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.