Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Santa Clause I know and love

'Twas the day before the big day,
And all through the planet,
Bloggers were still kvetching,
Despite the urge -- for once -- to just can it.

Tattered socks dangled from the furnace,
while young 'uns waited most earnest,
Visions of video games jostled their heads,
While mom and dad stocked up on their meds.

A grumpy old father suddenly thought,
a better notion of Christmas couldn't be wrought.
"Santa's never been to a gym, let alone on a diet,
He couldn't make it through my garage, and it's bigger
than a Hyatt!"

Mom fretted over the poor, overworked reindeer,
stuck forever in traffic;
Their shiny SUV still wreaking
highway havoc.

Dasher hadn't dashed in many a year, Prancer and Vixen
were forever stuck in second gear.

Comet was downsized out of a job,
while Cupid was avoiding the holiday mobs.

That left Donner and Blitzen, always on the run,
still whining that Disney's dwarfs had all the fun.
(Not to mention much more colorful names.)

The elves had been on strike for many a day,
making it easy for old St. Nick to be led astray.
They'd been out for but an hour,
when a thirsty Rudolph suddenly muttered,
"I need a whiskey sour!"

The lead reindeer hung a right on this cold winter night;
After all, it wasn't too far to the next liquor bar.

Just a few sips of booze caused this crew to snooze.
And so when Santa awoke, in his red suit bespoke, he simply said,
"I won't shed but a tear 'cause there's always next year."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What handicapped parking says about our culture

A few weeks ago, when a friend brought up the subject of the Steve Jobs biography, he said, "I know why you hated the book." Really, why? I wondered. "He parked in handicapped parking spaces." Well, that wasn't why I thought the book was mediocre (I didn't hate it; see my previous blog post), but it did get me thinking more about what he said, and the more I thought about it, the more it got me to this rant, which is especially timely as we are deep into the holiday season.

The media raves are all about charitable giving, of course, and I applaud that, but what's missing is the charitable giving of a different kind -- that from the heart that has nothing to do with money. Just ordinary small acts of decency.

As many of my friends know, my wife has been courageously fighting back against the effects of a debilitating stroke that occurred eight years ago while we were on holiday in the South of France. It has taken its toll on my personality, much for the worse. My anger and frustration are way off the charts, far too often. And the guilt is immeasurable because my suffering palls in comparison with hers, every day. I have no right to feel worse than she does.

I'll admit it. If a few years after our family dynamic changed forever, if I saw Steve Jobs' Mercedes in a handicapped space and my wife and I needed the spot, I'd have gone way beyond ballistic. I'd have taken a tire iron out of my trunk and smashed every single window. Then I would have made sure that every fender, every quarter panel, the hood, the trunk, and so on, would have been unrecognizable, when he reappeared with his Smoothie from the health food store. (You're thinking, "Is Doug mad yet?" I'm just getting started.) If his widow does anything with her huge inheritance, she can start by thinking about the people whose lives are affected every day by those little blue signs that her genius husband so cavalierly ignored.

We Americans constantly complain about how we're treated in foreign countries. Particularly, I've had to listen to my less-enlightened relatives prattle on about how "the French hate us." They hate us because we act privileged and boorish when we visit their country, that's why. But when it comes to treating the disabled, they're a lot nicer than we are. Trust me on this. Whenever I've wheeled Meg through a European airport dragging two suitcases strapped around my waist, someone has never failed to offer to help. In the U.S., nobody ever offers. Zero. We're lucky to find a Sky Cap in a U.S. airport. In fact, it's sad to say that I feel like it's a miracle when someone holds a door for us. (The big exception? N.Y.C. bus drivers, who unfailingly and uncomplainingly, arrange the handicapped seat and strap in the wheelchair.)

In France, where parking is chaotic to the point of laughable, the irony is somewhat delicious for Meg and me. The French park illegally everywhere, on sidewalks, the wrong way on one-way streets. They appear to continually ignore every single parking restriction except one: they do not park in handicapped spaces without a wheelchair placard. When we were at the supermarket in Vence a few years ago, we pulled right next to the entrance. I hung out our state-issued placard (honored just about everywhere in the world), and Meg read the sign for me. Instead of threatening with a huge fine, it read, roughly translated, "If you take my space, take my disability."

So this holiday season, think about something nice to do for someone who can't do it themselves. It might go a lot further than merely writing a check. (And God help you if I find your car in a handicapped parking space without a placard.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yet another reason health care is bankrupting the nation

Yesterday I took my wife to Rusk Institute, part of NYU's vast medical center, for a rehab evaluation. These visits have been ongoing since her stroke more than eight years ago. We've been to Rusk countless times, and when we checked in she was asked to put her hand on a data reader. For 10 minutes or so, the frustrated receptionist tinkered with the system, and finally began asking her for personal data. This was the third time she has had to go through the drill of filling out the forms. And it's all because of their high-tech "Patient Secure" system.

And I can tell you, folks, this system is so secure, nobody -- not even hospital personnel -- can access it.

The thing just doesn't work. While she was in therapy, I did an informal poll of the various stations where there were hand-print sign-ins, and every single person behind the screen sighed and said, yes, the system is full of glitches. Patients have to keep moving their hand around, and it takes several tries to "read" their palm, if at all. NYU staffers are justifiably frustrated with the system because the medical center likely spent millions to implement it and who knows how much more? to train their personnel. And now the wasted labor due to redundant paperwork is adding even more bucks down the tubes.

