of regard for his fellow Democrats causes me to wonder. Could Christensen actually be another kind of character from the not-always-mythical past, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? A Trojan Horse? How do we know his private agenda isn’t that of an ultra-conservative Republican? Or a Tea Party stalwart? Of an abortion rights buster, or an NRA gun nut, or a Club For Growther? We can’t, because even if he ever denies it, who can trust the word of a smash-and-grab political raider?

However, Christensen evently doesn’t even trust himself to say where he stands. He’s simply not talking.

“Christensen declined repeated interview requests, and a spokesman would not directly address club members’ complaints that Christensen stacked the deck before the club’s vote,” the Daily News reported

Monday, March 03, 2014

Nuclear catastrophes for dummies: I’m talking to you, Lindsay Graham

Required reading for
Republicans and Tea
Party stalwarts

Let me start out with a small dose of whatever the opposite of nostalgia is.

I’m talking about when I was in the fifth grade, or maybe it was the fourth grade, back in Nineteen F….well, nevermind the year. What I have in mind is a day when my teacher, complying with instructions from the New York City Board of Education, which in turn was complying with orders from whatever department ran something called Civil Defense, taught us a life-saving drill.

The drill went like this. Out of the blue, the teacher would shout, “Take cover!” And we nine- and ten-year olds would dive under our wooden desks and cover our heads with our arms. It may have looked silly, but this was going to protect us from a nuclear blast and nuclear radiation. Don’t ask me how. I still haven’t figured it out.

Black and blue under
my old school desk

Drills like this continued through high school. I have to tell you that as we grew older, the desks – the old fashioned kind, standing on wrought iron legs that were screwed to the floor ­ – the desks seemed to grow smaller a. A number of times I banged myself up pretty badly, knocking a knee against the wooden seat, or banging an elbow or a forearm or my head against the wrought iron legs. I had angry black and blue bruises from practicing safety.

And the beauty part was, none of it was worth a tinker’s damn. You can’t protect yourself from nuclear radiation by hiding under a wooden desk and putting your arms over your head like a puppy who’s afraid he’s going to get swatted with a newspaper. What you can do in this position is, you can get very nasty radiation burns on your forearms and eyelids before you go blind and you die vomiting from radiation sickness.

Had war ever broken out, the United States and Russia  would have been as done as a porkchop broiled down to ashes and a charred bone on a barbecue grill. We had something called MAD, which stood not for Mother’s Against Drunks, or something having to do with Madison Avenue and advertising, but for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The ultimate MAD men

MAD was kind of a lunatic deal between the United States and the then Soviet Union: you can launch a hail of nukes at us and kill us all, but before we’re all dead, we’ll do the same to you. The beauty part of the deal was, it worked both in forward and reverse. Whether you were an American or a Russian, the warning was the same: don’t start up or somebody’s going to roast your hide even if you roast theirs.

Eventually, somebody realized that given the inevitability of Murphy’s Law, if we kept relying on MAD, something was going to go wrong, go wrong, go…well, you know. A piece of radar would read an aluminum foil pie plate tossed like a frisbee as an incoming nuke. Or some bored-to-insanity soldier in a silo would press a red button just to break up the day and see what happens. Instantly, somebody would launch a counter-strike. And them…kaboom!

So eventually, we learned to live without worrying much about the Russians, and they, without worrying much about us. It was just too MAD. We instead spent our time invading small Asian and middle-eastern nations instead, and later sending home only the dead bodies of our volunteers because, after Viet Nam, we finally eliminated the draft. 

Smart, brutal gangsters

The Russians, meanwhile starting acting like American gangsters with bigger-than-normal brains. They stole natural resources. They stole entire companies, and when the lawyer for one of those companies, a man named Sergei Magnitsky protested, they arrested him and beat him to death in prison.

