Thursday, April 25, 2013

Kim Jong-Who? Still focused on a Boston terrorist bomb after a week, our memory-starved news media all but forget the threat of an A-Bomb. Quick – somebody run out for Ritalin!

So there we were, almost the entire world full  of us poor humans, sitting on tenterhooks wondering whether Kim Jong Un,  the North Korean bad boy with the worse haircut, would blow the world up.

Morning, noon and night you could turn on your TV or your Internet browser, or smartphone, or pick up your favorite print news medium, and the story would smack you in the face:

Kim Jong-Un was threatening to “incinerate” us.  He had an A-bomb. He had an A-bomb small enough to mount on a missile. He had a missile that could reach South Korea, or Japan, or Hawaii, or maybe even the West Coast. Or he didn't, depending on what you were reading. He was forcing South Korea to want a missile of their own. But in any case,  he was clearly a big fat menace.

Commentary galore! 

And ho boy! Did we ever get opinions! We should negotiate with him. We should not negotiate with him. We should take him out before he takes anyone else out. We should enlist China’s help. We should this. We should that. The talking heads were blabbering a mile a minute. The front pages were full of bad haircut photographs. The op-eds were generously sprinkled with fatwas aimed at the fat boy.

Worse, I suspect that half our nation was really, deeply, intensely worrying not about the bomb, but about who the damn kid’s barber is, and how to make sure we avoid ever getting a haircut in even so much as the same hemisphere as North Korea.

But even if Kim Jong-Un turns out to be nothing more than a bad joke (last heard from, he was begging food from Mongolia; the diplomatic equivalent of looking for a not-too-rotten banana in a dumpster) he’s the kind of joker you really need to keep a close eye on. Which is why I’m surprised he suddenly dropped off the front pages and even most of the back pages, not to mention most of the blogs, e-news websites and twitteria generators of the United States.

Well, to be fair, we had an horrific act of terrorism in Boston, with awful consequences, and it’s no surprise the news media focused entirely on that for a few days. But hey, the bombing was Monday, April 18th, and a week later the news is still all Chechen  pressure cooker bombers and the equivalent of the speech every police beat reporter has heard since the dawn of moveable type from the mothers of murderous juvenile delinquents.  ("He was a good boy, my Mikey. He was such a cute baby. He was never in no trouble before. He always made his own bed. He was at the top of his class in continuation school. Somebody must of framed him.") 

Meanwhile, there has been virtually nothing on North Korean atomic bombers, who could do a lot more damage than you can ever do with gunpowder and a pressure cooker.

We interrupt this drivel to
bring you  more drivel

Still intently shoveling through the dregs of the Boston story, the news reporters and editors are now focusing the Tsarniev brothers’ mother’s state of denial and insistence that the bombing never happened.  And besides, she’s saying, it was all really a plot by the U.S. government or somebody to frame her sons. Hey, stop the presses! The mother of a criminal is in denial about her son’s guilt!

What is it with our wayward news media? Have they suffered a massive attack of attention deficit disorder? Or is it not ADD but amnesia, contracted by constantly bumping into each other while waiting for the next Boston press conference to start? Or is it a pandemic of Institutional Alzheimer’s Disease?

I’d accuse the news folks of being too dumb to hold two thoughts in mind at the same time. But the walk-and-chew-gum theory doesn’t really work. Unfortunately, these news folks are doing many things at once. They no longer can just report. Kind of like the old Hoover vacuum cleaner slogan (“It Beats While It Sweeps While it Cleans”) these guys have to report, while they blog, while they tweet. Otherwise I’d be taking up a public collection to send Ritalin to the press.

No, I blame the editorial high honchos, who must assume that we’re all too dumb to read, or to watch two things in the one day, and thus don’t bother to tell us more than one story at a time.

Unfortunately, this will keep up either until we have another mass shooting in some suburban town, or until Kim Jong-Un incinerates Tokyo. And at that point it will suddenly become:  “The Boston What?”

Monday, April 22, 2013

The cyclists, the drivers, lives interrupted – and then the ghosts

Photograph by Bob Castro

It’s funny – or in this case sad and not-so-funny – how the endless variety of people, places, and events in New York can change the way a day starts out.

I had joined one of the city’s several bicycle clubs this past Sunday morning for a no-stress ride on a sunny day. At some point in the early afternoon, our for-pleasure ride merged with a ride of far more serious intent.

