Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Library Lions

Meet Patience.  Or Is It Fortitude?

Above is a view of one of the two lion statues that flank the front entrance of the main building of the New York Public Library.  Their names are Patience and Fortitude. They are among the city's best known landmarks.

The library itself is a gorgeous Beaux Arts structure that faces Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets in Manhattan.  It harkens back to the time when important public buildings were designed to look, well, important. 

Here is a photo of library and lions, taken not long after the facility opened in 1911.


New York always has been a wealthy city, and its library has benefitted from the generosity of the city's rich residents.  With their help and over time, NYPL has grown to encompass many branches and to rank second only to the Library of Congress in its collections.

It was launched by an 1886 bequest in the will of Samuel J. Tilden, who wanted to give the city a free public library.  (Tilden is remembered also as the New York governor who won the popular vote but lost a hotly disputed electoral count to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election.)

Later donations from John Jacob Astor and James Lenox enabled the construction of the Fifth Avenue building.  

Another Lenox gift to the library is America's first Gutenberg Bible, which he bought in 1847.  It is displayed outside what is now known as the Rose Main Reading Room. Here it is:

The reading room is a spectacular space, almost 300 feet long and with a 51-foot ceiling.  (The Rose name acknowledges a recent wealthy donor family.)  It is a public space that also has been used by prominent writers, including E.L. Doctorow, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore White, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer.  The room  is under renovation at the moment, but it will emerge in 2017 looking again as it does in the photo below.

Various later donations have been recognized by the naming of other rooms and collections. Among the names: Berg, Blass, Dorot, Firya, Hutson, Milstein, Pincus, Wallace and Wallach.

The most recent major donation came from a cofounder of the Blackstone Group.  His $100 million pledge, announced in 2011, kicked off a billion-dollar NYPL fundraising campaign.  In recognition, the Fifth Avenue main branch has been renamed the Steven A. Shwarzman Building.   

Patience and Fortitude

But back to the cats.  

Originally, the lions were called Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, perhaps unofficially, for the two men who wrote the checks for the main branch.

In the 1930s, the lions were renamed by the mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who thought patience and fortitude were traits that would help New Yorkers get through the Great Depression.

Sculpted of handsome pink Tennessee marble, the lions have featured often in tourist photographs and have been dressed up with Yankees and Mets caps, among other decorations, for holidays and other events.

In 2004, P and F were thoroughly cleaned and restored.  (The building's exterior was gussied up similarly for its 2011 centennial.)  

After the work was completed, NYPL administrators declared there would be no more decorating of the lions.  Librarians can be that way sometimes.

The new stricture did not last, however.  Here is a later picture of Patience and Fortitude, taken in December 2013.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Peg Lynch, 1916-2015

One of the most prolific comedy writers and actresses of radio and early television died the other day.  I'd never heard of her until I read an obituary.  My loss.

Peg Lynch is remembered most for "Ethel and Albert," a humorous husband-and-wife sit-com series, the first of its kind, that ran on radio, on all three television networks and then back on radio for many, many years.  She also played Ethel in more than 11,000 scripts that she wrote between the late 1930s and the 1970s.  

Here's one example, "The Toothache," that appeared on the Kate Smith television program in 1952.  It's just over 10 minutes and nicely crafted.  

According to her daughter's spirited biography (which can be found in full at, Lynch was resourceful and clever from the get-go.   

       Her start in radio got underway at age fourteen, after a schoolfriend’s father, 
       like countless businessmen across the country wanting to get in on this new thing 
       called “radio” but not knowing the first thing about running a radio station, opened 
       a radio station. Young Margaret persuaded him to hire her and that he needed 
       things called “sponsors”. How she knew this, or knew how to do this, I don’t know, 
       but about two seconds later she had secured for him his first one, Bisguard Bauer, 
       a local shoe store, having wooed them with a slogan of her own devising: “Don’t 
       Spend Your Life Two Feet Away From Happiness!”. 

Years later, after college and much radio work, Lynch signed on as a copywriter for another radio station: 

        Mama, in addition, wrote two hundred and fifty commercial spots per week, a daily 
        half hour woman’s show, a weekly half hour theatre show, a weekly farm news
        program, plus three ten minute plays and two five minute sketches per week. 

It was here that she first developed the Ethel and Albert characters that made her famous.  The scripts involved a husband and wife in common situations rendered with a light touch.  It's interesting that she was able to do this with no real background; her father died of the Spanish flu when she was two years old, her mother never remarried and Lynch was a single woman.  (She later embarked on a long, happy marriage of her own; her husband died in 2014.)

One columnist/blogger said this of her in an homage that also can be found at

        Peg Lynch is simply this: one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century. The 
        fact that she worked in dialogue makes people think it’s not Thurber or Perelman, 
        but let those guys write 750 self-contained but intimately connected scenes, and 
        we can talk. The fact that she never strived for a ha-ha line, one of those things 
        set on fire and rolled out on a cart with a sign that said JOKE, makes one think 
        that “humorist” is an inexact description, but her speciality was the humorous 
        situation, one that arises naturally from the characters. 