NYU medical announced this system earlier in the year with great fanfare, and their literature promises "fast registration for future visits." That's a joke. Sorry. I get very crabby when I see huge IT investments going south. If I were on the board of the med center, I'd be having a stern talk -- or worse -- with the chief technology officer.

The technology is supposed to be 100 times more reliable than fingerprinting; the palm reader supposedly records a portion of the patient's vascular system, which is unique. I can understand why the powers that be shied away from a fingerprint system -- too many patients would opt out due to perceived paranoia about privacy.

But it's obvious that this technology's time has not yet come. It's likely that the NYU hierarchy knows of the problem, but they're hoping it's one of those "let's work out the kinks" situations.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Steve Jobs's bio and what nobody is really talking about

I've just finished Walter Isaacson's book on Jobs, which yielded surprisingly little new material about one of America's most controversial and ruthless businessmen. First, we were all well acquainted with the dark side of the Apple cofounder's persona. That he threw tantrums and belittled less-than-stellar work by employees was well known for decades.

What I didn't anticipate was how closely he tried to shape his image. Beneath that gruff, insanely strange exterior lurked an amazingly manipulative fellow (and I don't just mean his exhortations to spur his employees to make the products "perfect").

He apparently granted Isaacson access to the last two years of his life simply because he believed he was something of a chosen one. The author previously wrote books about Einstein and Benjamin Franklin and Jobs apparently thought he'd be a natural third choice in a series about great Americans. This says at least something about Jobs' out-sized ego, if nothing else. But Franklin, Einstein, and Jobs does not quite have the euphony that he had hoped for.

Was Jobs a genius? Hardly. The term is bandied about in the book so often that the hype begins to hurt your eyes. He was an inventor in that his name is on numerous Apple patents, but he never did any of the heavy lifting. Jobs was a demanding taskmaster, and had a brilliant eye for high-tech product design. Sure, he actually was a tough, in-your-face negotiator when he had to step up to other ego-manical businessmen like Disney's Michael Eisner. He knew how to make a deal, often to his company's advantage. He had tremendous drive; he was able to re-invent his career after being ousted from his beloved company and laying an egg with a stillborn computer with a miniscule market.

Where Isaacson really falls short is that he fell for Jobs's long, subtle con. He was given "access," which meant "more than 40 interviews" in the course of two years. This means he probably had many informal conversations that were perhaps on the record but not very revelatory. There are precious few direct quotes resulting from these talks, so either Isaacson was shy about turning on his tape recorder or taking notes in full view of his subject, or Jobs was incredibly boring and utterly without deep insight during his most expansive moments. Of course, geniuses are allowed to be dull (in some cases, it may be required). But they usually are deep thinkers. Jobs had few deep thoughts, at least within the pages of this book. Mostly, he's shaping a superficial narrative feeding his legacy. Oh yes, he tells Isaacson that he doesn't expect to read the book until it's published, as if that were to ensure that the result would not be a hagiography that no reader would take seriously.

One of the biggest shortcomings of this effort has to do with Jobs's personal fortune. Reportedly, he left an estate of $8.2 billion, which puts him in the pantheon of the very rich. Isaacson had almost no interest in where Jobs wanted this money to go after he died. Yes, he does say that Jobs was not known for his philanthropy. But he never poses a direct question about it. Why not? If Jobs had no desire to give it away, then this should have been made clear. Or, if he had plans and didn't want to disclose them, then that, too, should have been reported. I'm not sure if this makes the biographer look worse than his subject, but it's certainly a critical element in his life that demands some sort of explanation.

Maybe Jobs really wanted this to remain secret so we would think he's a cheap son-of-a-bitch, only to have his widow set up a foundation to give most of it away. If that's the case, and Isaacson knew it, then he's done a disservice to his readers. If not, he's been had.

The reviews of this first detailed look into his life were largely positive, and I'm still wondering why nobody has taken the work to task. Even The New York Review of Books had a tepid analysis.

A word about my personal literary food chain. If it's a book I'm likely to keep (Ron Chernow on George Washington, for example), I buy the hard cover. If it's a book I want to read but am not in a hurry to do so, I wait for the paperback. If I'm anxious to read it and am fairly certain there isn't a place for it in my library, I download it on my Kindle. At the very lowest priority -- a book I'll read but will never keep -- I borrow a copy. I'm glad the Jobs biography I read just went back to the New York Public Library.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New York Times sinks to a new low...

...and it has nothing to do with their typically first-rate reporting.

The New York Times "store" is selling "game-used dirt" from all 30 Major League ball parks for $249. It comes with a letter of authenticity. Hmmm. Game used? How could it not be game used? Oh, I get it. Dirt that the groundskeeper would use to fill in infield divots after the season ends would not be game used? Gee. The Times has really sunk to a disgusting level here. Shame on the Good Gray Lady. Anybody who buys this item thinking it's an "investment" must be incredibly dense, desperate for a holiday gift idea, filthy rich, or a combination of the three. Trust me, $249 for this is not dirt cheap (pardon the creaky metaphor).

The Times, of course, is doing nothing illegal but it is certainly near the bottom of the morality trough. Defenders of this practice will say that the newspaper company is merely trying to extend its brand and make some money because its core business is going down the tubes. But selling futures in a piece of "memorabilia" like this is akin to a Wall Street firm pushing a penny stock on pure faith.

