Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Cats" Coming Back to Broadway

Oh, Dear

"The return of 'Cats is devastating for those of us who
finished grade school.  It's like finding out that the
bubonic plague is coming back for round two.  
It's like finding out that Mickey Rourke and Kathy
Griffin are slated to appear in 'The King and I' . . . . " 

A warning from the indispensable Joe Queenan.  
Find the piece at

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip


Our popular California columnist shares the latest dish and vacation memories, as well as her thoughts on facial hair etiquette for men.

Such a mish-mosh it was at the Miss Universe Pageant when host Steve Harvey read the wrong name. He said Miss Colombia won instead of Miss Philippines.

Me? I don’t know how he got them mixed up. They look nothing alike. I like him on the Family Feud, but my favorite was Richard Dawson, who used to kiss all the ladies with that English accent and the leisure suits. Him I once saw at Soup Plantation. He was still alive then.

I also liked that nebbishy little Mormon fellow who killed himself (Ray Combs). He was not a kisser. But nobody’s funnier than Steve Harvey. Oy, what a kibbitzer. A big hit he would have been in the Borscht Belt.

When Sidney and I went to the Catskills, Grossinger’s is where we stayed. So many of the  great ones we saw there: Georgie Jessel, Henny Youngman, Mickey Freeman, Myron Cohen, and not a one of them worked too dirty.

I remember a joke Alan King used to tell: “Why do Jewish divorces cost so much? They’re worth it.” Another one I recall: “Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? Because alcohol interferes with their suffering.”

And whenever our family got together, Sydney would always give the short summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

The shampoo girl at the beauty parlor (Amber or Pauline or something like that) got married and showed me her wedding pictures on her phone. The groom, a not-so-bad-looking bocher was standing beside her with a big smile on his face -- and a five-o’clock shadow!

What? More important things he had to do for his wedding than shave? All dressed up he was, but with the parzef of Hobo Harry.

Sylvia B’s shvegerin told me it’s all the fashion now. What’s next, women braiding their armpits? I say, fashion-schmashion! Real men get their stubble from being away at sea or fighting Nazis in the Black Forest -- not sitting in the club basement playing the Donkey Kong on their Boy Box.      


Friday, January 29, 2016

30 Years Ago: The Challenger

Thirty years ago, yesterday, the American public watched the space shuttle Challenger explode in real time on national television.  Here is one of the broadcasts.  (Many others can be found on YouTube.)

Shortly after the explosion and the breaking apart of the shuttle and its booster rockets, it was clear that all seven astronauts aboard had died.

This Challenger launch had been followed closely by students because one of the astronauts was "the first teacher in space."  She had planned lessons to beam down to schools during the voyage.  Just about every classroom in the country had a television tuned in to follow the Challenger's liftoff and then -- unfortunately -- its spectacular explosion. Also televised were the reactions of people in the outdoor viewing stands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, including astronauts' relatives as they realized that their loved ones were gone.

It remains one of those days people talk about -- "I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up."  Another is 9/11/2001, when news cameras filmed airplanes hitting the World Trade Center towers and the towers' collapse.

(Interestingly, when a second shuttle, the Columbia, crashed in 2003, also killing seven astronauts as their craft cruised toward landing, the shock was real but less personal.  The crew had not been seen on television just an hour earlier.  There were not images of their relatives' immediate distress.  Perhaps, also, NASA toned back its publicity efforts after Challenger.)

Several hours after the explosion, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable short speech to console the country and put the event into perspective.  In it, he addressed himself specifically to schoolchildren, saying this:

               "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's
         all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and
         expanding man's horizons.
               "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The
         Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

Contemporaneous reports suggested that Reagan didn't really "get" the speech the first time he read it, but he came around fast enough.  As a former actor, he had the chops to deliver the message.

The speech was written by Peggy Noonan, whom I think of sometimes as the Republican version of NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd.  They both write in an impressionist, associative style that is not my usual cup of tea.  Every now and then, though, one of them hits it out of the park.

January 28, 1985, was one of those days.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Oscar Talk: The Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio suffering for his art

There are several sorts of people who really go for "The Revenant," a film that has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards:

      1.  People who really enjoy violent confrontations between men or between men and beasts.
      2.  People who are fond of the true 1820s story on which the movie is based.
      3.  Die-hard fans of the director, Alejandro G. Innaritu.
      4.  People who do not grow impatient with very long films.
      5.  Leonardo DiCaprio fans.

I do not fall into most of these categories, except sometimes No. 3.  Innaritu won last year for directing and best film for "Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Innocence.)"  That was a dark comedy and not really aimed at a broad audience, but it was well done.  It won four Oscars.

