Sunday, August 31, 2014

Help on the Highway

Highway Call Boxes

The highway call box was introduced in Los Angeles County in the 1960s.  One spur to the innovation was a grim news report: A woman whose car broke down on I-5 was raped by a man who saw her on the road and took advantage of her vulnerable situation.

The idea was that call boxes would allow motorists to report accidents or breakdowns and get help fast.  This made sense at the time:  Cars were far less reliable in those years, and highways far less trafficked.

Anyway, LA County set aside funds and got to work setting up call boxes with land lines at intervals on many highways.  By the mid 1980s, there were 3,500 call boxes in Los Angeles County.  Orange County also established a call box network.

In 1986, the state legislature passed a law authorizing counties to add $1 to annual vehicle registration fees for the purpose of establishing highway call boxes.

Interestingly, this was about the time when drivers began using cell phones in their cars.

In the mid 1980s, Congress also appropriated funds for call boxes and authorized the states to set up call box networks on interstate highways.  It laid out several requirements:

     -- Call box signs should measure at most 12 by 30 inches,

     -- Call boxes should be located no more than five miles apart and

     -- At least 20 percent of call boxes should be located outside metropolitan areas with more than
         50,000 residents.

(This suggests that members of Congress had a lot of time on their hands to consider some pretty trivial regulations.)

Cell Phones and Call Boxes

One California county, Ventura County set up its call phone network in 1989, using state registration fee revenues and a federal earmark.  In 2008, after pretty much everybody in the country had a cellphone, the county updated its call boxes, replacing land lines with cellular connections and adding keyboards and screens for use by hearing-impaired motorists.

As cell phone adoption went up, the use of highway call boxes went down, way down.  San Diego County boxes recorded more than 170,000 calls in 1990, but fewer than 12,000 in 2010.

Transit authorities began closing call boxes and replacing them with signs advising motorists to call 511 with traffic problems.  By 2011 the number of call boxes in Los Angeles County had dropped from 3,500 to fewer than 2,200, only 1,400 of them active.  That year, the boxes were used 30,000 times; only three percent of the calls were for "emergencies," according to the highway patrol. (This suggest a possible market opportunity for AAA.)

Transit authorities and some Californians still want to maintain a call box presence, particularly in areas with poor cell reception, and for travelers whose cellphone batteries have died.  Another justification raised is that some travelers cannot afford cellphones, although the federal government began funding lifeline cellphones for the poor in the 1980s and greatly expanded the program in 1996.

What Next

California's legislation allowing car taxes add-ons for call boxes also allowed the funds collected to go to for other projects of benefit to motorists.  By 2011, San Diego County had a reserve of $12 million collected but not spent for call boxes; it began discussing diverting the money to firefighting helicopters and quick-response tow trucks.

I do not believe any county has cancelled its annual $1 call box fee.  One buck is not a lot of money.  On the other hand, the annual registration fee for a $25,000 car in Los Angeles County is $264, about double that in our other state, New Jersey (which also is known for high taxes.)  Any small reduction would be welcome.


The Significant Other and I made a long drive on a couple of California freeways yesterday.  I punched our destination into a free phone app called WAZE that calculated the most efficient route, given traffic, and tracked us as we traveled.

WAZE also has a social network component, allowing travelers to find out which of their friends are on nearby roads.  (I did not avail myself of this opportunity.)  In addition, drivers can enter information on roadside hazards they encounter.

On several occasions, WAZE made a little noise to alert us that a car was pulled over a half-mile or so up the road.  And it was right.  Every time WAZE warned us to anticipate a stalled car, we saw one, often with a tow truck or highway patrol vehicle alongside.

My question is this:  If WAZE can tell drivers -- and presumably the California Highway Patrol -- the location of every accident and vehicle in distress, why are there ANY Emergency Call Boxes along California roads?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thirsty California

Below is a recent government map of drought conditions in the state of California.  

As you can see, severe to exceptional drought conditions prevail in almost the entire state.  Eighty-two percent of California, characterized by the large brown patch, is in exceptional drought.  

Experts have described the drought as worst on record, measurably worse than any drought in the entire 20th century.

The current situation follows three years of very low rainfall.  Climate scientists do not believe that rain levels through the 2014-15 season will be high enough to turn things around. 

Here are two drought photos from Instagram and Twitter:

Low water at Lake Shasta

Dead orange trees

It is difficult to see the drought's effects in cities.  Residents are told not to hose down driveways and to water lawns on alternate days.  Restaurant servers are cautioned not to bring glasses of water to tables unless specifically asked for them.  These actions have yielded minimal reductions in water use.

Agriculture uses much of California's water.  Farmers have been adjusting to the drought in several ways -- leaving some lands fallow, focusing scarce water on high-value crops and pulling much, much more water out of wells, which lowers groundwater levels.

California "is running down our bank account of stored water," said one of the authors of a report released recently by scientists at the University of California, Davis.

El Nino

Hopes were raised earlier this year when climatologists reported increasing odds for a weather phenomenon known as El Nino during the fall and winter, California's rainy season.  El Nino events result when warm waters in the Pacific Ocean and favorable jet streams join to drop greater than average amounts of rainfall during California's wet season.

Now the hope is waning.  The likelihood of an El Nino season now is set at 65 percent, and odds of a nourishing season of constant gully-washers are almost nil.  Even if El Nino rains arrive, California would need an historic level of rainfall to replenish the groundwater and reservoir levels it had four years ago.

"Unless we see a miraculous resurgence," one NASA scientist said recently, "any hope for El Nino soaking California is pretty much in the rear-view mirror."

Friday, August 29, 2014

The "It" Wines of 2014

Many of us enjoy a glass of wine with a good meal.  Some types of wine -- nice chardonnay, good pinot noir -- never lose their appeal.

But there are fashions in wine as in so many other things. This year, two newish varietals, one red and one white, seem to be in vogue.

The red wine is Tempranillo,  (tem-prah-KNEE-oh, I think) made of a black, or noir, grape traditionally raised in Spain.

Now the grapes are raised and bottled in South America, the United States and South Australia.  The wines are interesting to complex, good with a variety of foods and not particularly heavy. (I'm looking at you, cabernet sauvignon.)

At dinner with friends last week, the Significant Other and I drank a perfectly delicious 2012 Turkovich tempranillo from Yolo County, California.

Note:   Last year's fashionable red, malbec, still is very popular.