In 1991 I co-authored a book on baseball cards and collectibles, and one of the first things I learned was that a "manufactured antique" was not just an oxymoron, but something of a legal scam. And the letters of authenticity are just another part of the con. If you can fake a signature (hundreds of Joe DiMaggio autographed balls were thought to be sold by a ghost-signer while I was researching the book), you can certainly fake a letter of authenticity. In fact, it's much easier to do.

For years Mickey Mantle had Pete Sheehy, the Yankees clubhouse attendant, sign boxes of baseballs when he was too hung over to do it himself. Later, when Mantle's signature became a real commodity (meaning he was actively selling them at sports memorabilia shows), he signed the balls legitimately, but he also autographed so many that he effectively devalued his John Hancock. If everyone who had a Mantle-signed ball decided to put them up for auction tomorrow on eBay, the market value would drop to less than it costs to buy a clean white official ball at a sporting goods store.

Just think, in a hundred years, who's going to care whether you own dirt from every single ball park in the Major Leagues? Maybe only the person who dreamed up such a low-class idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Robocalls bothering you? Wait till you hear this...

And you thought Congress was doing nothing....

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and I'm already in a bad mood. In fact, I'm pissed off because I've just read about the proposed Mobile Information Call Act of 2011. Briefly, if adopted, it will allow telemarketers to make robocalls to your cell phone (now illegal, with supposedly harsh fines and penalties from the FCC, but you know what that means...).

The industry lobby is complaining that people have given up their landlines and mainly communicate with their cells. No kidding. They're claiming that "important" messages can be conveyed quickly and easily -- flight cancellations and delays, emergency information during power outages, etc. Hah! This is a fantasy, and we all know it.

If this passes, your cell will be inundated with recorded voices. You will be annoyed beyond belief. You will hate your cell phone and want to throw it away. You will be embarrassed in a public setting when you've forgotten to turn off your ring tone and it's an "important" call from an automated voice telling you how to lower your credit card debt. The "Do Not Call Registry" has been a complete failure due to non-compliance, so expect this Act to really get you crazy.

The sponsors of this bill are Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, and Edolphus Towns, a Brooklyn Democrat. in the last election cycle, Terry's biggest campaign contribution comes from the "telephone services and equipment" industry, with Qwest Communications at the top of the list. Towns got money from every industry I could think of, so he's just trying to make a blanket quid pro quo. Terry is just plainly, transparently, a slut.

If this Act gets passed, I will find his cell phone number and call him every day during dinner hour for the next year. Please do the same.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The "Occupy PNC Park" movement is growing...

Some 1,500 demonstrators began a sit-in late last evening at PNC Park, calling for the Pittsburgh baseball franchise to change its name from the Pirates to the "Adventurers." Most of the people, who brought tents and sleeping bags -- an overt homage to the Occupy Wall Street protest -- were either self-proclaimed "real" pirates or dressed in pirate garb. Oddly, nobody seemed to mind that the naming rights to the park -- now in its twelfth season -- were won by a large financial services firm.

The group was hastily organized by a pirate who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "Our group, the International Pirates Association, is offended by the continuing denigrating depiction of our membership," he said, reading from a prepared statement. He said that such a terrible team had given a bad name to a group of people that have been misunderstood for hundreds of years. "Real pirates are Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp," he said. "In fact, I heard Depp can actually hit some and play a pretty good second base, but I won't go there for now."

The IPA, it should be noted, has made millions in Super PAC donations to every political candidate except for Ron Paul, who does not like baseball.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appeared with a bullhorn, saying that he sympathized with the pirates' demands, and would allow the protesters to stay encamped in the PNC parking lot, "at least until the Pirates win their next ball game."

The IPA had been quietly petitioning Pittsburgh management to change its name for the past two seasons, but negotiations came to a halt when management suggested a compromise name -- the Pittsburgh Swashbucklers. This was rejected by the lobby as sort of candy-assed, contending that the organization's constituents neither "swashed" nor "buckled." And the "Buccaneers" name was already taken. One protester said, "We think 'Adventurer' is politically correct and absolutely appropriate for a 72-90 team that appears to be having an adventure every time it takes the field."

Other pirates milling around the tents admitted that they were "there for the party, and didn't really care" what they called the team any more. "Hey, I've never seen such a large gathering of eye patches and peg-legs," said one reveler whose hip flask was filled with -- what else? -- rum. Not to mention all the parrots.

In a CNN interview Mayor Ravenstahl admitted that the pirate protesters were actually welcome to the city, giving Pittsburgh some much-needed economic stimulus. "We'd prefer a TARP-style rescue, but you have to be thankful for whatever you can get."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Think America can't manage its money? Read this

Stupid and stupider. That's us.

According to a study at Brown University, the total cost of the war on terror, including our forays into Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have run to between $3.2 and $4 trillion. All right, let's just say that the estimates were way too high. I'll leave my liberal instincts behind on this and admit that we need a strong military no matter what. So we would've spent gobs of cash just fielding an army even without invading/rescuing foreign nations. Let's say for the sake of arriving at a reasonable figure that the Brown report overestimated by half. Let's just call it an even $2 trillion to be safe.

Now think about two things: the TARP bailouts of the banks and the auto companies. It was expected to run to $700 billion, but it was far less since the troubled assets actually repaid yours and my generous loans. We are still comfortably under a trillion dollars, anyway you do the math. Still real money, I admit, but nowhere near what it costs to trudge around the Middle East for a decade or so in the name of making the world safe for democracy.