An organization called Ghost Bikes had organized several somber "Rides of Silence" in the city to remember some of the more than 100 New York  City riders who had been killed in accidents with cars and trucks during the past year or so. In a city as big and spread out as New York, there couldn’t be just one ride, I discovered. There are too many places where riders have been struck. And too many dead.

So I ended up with a group that began by pumping up a rather steep hill in the borough of Staten Island to a spot just a past the beautiful and almost bucolic hilltop campus of little Wagner College. It was there that on February 12, 2012, a student named R.J. Tillman (that was him, at right) had left the library around 9 p.m. after studying, to head back on his bicycle to where he was living. 

Somehow, on the steep hill, a black SUV managed to hit him so hard that one of his sneakers flew off. This may not have been the first time the SUV’s driver had been in an accident, since police reported that the car’s front grill was missing. Or perhaps R.J. was struck so hard that the grill was smashed off. It's hard to know for sure because this was a hit-and-run

Ghost Bikes, which is now active not only in the U.S. and Canada but also in  26 countries from  Cyprus to Singapore, had erected a simple memorial for R.J. It’s a steel post to which a spray-painted white bicycle has been chained, and above the bicycle a sign commemorating the student’s death.

The ghost bikers brought flowers to insert in the spokes of the memorial bicycle. R.J.’s parents, who had traveled here from Syracuse, New York, a distance of 247 miles, brought something more heartbreaking: his ashes.

A solemn young woman who was leading the ride and who gave her name only as Jackie read a brief memorial service. R.J.’s parents, grim but stoic, stood by. When it was his parents’ turn to speak, his mother produced the box of ashes. She said she hadn’t been ready to do this the previous year, but now she wanted to leave some of R.J.’s remains at the place where he was killed. She invited others to spread his ashes with her.

It was hard for some of the bystanders to stay completely composed. Imagine: you raise a son and proudly send him off to college full of high hopes and great expectations. Then, suddenly, he's dead. Grieving with R.J's parents would have been enough for one day, but from there we bicycled on to 23rd Street in Manhattan, just off Fifth Avenue. Here, on January 4th of this year, a lovely woman named Jean Malizia, had gone to pay some bills.

At 58, Jean had been working hard and for many years to better herself. She started when she was 16, beginning as a waitress. She later became a bartender, then a cab driver, and then discovered her true calling – helping, caring for, comforting others. She had been studying nursing and was about to take her RN exams. That was Jean, at right.

But one day at 12:20 in the afternoon, she stepped into the street with her bicycle and was killed by a garbage truck from a private carting company. Her fiancé wrote:
The report said the truck was pulling out and clipped her; not true; he ran her over twice. There were no charges made and the driver was issued a ticket for failure to have a fire extinguisher in the truck…really?
Jean’s fiancé reported that the allegedly “clipped” woman was alive for 10 minutes under the truck’s wheels. And as for the driver, “on a bright, sunny day he did not see a 5’8” blonde woman with a bright red bike.” 

There was nothing for us to do but distribute the flowers and contemplate her finacé's skepticism.

Jean's story was read to us in front of the white ghost bike chained to a pole in honor of Jean. Her family stood by, fighting hard and not always successfully to hold back their tears.

One wonders about the police officer or officers who “investigated” the tragedy and decided that a woman lying dying with the wheels of a garbage truck on top of her had merely been “clipped,” and that the driver’s only misdemeanor was not having a fire extinguisher. A New York City cyclist and writer named Richard Rosenthal has wryly observed that in police reports, the bicycle almost inevitably strikes the motor vehicle, rarely the other way around.

Forgotten in all this is that the victims of carelessly driven cars and trucks are not only the cyclists, but also the cyclists' mothers, fathers, brothers, husbands, wives, children and fiancées.

It isn’t only some cops who sometimes have a flippant attitude toward bicycle fatalities. It’s the person in the street, and the person behind the wheel, too. Drivers resent the slower moving bikes, or the necessity of going around them. One driver out in the Hamptons, furious that a cyclist in front of him had slowed him down, once angrily told me, “People shouldn’t be allowed to ride bicycles around here. They’re just toys.”

No sir. A bicycle is a simple, relatively cheap, and pollution free machine for getting around. Your Lamborghini Adventador LP 700-4 is a toy. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

New York City Councilman Dan Garodnik doesn’t seem to care. Not for an unfair glitch in tax laws that screws middle class homeowners. Not for non-profits. Not for anything of consequence.