In the white wine category, Viognier (vee-yon-NYAY, according to the SO) is this year's winner, hands down.  The first viogniers came from France's Rhone Valley.  Starting in the early 1990s, the grapes were widely planted -- again in North and South America and Australia -- and the vines are now yielding fine dry wines with pleasant floral aromas.

Last month, I bought a very nice viognier at Whole Foods for about $12.  When I went back to get another bottle of same this week, it had sold out.  (As I said, viognier is trending this year.  Oh, well.)

In order to find a viognier to recommend, I consulted the useful website   It currently is recommending a 2012 viognier from McManis Family Vineyards in California.  A bottle sells for about $10, and ThumbsUp says it's worth more like $26.

A votre sante!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Knee Defender

Above is a controversial product for use on airplanes.  It was designed by a tall man who traveled frequently.  Once clipped onto the sides of an open tray table, the two elements prevent the person ahead of you from reclining the seat back.

I say controversial because, recently, there was a controversy.  It's a funny story.

What Happened

On a United flight from Newark to Denver, a woman decided to recline her seat.  She was frustrated in this effort because the man behind her had clipped a pair of Knee Defenders into the tray table behind her seat.

The woman called a flight attendant and complained.  The flight attendant told the man to remove the Knee Defenders.  He refused.  The woman retaliated by throwing a glass of water in the man's face.

The pilot was notified.  The jet was diverted to Chicago, and the woman and man were told to leave the plane.  After they got off, the flight continued to its original destination.

What Happened Next

This event, reported broadly, brought to the boil a discussion that always simmers just beneath the surface for air travelers.

     -- The Knee Defender inventor reported a 500 percent increase in orders for his product ($21.95 + S&H from his site, $59.95 + S&H from Amazon) after the contretemps on the United jet.

     -- A commenter in today's New York Times took the side of the aggrieved seat recliner.  The title of his piece -- "Don't Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me" explained the theme.  Within hours, more than 2,300 comments had been filed.  Most seemed to incline to the position that the  columnist (who suggested in a similar column in 2011 that he would be willing to accept a payment of $75 not to recline his seat) was, in current parlance, a real dick.

What to Do

The Knee Defender debuted in 2003.  Every time it is mentioned in the press, sales spike.  Some airlines have banned it.  Flight attendants don't want to deal with it or to mediate arguments between passengers who like to tip their seats back and the people who sit behind them.

The seat reclining people have their points.

     -- Airline seats are designed to recline, therefore they can do it.

     -- They suffer from injuries or ailments that make sitting up straight uncomfortable.

The people who sit behind them also have some points.

     -- It is difficult to view a seat back screen, work on a laptop, read a newspaper, eat food
        or drink a beverage when the back of a forward seat is within inches of one's face.

     --  People with long legs have no place to put their knees when seat backs are lowered.

Everybody seems to blame the airlines for shoehorning people into ever smaller and more closely spaced seats.  But people shop carefully for airline tickets, looking for the lowest possible price, and airlines have responded with cattle-car arrangements.  No market has surfaced for slightly larger seats and spacing that cost slightly more.  (Most travelers in business or first-class seats are wealthy, traveling on expense accounts or using upgrades based on frequent-flier miles; they are a small portion of the flying population.)

Apparently, some airlines have seats that slide forward when seat backs are lowered.  This sounds good to me, but I am not aware of any U.S. carrier whose planes have such seats.

One nice idea is that travelers should speak with each other.  Those who want to recline should ask passengers behind them whether that would annoy them, and passengers who would feel inconvenienced by a having a forward seat reclined should explain their preferences.

This is impossible, of course.  By the time passengers have stood in TSA lines, emptied bags and disrobed for TSA inspections, waited for long periods to get cups of mediocre coffee at the airport Starbucks and then been herded slowly aboard airplanes, they pretty well have had it.  They have no more energy left.  Speaking politely with strangers who disagree with them is asking more of them than they can muster.

It is an unsolvable muddle.

Note: Knee Defender may not be the only way to frustrate people who like to recline in your face.

Several years ago a blog called Lifehacker featured an article about a flier who had found that wedging a water bottle (purchased after clearing TSA, of course) wedged into between a tray table and a seat back accomplished the same objective.  A picture is below.

In comments following the post, a reader reported similar success wedging a rubber door stop somewhere in the back of a forward seat.

Frustrated people can be inventive in their tactics and devices.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Characters of Times Square

Above is a picture posted on Instagram depicting a recent demonstration by costumed characters who pose for pictures in exchange for donations in New York's Times Square.  Their signs carry messages like "Let us work!" and "We have rights!" and "New York City Artists United."

Some of the characters had contacted an organization called La Fuente.  A spokeswoman for the group issued this statement:

"The workers understand that there have been bad actors within their collective and they also understand that the bad actors shouldn't shouldn't represent who they are as a collective."

Workers?  Collective?

This last week of summer likely will be the busiest of the season and the most contentious of the year in Times Square.  If you are visiting New York, you probably should avoid the area entirely.

Within the last few weeks, one Spider-Man told tourists he would not take dollar bills, only 5s, 10s and 20s. When a policeman told the family that this was not necessary, Spidey punched the cop. Another Spider-Man hit a woman who refused to give him a tip.  A third groped a woman.

And that's just the Spider-Man characters.

There are multiple Elmos, Mickey Mouses, Minnie Mouses, assorted super heroeds, two naked cowboys, a naked cowgirl, Hello Kittys, Statues of Liberty and others working the area.  Some grab children away from their parents, arrange themselves in poses and then demand payment.  A Cookie Monster reportedly shoved a toddler whose mother did not offer an appropriate "donation."

In fact, many other people troll Times Square for money.  The New York Post recently sent a team to canvass the range of hawkers.

It found 11 rap artists trying to sell CD demos for "donations." ("Don't you like black people?" one asked a man who declined the offer.)

Another 79 people were touting city bus tours. (Recently, one of the touts said he was stabbed in the face by a competitor from another company.  He said he lost two teeth, required stitches to treat the cut and is planning a lawsuit.  He and his alleged attacker are still working the street.)

In addition, recruiters for comedy clubs and theaters were trying bring in customers for stand-up shows and theatrical performances.

Long story short, walking through Times Square has become an ever more unpleasant experience with hordes of milling tourists and increasing numbers of people pestering you, often aggressively, for money.

Maybe after Labor Day, when grownups go back to work and children go back to school, the whole business will quiet down.

I would not count on it, though.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ferguson: Stereotypes and Behavior

I do not know what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

But I believe that people sometimes adopt stereotypes that have been assigned to them and that, in doing so, they become capable of actions that violate their deeply held personal beliefs.