This year, Innaritu set out to do something completely different, a survival-revenge narrative based on the true story of Hugh Glass, an American trapper in the 1820s.  To goose up the tension and anger and to make Glass more appealing, a couple characters were added and the ending was changed a bit.

The big thing about this movie is its star, Leonardo DeCaprio.  The poor guy is 40 and has been nominated many times and won many prizes, but never an Oscar.  The general impression is this:  Geez, poor Leo, 10 months tramping around in the snow and ice, badly used by animals and bad guys, now it's Leo's turn.

(The last DiCaprio movie I saw was 2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street."  It was not about NY high finance, but instead a low-life pump-and-dump chump on Long Island.  Martin Scorsese directed, and I'm not sure I've forgiven him yet for it.)

Anyway, this is Leonardo DiCaprio's year.  Get ready for it.

Oscar History

Last year, the "Birdman" movie won these Oscars:

      Best Picture
      Best Directing
      Best Original Screenplay
      Best Cinematography

(It lost in four other categories:  Michael Keaton for Best Actor, Emma Stone for Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.)

There seems to be an Innaritu follow-on effect this year.  Here are "The Revenant's" 10 Oscar nominations:

      Best Picture
      Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)
      Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy)
      Best Cinematography
      Best Costume Design
      Best Directing
      Best Editing
      Best Makeup and Hairstyling -- hmm
      Best Sound Mixing
      Best Visual Effects

I don't think directors or their films win two years in a row, no matter what.  We'll see.

Next:  Some ordinary people's comments on The Revenant.

Lessons of The Revenant

What can we learn about bear wrestling from this movie?

If you like movies, or even if you don't, reading other people's observations about films can be entertaining.  One good site for this is, which aggregates reactions from people who are not professional critics.

One comment theme that crops up from time to time is "100 Things I Learned from ________."  One of these, concerning "The Revenant," attracted a number of amusing contributions.  I took some of my favorites, sorted them by theme and edited them a bit.

Here goes:

Survival Tips

Bear attack wounds heal very quickly.

Bear bites and bear claws don't cause much infection, because your immune system does great work when you're freezing.

 If a 400-pound bear steps on your head, don't worry.  Nothing happens because your skull and ear are as strong as Iron Man's.

If your horse dies, keep it around. You may need to sleep inside of it later.

Floating on a log in a river in the middle of winter won't kill you.

No matter how cold, wet, rainy and snowy it is, it is always possible to start a fire.

Get your clothes wet whenever possible.

Hypothermia and frostbite didn't exist in the 1820s.

A 100-pound bearskin is an excellent flotation device when you fall into a river, yet you can also swim underwater with it on.

If you break your foot, don't worry, you'll be running in just a few days.

Even when you have fire immediately nearby, don't cook your fish or bison liver. You don't need heat to kill bad microbes, and it won't make the meat easier to eat.  Just be bad-ass and bite into it.

Interesting Facts

One out of every three Tom Hardy sentences is unintelligible. 

A single-shot long gun can be shot 2 times without reloading, but only by Leonardo DiCaprio.

A propped up corpse can lead 2 horses, no problem. Balancing on the horse will not be an issue either.

An experienced scout cannot figure out what direction a 400-pound bear is coming from in the open woods.

If you are ever lost in the woods at midnight, just keep wandering around.  Within minutes your comrades will find you in the dark with torches. 

What Could Go Wrong?

Leave your injured and mute father alone with a guy who wants him dead.

Feel free to go hunting beavers without worrying that your injured and virtually defenseless friend´s son is left alone with a greedy murderer.

Hunting a runaway criminal in the frontier? Take one guy with you.

If hostile enemies spot you, take your horse and ride off to the nearest cliff.

When you have the advantage of surprise in attack -- for example, if you happen upon your enemy sleeping -- it's best to alert them from a distance, giving them time to escape.

When the member of your party who intervened to save you from the villain gets beaten by the captain, make no attempt to stop the captain. Wait for a one-on-one session to reveal your friend's innocence.

Native Americans

Native Americans have magical skill and can heal rotten skin in one night, and they are always available in the wilderness to help Leo.

Do you have a full-grown son, who grew up on the frontier among Pawnee? He will be easily scared, yet not react defensively against the man who's been harassing and threatening you both. 

Native Americans can find you even if you go down a river and then get off at a random point and push the boat downstream.

In a desperate situation, you'll definitely have a Noble Savage to take care of you. Count on it.  

You will be saved by a strong, brave Native American who will die at the hands of Frenchmen with little explanation while you are healing 50 feet away in a tree stick tent.  The French killers won't think anything of your hut or bother to investigate the area.  They will know that one Native American wandering around by himself is normal because Native Americans never travel in groups.

Filmmaking Tips

 If you see that excessive violence doesn't make your movie "fly," drag it out for 156 minutes. 