We all remember Ozzie and Harriet and Lucy and Ricky, but Harriet and Lucy didn't write their own material as well as play those parts.  Pretty remarkable.

If you have a little time, here's a half-hour Ethel and Albert program with a better picture than the toothache vignette.  It is nicely paced and includes Albert's Aunt Eva, who is played by Margaret Hamilton, best known as the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz".

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Jury Duty Forever

What is missing from this picture?  Me

Regular readers may recall that I spent a week at the county courthouse this month on jury duty.  

After days of desultory testimony on a pretty minor civil matter, my fellow jurors and I were dismissed.  Over a weekend, the parties had agreed to a settlement between themselves.  My guess is that they could have reached the same conclusion without dragging the matter into a courtroom. 

I thought the whole business was over last Wednesday when I received a generous $55 check in the mail for my five days of service.   

But no.  Two days later, another notice came from the county.  I have been ordered again to present myself at the courthouse for -- you guessed it -- jury duty.

This is par for the course in my experience.  Some people win drawings for exotic cruise vacations.  I get summonses for jury duty.

I just looked up the law on this and learned two things.  

On the plus side, my state does not require me to appear for jury duty more than once every three years.  With a little effort, I can arrange to be excused. 
    (I am not a digital savant, but I have a question:  Couldn't the county database be programmed not to summon citizens who have been jurors within the last three years? At this rate and with my luck, I will get 150 jury notices by July 2018.  Seems like a waste of paper and postage.)

On the minus side, I am still eligible for federal jury duty.  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Purloined Sunglasses

Crime in my suburb is pretty humdrum, usually opportunistic property snatches.  
This summer, our newspaper reports, unlocked cars sitting in driveways have been attractive targets.  

In recent weeks, many cars have been burgled late at night. Since most of what people leave in their cars are canvas grocery bags and sunglasses, the sunglasses have been swiped.  Perhaps the crooks expected to find cash or car keys (newer vehicles cannot be hot-wired as easily as older models could) and were content to make off with used sunglasses.  Seems like a lot of risk for not much reward.

Now at least one thief has adopted a different business model, grabbing sunglasses at the local mall.  

The mall has a number of stores of designer merchandise.  I don't visit these shops as a rule, but lately they have been showing up in our weekly newspaper's much-read crime roundup.    

Crooks seem drawn to these boutiques, which have high-end items at very high prices.  I have read that shoplifters visit these stores carrying foil-lined shopping bags or wearing outfits with multiple pockets.

Last week, a man visited the Giorgio Armani store and walked out with five pairs of sunglasses without paying for them.  I don't know why the store employees did not chase the man; possibly they all were wearing four-inch heels, which are not good running shoes in most cases.  

I looked online just now for some examples of this season's Armani sunglasses. Above are a couple pairs priced at $430 each.  They look perfectly nice, but if I saw someone wearing a pair on the street, I wouldn't recognize it as Armani.  I certainly wouldn't say to myself, wow, look at those expensive shades.  But that could say more about me than anything else.

Perhaps the man who boosted the sunglasses wanted several pairs to coordinate with his summer wardrobe.  More likely, I'm guessing, he knows someone who operates a black market for designer sunglasses, purses, sweaters and the like.  Or maybe he operates his own Ebay site and needs a steady supply of new products -- authentic, if stolen -- to sell. 

With prices like that, I would expect store operators to keep merchandise under lock and key, bringing samples out one at a time for customers to try.  Maybe the store managers, like the people who park unlocked cars outside at night, could learn a lesson here. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Position Authority and Sandra Bland

Above is the picture of a small, not particularly distinguished home in my county. Its owner was in the process of an addition that had been approved by the town building department until work was stopped in May.

The problem was that the town's Historic Preservation Commission had not been consulted.  Unfortunately, the non-historic house was located in an Historic Preservation District.

Since May, the preservation viziers have had several meetings with the owner and architect.  They have generously offered their personal aesthetic suggestions for revisions to the owner's plans.  In at least two cases, the committee's ideas overstep its mandate: 

      --  It wants the owner to make changes to the rear of the house even though the 
           preservation purview covers only street views of non-historic houses. 

      --  It wants to order changes to the front porch roof as it was originally built.
          Again, the committee's authority extends only to changes to houses.

I can imagine a day when preservation committee members walk the streets of the historic district and suggest, perhaps strongly, changes that homeowners should consider for their non-historic houses.  Maybe new exterior paint colors or landscaping.  

I sure wouldn't want to own a house in that town's preservation district.

Position Authority

What is at work in the situation above is the assertion of "position authority."   Big businesses and other organizations talk about it a lot because it is seen as frustrating cooperation among individuals.  Here is one description I found on the internet:

      What is interesting is that it is possible to have positional authority without 
      personal authority. Here, someone above us has title and position but does 
       not have credibility or respect in our eyes. . . .