Say this:

     -- If you give a group of young men badges, uniforms and guns and then form them into a group, they act one way.

     -- If you tell another group of young men that they are tough and scary, and if the leaders of their peer group are belligerent and violent, they act another way.

We all want to believe that, as individuals, we are ethical people.  Many of us, likely all of us, are flawed.  It would behoove us to be humble about our righteousness.

Attached below is a documentary about a famous psychology study -- The Stanford Prison Experiment -- conducted in the early 1970s.  College psychology students have been shown videos about this study for decades.

It followed the famous and disappointing Millgram experiments of the 1960s, which sought to establish that Americans were more individualistic and less likely to participate in official persecution of other people, as had occurred among Germans during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.  The experiments absolutely refuted the notion that Americans were singularly high-minded and ethical.

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the point at greater length.  Within a couple days, the student volunteers, and even the professor himself, were acting out stereotypes that would have been unthinkable to them in any other context.

Watch and see for yourself.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

How Salt Made Us Smarter

This is an interesting story, but it takes a little telling.  Let me lay it out in steps.

1.  There is a disease called goiter, the enlargement of the thyroid gland at the base of the neck.  It used to be rather common but has been wiped out almost entirely in developed countries.

2.  French scientists identified iodine, a micronutrient,  in the 19th century in work with seaweed.  Over time, they found that the rate of goiter was much lower in localities where iodine was abundant -- places near the ocean, where saltwater fish was eaten and where fruits and vegetables grew in soil near saltwater.

3.  In 1917, the United States drafted 2.5 million men for the armed services for World War I.  All the draftees were given medical tests to determine their fitness to serve.

4.  After the war, scientists assembled the data from the medical tests.  They found that soldiers from certain areas -- particularly the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest -- were far more likely to have goiter than any other draftees.  In a number of cases, these men were rejected for military service because goiter had so enlarged their necks that they could not close the top buttons on their uniform shirts.

5.  In late 1924, to reduce the incidence of goiter, the Morton Salt Co. began adding iodine to its table salt, calling the product "iodized salt."  The product was touted and discussed nationally, and other salt companies quickly followed suit.

6.  The campaign worked.  The incidence of goiter in the United States dropped precipitously.

7.  In the early 1940s, the United States declared war against Japan and Germany and began drafting men to serve in the armed forces.  Draftees again were examined for fitness to serve.

8.  In addition to medical exams, the World War II draftees were given IQ tests.  (Men with the highest IQ scores went into the Army Air Corps, presumably because of the technical aptitude required to deal with airplanes.  Other draftees went into different service branches.)

9.  At at the end of World War II, the results of the tests on draftees (men born between 1920 and 1927) yielded mountains of data that were analyzed. The intelligence tests revealed an unexpected other beneficial effect of iodized salt -- smarter soldiers.

10.  Researchers isolated IQ test scores from the parts of the country where goiter had been common earlier.  Then they separated the tests of those men into two groups -- the ones born from 1920 to 1924, and the ones born afterward, i.e., after the introduction and broad consumption of iodized salt.

11.  The results were startling.  The average IQ scores of soldiers born after the introduction of iodized salt were a full standard deviation -- 15 IQ points -- higher than the average scores of soldiers born before salt was iodized.

12.  Later studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that adding iodine to table salt had led to a 3.5 percent increase in the average national IQ.

Iodine Today

We now understand that many more problems than goiter can be traced to iodine deficiency:  mental retardation, fibrocystic breast disease, breast cancer, hypothyroidism, decreased fertility and infant mortality.  (An excess of iodine also can cause serious problems.)

But the iodized salt experiment was so successful that nobody talks much about this micronutrient anymore.   Accordingly, questions are starting to be raised about whether Americans are getting enough iodine.

It has been estimated that 75 to 90 percent of the salt Americans consume comes from packaged and processed foods, which are made with salt that is not iodized.

Where iodine once was used to fortify wheat, bakers now use bromide, which makes for fluffier bread loaves and cakes, and which some  believe may block the activity of iodine.

Some nutritionists believe that the iodine in iodized salt loses potency relatively rapidly, especially in areas with moist climates.

In May of this year, the journal Pediatrics estimated that one-third of pregnant women were iodine-deficient, a particular worry because iodine is critical to the development of children's brains and nervous systems.

On the other side, there are these facts:

     -- Iodine also is found in soy and dairy products, and inland people now have access to and eat more ocean fish and shrimp, which contain iodine.

     -- Many multiple vitamins include iodine.

One thing that interests me is that a lack of iodine may lead to breast cancer and hypothyroidism.  We all know that the rate of breast cancer is up (although that may be due to more aggressive detection efforts), and I seem to know an awful lot of people with hypothyroidism.

Interestingly, the rate of breast cancer is very low among Japanese women, whose diets include lots of iodine-rich seaweed.  Japanese people also consume more salt than we do, and they live longer than Americans.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How Much Salt?

"Ideally, the best way to go is completely 'Salt Free.'"

                                                                     From a 2014 Cleveland Clinic post
                                                                     advising on reducing salt intake

For many years now, it has been a received truth that if you suspect you are eating too much salt, then you probably are right.

In 2005, the American Heart Association (AHA) called for Americans to limit their salt intake to less than 2.3 grams daily, or just a teensy bit less than a teaspoon.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control took up the cudgel, recommending a maximum of 2.3 grams daily, and even less, 1.5 grams, for children and those over the age of 50.

In 2011, the AHA struck again.  It recommended a maximum of 1.5 milligrams, between half and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt daily, for all Americans.

According to the AHA, if we all followed this advice (average American salt consumption was just over 3.4 grams at the time), stroke and heart attack deaths would be cut by 20 percent and the country would save $24 billion in health care costs.

I don't eat much salt.  I use very little in cooking, and we never put a salt shaker on the table. Our family eats very little packaged food.  I probably meet the AHA guidelines.

But sometimes I wonder why I bother.

A Study in the UK

In 2011, a British journal reviewed the results of seven studies involving almost 6,500 people who were asked to reduce salt consumption from an average of 8-9 grams per day to 4 grams.

The result:  "Intensive support and encouragement to reduce salt intake did lead to a reduction in salt eaten and a small reduction (emphasis mine) in blood pressure after more than six months."

The researchers' conclusion:  "We believe that we didn't see big benefits in this study because the people in the trials only reduced their salt intake by a moderate amount, so the effect on blood pressure and heart disease did not change."

In other words, having found almost no improvement, the researchers recommended doubling down further on reducing salt consumption.