Sitting on top of this festering heap of corruption and violence is what I can best describe as a crooked ex-cop, Vladimir Putin, former head of the KGB, or whatever they call it now. Putin has a rogue cop’s mentality. If you want it, grab it. If somebody protests, tune him up ‘till he dies. You want the Ukraine back? Send in the troops.

Putin is a very dangerous excuse for a human being, and what he wants now more than anything is to bring the Ukraine, historically a Soviet republic, back under the control of Moscow. So while his troops in the Ukraine might (or might not) be committing an act of sheer brazen theft, the last thing you want to do is walk up to him and tell him his mother is a diseased hooker, and furthermore he can go pound sand up his butt. 

This is a delicate situation. Mistakes happen. And mistakes breed automatic counter-mistakes, thanks to the MAD system left over from the cold war.

Enter Lindsay Graham,
high as a kite on stupid pills

Senator Lindsay Graham has seized on the current situation in the Ukraine like a fifteen year old juvenile delinquent, trying to find out if it’s really true what they say about gasoline and matches. He’s actually only trying to make President Obama look bad now that Obamacare is starting to work, taking a Let’s-you-and-Putin-Fight stance. But he’s holding a lighted match while standing over an open container of gasoline, and anything explosive can happen.

On CNN recently, Graham declared:

“Putin's on the wrong side of history. He's on the wrong side of the law. Make him pay a price. The Ukrainian people are dying for their freedom. I hope we will stand with them. Not just in words, but in deeds.

Stand with them and 
do what, die with them?

Even if you’re not really talking about military action, Lindsay, one thing has a way, as they say, of leading to another. Some homicidal yutz assassinated the crown prince of Sarajevo, and the next thing you know, we had World War I. Somebody today blockades Russia and the next  thing you know…kaboom!

Well, the good news is that if people like Lindsay Graham have their way, we can fan the nearly-dead embers of the Cold War back into a nice crackling campfire. In order to arm for that, we’d have to reinstitute the draft. And once the lives of virtually every American son and daughter are at stake, you can bet the voters won’t be putting up with bullshit like Dick Chaney's Iraq invasion again.

However, a warning. One of these days, just by accident, a cold war across a now-rusty iron curtain could get red hot. And if that happens with Russia, happy Nukeday.

I’d like to leave you with with the heartwarming conversation between a young infantry private in training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and a grizzled old training sergeant, back in 1962. It was during a lesson  on something called CBR – Chemical, Biological and Radiological warfare. And here, I swear, is precisely how it went.

PRIVATE: Sergeant, what do you do if a nuke goes off say, within walking distance? 
SERGEANT: Son, let me teach you what to do by the numbers. One: Ten-hut! Two: At ease. Three: with your feet spaced eighteen to twenty-four inches apart, do a deep knee bend. Four: stick your head between your legs and push it as far back as it can go. And five: kiss your ass goodbye.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Luddites dance in the streets and burn bitcoin nerds in effigy as Mt. Gox rumbles, explodes and then caves in

Okay, so twenty years ago – we could even make that ten years ago – the headline above would have
appeared to be written in tongues. But technology roars on.

In fact, it not only roars on, it roars over us, smashing, crushing, slicing, chewing up, and spitting out what used to be considered the human side of humanity at a fearsome rate.

Privacy? Forget it. Calling a company you do business with and having a helpful live person who speaks your own language and lives in your own country pick up the phone right off the bat? A quaint, ancient custom, now vanished. Fiercely expensive personal electronic equipment that doesn’t become outmoded and turn into a totally useless piece of junk that creates hazards both to the environment and to your private information? If you yearn for that,                        you must be old enough to be living on Social Security.

And now even our
currency is under fire.

Let’s walk this back a little bit. It says on every U.S. dollar bill in my wallet, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

Oh yeah? Try to use your tender notes to get on a public bus in New York City. Tender paper notes aren't tough enough for today's technology-lubed economy. You’ll get laughed back into the gutter by impatient riders  on the bus waiting for it to move, or standing behind you waiting to get on.