Now, let's talk about what's going on today in the European economy. Greece is a mess; every day I wonder when they will begin selling the Parthenon to the Chinese (not a bad idea, really) to keep from going under. But what's more troubling is that Italy's bond market has gone to 7 percent, indicating that the domino theory of the ever shaky European economy is spreading throughout the continent. My guess is that Spain will be next. Unemployment there is twice what it is in the U.S. -- yes, folks, near-Depression level at 20 percent. Who's willing to argue that Spain's finances are not also in peril?

The U.S.-European economy is joined together at the hip. No need to explain that. Greece, Italy, Spain and the other European Union member nations generated 20 percent of the world's GDP in 2010. As the U.S. goes, so goes Europe. As the U.S. and Europe goes, so goes the rest of the free world.

Like it or not, one way or another, the American taxpayer is going to be on the hook for the European economic crisis. That's one reason the stock market is bouncing up and down like a Spaldeen every other day.

So my modest proposal is this: what if we still had some of the money -- say just half of what it cost, a trillion bucks -- that we blew in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and used it for a TARP-like bailout of the European countries now in distress? If the U.S. could get 7 percent on its loans to help our allies, I could live with that kind of risk. Couldn't you?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Phone companies: the scum also rises

Remember when you were a child? One phone company, Ma Bell, a regulated monopoly, supplied the entire nation. Long distance calls cost a fortune, but at least you could understand the bill. We always had the simple black wall or desk phones; made by Western Electric and owned by a much kinder and gentler AT&T. The phones were indestructible. You could throw a major hissy fit and barely dent them. My friends whose families had more means than we did sported phones with colors that matched the decor; the girls had those little Princess handsets that lit up.

Today, I get so many bills with so many extras, it gets me nuts every time I open an envelope. Verizon once charged my business phone for 18 months on an account that I had switched. I failed to notice (yeah, how could I?). Try getting someone to actually answer a phone at a phone company. You'd think they were in the business of communication. They made it incredibly difficult to get a refund because they couldn't find the account (they had switched software, heh, heh, for want of a better explanation and thought I'd been scammed by someone) Still, they cashed my checks regularly. It took months to sort out.

But AT&T and T-Mobile, especially in the wireless domain, are equally frustrating and awful to deal with. T-Mobile is only good in Europe. The reception in the U.S. is still spotty after all this time, and the sales reps know it. The thing that really gets in my craw about AT&T are their collection measures. First of all, they're billing you in advance for the monthly service part. So they get to use your money before you actually pick up and dial (or rather press buttons). If you're even a few days late, you get a "final disconnect notice." Once I called them (a ridiculous waste of time, I now know) and said, "Hey, I never received a first disconnect notice." They replied that they don't have one. They go right to the final to make sure they get your attention.

As for their mobile service, AT&T will barrage you with text messages and voice mails telling you that they have an urgent issue to talk to you about. This urgency involves your being one or two days past due. I hadn't figured this out until one month my son (who is part of a three-line plan) called me and said, "Um, Dad, our service has been disconnected...did you pay the bill?"

As for dropped calls, that would take another blog.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why I get the willies when I'm asked to download the "latest version"

There are too many computer programmers in this world with not enough to do. I know this because so many apps, so much software is "improved" to the point where they become kludgy and impossible to use once you've figured them out and have gotten comfortable using them for several years. I never understood why companies had to come out with version 7.0 when 6.0 worked just fine and one more iteration meant very little added value. Oh, of course, it was a matter of money!

I've been a Quicken user since 1998, and when I upgraded my hardware this year, the new processor would not accommodate the software. So I had to buy a new version -- uh oh, I'm nervous already -- that was immediately not backward compatible. I had to spend a week sending my files to some place in India where they converted them to work with the new program. And then they lost all the creditor address information, which I've had to re-input all over again. This is the second time Intuit has screwed me. The first was on the eve of Y2K. They sent me a free upgrade, which, of course, had the same problem. All sorts of data that was previously inputted disappeared. I now hate this company and will never deal with them again. I buy my checks from a third party supplier.

Has anyone out there loved, the movie website that has compiled more data about film than you can imagine. But it's also useful for finding out what's playing in movie theaters down the block. Recently, they did an update to the site. Uh oh. You guessed it. Now, it's almost impossible to navigate so you can find out movie times in your area. The old site was easy. You typed in your zip code and the default setting was all the movies within your five-mile radius. Now, no matter how much I try, I can't do this any more. So I just Google the movie and my zip and/or go to Fandango to find out what's playing and when. The folks at just couldn't leave well enough alone.

Microsoft used to do this every couple of years with their far superior Word program. But they've gone through so many iterations by now that it actually works fairly well. I can even open up very old files (but not all of them).

Am I hallucinating, or does anyone else out there have the same issue?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chuggers, scam artists, and street hustlers

Once years ago, I was briskly walking across 57th Street in a fairly heavy rain during rush hour, when a guy bumped into me and dropped a brown paper bag on the sidewalk. I stopped, he picked up the bag, and showed me a broken bottle of expensive Scotch. He made it sound like my fault -- somewhat politely -- and then asked me for $20. I knew it was a standard scam right away (the bottle having been broken for previous street heists) but I was intimidated and didn't want to get the guy angry, so I said, look here's a couple of bucks. I knew it wasn't my fault. He accepted my "discount" offer. I warn tourists about this all the time, especially when the scammer has a broken pair of designer eyeglasses in the bag, and he's asking for $80 or more. It's amazing how often it works.

The more upfront and "legitimate" hustlers pose more interesting problems, and of course more thought. Hey, it's New York. This is a tough town.