In 2011, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence set a country-wide goal of reducing UK salt consumption by half, from 6 grams daily to 3 grams by 2025.

Based on numbers possibly drawn from a hat, the National Institute assured Britons that this dietary change would prevent 40,000 deaths from heart disease.

The Worldwide Study

No doubt you read news reports a couple weeks back about an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  It concerned a study of 100,000 people worldwide and how much salt they ate.

"In fact," the article said, "People who consumed 3 to 6 grams per day had a lower risk of cardiovascular events than those who had more than 6 grams or less than 3 grams."

So, while US health experts recommend 1.5 grams or less of salt per day, the healthiest people seem to consume between two and four times that amount.

Move along, nothing to see here.

According to the report, only four percent of study participants, in 18 different countries, met recommended American guidelines.  In fact, most people ate from 3 to 6 grams, the amount of salt that correlated with the best results.

I know, I know, perhaps the people who consumed less salt already knew they were at risk of heart disease and had trimmed their consumption.  Possibly that's the real correlation.  Possibly everyone you know who is at risk -- anyone who takes a beta blocker or a statin drug -- also has taken all the salt out of his diet.  Call me a skeptic.  I also find it hard to believe that any of the 17 other countries in the study have as vigilant a bunch of dietary scolds as we do here.

More likely, different people people respond differently to salt.  Maybe genetic differences or the age of the salt eaters has something to do with the inconclusive results.  This has been suggested several times over the last 10 years, and when it has, it has been swatted down and dismissed as unscientific if not outright heresy.

After the latest report showing no correlation between salt consumption and cardiac health, the American Heart Association issued its own advice:

"Looking at the data, we consider it irresponsible not to make recommendations to reduce salt content...."

Well, of course.

Tomorrow: An Interesting Salt Story

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Humans have for thousands of years had a love-hate relationship with salt.

Good Salt

 An old French proverb says, "Don't slaughter more pigs than you can salt." In the long centuries before refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative in the curing of food.

And, for hundreds of years, the term, "salt of the earth" has been a laudatory description for honorable people of good character.

Bad Salt  

In the Book of Genesis, angels ordered Lot and his family to leave the evil city of Sodom and not look back.  Unfortunately, Lot's wife did look back at Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt.

In antiquity, it is said that after a Roman general defeated Carthage, he ordered his troops to plow over the city and salt the earth so that no crops would grow there again. The truth of the story is disputed, but the term "salting the earth" -- has been a common term since the Middle Ages for rendering a defeated enemy's homeland uninhabitable or his sustenance impossible.

Salt in Fairy Tales

Salt is an element in many fairy tales, all with the same theme.

The general story is that a rich man or king asks his daughters how much they love him.  Several of the daughters compare him to sweetness, and he approves and is pleased.  The last daughter says he is as important as salt, and the father, offended, casts her out of his home or castle.

Over the course of some time, the banished daughter proves herself, sometimes by becoming a lowly cook and serving her parents meals seasoned only with sugar until they grow sick of what they are eating.  In other cases, the family servants, who favor the cast-out daughter, remove all salt from the family diet until the king asks why his food has no flavor.  Only then does the father recognize the wisdom of the daughter he rejected.

In the end, the daughter who spoke of salt is welcomed back into the family and treasured by her father.

Variations of this tale come from England, France, Austria, Italy, Germany, Pakistan and India.  (The story also has been adopted, without salt, in the Cinderella story and Shakespeare's King Lear.)


Clearly, salt means many things to humans.  It animates fantasies and Bible stories, and it is the basis for praise, punishment, sustenance and interest in life.

In modern times, we have been told repeatedly that salt is bad, bad, bad, and that we should never eat it ever, ever, ever.  In fact, the history is mixed.

More on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Back to Times Square

Above you see a photo of a family doing one of the few things you can do besides shop for tchotchkes and dodge other tourists in New York's Times Square.  Grandma and the kids are posing for a picture with Minnie Mouse and Elmo.

Since everyone here already knows there is no tooth fairy, I will reveal another shocking fact:  That is not really Minnie Mouse and Elmo in the picture.  They are entrepreneurs, immigrants usually, who have bought costumes and pose for pictures in return for "tips" as Minnie's sign says or, more benignly, donations.

The picture-posing business has low barriers to entry, and so more and more people have got into it. This summer, you can find as many as 10 Elmos (see above) in Times Square at any given moment.  Times Square is a big place, but not that big.

With competition has come tension.  There are only so many people who want Elmo photos, and so the characters want more money for each picture.  Some of the characters have proved not to be nice people -- shoving children, making remarks not consistent with their characters' images and inserting themselves in people's pictures and then demanding "donations."

In short, it has become too much of a good thing.  The NYPD has hauled some of the malefactors off to jail, but it is difficult to justify devoting a lot of police time to problems like these.

I can see two ways to resolve this matter.

First, the companies that own the rights to these characters could assert those rights and license people to represent their brands. The Hello Kitty and Elmo people already have expressed concerns.  And, if you think about it, Hello Kitty would sic its lawyers on you immediately if you published a book or posted an advertisement using her character.  What's the difference here?

Second, the Times Square Alliance could get involved.  This chamber-of-commerce type organization promotes the area and has an interest in keeping it peaceful.  Plus, it has money -- $10 million in assets and an annual budget of more than $15 million.  Couldn't it deploy private guards during the peak summer months to mediate between costumed characters and their marks -- sorry, donators -- and to call the police when necessary?

Because this happens in New York, naturally a less than ideal solution is being proposed.  A state legislator has introduced a bill to establish a new bureaucracy to regulate the characters. There would be criminal background checks and inspections of photo identification, then issuance of official permits allowing people to wear costumes and hit up strangers for money.  This law would go into effect in January 2015, when the city will begin making free photo IDs available to all comers, including undocumented immigrants.

What would the bureaucrats do if 100 Elmos came in to register themselves?  Approve only the ones deemed to have the best costumes?  Issue schedules and hours so as not to crowd the market?  Hire agents to be sure no characters migrate to Rockefeller Center or the long lines of tourists outside the Empire State Building?

What's next?  A squeegee man bureau?  Photo IDs for the panhandlers who troll the subways and commuter trains with hard luck stories and their hands out?

Are shakedown artists in cute costumes better than ones in street clothes?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fall Trends -- Women's Shoes

Now is the season when people stock up on goods for fall.  Parents take their children -- and long, long lists issued by teachers -- to Staples for school supplies.  Men buy jerseys of their favorite football players for the long, long season of gridiron action on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Women paw through their closets, studying last year's cool-weather clothes and wondering what additions will update their looks apres Labor Day.  It is to these women that I devote today's post on coming trends in footwear.