      It is precisely these leaders who often make it clear to those they lead that 
      they have positional authority over them ("I am the boss"). . . . Interestingly, 
      those who must lead from primarily positional authority usually see those 
      they lead as serving them, rather than them serving those they lead. 

Here, from another site, are some critiques:

      Leading from position undermines the development of relationships.
      Leading from position encourages negative political behaviours.
      Leading from position crushes the human spirit.
      Leading from position erodes trust.
      Leading from position produces mediocre results.

Many government bureaucrats LOVE position authority.  If you have ever needed a variance from your city's zoning authority or a change of your child's class schedule from a school principal, you know how go about it.  You suck up to the administrator.

This is also true in dealings with the police.  If you get pulled over on a traffic stop, you act as compliant and solicitous as possible.  The police officer can issue you an expensive citation and make your life uncomfortable.  He knows it; you know it.  You both play your roles.

Sandra Bland

Here is the police dashcam video of the traffic stop that put Sandra Bland in a Texas jail.  

She had been traveling in her car when she noticed a police car following her.  Like many people in such a situation, she decided to move into a different lane.  

Unfortunately, she did not signal before making the lane change.  The police officer in the car behind hers turned on his flashers and ordered her to pull over.

Sandra Bland was not deferential to the police officer.  He asserted his position authority. Presumably anxious, she lit up a cigarette, which was none of his business, and he ordered her to put the cigarette out.  She refused to extinguish her cigarette. He took out his Taser and threatened to "light" her.  He ordered her to get out of her car.  Then he handcuffed her.

Bland did not threaten the officer, but she also did not act as respectfully as he would have liked.  So he arrested her.

If you are a police officer obsessed with your position authority, maybe it makes sense to jail a driver for failing to signal for a lane change or smoking a cigarette in your presence.

If you are a normal person, it makes no sense at all.

Bland was put in jail, where she died (apparently a suicide) three days later.

The traffic stop did not kill her.  But without the overreaction of the police officer, she almost certainly would be alive today.

I hate this crap.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


W.L. Doctorow in 1975

American author W.L. Doctorow died two days ago at 84.  He will be remembered for a number of important novels, including Billy Bathgate, Homer & Langley, Loon Lake and The Book of Daniel.  

The Doctorow title that I have read and shared several times is Ragtime, published in 1975, a big story with a big cast of characters who meet and interact in the Northeast early in the last century.  It's an interesting book, satisfying and not quickly forgotten.

Doctorow's story is populated by many luminaries of its moment, 1908, including Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Sanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman and Bill Hayward.  They serve as cameos and historical anchors to illustrate the novel's intertwined story lines about a prosperous white family, a proud and ultimately angry African American man, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. 

Surprisingly, given its complex structure, Ragtime is a quick read.   I always am struck by its flat prose.  (A politician at a campaign event gets this description:  "He wore a carnation in his lapel.")  Events are described as if by someone recounting scenes from a movie.  The economy of detail and description move the story forward at a smart pace.

Lately I have been rereading All the King's Men, another major American novel written by Robert Penn Warren and published in 1946.  It too is a big story about a particular time and place, but it could not be more different.  It has long, meditative descriptions of people, towns and landscapes and is narrated in a melancholy, reflective tone. It's a fine piece of work, but I'm not sure it would be well received if it were released today.  

Ragtime's frankly cinematic style seems to me to have shown American writers a new way to tell stories.  It is not the only way, but it has been much imitated.  

In 1975, a NYTimes critic put it this way:  Doctorow has "given us a novel so immediate and accessible that it resists the label 'experimental,' and at the same time is an experiment so thoroughly successful that it cannot help but be immediate and accessible." 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Restaurants and Taxes

New York newspapers reported the other day that a former Congressman was sentenced to eight months in prison for one count of tax fraud related to the operation of a restaurant he co-owned.

The eatery, pictured above, is now closed.  The 20-count indictment resulted from a federal investigation that was initiated to look into the man's political fundraising.

It ended up focusing on his restaurant.  The man admitted that he had underreported restaurant sales and wages and that he had filed false business and personal tax returns for three years.   

He argued that all restaurants engage in such practices.  Some quotes:

      "You're not going to have a restaurant in Manhattan with delivery boys and not 
      pay them off the books. The truth is I should've closed."

      "I'm the only restaurant owner in all of New York to be criminally prosecuted" 
      for paying workers under the table.

In fact, he was nearly right.  His lawyer had combed through federal records and found 200 similar prosecutions of restaurant operators in the Eastern and Southern federal districts of New York that resulted in fines but no prison time.  

The prosecutors countered with seven (7) cases in the same districts that had resulted in prison terms; apparently the longest was six months, shorter than the sentence handed down to the former Congressman.