The other day on the 7 subway line on the way to Queens, a young guy boarded my car and made a polite announcement about how he was a poet struggling to make a living. He then recited a decent enough poem, and passed the hat. I gave him two bucks. Yeah, I have a soft spot for whomever puts the touch on me in the name of literature, but street donations for me are really all about my current mood. It's also about whimsy; after all I'm a hardened urbanite.

Mostly, I admit I'm a curmudgeon who can't stand the lack of creativity of street hustlers. The worst are the yupsters on Broadway with clipboards asking whether I can spare a few minutes for the environment or gay rights. These types are known as "chuggers " in England, for "charity muggers." I can't stand them because their modus operandi is to make me feel guilty for not stopping and listening to their spiel (and making a donation to their cause). It may not even be their cause, as they get a commission on whatever you give. If one of them just said, "Look, I'm out here trying to make a buck, and I'm dead broke, and I don't even care about this, and if you donate fifty bucks I get five, so please, I'm desperate," I'd consider it. When I smile and say, no thanks, they say, "Have a nice day!" in the most chipper tone (and phony) way possible. Now I really hate these folks.

If a bum asks for some spare change and says, "Can I borrow some money? I need to get a bottle," I'm easy. I like honesty. I don't need to see his credit report.

The immigrants on the subway are more difficult to deal with intellectually because most are likely illegals, and they're desperate as well. And since I'm pro-American, hopelessly liberal, and fully understand our country was built by immigrants from day one, I have mixed feelings. I'm usually buried in a book on my Kindle, and on they come in trios -- guitar, banjo, and singer -- trilling out a tune, hoping for spare change. I often feel bad when I don't look up and worse when I don't reach in my pocket. Half the time I'm tempted to give them a dollar just to not play in front of me but there's no gracious and polite way to make this offer. So I silently stew, and I sometimes feel guilty.

Here's a weird thought: why doesn't the city make several subway stops places where street musicians can legally play? Have a contest? Any kind of competition? First come, first play? CD sales only with a permit, okay? (Publicize this instead of telling us how great their service is.) Quality wins out in the Big Apple, and if you can't cut it at the end of the shuttle line at Grand Central, you need to work your way up somewhere else. Once I saw a classical string quartet at this coveted spot -- obviously students slumming -- and the crowd was just throwing paper money at the open violin case. I added to their haul.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why hospital ads are sickening

I picked up The New York Times Magazine early this morning, casually opened it up, and there was a two-page ad for Lenox Hill Hospital with the head, "We had cardiologists before the city had arteries." A clever line by a talented copywriter. And the kind that still gets me all bent out of shape. The ads from the pharmaceutical companies and the hospitals that have been running for years, beckoning us to be narcotized and then treated. The competition for our bodies has gottten me unglued.

The ad might as well have been entitled, "Thinking about having your next heart attack? Why not have it at Lenox Hill?" Have another greasy, high-cholesterol dinner, and just call us and make an appointment! Before the media blitz of the last several years, elective medicine was merely word-of-mouth referral, and it worked pretty well. You went to your primary care physician, and if you had a problem, he or she referred you to a specialist. We didn't need medical institutions trumpeting their specialties and list of outstanding doctors. As for an emergency, I'll tell you this: if I'm lying flat in an ambulance and conscious enough to look at the heart monitor and my pulse is ebbing, I don't really care which hospital I end up in.

When I had serious problem with my aorta that required major surgery nearly 25 years ago, I was maniacal in due diligence. I sought out the top three surgeons in New York City that had the most experience in dealing with my condition (which although not extremely rare, was nonetheless unusual in adults). I interviewed all three extensively before making a decision. I didn't need a half dozen hospitals beckoning me for my business through advertising.

In 2008, the last year for which I could find a quick stat, medical advertising reached $1.23 billion, double the spending of 1999. Well, a billion dollars doesn't seem like much any more, but that kind of money would have bought a lot of health care for needy kids, and others who've lost jobs and no longer can afford health insurance. That's a billion-plus down the tubes every year, and probably a lot more now.

Think about it. Every time you see an ad for a hospital, it's money not spent on doctors, nurses, aides, and the facility itself. We should be ashamed at this behavior.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bloomberg Never Has a Plan B

While I have no confidence that bike sharing will work in NYC the way it does in Paris, I did think that congestion pricing -- a la London's inner city -- would have worked in Manhattan had Bloomberg simply modified his original idea and offered a Plan B.

If you recall, congestion pricing would have charged a toll for vehicles traveling in midtown during peak business hours, and presumably would have scaled lower for those entering off-peak. The plan was stillborn, however, because all the small businessmen -- many contractors with vans and small trucks -- in the outer boroughs went ballistic about not wanting to shoulder yet another tax just to work in the Big Apple. Their local politicians heard their pleas and sent a loud message to the Mayor's Office.

Bloomberg did nothing in the way of low-key lobbying -- like making trips to Queens and Brooklyn to explain how a reduction in traffic would make sense and actually reduce their non-revenue producing time on the streets. For you out-of-town readers, traffic is reduced to a standstill in New York because of trucks blocking cross-town streets while making deliveries. (During warm days at lunchtime, vehicles making left and right turns are often stuck because of the hordes of pedestrians crossing the streets. Bloomberg's effort to ban turns on crosstown streets has done little to alleviate traffic.) At the height of the business day, you can walk from the East River to the Hudson River faster than any vehicle between 34th Street and 59th Street. You don't even have to walk fast.