We all have read that this fall's look in street shoes is sneakers.  I was skeptical at first, but no longer.

When I opened the Sunday New York Times to page 3 the other day, I saw the following photograph in a Dior advertisement.

What you see is a pair of sneakers with the same kind of squishy soles, in pink, that you might observe on a woman at the gym, topped in black with some chunky black accents.

Since Dior is paying newspapers to promote this look, I feel comfortable giving it a little extra publicity.

I don't think I'll be buying a pair of these.  Dior prices are out my budget range, and pink is not one of my colors. 

Still.  It appears the fashion houses are serious about this:  Sneakers are the new street shoes.

Your grandmother will be delighted to hear this news.


Brogues started showing up last year, usually in black, but also in brown and multi-colored styles. Think of them as the anti-sneakers.

Wear brogues without socks, with short black socks (with black brogues) or cream socks (with brown brogues) or with tights.  Fine with skirts or pants of any length.

If you ever find yourself having to walk more than a couple of blocks, you should consider a pair of brogues.  Your feet will thank you.

Ankle Boots

There's much talk about ankle boots this year.  There have been ankle boots for ages, of course, but in recent years they were chunkier, thicker and decorated with buckles and wide tops to anchor skinny jeans and jeggings.  

Over the last several seasons, ankle boots have been slimming down and have been seen more often with skirts and dresses.  Some styles, like the ones below, are being touted as year-round footwear.  

(Note: In Los Angeles, boots have been year-round footwear for a while now.  Women in Southern California don't really have a winter season, the poor dears, and so they wear what they like at any season.  Some even wear knee-high boots to the beach in August.)

Traditional Ugg boots are still being released, but even in new colors like the silver model below, they look pretty tired to me.  This Uggs business has been going on for eight or 10 years now.  I say, too much is enough.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Financial Planning

"I don't like money, actually, but it quiets your nerves."

                                                                                                                Joe Louis, World
                                                                                           Heavyweight Boxing Champion

The Federal Reserve released a report about 10 days ago on the financial status of American households, based on a survey done last September.  The report suggests that many of us are ill-prepared for the future.  

Here are some of the findings:

     -- "Only 48 percent of respondents said that they would completely cover a hypothetical emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money."

     -- "39 percent of respondents reported having a rainy day fund to cover three months of expenses." (Apparently 61 percent did not have such a fund.)

     -- "24 percent reported having education loans (personally or for relatives) with the average amount ... $27,840... (Of these), 18 percent with debt for their own education ... were behind on payments for these loans or reporting that they had loans in collections."

     -- "Almost half of respondents had not planned financially for retirement, with 24 percent saying they had given only a little thought to financial planning for their retirement and another 25 percent saying they had done no retirement planning at all."

     -- "31 percent of respondents reported having no retirement savings or pension, including 19 percent of those ages 55 to 64, and 25 percent didn't know how they will pay their expenses in retirement."

     -- "34 percent of respondents reported going without some form of medical care in the prior 12 months because they could not afford it."

     --- "43 percent of respondents reported that they could not afford to pay for a major medical expense out of pocket, and 34 percent reported that it is only somewhat likely that they could afford to pay." (Apparently only 23 percent could deal with a big medical bill.)

     -- "31 percent of respondents had applied for some type of credit in the prior 12 months.  One-third ... were turned down or given less credit than they applied for.  (Another) 19 percent of respondents put off applying for credit because they thought they would be turned down."

In addition, only 55 percent of people reported saving any money at all in 2012.  The median savings for the whole population (half saved more, half saved less) was 2 percent of income.  Those who did save during the year put aside an average of 9 percent of their income.  This suggests that people with high incomes saved quite a lot, and those with lower incomes saved nothing, or very, very little.

Hard Times

The Fed's research aimed to give a picture of people's financial situations following the Great Recession.  The last six years have been difficult ones for almost everyone, some more than others.

The stress of knowing you cannot afford a $400 car repair or pay the high deductible on a bronze ACA health insurance policy wears on people.  It makes for anxiety and lost sleep.  It can take a toll on the immune system and overall health.

Other reports published recently suggest that as many as 10 percent of American adults are "unbanked," that is, have no bank account of any kind.  I assume they get their payroll checks cashed, for a fee, at payday lenders' storefronts and that they load money onto debit cards and try to make it last from one pay period to the next.  My guess is they depend on their families, and their families on them, when hard times arise.

When you think about it, it takes a certain level of financial sophistication to manage personal affairs -- to save for the deposit on a rental apartment or a home mortgage, to deal with health insurance copays, to plan for direct deposits for your employment checks, to manage credit card accounts, to know how much to set aside in savings and where, to negotiate to when buying a car.  

According to the Fed's research, even many of the people who understand all those things are having a hard time making ends meet five years after the end of the recession.  

Said another way, some combination of low economic growth, poor planning or simple bad luck has left millions of us without the sort of financial cushion that Joe Louis would say "quiets your nerves."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jeff Koons Does Play-Doh

Above is another sculpture from this summer's Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Appropriately, it is named "Play-Doh," and it looks EXACTLY like a child's pile of modeling clay.  The differences are that it is 10 feet tall, made of aluminum and weighs more than 1,000 pounds.

It is difficult to know what to make of such a piece.  Its technical perfection, which took 20 years to achieve, is unassailable.  It is not ironic.  It is exactly what it sets out to be.

Critic Roberta Smith of the New York Times called it "a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte texture of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop."

Another reviewer, Ariella Budick of the Financial Times cast a more skeptical eye on the exhibit. She called Koons "the Pied Piper in reverse, leading adults back to discover the toddler's joy in gaudy colors and glittering thingies."  Later, she added, "His wizardry consists of dazzling technical perfection."

Koons came up with the idea of a play-doh statue in 1994, and an investor agreed to buy it, paying cash in advance.  It took 20 years, and many iterations, until Koons was satisfied with the result, which is now on display.

Along the way, Koons asked the investor several times for additional money until the work was completed to the artist's satisfaction.  The investor continued to front Koons more cash, and it is a pretty sure bet that the finished product's value is greater than the amount the investor gave Koons between 1994 and 2014.

This is a new way of funding art, as critic Felix Salmon of The Guardian explains:

"In any sensible art world, Koons's financial innovations would never have worked.  Let's say that you're willing to pay $20,000 for a work which cost $7,500 to fabricate.  You pay the artist $20,000 up front, and are then told hey, we've had a massive cost overrun, please pay us another $20,000 or get your money back.  You just say thanks, I'll have my money back.  I was willing to pay $20,000, but I'm not willing to pay $40,000."