It clearly irks the clerk in my local supermarket whenever I reach for my wallet to pay cash for a head of lettuce, a quart of milk, and a pound of chopped chuck. She has to take the money, clear it with her supervisor if I hand her a $20 bill or higher, make change, yadda yadda, while other people just swipe their credit cards. 

She usually gets even with me by hurriedly piling the receipt, loose bills, and oodles of loose pennies into my palm before I can stop her, one atop the other, and gloating when stuff starts falling on the floor and I have get down on my knees to pick it up.

And now, like the bubonic plague
comes the curse of bitcoin. And Bitcoin.

As if credit cards and debit cards weren’t doing enough to drive up the cost of living by forcing merchants, who pay a commission for accepting plastic, to raise their prices, even that didn't satisfy the finance nerds. They had to go and invent “bitcoin” and also “Bitcoin” (whether it’s capitalized or not changes the meaning, but they're related) – a way to pay for things with “virtual currency.”

I’m not going to explain bitcoin and Bitcoin to you. The whole concept is above my pay grade anyway. If you want an explanation, go here. And if that’s too complicated, try here, and also here. And if you still don’t get it –  or at least don’t get why anyone other than a drug dealer or Mafia money laundry would want to deal with it –welcome to the Neo-Luddite Society, brother or sister. Let’s grab us some sledgehammers and pickaxes and smash those, uh…

Y’see, that’s the trouble. There’s nothing to smash. There’s nothing to grab. The new money is strictly conceptual, represented by a string of ones and zeros that you can’t put in your wallet and carry down the street in your back pocket.

Am I truly a Luddite? 

You’d better believe it. Heck, I don’t even have a smartphone. I don’t twitter. I don’t tweet. I don’t do apps. I don’t even text.  I still take pictures with a camera.

In fact, the only reason I have a klutzy dumb cell phone is because the evil devils at Make-‘Em-Buy-It Central went out one night and vanished all the telephone booths from the streets of America. Now, instead of dropping a quarter in a slot, maybe once or twice a month when I need to make an emergency call, I  am forced pay ­– nickel-dime charges and taxes included – around $45 a month for a minimalist cell phone plan.

But believe me, if the B-coiners of the planet ever sell their bill of goods to a critical mass of gullible consumers, you’ll not only be paying for things with an outrageously volatile currency, you're also gonna yearn for the day when the cable company put you on hold for ninety minutes and then disconnected before you had a chance to say you couldn’t get Channel 2.

So you can imagine my joy,when the Bitcoin and bitcoin world was thrown into total chaos, after the collapse of Mt. Gox.

Mt. whut?

In case, like me, you’re just not into Bitcoin and bitcoin – or maybe now we can start calling it “bitcon” – be advised that Mt. Gox is not a science fiction description of a geological protrusion rising out of a steaming swamp and belching lava in a bad pulp novel, in which mechanical steel robot thingies death ray you from their eyeballs whenever their mechanical eyelids clank open.

No, Mt. Gox is a Bitcoin (or is it "bitcoin" in this case?) exchange, where people trade this synthetic currency. It is – sorry, was – the biggest bitcoin exchange of them all, until it evidently went belly up, reportedly the victim of its own slovenly security practices.

But until it collapsed, it was damn arrogant about how good it was. Here’s a recent quote from them, taken from one of their ads intended for international high financial mucky-mucks:
 These days it seems like everyone is talking about Bitcoin, the digital currency that is revolutionising the way people think about money, trade and transparency. Mt. Gox offers a secure and reliable multi-currency exchange so you can trade with the entire world in your local currency. Now isn’t that something worth talking about?
Oh, Goody! A digital corpse!

Not only did these “secure and reliable” saviors of Mankind’s money go belly up, but even better happened. According to Reuters, the President of the Japan-located Mt. Gox exchange, a man with the remarkably un-Japanese name Mark Karpeles, when asked whether Mt. Gox was dead, offered an e-mail reply that is a masterpiece of Zen, uh …no, not transparency. Impenetrability and vague incoherence is more like it.