Here's my solution: He could have put in a plan where any commercial vehicle entering midtown during the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m. paid zero. Then step up the toll incrementally so that the highest fees were levied during rush hours. This might have been an incentive for delivery trucks to work the lobster shift. He could have offered a tax incentive to any building that kept their delivery bays open during these hours, enough to pay for the security and extra help necessary to accept packages. When office moves are made, they're often made well after business hours, so this is not a big deal. And as for tax breaks, the city is famous for doling them out as soon as a large company threatens to move across the river to Jersey.

Would it have worked? I don't know. But at least my plan had some logic around it. Again, my problem with Bloomberg is that he never has a Plan B. It's always, this is it, take it or leave it. And more and more, everyone is leaving it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Public Officials and the Dead Fish Smell

By the time they're on their way to serve a third term, even the best elected officials from either party begin to stink up the joint. It's just the way it is. Anecdotal proof. Ed Koch started out as a decent mayor in NYC, finding his footing during the first four-year term. He was re-elected because of his sound democratic (lower case) values. Cared about the poor and the working class, didn't piss off Wall Street too much, and was friendly to tourists and businesses. Then the third term he just coasted. By coasting I mean he became merely a titular head of the Big Apple. He didn't really do anything, and you can't get away with that laissez-faire behavior in the city that never stands still. You can tell when they're done when they just show up at social events, at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, and at firefighter's funerals. Koch was a liberal in a town of knee-jerk liberals, but by the time he left office, nobody in the city could stand him.

Gov. Mario Cuomo, whom I had the privilege of working for during his last administration, made a cogent remark to me about three weeks before he was defeated for a fourth term by George (nobody's ever heard of me) Pataki. We were in the pool house at the Executive Mansion working on a speech. The Governor looked weary, his shirt collar loosened, one of the few times I ever saw him without a tie on. He had his watch off, next to the speech. The polls were basically telling us he was about to be an ex-Governor. He said, "You know, I'm running against myself." And I knew right away what he meant. After 12 years, everybody just got tired of Mario being Governor. He knew it, I knew it, and the voters knew it.

Mike Bloomberg's career is following the sort of arc of both Cuomo and Koch. He's nearing the end of his third term, and New Yorkers who voted for him him two or three times no longer can stand him. I didn't vote for him in the last election, simply because he maneuvered the city council to repeal term limits. You can't act like a king in this town and get away with it forever. I refer you to Jimmy Walker. Google him to see how his tenure ended.

Bloomberg had made some memorably bad decisions. His transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn is a complete bozo. She's the one who decided to put in bike lanes all over the city and then commissioned a study to see if they were feasible. You never see a delivery person or a messenger in a bike lane. You hardly ever see a bike in a bike lane. Now we're bringing bike sharing to the city, a la Paris, where it works very well. It will be a disaster here. Why? It's a different culture. I guarantee there will be accidents, breakdowns, and city lawsuits up the kazoo. I hope NYC's liability insurance is in date.

Dan Doctoroff, the mayor's major guru, tried to sell the city as an Olympic venue and there was no way he could gussy up the Big Apple to even make the finals. Why? He wanted to build a stadium on the West Side, which was a non-starter for too many reasons. You could have had the Olympics in NYC if you held all the events in the four boroughs other than Manhattan. (Archery in Central Park, and the marathon could have been held there and traffic would be no worse than the miserable way it is every day.)

In my next blog, I'll rant about congestion pricing, which Mayor Mike also screwed up, even though it was basically a good idea.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The U.S. is first in war, and that's about it

When Obama gave his jobs speech a month ago, I thought he proposed a sensible approach, with initiatives that reflected FDR's during the Great Depression. I gave him high marks for content. He sounded one note, however, that was positively insincere to my ears, and I don't think it was intentional. Toward the end of his address, he said that America could be Number One again. He delivered this line with the required emotion and animation, but I didn't believe him. I don't think he believed it himself either. He sounded like the coach who still thought his team could win when they were down by two touchdowns with 2:45 to go in the game. Possible, but highly, highly unlikely.

Purely and simply, America has seen its best days. We're falling behind in education, health care, and all the other benchmarks in comparison with the countries in the free world. And it's irreversible, even if we chart a new course. Why am I so down on our prospects? It's merely a matter of the macro numbers. China and India will soon overtake us as the big dogs on the planet because they each have more than 1.3 billion people. We have only 300 million. Together, these nation have a third of the earth's population. Another football metaphor: If one high school has 2,000 students and another has only 500, which school do you think will have the better team? The talent pool is what matters. Yes, outsourcing is a bitch, folks, but the jobs that have disappeared from our shores and gone to Asia is simply because they have enough people to do manufacturing jobs at much lower wages. Not saying it's right, just that it's real.

India and China's middle class are approaching, if they haven't already exceeded, our entire population. Sure, they have many of the same intractable problems that our democracy has. But that won't matter either, because neither of these countries will fritter away the kind of money our government does when it comes to wars.

The breakup of the Soviet Union was the best thing that happened to that part of the world. Why? The Russian ego decided to ratchet itself back. The Cold War between the Soviets and the U.S. does seem pretty quaint right now, doesn't it? All those little spin-off countries, now independent, seem to be doing okay. I half expect Chechnya or Uzbekistan to field a basketball team that kicks our dream team butts in the next few years. And what of it?