I’ve made it a practice since I began writing this blog not to bother with political smallfry. I’ve had my say about a president or two. I’ve taken on the Mayor of New York several times. But an inconsequential member of the New York City Council?

Well this time, yeah. And maybe more like this in the future now that I’ve started. Because ultimately, a certain number of crummy councilmen become crummy congressmen, crummy senators, or crummy mayoral candidates. Best to try nipping them in the bud. So first off, a note to Garodnik’s colleagues. If I come after you, it’s because Dan Garodnik inspired it.

What started this all, more than a month ago, was a three-part e-mail to Gorodnik. The most important part had to do with a messed up revision of the city’s real estate tax laws, which left the middle class holding the bag for the very rich. I wrote:

I was surprised and annoyed to learn that tax abatements will be discontinued for New York cooperative apartment shareholders who are not using their apartments as their primary residences. 

While my own apartment is my primary (and only) residence, the building I live in is full of small studio apartments. Since studios are not appropriate for families or most couples, the only way to create a market for these apartments is to allow parents to purchase them for occupancy by their children, or for "grownups" to use these as pied-a-terres. 

The problem is, like most New York co-ops, our middle-class building takes the rebates and applies them to our operating budget. When you exclude parent owners and pied-a-terres, you in effect reduce the rebate that all of us are enjoying in the form of lower maintenance, through application of the rebates to our building's operating budget. 

I've previously lived in Park Avenue co-ops where there were no pied-a-terres or parent purchasers. Those far wealthier buildings will continue to enjoy full rebates while buildings like mine, with smaller, less-expensive apartments will not. 

So congratulations – the City Council has just joined the far right wing screw-the-middle-class movement. I wonder whether you can tell me if any member of the city council even considered this possibility when you were re-engineering the tax rebate program?

As I’ve already suggested, Gorodnik is very small potatoes. The heroic-looking photograph above, pirated from his website, shows him fearlessly daring to stand up and challenge one of the world’s most powerful and dangerous threats to western civilization, if not to all humanity: confusing parking signs in New York.

To be fair, he has also mounted a challenge to something that actually matters – the nasty habit employers have of running credit checks on job applicants. But from the floor of the City Council chamber here, his effort to ban credit checks on job applicants stands about as much chance of having a real impact on corporate hiring practices as a pea shooter aimed at Mars has at kicking up a dust storm.

As for the real concerns of Dan Garodnik’s constituents? Well don’t count on him caring. The other day, I sent an e-mail to his press aide. Or at least to person listed on his website as “press secretary,” one David Kimball-Stanley. I said in an e-mail: 

Dear Mr. Kimball-Stanley,

A month and a day ago, I wrote to Councilman Garodnik via his website about three matters:

• Why he doesn't publish his own e-mail address on his website (although he publishes a link to yours), forcing people who wish to write to him to use a website form, creating more complexity than necessary.

• A complaint on how the elimination of tax rebates for co-op apartments used as pieds-a-terre or bought by parents for their children penalized not only those tenant-shareholders, but also others in the same building.

• An appeal on behalf of a nonprofit, volunteer organization, Big Apple Greeter, detailing what the release of $5,000 in discretionary funding to this organization could do economically for the city and for Councilman Garodnik's own district. 

Again, that was a month and a day ago. I have received no response. I saved the text of my note to Councilman Garodnik… And as you can see, I wrote, "I would be very much interested in your response to each of the matters mentioned above, and would consider publishing your responses (or lack of them) on my blog,, which  has had, as of this writing, 166,799 readers since I began publishing it."

I'm on the verge of doing just what I said I'd do. If you, as the councilman's press officer, or the councilman himself, can get back to me by noon tomorrow with either Councilman Garodnik's response or an explanation as to why he hasn't responded in the past month, I would appreciate that. Otherwise I will feel free to write an article featuring Councilman Garodnik's unresponsiveness in the unabashedly blunt manner that befits a blog called The New York Crank.

Not that I need to remind you, but the Internet is forever.

I had hoped that a press secretary, accustomed to responding on a dime to people covering breaking news, or at least accustomed to doing so when he feels like it, would get back to his boss’s constituent, who hadn’t received a reply in a month and a day.

Silly me. If the Councilman doesn’t give enough of a damn about an economic injustice, or about a nonprofit organization that’s doing good for his city, or about the difficulty his constituents have sending him an e-mail, why should the man’s press secretary give a damn either?