(We could discuss whether politicians should be held to higher standards than everyday citizens, but I'm not sure our political class could stand the scrutiny.)

Restaurants and Fraud

The restaurant business is a challenging one.  Many restaurants barely break even, and many go broke.  There are several locations in my town that have seen three or four dining concepts tested and failed in the last 10 years.  I don't think this is unusual.

In a tough business like that, it is tempting to cheat and there are many ways to do so.  Here are a few:  You can inflate your food costs with the help of cooperative vendors.  You can operate two credit card accounts, claiming one for tax purposes and the other not.  You can hire illegal immigrants off the books, paying them less and saving payroll tax expense.  You can tear up receipts for bills paid in cash and put the cash in your personal bank account.   

Last month, New Jersey officials prosecuted the owner of one restaurant for wire fraud and nonpayment of sales taxes.  That restaurant closed, but it was an exception.

Last year, two owners of another Jersey restaurant pled guilty to filing fraudulent tax returns between 2005 and 2008, cheating the federal government of almost $300,000 of taxes.  The restaurant opened in 1994, and you don't have to be a cynic to suspect that the business did not operate on the up-and-up for its first 11 years.  That restaurant is still open.

About 10 years ago, a longtime restaurant in my town was similarly charged and paid similar tax arrears and a penalty.  That restaurant also is still in business, but I don't think I know anyone who eats there. 


Several weeks ago, the Significant Other and I met the younger person in Manhattan for Sunday brunch.  The day was pleasant, and the food was good.  We had a nice time.

When the check came, the SO pulled out his credit card and put it on the tray.

"I'm sorry.  We only take cash," said the waiter.  So we gave the guy cash.

Still annoys me to think about it. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Children's Games and Grownups

If you've spent any time watching kids play ballgames, this youtube post will not surprise you.  You already know that, for some adults, youth athletics are blood sports.

This is a recent fight between two New Jersey fathers.  It involves girls' softball, but it just as easily could have been about baseball, football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, water polo or hockey -- actually, especially hockey.    

Anyway, here's the altercation.

One devoted father drove three hours to confront another father/coach after the first man's daughter was dropped from a traveling softball team.

The angry father threw the first punch and got back worse than he gave.  Both were arrested.

There are several obvious points to be made in this case: 

     -- Parents are protective of their kids, and fathers are particularly touchy about 
        perceived mistreatment of their daughters.

     -- It may be that tempers grow hotter when the stakes are higher.  Remember, this
        involved a traveling team, not an intra-city rec league group.   
              (Or maybe not: Consider what Henry Kissinger said about college spats: 
        "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.")
     -- Cathartic as the fisticuffs may have been for the two dads, their daughters
         almost certainly were mortified with embarrassment.  The incident will be
         much discussed and laughed about when they return to school in the fall.

    -- We must learn to assume always that our actions are being caught on camera.  
        This video may get almost as many views as the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.  
        Floyd and Manny were smart enough to nail down their economic packages 
        before they began throwing punches.   

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Movies: Schumer/Apatow Versus Rudd/Marvel

Tomorrow's summer movie openings include a newish type of entry -- a sort of raunchy women's story -- in addition to the usual superhero epics and family-oriented animated stuff that are staples of the season.  

(Speaking of animation.  Parents who took their children to last weekend's Universal release, "Minions," were not enchanted.  I would recommend hiring a babysitter to accompany your tots if they insist on seeing the movie.)

But tomorrow beckons.


"Trainwreck" is coming to every theater near you.  Directed by Judd Apatow, it stars Amy Schumer, the Comedy Central and standup star who is famous for the kind of outre vulgarity that is popular in humorous films these days.  

(Yes, it probably was inspired by that "Bridesmaids" movie, which was produced but not directed by Apatow in 2011.  But, no, Schumer probably doesn't go as far as Melissa McCarthy did in that bathroom scene.  We can hope, anyway.)

This is the trailer, which gives the general idea.

Apatow ("Knocked Up," "Superbad," "This Is 40") is a smart writer and director.  He seems to have tried to broaden "Trainwreck's" appeal to guys by casting LeBron James as the best friend/advisor to the Schumer "love interest" character.  There are even a couple fun videos on YouTube featuring Apatow and James talking about working together.


This is the second Marvel Studios release of the summer.  (The first, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" came out May 1 and had grossed $1.39 billion by last Tuesday.)

This movie features Paul Rudd, who is mostly thought of as a comic actor, and Michael Douglas as the mentor who has devised a nifty ant-suit that can make Rudd tiny and/or wickedly powerful.  The trailer is below.

I don't think I will be giving anything away if I quote this much from the film's publicity: 

         "Against seemingly insurmountable obstacles,  Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) and 
         Ant-Man (Rudd) must plan and pull off a heist that will save the world."

Summer is always a good season for Marvel.  Word of mouth about "Ant-Man" is very positive. 