Yes, we continue to think our defense budget -- not to mention our propensity to intrude on foreign soil when it looks like it's in our best interests -- is the most important item on our agenda. We all know why we do it. First, to try and keep contractors busy and employ a volunteer army, and second, because we have this very noble notion that we are the world's peacekeepers. Golly, let's foist democracy everywhere we can, and just put it on plastic. We can offer practical humanitarianism in so many other ways, and at a far cheaper cost. Uh, almost forgot. There's the "war on terror" which we can never win, as our brilliant international experts constantly remind us.

America seems to have lost its way. I have more faith in our president than anyone else on the horizon for the next four years, but he's cheerleading for a team that no longer cares about winning. They just want to get up in the morning, go to work, and feed their families.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Yankees

There's something poetic about the death of Steve Jobs and the Yankees elimination from the post-season occurring within a day or so. Jobs and the Bronx Bombers were/are all about competing, trying to be the best you can be. Jobs and the late George Steinbrenner, in fact, had a lot in common. Both were maniacal leaders, caustic and often angry when things didn't go their way. The petulance was part of their personalities, and nothing was ever going to change that. They cared not about being liked; they cared about inspiring whoever worked for them to step up their game. I'll wager that even those who couldn't stand their style or their behavior respected them anyway. Yes, neither guy was particularly politically correct, and every journalist in the world knew they'd speak their mind. Jobs and George were "good quotes."

I'm not going to quote any Jobs in this blog -- he's been quoted enough, especially in his Stanford commencement speech, which will soon be known as the "Gettysburg Address of Silicon Valley." Say what you want about Jobs, but one thing everyone knew: he hated losing. Who else would fight a name-copyright lawsuit with the Beatles' brand with such vigor?

It's hard to be a Yankee fan in these times of corporate money grubbing, but I fell in love with this team as a little boy simply because they always won. After ARod struck out to end the season, I flipped off the tube and just thought about Billy Beane's great quote: The only thing that counts is winning the last game of the season. Derek Jeter said it best this morning when he talked about winning or losing. It's black and white.

So what's the point? We all compete, whether we like it or not, and less with others than we do with ourselves.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Damon Runyon, who knew a few things about winning and losing, and a whole lot more about odds-making and gambling: "All life is 6-5 against." Grab it while you can.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The philanthropy conundrum

We're getting toward the end of the year, and your mailboxes and mine are flooded with the inevitable solicitations to give to your favorite causes. If you're like most people, you give this some serious thought. How much should I spread out my donations? What charities can I help with my modest contributions? Which ones have the lowest overhead and put the greatest percentage of their dollars to actually doing some good?

It's not easy figuring all of this out. There are web sites, which try to give independent ratings to various causes, do make it a little easier to make decisions. I especially look a little harder when there's a natural disaster (the Japanese tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc.).

One particular thing that has begun to bother me: there has become a certain desperation among charities to sell your name and address to others (often other causes within the same space). And some charities, once you've sent some money, decide to inundate you at a much higher frequency than before, thinking that you are about to open up your checkbook again, and right away. This is sort of annoying. I understand that we're in the middle of tough times, and when people are struggling with their monthly bills, the last thing on their mind is sending money to feed the homeless. Buy a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 hungry New Yorkers, and suddenly there are a half dozen Meals on Wheels-type organizations knocking on your door.

But now, more than ever, I've begun eliminating those causes that simply won't let you alone after that first donation. And if they're on the phone, forget it. You know who you are: various police and fireman's benevolent groups may be the worst offenders.

I'm not immune to the fact that the solicitors are often third-party hires to drum up business, and this further complicates things (as they need to make a living, too).

For now, I'll mention a couple of outfits that I particularly like. Doctors Without Borders and the Doe Fund. Both outfits do not make extensive appeals, and the Doe Fund's executive director manages to scrawl a nice hand-written thank you on the form letter every season.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jose Reyes on how not to play the game

By now, most of us know that Jose Reyes won the National League batting title yesterday, and the way he did has caused a lot of controversy among the baseball punditry. Basically, he played 12 minutes or so in the last game of the season, going 1-1, on a bunt single. He then took himself out of the game, with manager Terry Collins's blessing, so that his batting average was safe and that he would thus seal the deal.

Well, fans everywhere know that Don Mattingly played the entire last game of the 1984 season when he edged out teammate Dave Winfield for the batting title. Mattingly had to go 4-5 to do it, and the margin was only .003. I remember this game well because I was lucky enough to see it up close -- sitting a few rows behind the Yankee dugout with my wife, Meg, and my friend F.X. Flinn (it still amazes me how he procured these seats). Applause greeted both Don and Dave every time they returned to the dugout. These guys understood that you play the game hard, and you play it every day, even when the outcome is basically meaningless.

I wonder if Reyes knows about this. I wonder if he knows that Ted Williams played an entire doubleheader (going 6-8) on the last day of the 1941 season when he became the last player to hit .400 for an entire season. Yeah, he probably knows it and doesn't care. Because his agent probably has some clause that gives him extra bonus money for achieving the goal. How classless. Reyes couldn't carry Williams's cummerbund, let alone jock strap.

The capper of all this was Terry Collins, who apparently wept at Reyes's achievement during a post-game press conference. Hasn't Collins seen "A League of Their Own" with Tom Hanks?

On the talk shows this morning, several debates surrounded the issue of fans paying a lot of money to watch a ball game, and how disappointed they must have been when they saw the Mets star leave the game so abruptly. As a ticket buyer, I'd be furious. But it's even worse when you consider how many dads and moms took their kids to the game, and these kids wanted to see a hero/role model play the game. Gee, how do you explain it to them? Reyes cheated the kids, that's all.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why I Hate the Grammys

I love music as much as everyone else, and I have a rather ecumenical view of those who are partial to a particular genre -- classical, jazz, rock, rap, hip-hop, country, R&B. But the Grammys, which are technically given for artistic achievement in the world of recorded music (and supposedly not beholden to chart position or sales), signify our overabundance of awards and award ceremonies.