From where I sit, it looks to me like the Councilman rises only to those occasions that might generate some favorable publicity for him, such as girding his loins and wading into pitched battle against those confusing parking signs.

But if one of the eighty-year old widows in my building is overpaying on her rent because a revision in the tax law takes money away from her and in effect hands it over to a Park Avenue hedge fund billionaire, she can go rot. And if you want to write to him about it, lotsa luck finding his e-mail address.

This guy needs to get voted out of office and sent back to a law firm where he can go chase some ambulances.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It’s not enough to redistribute the wealth. We’ve also got to redistribute the work.

I was a college student early in the second half of the last century when I decided that a fellow student had gone stark, raving bonkers.

“I’ve been reading up on something called automation,” she said, “and I’ve learned a day is coming when it will be a privilege to work.”

Actually, it sounded even crazier than you might guess if you could remember the pleasant ethos of almost-fully-employed America in 1957. It sounded crazy not only because the notion that it would be a privilege to work seemed inconceivable, but also because she had a quirk of speech that conjured up images of Elmer Fudd. She said it something like this: “I’ve been weading up on something cawed awtomation, and I’ve wearned a day is coming when it wiw be a priviwedge to work.”

[Note to my friend and fellow former college mate Buce: Yes, it was the same woman who once told you, “I want a man to make my awm feew wike a piece of cown.”]

Where's the 35-hour week
now that we need it?

Not many years later, I heard futurists talking about essentially the same thing, and the coming of the 35 hour work week. Which also sounded crazy at the time. But that was before computers were commonplace and the Internet was invented. [Note: the 35 hour work week did happen, but in France.] 

In retrospect, maybe a 35-hour week isn’t such a bad idea. And maybe it would be even better if it were a 24-hour work week. 

Think of it. With the work week cut nearly in half, we’d be able to re-employ millions of unemployed Americans,  – doing part of the jobs that currently are being done by only one overworked person, not two with bearable work loads. The new work force might include students, just out of school and carrying hefty college loan obligations, who presently can’t find work even as Starbucks baristas. And it might include laid-off Americans in their 50s and early 60s, who are deemed “too old” by human resources hacks to be re-employable, even though some in Congress want to raise the retirement age to 68, or 70, or worse.

But wouldn’t a 25- or 35-hour work week that mean a huge slash in productivity per worker? And if so, how would the loss get paid for?

Yes, it would mean a big productivity cut. And how to pay for it is indeed a big question.

I was scratching my head over that one, until the proxy vote solicitations for the stocks in my retirement funds started coming in the mail. They asked me for  my "advisory" vote (meaning they'll just ignore it) on, among other things, how senior officers get paid.

How the money for shorter work weeks
gets siphoned off by senior corporate officers

One CEO makes a $2,000,000 salary which represents 20 percent of his earnings, which come to slightly in excess of $10,000,000 a year (That's ten million bucks. A year.) when bonuses, stock grants, options, retirement benefits, and other perks from “financial planning” to airplanes get factored in. Another one makes only $1.5 million in salary, but gets $50,000,000 a year in extra "incentives" – and on, and on, CEO after CEO, ad nauseum.

And you thought you’d be well off, if only you could win the big Powerball lottery?

Then there are the presidents, executive vice-presidents, chief financial officers and other C-suite officers, themselves pulling down annual remuneration in the multu-millions. Why?

"Retain" shmetain

The corporate proxy statements always say the nearly obscene pay is necessary to “attract and retain talent.” Talent for what? For firing people, shipping jobs overseas, or simply not rocking the boat? Real talent doesn’t demand that kind of money. Can you imagine the late Steve Jobs refusing to get out of bed because he wasn’t permitted to earn over, say, $300,000 a year? Or Thomas Edison, a century before him? Hey, when you can get a five-star general to risk his life on the battlefield for relative peanuts, not to mention a a private in our volunteer army, why do CEOs need ten, or twenty, or fifty million bucks a year before they can haul their sorry posterior fundaments out of bed.

"Align" shmalign

Almost always, the proxy statements, or I prefer to call them misstatements, will say the staggering bonuses and other "performance awards" are necessary “to align the interest of the CEO with the interests of the stockholders.” That is a lie because if a CEO or other senior officer is not working in a way that is in the interests of the stockholders, he ought to get dumped, same as he himself will dump a $15-an-hour peon who is not acting in the interests of the stockholders.