It is so poetic in its mysteriously uninformative way (no doubt raising the anxiety among coiners who thought they had hefty digital sums safely stashed in the gorge of Gox) that it deserves to be typeset as a free verse poem. And so I will set it that way:

"We should have an official
announcement ready

“We are currently at a
turning point for
the business.

“I can’t tell much much
more for now
as this also involves
other parties."

No kidding, dude. I’ll bet some of those “other parties” have smoke coming out of their ears and murder in their eyes.

So let me add a four-line coda:

That rubbing you hear
Comes from Luddites like me
And what we are rubbing
Is our hands with glee.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Semper Snafu! When some low-level Marines behave like crazy idiots and louts, even the top general starts acting nuts.

General Jim Amos justifiably
tried to kick butt over a scan-
dal  but instead kicked up an
even bigger scandal
Let me start by pointing out that the Marines enjoy something special that none of the rest of us can share.

I first saw it when, as a young man in my 30s, I worked in an advertising agency with old Marines from World War II who had never quite gotten over the experience. 

Their offices always had some kind of Marine memorabilia on display. They shared a bond that most of us could well envy, even if they had fought in different theaters of the Greatest Generation's war. And they shared that bond many decades after their service.

So the Marines, as a rule, have clearly done a lot right in terms of morale and cohesiveness.

That said, it looks as if Marine Commandant General Jim Amos rightfully tried to do something in reaction to the scandalous misbehavior of some Marines in an Afghanistan combat zone, and ended up instead falling into the mess face-first, making himself the focal point of the scandal.

What was the scandal about? The story isn’t pretty. Some Marines, who killed some presumably Taliban fighters, made a video of themselves urinating on the enemies’ dead bodies. Well, warriors do crazy stupid things in combat, but this is just the opposite of what you’d want to happen if you ever hope to win the hearts and minds – or at least not completely alienate the hearts and minds – of the people in whose country you’re fighting.

General Amos nearly had a meltdown.  I understand his justifiable ire, but he evidently did something improper in the course of trying to discipline his troops for this misbehavior.

I’m not going to wallow into the nitty-gritty of this brouhaha. I’m not an expert on military or Marine proprieties, and some of the details have already been reported here. But what happened next shows that misbehaving troops can set off an explosive mess that sends even a well-intentioned general off the deep end.

Seems the Marine Corps Times and other newspapers written for American military audiences saw a scandal in the general’s disciplinary actions and – no surprise here – reported on their findings.

Next thing you know, the General banned the Marine Corps Times from the checkout counter racks at all Marine post exchanges. Yeah, you can still find the paper, if you rummage around for it carefully enough, in the back of the store. But the decision is redolent with the strong whiff of a retaliatory message against a newspaper that reports things as it sees them.

Last I heard, the post exchange stores now “are only authorized to display Marine Corps Exchange promotional materials,” according to the new policy. Exchange managers were told to move the newspapers to make room for the commandant’s reading list and that of the “First Lady of the Marine Corps,” Amos’ wife Bonnie.

And what are some of the books on Marine reading lists? Well, they include some excellent war fiction like Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, “The Red Badge of Courage.” But there’s also a piece of science fiction called ‘Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. According to the blurb for Ender’s Game ‘In this science fiction novel, child genius Elder Wiggen is chosen by international military forces to save the world from destruction by a deadly alien race.”

Hey, what’s more important to a Marine, deadly alien races or stories in the Marine Corps Times about “everything from career tracks, to pay and benefits, family and spouse issues, and employment after leaving the military?”

Now it’s General Amos whose image is in hot water, not the marines who desecrated enemy bodies. It makes you wonder what’s in another book on the reading list, “How To Excel in a Bureaucracy.”