But when it comes to Jeff Koons, there is not a sensible art world.  Collectors buy his sculptures -- for prices starting at $20 million and ranging well upward from there -- as investments.  If he builds it, they will come.  Estimates of his wealth range up to $500 million, based on the now widely held assumption that anything he produces will increase in value.

Koons nearly went broke twice in his early career, and his current approach protects him from that fate.  His workshop in New York's hip Chelsea neighborhood employs 125 American artists and artisans to turn out the artworks he dreams up.  He could make more money by moving his plant outside the country and hiring less expensive employees, but he does not do that.

Rich as he now is, Koons doesn't seem particularly focused on making money.  Whatever you think of his art, he is now so prominent that money, lots of it, comes seeking him.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Maleficent and Fashion

Even if you are not an avid movie-goer, you probably have read about Maleficent, the big Disney film of the summer.

The movie featured Angelina Jolie, the glamor-puss movie star, as the bad fairy in a rethinking of the Sleeping Beauty, the Disney classic of 1959.

Maleficent has been a great success at the box office.  By mid August it had grossed $236.4 million in American theaters plus an estimated $500 million worldwide, according to IMDb.  More money will come in from Blu-Ray and on-demand sales.

Often when a famous actress takes on a distinctive role, there is a fashion followup. (Think Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Think Diane Keaton in Annie Hall or Baby Boom.)

So I went looking today for Maleficent-inspired looks.  I found lots of black, of course, but mostly cheap crud that suggests that this Halloween there will be many, many little girls and grown women in Maleficent costumes.  That was about it.

And as I thought about it later, I realized I was wrong.  Joan Crawford and Diane Keaton were wearing street clothes that influenced what women were wearing at the time.  (Working women of the 1980s owe a particular debt of gratitude to Diane Keaton's polished business wardrobe in Baby Boom, which led them out of the unfortunate cul de sac of shapeless business suits and little floppy ties.)

Maleficent is a fairy tale character, and no female over the age of five takes fashion cues from fairy tales.  Still, I wonder why there aren't even a few black collars setting off low necklines or more form-fitting black dresses.  Maybe later.

Two Exceptions

Vogue, the indispensable fashion magazine, did a perfectly wonderful spread called "11 Gowns Maleficent Would Love" this May.  It's just great, with many fine designers represented and appropriate accessories. I did this screen grab of one example to encourage my readers to find it online and enjoy the whole feature.  Very cool.

The other exception is shoes.  Stylish women are always looking for interesting, daring shoes, and this year's fall models include some very Maleficent-like looks.  If you are shopping for yourself, just be ready for some very high heels.

These three come from the designer Jerome C. Rousseau's website.

Aizza, $495

Charme, $895

Flicker, $595, available in black elsewhere

Here's another shoe, available on the Bottega Veneta website, that surely was inspired by Maleficent.  It costs $730.

Another Bottega Veneta style, called the Suede Chrysanthemum Ankle Boot, is available for pre-order from Neiman-Marcus at $970.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Brazilian Steakhouses

If you are not an avid carnivore, you may not have noticed that approximately 500,000 Brazilian steakhouses have been opened in the United States over the last five or six years.

I visited one of these establishments recently for a meal with friends.

Here's how it works:

You are shown to a dining table laid out in the usual fashion, but with one extra thing: a round piece of cardboard, about the size of a drink coaster, at each plate.  The coaster is green on one side and red on the other.  Pretty simple.

Across the room, you will see a large salad bar and perhaps another display of hot side dishes.  Circling the room will be gauchos -- servers -- bearing slabs of roasted meats on large rotisserie spikes.

Your waiter will arrive to take your drink order, invite you to visit the salad bar and explain the red/green coaster procedure, which is as follows:  If you are hungry for meat, you will turn the coaster's green side up, and the roving meat purveyors will stop at your table offering to slice off servings of various delicacies.

Here are some of the offerings:

     -- Top sirloin
     -- Bottom sirloin
     -- Beef ribs
     -- Ribeye steak
     -- Picanha (a particular beef cut roasted with garlic, I think)
     -- Lamb chops
     -- Pork loin
     -- Sausages
     -- Pork ribs
     -- Light meat chicken
     -- Dark meat chicken
     -- Shrimp, maybe

As the meal proceeds, you sample various selections, some of them multiple times.  You forget about the salad bar and keep eating meat.

Eventually, your stomach will tell you that you have eaten enough.  If you are smart, at this moment you will turn your coaster over so the red side is showing.  Then the gauchos will stop dropping by to offer you more meat.  (You may burp a few times.)

When all the diners at your table have turned their coasters red-side-up, your waiter will return to ask if you would like to have some dessert.  Again, if you are smart, you will decline politely.

Then will come the check.

Brazilian steakhouses operate on a prix-fixe, all-you-can-eat basis.  Prices generally range from the low $40s to the mid $60s.

You will settle your bill, stagger to your car and drive home.  You will think to yourself, several times, I can't believe I ate all that meat.

If you have been joined at your meal by a young person with a fast metabolism, you will marvel at the younger person's jaunty demeanor and appetite for more food just a few hours later.  (Brazilian steakhouses cannot make much money on diners like these.)

The next morning, you will waken feeling less full.  Possibly you will be able to eat a small breakfast.

You will not consider going to a Brazilian steakhouse again for several months.  Maybe on Father's Day, or maybe when the younger person asks to go there for a birthday celebration, the idea will be raised and you will agree to join the party.

You will do the whole thing again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bedbugs on a Train

Are there extra passengers on this MTA train?
Life is not easy for New York City commuters.  Last week I noted that increasing numbers of squeegee men were washing car windows for "tips" when drivers stopped at red lights.

This week, the problem is on the subways.  Bedbugs on the subways.

Since the beginning of this month, bedbug reports have led the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to fumigate cars on the 5 and 7 lines.  Riders also have claimed to have seen bedbugs on the N and D trains, and the Daily News reported that an MTA cleaning employee found bedbugs in her home.

Bedbugs, like squeegee guys, are a concern always bubbling beneath the surface in the city.

A batch of bedbugs -- about 1/4 inch long -- magnified 

The Bedbug Apocalypse

Four years ago, the New York health department reported that confirmed incidents had increased from 82 in 2004 to 4,084 in 2010.