Remember, all the money that is going into the overpaid officers’ pockets would otherwise, under current laws, either go to the stockholders (that’s real stockholder interests) or get reinvested in growing the company and hiring more and better employees.

The truth is, most real talent – the talent that richly deserves to get rich – isn’t doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the emotional, and aesthetic, and popular feedback. Or for because they’re pushed by an unexplainable internal drive to make a company better, make it more beautiful, make it more functional, make the world change. Or just the urge to be the boss.

Bought consultants
Alas, “impartial consultants,” who are paid only with the direct or implicit approval of the CEO, who nearly always also chairs the Board of Directors...These consultants get hired to determine what the CEO's salary should be. And unless executive salaries continually escalate, the consultants will quickly be out of work. So guess what’s going to happen to executive salaries, year, after year, after year? And guess whose pay check or dividend check the money is coming out of?

On the other hand, if we had a law that either limited executive salaries, bonuses, stock awards and fringe benefits or taxed away every penny after the half million dollar mark, there’d be a lot more money to pour into new jobs while shortening the work week. And that would plow a lot more money into the economy, instead of letting it sit in some Fortune 500 CEO’s bank account. Which would mean prosperity for all. Or nearly all.

Don’t just redistribute the wealth. Redistribute the work, too.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

You don’t want to cheat death? You think it’s somehow immoral? Then drop dead.

You know this country is heading straight down the toilet when a hospital advertising slogan, designed to encourage better public awareness of what people can do to improve their own health and extend their lives, gets pounded into oblivion by the religious right.

Reuters is reporting that this is exactly what happened in Gastonia, North Carolina, where the Caromont Regional Medical Center was forced to drop its advertising slogan, “Cheat Death,” by political hacks kowtowing to religious crazies and know-nothings.

According to the Reuters report by Colleen Jenkins, calls were coming in from ministers and religious leaders “who thought the term was blasphemous,”  a county commissioner explained. The commissioner is also on the hospital’s board of directors.

There had been plans for the hospital to partner with athletic clubs and restaurants to offer “cheat death” workouts and healthy menu options. But hey, that might contradict "God's plan for you." You know what plan I'm talking about. The one where you die at the age of 60, coughing, spitting blood, and gasping for air thanks to lung cancer. And that would be only a few months after they amputate all the toes on your right foot, along with your left leg, thanks to diabetes. I won't even get into that paralyzing stroke.

The hospital is hunting around to find another way to get its message across. But don’t count on it having nearly the impact of “cheat death.”

Maybe the religious leaders would prefer that you “assist death.” Go stuff your face with fries and lard while you sit in front of the tee-vee. And while you're at it, smoke a few packs of cigarettes every day. Isn’t that exactly what God wants you to do, before you grab your automatic rifle and, avoiding any mental health assistance the hospital might offer you, blow away a few dozen children who would otherwise be “cheating death?”


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Have a real nice cry. It's good for you.

And thanks to Comrade Misfit of Earthbound Misfit, the blog that called my attention to this story, called The Teddy Bear Incident.

Just one observation, if I may: there was a time when Americans, even corporate Americans did the kind of stuff that's in the Teddy Bear story as a matter of course. In fact, when I was about five years old, I had friends, still young enough to wear short pants, who deliberately got on the subway and got lost, then walked up to a policeman and reported themselves missing, just they'd get taken to the precinct house where the cops would go out and buy them ice cream. Yup, that was when the only people who couldn't create outrage and total opprobrium by gaming the system were five year olds, and when people at big companies answered the phone and tried to help callers with their problems.

But you're probably not old enough to remember any of this. And your congressional representative probably calls it Socialism.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Everything you always wanted to know about the banking disaster in Cyprus but were afraid to ask

Usually, obscenity is discouraged here at the New York Crank and profanity, while sometimes permitted in small doses, is tightly regulated.

But recently, we found the fellow below, who is even crankier than we are. He seems, in the midst of a meltdown tjat I encourage you to watch, to have performed a thoroughgoing analysis of the situation in Cyprus, the Eurocurrency nations, and even England where, evidently, there will always be a pound. His rant has been floating around the Internet for a few weeks now. But if you miraculously haven't seen it yet, stop everything and watch. And even if you have seen it, stop everything and watch anyway.

WARNING: This video explains, in the highly learned vernacular of a London cabbie, what's wrong with the world, the one percenters, the banks, the governments and the universe. Shoo the children out of the room, strap yourself tightly into your seatbelt and launch the video below.