Oh, and another thing:

Mr. Holmes

A third film is opening this weekend, broadly but not as broadly as the two mentioned above.  It features the fine actor Ian McKellan as Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  

Both McKellan and Holmes have legions of fans.  For a non-blockbuster, this movie should do pretty well. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Better Sunscreen -- Now!

We all know that we should be using sunscreen to protect our skin from sunburns, the fine lines of aging and melanoma cancer, which kills 10,000 Americans each year.

There are two kinds of damaging rays from the sun.  One, UVB, can cause sunburns and perhaps skin cancer; most American sunscreens block UVB rays pretty well.  The SPF number on a sunscreen product -- 15, 30, 55, 70 -- tells you how much protection it offers from UVB.

The other type is a little different.  UVA rays penetrate the skin through windows and car windshields as well as outdoor exposure.  UVA is more closely implicated in skin cancer, as well as premature aging of the skin. 

Unfortunately, UVA protection is more limited.  Early sunscreens only worked against UVB, and we now are are advised by dermatologists to use "broad spectrum" sunscreens that protect against UVA as well.  

Unfortunately, the term "broad spectrum" does not specify exactly how broad or protective a sunscreen is against UVA.  

Only three substances are approved by the FDA for use in "broad spectrum" sunscreens.  Many other substances -- some said to block a broader range of rays and to protect for much longer than U.S. formulations -- have been used successfully in many other countries for many years now.

No one seems to know why the more effective UVA-blocking substances have not been approved here, but the battle has been going on for a long, long time.

Below are some field reports from a quick internet search:


Q.  Did anyone hear recently in the news about a sunblock approved in Europe but not here?  Plus why it’s supposed to be so good?  And why it’s not OK’d by the FDA?

A.  There are two new sunscreen ingredients, Tinosorb and Mexoryl, that are superior in UVA protection.  They are available in Europe, but they are still in the process of being approved by the FDA.  Hopefully, they’ll be approved soon.
July 30, 2004


But nowadays everyone -- the American Academy of Dermatology, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and, of course, sunscreen manufacturers -- agrees that the American consumer deserves access to a sunscreen that's as effective at filtering UVA as it is at taming UVB. . . .

The sunscreen ingredient that tops many most-wanted lists, including that of Clay J. Cockerell, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, is Mexoryl. The drug, developed by L'Oreal, has been widely used in Europe and elsewhere since 1993.

Mexoryl, which Cockerell said protects against even the longest-wavelength UVA light and can block 75 percent to 90 percent of that light, is widely deemed more effective than any anti-UVA drug available in the United States.

So where does Mexoryl stand in the FDA approval process? The agency doesn't comment on such matters. Nor does Jennie James, vice president for media relations for L'Oreal USA, shed much light: "All we really say about Mexoryl is that we have initiated a process of discussion with the FDA about Mexoryl and are continuing to work closely with the FDA." 

"Less Than Full Protection"
Washington Post
June 28, 2005


In the absence of new (FDA) rules, consumers are left with sunscreen regulations that date back to the Carter administration -- 1978 -- when the science of sun protection was much more primitive.  The status quo leaves Americans with less-effective sunscreens, doctors and scientists say.

"In the States, we are selling an obsolete generation of sun protection," said Lionel De Benetti, the president of Clarins Laboratoires, a French cosmetics company.  In its European sunscreens, Clarins uses superior ingredients that are not approved for use in the United States, he said, adding, "It's a bit upsetting."

To get state-of-the-art sun protection, some consumers seek out sunscreens from Europe that use UVA filters that are not yet approved by the F.D.A.  Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo, a graduate student at Princeton University, took the trouble to do the research and now uses European products.

"The sunscreens in North America tend to be very effective at blocking UVB rays, but not UVA rays," she said.

"UVA Reform: It's Not PDQ"
New York Times
June 24, 2010


Henry Lim, chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, says multiple UVA filters still awaiting clearance in the U.S. have been used effectively outside the country for years.

"The U.S. is an island by itself on this one," he said. "They're available in Canada, available in Europe, available in Asia, available in Mexico, and available in South America."

Wall Street Journal
May 13, 2013


The FDA hasn’t helped itself on the public relations front. In 2002 the agency developed a new process to speed approval of chemicals that have long been on the market abroad, and FDA officials declared their intent to approve or deny applications within 180 days. In early 2009—that’s more than 2,500 days later—it had become achingly clear that the FDA was not making those self-imposed deadlines on sunscreen ingredients. Pressed by the industry to get moving, the agency promised to process most of the long-delayed applications by the end of the year. That was four years ago, and we are still waiting.

It's almost hard to believe that America is home to some of the most outdated sun protection products in the world. It is, and it's been this way for some time now.

The last time a new sunscreen ingredient was introduced to the US market was in 2002. The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, making the process for ingredient approval cumbersome. Eight new OTC sunscreen ingredients have been pending in the FDA's queue for more than a decade, while countries in Europe and Asia have been enjoying the same ingredients for years and are constantly introducing innovative new options.