It's just gotten way out of hand. In 2010, there were 109 different Grammys handed out to those achievers in the music community. I'm certain everyone who received one of those little statutes felt terrific, and their fans felt almost as good. But 109? Come on. Do we really need number 93, "Best Remixed Classical Recording?" Or "Best Album Notes?" Or "Best Boxed Set or Limited Edition?" Is anyone connected with any recording
not nominated at some time in their career?

This propensity to make everyone feel good has cheapened artistic achievement, and if anything, it shows that those who work hard to create and choose not to really "compete" are the classy ones who are worth remembering. Jean Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize for Literature; Le Duc Tho also turned down the Peace Prize, claiming there wasn't anything that resembled peace in Vietnam in 1973. Brando turned down the Oscar for Best Actor in The Godfather, less because he didn't believe in awards than he thought the American Indians were still getting a bad shake in America. I do recall Dustin Hoffman graciously making reference to all those actors out their who were struggling just to get a job when he took home his statue. Those who persisted every day, forging ahead despite the rejection, were the true achievers and deserve some recognition.

I guess this is why I still like baseball so much, despite all its foibles. There are only a half dozen or so awards given out in each league every year, and I can still name them -- Cy Young, MVP, Gold Glove, Rookie of the Year. There are no awards for best bullpen catcher or third-base coach. Those guys know who they are anyway.

Every few quadrennials, there is some threat or other of one of the major nations to boycott the Olympics. I remember during one an elite marathon runner was asked how he felt if his country withdrew and he missed his chance at a gold medal. His reply was sort of ho hum, and what I remembered was that he said something like the marathoners didn't care. They could all run without numbers or uniforms and it would be just be fine by them. What class. All about the journey. And knowing within their little community who was best on a given day.

Otherwise, we're simply Bestowal Bloated and should think about toning it down some. Best efforts often go unrewarded. So why are we making a pathetic effort to keep adding to this pile? Maybe mankind is suffering from a collective lack of self-esteem?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Trouble With Gold Star Syndrome

As a follow-up to yesterday's blog, I want to take a moment to complain about our propensity to overpraise our kids to make us feel better as parents. If you haven't read it, listen to the argument of Lori Gottlieb who wrote a provocative cover story in the July-August issue of The Atlantic called "How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." When I saw the cover art -- a huge gold trophy inscribed GOOD TRY, I smiled.

My son Jake played soccer for five years, and he wasn't very good and finally confessed years later that he hated it. I apologized. He should have just up and quit, but of course he didn't because he didn't want to disappoint his parents. (His street hoop game is pretty good, however.) I recall that he brought home trophy after trophy every season for simply showing up. In 1998 the West Side Soccer League even gave me a medal for my "commitment and service," presumably for setting up goal posts and painting the lines on blustery weekend mornings. The medal was larger than the one I won for finishing second in the New York State Wrestling Championships in 1967. The sacrifice, sweat and the hours of hard work that went into that little quarter-sized emblem was incalculable. I also remember a college wrestler winning an NCAA title make a telling comment to his beaming high school coach: "I wouldn't care if all they gave me was a postage stamp."

I know parents are trying to do the right thing. I realize that we're all struggling every day for that zen middle ground between humility and arrogance -- confidence without sounding off like a jerk? I guess -- but we've lost our way. Let the kids fail occasionally and then help them pick themselves up. It's a continuing life lesson, and the earlier they can handle it the better off they'll be.

I'm certainly proud of a lot of the things my son has done, but one thing he did really made me feel good. He tossed all those meaningless trophies that he had. Just cleared the shelf one day and never said a word about it. He knew all along. But I still have that little token that signified that on a Saturday a long time ago I was the second best wrestler in my weight class in New York State.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hero Worship Gone Amok

About a dozen years ago, I went on a job interview to write speeches for a prominent high-tech executive on Long Island. While waiting in the lobby of the steel and glass building, there was a bronze sculpture prominently displayed. I decided to check it out. The bust was the head of the company founder, and my potential client. I thought at the time, "This is a very bad sign. What kind of ego does it take to do something like this?" My instinct was, leave now. I didn't. I took the gig, at very high pay, and lasted but three weeks. I resigned via fax. The man was a nice guy but clueless. I told him I could deal with the difficult, not the impossible. I told him he needed "a stenographer and a shrink, not a speechwriter," and that I had neither of those skills. His outside PR firm told me that my resignation letter had made the rounds and it had everybody in hysterics for the entire day.

Today, The New York Times published a piece on the trend in Major League baseball to honor great players like Johnny Bench with bronze statues, usually located somewhere in the stadium plaza. There is one of Hank Aaron, one of Ty Cobb, and so on.

Now, here's my rant. Let's wait till these guys are at least dead. It's embarrassing. Aaron? An all-time great and one of the four or five best to play the game. Bench? Great catcher. Cobb was an asshole by nearly every account (see Ray Liotta's great comment in "Field of Dreams" on why they didn't invite Ty to play with them), but at least he's under ground.

Recently, they renamed the Queensboro Bridge in New York after ex-Mayor Ed Koch. Come on, folks. The man is still alive and bitching. Want your name on a bridge while you're around, pay for the upkeep, I say.