The number was an understatement -- renters and hotel guests filed complaints, while embarrassed homeowners and coop boards undertook corrections quietly, preferring to deal with infestations privately.  The reports came from buildings in the outer boroughs to high-end townhouses on the Upper East Side.

Real estate agents started writing bedbug inspection conditions into sale contracts.

Gradually, the problem eased, but city residents remain touchy and new bedbug reports trickle out from time to time.  Last year the bugs were found in rooms at the upscale W New York hotel and in dormitories at Princeton University.

Why Bedbugs on Trains Are Scary

Riding New York subways is nobody's idea of a peak experience, but it is an efficient way to get around the city.  Adding the threat of picking up bedbugs makes subways even less attractive.

Bedbugs are broad travelers, and the increase in global travel is credited with spreading them from one country to another.  In subway stations and on trains, the little critters are happy to hitchhike home on straphangers' socks and pants hems.  Once resettled, a bedbug lays one to 10 eggs daily.  After about 17 days, bedbug nymphs emerge from the eggs, invisible and hungry for blood meals.

Bedbug bites do not hurt and do not spread diseases, but they are red and itchy.  People sometimes confuse clusters of the bites with other rashes as the infestation of rooms and whole homes proceeds.

Getting rid of bedbugs is a real challenge.  They do not care for ant or roach bait.  They cannot be stamped out because their eggs cannot be seen.  Bed linens, curtains, shoes and clothing can be shed of the bugs by long periods in clothes driers set to hot.  Pest control experts employ insecticides or bring in industrial heaters to cook the bedbugs out of apartments.

A Little Perspective

In fact, New York is not a particularly bedbuggy city, but its density of apartment buildings and subway and bus travel may make it more susceptible to the spread of the bugs.

Orkin, the national pest control company with some experience in this area, publishes a list each year of cities with the greatest density of bedbugs. Here are the top five cities for 2013:

      1.  Chicago (for the second year in a row)
      2.  Los Angeles
      3.  Cleveland (and don't anyone tell LeBron James)
      4.  Detroit
      5.  Cincinnati

In fact, New York City came in 17th on the Orkin list, dropping 10 places from 2012.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Life with Archie

The Archie Rack at Hi De Ho Comics

If you have read comic books at any time in your life, you no doubt are familiar with the Life with Archie series.  Archie first appeared in comic books as a genial everyman high school student in 1941, inspired, acccording to historical reports, by the character Andy Rooney played in popular movies of the 1930s.  If Archie were a real person, by my calculation, he'd be facing his 90th birthday about now.  But still he is with us.

Hi De Ho Comics, a fun store near my place in Santa Monica, carries a broad range of Archie titles.  One of the owners, Bob Hennessy, was kind enough to update me recently on Archie past and present.

Archie's world is Riverdale, a friendly town with a soda parlor where red-headed Archie hung out with his friends, Jughead and Reggie, and where he was torn between his affections for Betty, a girl-next-door type, and Veronica, a more sophisticated lovely.

Several spinoffs were tried -- a couple TV shows, a band called the Archies -- in the early years.   Nothing lasted except the comic books themselves, which retained their popularity.

Long after pizza parlors replaced ice cream establishments as teenage gathering spots, Archie and his gang continued to meet after school at the Chocklit Shoppe, a little piece of American folklore that its readers found moving even as the comics industry increasingly became the province of superheroes expressing their honor by violently taking down bad guys.

Archie remained a touchstone for generations of loyal readers who met him as children, and in a rarity for comics, the series maintained crossover appeal to girls as well as boys that has been cultivated with Betty and Veronica titles and other female characters' centrality to the larger Archie cast.

Since the new millenium, Archie's creators have struck out in several new directions, some promising, to extend the franchise.

The first move was to let Archie grow up, and in two different stories.  In one, AMV, Archie marries Veronica and becomes a successful businessman; in the other, AMB, Archie marries Betty and the two become teachers.

Through both stories, Archie stays in character, and Riverdale remains the idyllic town of earlier imagination.

Last year, in another nod to current themes, a brand new comic series, Afterlife with Archie, was released.  These stories, aimed at teenagers and older readers, bring the Zombie Apocalypse to Riverdale, drawing Archie and his friends into the resulting conflicts.  This audacious and unexpected series quickly found an audience, and each new title has sold out at comic book stores.

And last month, a double sized commemorative issue of Life with Archie was published.  In it, the original Archie, grown up and still in Riverdale, dies a noble death, stepping in front of a gunman who has set out to kill a popular gay politician.   Unlike the superheroes of more recent popularity, Archie died with neither a sword nor a rocket launcher in his hand. He died as he lived.

While the Archie death story was much touted in the media, comic aficionados have gave it a lukewarm reception, largely seeing its writing and particulars as thin gruel, not up to the high standards of earlier efforts.

No matter; when you try new things, not every effort will be a home run.   The important thing is to keep at it.

In any event, dead or alive, Archie's nimble creative team seems to be planning to keep the original nice-guy comic hero before our eyes for many years to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

BuzzFeed -- What Type of Shark Are You?

I'm way behind on the BuzzFeed trend.  I looked at the site for the first time yesterday, joining the 150 million people who drop in every month.

I decided to do this because two savvy tech investors recently bought equity in BuzzFeed.  The price they paid suggests that the site is worth $850 million.  Even in Silicon Valley, that counts as real money.

What I found on BuzzFeed were many trivial posts designed to appeal to people with too much time on their hands  -- "Would You Have Survived The Battle Of Hogwarts?" and "What Type Of Shark Are You?" and "Here's James Franco With Blonde (sic) Bangy Hair."

Two months ago, BuzzFeed fired one of its reporters for more than 40 documented cases of outright plagiarism.  In the press release announcing the action, the heads of BuzzFeed described it as "one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web."

The press release made me interested in the non-entertainment part of the site. Here were the top five articles I found listed under "News."

   --- A discussion of Iraqi leader Nouri Al Maliki's situation, based on BBC reports.

     --- A report on racial tensions in Missouri, quoting CNN, Fox2 and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.

     --- An update on US military assistance to Kurdish forces, quoting the Associated Press.

     --- News of a moratorium on Ohio death penalty executions, also quoting the Associated Press.

     --- "The Definitive Ranking Of Things Worth Waiting In Line For," apparently generated by                       BuzzFeed's in-house news team.

It left me with the impression that BuzzFeed doesn't do much of its own news reporting and that its readers are interested in News Lite, if indeed they are interested in news at all.

In the press release I mentioned earlier, the BuzzFeed bigs said, "we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the the people we cover to high standards."