"Burned by Bureaucracy"
Why is the FDA stalling on 
newer and better sunscreens?
April 23, 2014


“We’ve not heard any real objections to the legislation.  We’re optimistic that this is going to be a bill that everybody can get behind and we can get it enacted this summer,” (said Michael Werner, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who advised the PASS (Public Access to Sunscreen) Coalition.

"Critics Want FDA to OK New Sunscreen Ingredients"
June 6, 2014


"Some UV filters actually provide longer and better UVA protection," said Dr. Stephen Wang a dermatologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to Racked. "Sunscreens offer certain spectrums of protection. "The ingredients waiting to be approved can deliver better protection. The US currently has three [ingredients providing] UVA protection whereas there are a lot more available in Europe and Asia."

"Why You Shouldn't Be Buying Your Sunscreen in America"
July 16, 2014


The New England Journal of Medicine dipped a cautious toe in the water last week, releasing a perspective article for a comment period that ends today.  It surveys the damage UVA rays cause as well as the yearslong efforts to allow sales of better products and then says this:

"It's no surprise that the FDA would act cautiously given the scientific advice it's received and a legal structure that essentially provides it with just one tool: authorizing extensive marketing of multiple products and formulations. Understanding the FDA means recognizing that the framework for over-the-counter products is not designed to promote innovation, even innovation with potential public health benefits."

There is a lot more blah-blah-blah about process and then this conclusion:

"After all, the ultimate goal is to make meaningful progress against this public health problem."


Exactly, I say.  When is the FDA going to start taking this situation seriously?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Harper Lee

It is hard to imagine anyone today who has had more influence on white Americans' views of race relations than a quiet 89-year-old woman who is in declining health in Monroeville, Alabama.

I speak of course of Harper Lee.  

Lee is the youngest of four children raised by a small-town lawyer who, it has been reported, defended two black men who were accused of murder, convicted and hanged.  It is said that he was so angered by the experience that he abandoned the law to run the local newspaper. 

Her lifelong friend, Truman Capote, lived next door.  (You may remember him, the gay author of "In Cold Blood" who died in 1984.)  The two were avid readers and writers, and we can guess that their friendship, like her upbringing in a segregated town in the American South, sharpened her sensitivity to outsiders and fury at bigotry.

Lee wrote a first novel in 1957.  Like many first novels, it was autobiographical, effectively  a declaration of independence from her father and revulsion at the racism of her small town.  Many years later, this novel, "Go Set a Watchman," is being released tomorrow.

Lee's only published novel till now, a rethinking of that early effort, was released in 1960.  

That book, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been required reading for almost three generations of American schoolchildren.  It was the right book at the right -- too late, but finally right -- moment.  

To Kill a Mockingbird

America was at a crossroads when this novel came out.  The Supreme Court had declared unanimously in 1954 that "separate but equal" schools for black and white students were not equal and that schools must be integrated.  

It took years and the intervention of federal troops for the decision to be enforced.

Here's an image from Little Rock in 1957.

And another from New Orleans in 1960.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was the coming-of-age story of a white girl in the 1930s south.  Her father, a lawyer, defended a black man falsely accused of rape and was reviled by townspeople for his efforts.  The daughter observed the trial from the black seating section of the courtroom and watched as the black man was convicted.  The mockingbird of the title was a symbol of innocence lost, its lesson was of hard-gained wisdom.

According to a friend, "If you ask Harper Lee, she says it's a love story. It models how a professional person should conduct himself in the face of prejudice, and it has therefore influenced the younger people."

The book, and the Gregory Peck movie that followed in 1962, forced white America to look at those pictures from Little Rock and New Orleans.  It made people want to be like the honorable lawyer and not the angry bigots shouting at innocent children.

Go Set a Watchman

Some people are surprised that the first draft of Lee's book is being released.  They wonder if she really wanted "Go Set a Watchman" to be published.  She did, after all, live for 55 years without indicating such any such wish.  Why wait until after the trusted sister who managed her business affairs had died and Lee was mostly deaf, blind, moving in a wheelchair and failing of memory?

People involved with the new book have said that she is "happy as hell" about its publication. 

Reports tell us that "Go Set a Watchman" deals with a young adult white woman who returns from New York to her small southern hometown.  She is infuriated by the town's white people, most especially her father, for their casual, ingrained racism in the period following Brown v. the Board of Education. 

All these years later, Harper Lee is giving us a new, and yet older, view of the lawyer who taught us to be better people.  It almost certainly is true to its period, but for me it sounds like a painful piece to read.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Omar Shariff: Film Moments

Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who died the other day, burst into Western film as Sherif Ali in one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema.  

You can watch it above, but the thrill of it does not come across in a small format. It was shot on 70-millimeter film by the legendary cinematographer, Freddie Young, and only a huge screen does it justice.  

(Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  Same idea.) 

The film, "Lawrence of Arabia" won Oscars for best picture, best director (David Lean) and best cinematography.  It has been rereleased several times, most recently in digital 4K for its 50th anniversary in 2012.    

Next time it comes around, go.  You won't regret it. 

Doctor Zhivago

Shariff was 83 when he died of a heart attack.  Another of his famous characters, Doctor Zhivago, met a similar fate in the saddest moments of another Lean/Young epic.  The movie is based on Boris Pasternak's fine novel of the upheavals of the Russian Revolution.  

In this scene, Zhivago catches a glimpse of Lara, his lost true love.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Robin Williams

Below is the preview of what may be the last movie made by the actor Robin Williams, who died last summer.

The trailer implies that Nolan Mack, the Williams character, bravely makes a big change in his life at the age of 60, but a review by New York Times film critic Stephen Holden suggests the film does not play out this way.

The final paragraph of the review is this:

      "As truthful as it is, 'Boulevard' conveys little insight into characters who are 
      believable and well acted but incapable of change.  The movie is an unreliev-
      edly depressing illustration of Henry David Thoreau's observation that 'the mass
      of men lead lives of quiet desperation.'"

Perhaps this is more true to the facts of Williams' life than the associations most people have of him based on the performances that made up his career.


Williams starred in early school performances and was a standout drama student at the Juilliard School in New York.  

His first big hit was the "Mork and Mindy" television show that ran from 1978 to 1982, in which Williams played an alien with such energy and wacky humor that he made his name for these qualities.

He was an unusually gifted stand-up comedian and film actor.  If you never saw one of Williams' manic monologues, you could do worse than to watch the video below.  It is from one of his 50 appearances on Letterman's The Late Show, this time to promote "Mrs. Doubtfire,"  one of his most popular movies.  

Williams acted in more than 20 films.  The ones that sold the most tickets typically cast him as someone with a big heart who empathized with other people. Think Doubtfire, (1993, $404 million gross); "Dead Poets' Society," (1989, $236 million); and "Good Morning, Vietnam," (1987, $124 milliion).

One of these, the very middlebrow "Good Will Hunting" (1998, $225 million) won Williams a supporting actor Oscar.  Another, "Patch Adams"  (1998, $202 million), was so treacly that critic Roger Ebert said it "made me want to spray the screen with Lysol."

Williams played edgier parts in at least two films, but they did not generate the box office of his comedic efforts.

      -- In "One Hour Photo" (2002, $52 million), a psychological thriller, Williams played a 
      camera store worker who becomes obsessed with a family whose snapshots he                   processes.             

      --"Insomnia" (2002, $114 million) featured Williams as a murderer being stalked 
      by Al Pacino, a police detective with his own complicated backstory.

Both movies were very well reviewed, but apparently not appealing to Robin Williams' traditional audience.

The Downside of Enthusiasm

We all have met zesty, animated people who throw themselves wholeheartedly into making other people happy. It is wonderful to be around these people, but the ones I have known have paid a price.  This kind of charm takes huge psychic effort, and these effervescent people require lots of compensatory personal space. If they do not protect themselves, they run out of gas.  

This seems to have been the case with Robin Williams.  Early in his career, he distracted himself with alcohol and cocaine.   Later came two expensive divorces.   Successful as he was financially and professionally, he had financial worries. Restless and anxious, he also was depressed about a recent Parkinson's diagnosis.

In August last year, he strapped a nylon belt around his neck, hung himself from a closet door frame, and died of asphyxiation.  

The New Movie

"Boulevard" is opening today in a few theaters in artsy neighborhoods of New York and Los Angeles.  My bet is that Williams' acting here, however true it is to his own psychological challenges, will not be long remembered.  

If Robin Williams were still alive, he probably would repeat a quote from a Woody Allen movie.  In it, Allen as usual plays a filmmaker;  He meets one of his fans who says this:

     ". . . . We love all your work.  My wife has seen all your movies . . . . 
     I especially like your early, funny ones."

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Horndog Financier

Now that the tabloid trial of the year is ended, I want to talk about something other than the poor, dear Swedish former model who won a jury award of $18 million. 

Benjamin Wey

The other party in the case is in some ways the more interesting of the two.  Let's start by calling him by his name, Benjamin (Ben) Wey.  

It's a little surprising that tabloid reporters didn't bother looking into Wey's business career.  He has been followed for years by the financial press, which generally has concluded that his reputation is not of the best.  

Wey, a Chinese immigrant and now a U.S. citizen, settled first in Oklahoma, where he earned a bachelor's degree and then an MBA (that apparently wasn't classy enough; he got a second MBA later at Columbia, he says). 

He started his career in Oklahoma.  By 2002, according to a generally approving article in The Daily Oklahoman, he was working to pair Chinese companies with American investors. Almost incidentally, the article noted that the Oklahoma Department of Securities judged Wey's 1997 and 1999 audits as "lax in such areas as record-keeping and providing written disclosure statements to some clients."