Ha ha ha ha ha, I thought.

The State of News Today

Last year, the New York Times Co. sold one of its properties, the Boston Globe newspaper, for $70 million, or about the value of the real estate owned by the Globe.

Put another way,  the value of the Boston paper, which no doubt employs many, many more actual reporters than BuzzFeed, is zero.  Meanwhile BuzzFeed is worth $850 million.

The decline of newspapers is well under way, and much of the blame belongs to newspaper organizations themselves.  For more than 100 years, owning a newspaper was easy and lucrative.  If people wanted more information than could be found on radio or television reports, they had to buy newspapers.  If merchants in a city wanted to let people know about their products, they had to buy advertising in newspapers.  Owning a newspaper was like owning a machine that printed money.

Newspapers did too little, too late to adjust to the new realities of the web.  A few -- the Wall Street Journal, lately the Washington Post -- have managed to sell at least some online subscriptions.  No paper collects anywhere near the advertising revenue that was taken for granted in the past.

I doubt any news organization's online site attracts 150 million viewers each month, as BuzzFeed does.

I am sure that, somehow, this situation will be rectified.  It has to be.  We certainly don't need newspapers, but we do need news reporting.  The functioning of our democracy depends on it.

One Last Time

I just now took my second and final look at BuzzFeed.  Amid the serious news (a Fox News anchor said the first lady should lose a few pounds, a Republican candidate is taking advantage of Robin Williams' death -- hard-hitting and unbiased reports, those) were the following:

"16 Awesome Six-Toed Cats Who Live In Ernest Hemingway's Old House"

"13 Grocery Shopping Frustrations We All Know To Be True"

"13 First Date Questions That Are Actually Insightful"

"What Your Favorite Drunk Food Actually Says About You"

"19 Things Any Guy Can Do To Improve His Pad"

"The 21 Struggles Of Wanting A Dog But Knowing You Shouldn't Get One"

$850 million value, 150 million visitors.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Spidey, Busted

Here is a photo posted online a couple weeks ago by a tourist in New York's Times Square.  You can see a worried-looking Elmo looking on as two of New York's finest wrestle with a person in a Spider Man costume.

Spider Man eventually was subdued, arrested and charged with shaking down tourists for $10 each for posing for pictures with them.  According to the police, people in costumes may seek only tips, not charge a set price.

If you have visited Times Square anytime in the last 10 years, you have seen the characters:  Elmo, Minnie Mouse, Sponge Bob Squarepants and, more recently, action figures like Spider Man.

I always assumed that the characters were sponsored by the relevant production companies, like Jim Henson's Muppets organization, say.  But I was naive.   The characters are individual operators, often immigrants, who buy costumes for $150 or more and then go into business, posing for photographs with tourists and collecting tips from them.

For many years, the usual toss was a buck or two.  More recently, in addition to Spider Man, it has been reported that a man in a Statue of Liberty costume was charging $10 to stand beside your kid while you shot a snapshot of the two of them.

Over time, the appeal of this sort of work has increased.  On any given day, you can encounter several Elmos, and multiples of other characters.

My guess is that this is off-the-books work, like more and more commerce in big cities.

The whole business started getting new scrutiny last month when one of the characters threw a punch at somebody -- maybe a cop, I can't remember -- and now the police are hauling in more of the Muppets and action heroes.

Other Entrepreneurs

There are other entrepreneurs working Times Square.  One is the Naked Cowboy, who for 16 years has roamed the area in white underpants, pointy-toed boots and a cowboy hat while strumming a guitar. A few months ago, he hit the big time, signing a contract with Fruit of the Loom to switch to briefs and be featured in an advertising campaign.

Another entrepreneur was the steel drum guy.  Twelve years ago or so, I went with the younger person to the Times Square TKTS booth to buy discounted seats to a Broadway matinee.  The lines were long, and a steel drum musician had set up to entertain the waiting crowd and, I'm guessing, to collect tips.

As we waited, a pair of policemen approached the steel drummer, who reached into his bag and pulled out a very thick roll of cash, presumably singles from his tips, and handed it over to one of the policemen; both cops then walked away.  I followed them for a while to ask what the deal was, but they hopped quickly into a waiting cruiser that set off down Seventh Avenue.

Thirty years ago, Times Square was a sleazy, scary place.  It has been cleaned up a lot since then -- MTV, CBS, Virgin and ToysRUs stores are there now -- but it still has con artists, albeit generally in more family-friendly uniforms.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


This is something I never thought I'd say, but here goes:  Poor Bob Dylan.

Dylan came to fame as a song writer and performer in the early 1960s and has been turning out music and art and performing in tours ever since.

His albums have sold more than 100 million copies over the years.  His songs have influenced generations of listeners and performers.  He has a Facebook page with more than 6 million followers on which he posts notices of his appearances, and sometimes playlists, currently from Australia.  Last year he released a memoir, Chronicles: Volume I, that talks about events in his life that have been meaningful to him.  Its title suggests that at least one more volume is to come.

In the main, however, Dylan has guarded his personal privacy.  I am pretty sure that, if asked to talk about himself, he would refuse to do so and refer his legions of fans to his music, lyrics, art and writings.

(FWIW, I saw him once in the San Francisco Airport, striding through with his entourage.   I thought it was pretty cool, but I understood that it would not be a good idea to try to take a selfie with him.)

Still, everyone wants a piece of the guy.  Biographies are released at the rate of at least two each year.

The latest, soon to be released, is based on recorded recollections of Victor Maymudes, who first met Dylan in 1961 or 1962.  Maymudes was, over the years, a promoter and manager for Dylan, who counted him as a friend.  According to an article in Sunday's New York Times, the two parted ways several times, starting in the 1980s.  When Maymudes was broke and then after he was fired after an involvement with a teenage girl, Dylan brought him back into the fold.  The two argued and broke for good in 1997.

In 2000, Maymudes, again broke, made his recordings with the intent of publishing a book and then died soon afterward.  Now his son, Jake, who knew Dylan from childhood and broke with him in the 1990s over Dylan's reaction to a money-losing property development in Santa Monica, has taken up his father's recording in his own quest to capitalize on the association.

The last paragraph of the Times article quotes the new book's author:

           "He was always nice to me," Jake said of the man he grew up thinking of as his father's boss. 
            And except for the Merit cigarettes Jake bummed at age 15, "I never asked anything of him                   either."

Except a financial windfall from sharing private memories.

The book comes out next month.

And, of course, yet another Dylan biography is scheduled for release in October.

I say, leave Bob Dylan alone.