Later, in the Financial Times, came this:

       "Oklahoma state’s Department of Securities found that Mr Wey had advised a 
       retired 68-year-old woman in 1999 to invest her entire life savings of $80,000 
       in . . . a risky penny stock, without mentioning that he was a paid consultant to 
       the company. . . .

       "Mr Wey promised the woman her investment would double within three months. 
       When it did not, he sold the shares on her instructions in March 2000 for a profit of
        about $8,000. But he then re-invested the entire $88,682 in the same company 
        . . . without her knowledge. . . .

       "Within three months of the second investment her life savings had fallen to 
       $17,710, the investigation concluded. It also found several other instances where 
        Mr Wey failed to follow customers’ instructions and personally sold shares he was
        advising customers to buy or hold.  

       "Without admitting or denying any of the findings, Mr Wey agreed in 2005  to be
       censured by the Oklahoma Department of Securities and to never again do any
       brokerage or investment advisory business in the state. . . . "

On to Wall Street and Reverse Mergers

The Sooner State's loss was the Big Apple's gain.  

Wey set up a new business, New York Global Group, on Wall Street and began arranging "reverse mergers" in which Chinese companies were grafted onto American shell corporations to gain listings on American markets.

You may remember the period, starting around 2002, when the Chinese economy was growing rapidly and investors were eager to get in on the action.  By late 2010, U.S. regulators were fielding complaints about Chinese investments that had soured.  By 2011, the American press was reporting on a pattern of -- shall we say -- underperforming investments in reverse mergers, including some that Wey and New York Global had promoted. 

Here is how a Forbes columnist explained it in 2013: 

       "Regulators and short-sellers pointed specifically at Chinese reverse-merger
       companies, which bought U.S. publicly traded shell companies and retained
       their U.S. listings, hence bypassing the requirements of initial public offerings. 

      "Although reverse-merging is a well established practice and the 159 reverse-
      merger transactions by Chinese companies from 2007 to 2010 was only 26% 
      of the total, a significant proportion of those investigated for fraud were Chinese 
      reverse-merger companies."   

Ben Way claimed at one point to have advised on as many as 200 reverse mergers.  When a number of them failed -- often for dodgy financials -- Wey complained that investigators were anti-Chinese racists and that short sellers were savaging the stocks' prices.

One of his companies, for example, was listed on the American stock exchange and then delisted in 2007, based in part on its irregular relationship with Wey.  (The company severed the relationship that year.)  Later the company was relisted on another, smaller exchange; the smaller exchange delisted it in 2014 for failure to provide audited financial statements. Its stock price has ranged from an early high of $20 a share to a close of eight-tenths of a cent per in over-the-counter trading Wednesday.   

We cannot blame Wey for the company's post-2007 results, perhaps, but it seems safe to guess that it was overhyped when he helped to get it listed on Amex in 2005.

Wey in the Press

A Barron's article in 2011 described the company discussed above as "one early sinkhole" and Wey as “[o]ne of the most controversial promoters of Chinese reverse takeovers.” 

The article also said "much of the universe of Chinese reverse mergers has become a swamp of revenue disappointment, earnings restatements and some outright fraud."

Wey, who from time to time identifies himself as an "investigative reporter," retaliated against the Barron's writers on his blog, The Blot.  Here's the opener:


Bill Alpert, crack head, Barron’s reporter, duped by the Jon Carnes crime family.

In another case, Roddy Boyd discussed Wey and New York Global in 2011 on his blog, "The Financial Investigator." (Boyd has since moved to the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, SIRF, another worthy effort.)  

Boyd's article said Wey and the auditors of companies he sponsored did not exactly operate at arm's length and that more than a few of the audits and financial forecasts supporting Wey's reverse mergers simply made no sense.    

In one case, "Household appliance maker Deer Consumer Products grew revenues 400 percent between 2008 and 2010 and reported operating margins of 21 percent, hundreds -- and occasionally thousands -- of basis points higher than even its Chinese competitors."

Boyd wrote about Wey several more times over the years.  Here's one of Wey's rejoinders, again in The Blot:


Well, now.  There are written articles attached to these preposterous illustrations, of course, but the articles are stupid as well as provocative.  

Perhaps we should give Wey the benefit of the doubt for his apparent unfamiliarity with U.S. laws pertaining to defamation and libel.  As his attorney in the horndog case acknowledged, "We all know Mr. Wey has diarrhea of the keyboard."

Lessons Learned

1.  If you are a Swedish former model, do not accept a so-called Wall Street job before spending a couple minutes researching the company and its recruiter on the internet. 

2.  If your investment advisor suggests some Chinese stocks for you to buy, find a new investment advisor.  

3.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was right.  There are no second acts in Swedish and Chinese lives.