Family Love Is Like A Magic Tree-Trunk That Powers Revenge is a theme that can get you a Best Picture nomination.

Shots of scenery are more important than good worthwhile shots

Pad out every action scene.

Blood splatters (red paint, let's presume) on a camera and light reflected from a camera do not interfere with a 19th-Century story.

When it looks like the hero has no way out, make sure the attackers all have storm trooper aim so the outnumbered, crippled protagonist can find a deus ex machina survival exit.

Logistically difficult, physically punishing filmmaking = artistic filmmaking and great storytelling.

If you shoot a movie that looks like a student movie, it will work as long as you have lots of money and famous people in it.

Pivotal plot points can be fast, dull, murky and predictable as long as someone is yelling in agony, someone is confused, the shots look pretty and Leo gets his Oscar.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

College Admission Obsession

Oh, the horror!

The college application anxiety season has begun.

As is traditional, the New York Times launched the first salvo in a January 20 opinion piece.  The writer regretted the tension visited upon high school students, particularly seniors, who were doing their utmost to get into the really, really good colleges.

There were the usual worries:  taking too many Advanced Placement courses, padding the resume with too many community service activities, too many varsity (and off-campus) sports and too many student leadership positions.

Sadly, the writer lamented, students are not searching for their passions.  The result, he speculated, would be top colleges populated by students obsessed with staying on track and not so interested in exploring their true interests or developing their creativity.

If you think about some of the over-achieving young people you have met in recent years, you may conclude that the opinion writer is on to something.


Today's Times editorial page included three letters to the editor expressing reactions to the column.

One came from a professor at a "top school" who suggested a solution:  Each top school should put all qualified candidates' names in a hat and select the winners by lottery.
     It's an appealing idea, but it will never happen.  Top colleges and their alumni have mutual vested interests in believing that the students selected by those colleges are the true creme de la creme.  Thus does the perceived aristocracy maintain itself.

The second letter came from one of those hyper-competitive high school students who objected to the theme of the column.  He insisted that yes, busy as he was, he also was creative and searching for his passion.  So there.

A third letter was penned by a psychologist who said, essentially, there's nothing to be done about it -- no matter how the system is changed, the competition is so keen that it will be with us always.

All the letters to the editor came from the Northeast, of course.

Up Next

As the student selection season continues, there will be future articles.  Seniors who were not admitted early decision to their first-choice schools will be urged not to lose hope and to keep submitting more applications.

When they finally gain admission to not quite tippy-top colleges, the students will be assured that they are not really failures after all.

Finally, there will be articles from sadder-but-wiser parents whose children's lives were not ruined by attending lesser colleges.  These commentaries will advise parents of current high school students that, really, all is not lost -- that many people have successful careers after graduating from less prestigious colleges and even some state universities.

The whole thing will wrap up later in the spring and then be taken up again in early 2017.

It's a tradition in the Northeast, as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano.

The Phenomenon Spreads 

There was a time when this sort of admission concern was observed almost exclusively in the Bo-Wash (Boston-NewYork-Washington) Corridor. But those days are over.

Word has spread.  People in the hinterlands have figured out that some schools may be better launching points than others.   Even when academic programs are of equal value, the resume impact and rolodex potential can vary from college to college, depending perhaps by industry or geography.

So now students from all states and many countries spend high school breaks on nationwide college tours.  Private counseling to help 17-year-olds burnish their bona fides is a booming industry.  There is much talk of finding the right college "fit" for each young student.  There is also palpable yearning on the part of parents for their children to do well in college and, presumably from there, life.

Anyone past the age of 30 who is paying attention can rattle off the names of many people who took a little longer than usual to get traction in school or a career and who have met with impressive success.  I know dozens myself.  It still happens all the time.

What seems to have changed is the confidence that this can happen for any given child.  There seems to be a worry that opportunity is now a zero-sum game with a limited number of golden tickets for each new generation.

People are pushing their children harder.  Their children are pushing themselves harder.

The results boil down to the nationalization of what the Times columnist named: anxiety.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Flint Water

Would you want to drink this water?

Back in the days when Mark Twain lived in California, he observed this:  "Whiskey's for drinking; water's for fighting over."

It has been thus for years in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which supplies water for 40 percent of Michigan residents, including those in Genessee County, whose county seat is unlucky Flint.

Over the years, the DWS has had several problems:

     ---  Its water is expensive.  The city system was designed for a Detroit that used to have three times as many residents as it does today.  Those remaining few must keep the whole thing going.  Water rates increased 110 percent between 2004 and 2014.

      --- The agency took a lax attitude toward collecting water bills until 2014, when Detroit was in bankruptcy.   Many in the city are poor, and a local newspaper said the DWS allowed a "culture of nonpayment" to flourish.

     --- When DWS began cutting off water for months-behind customers, many poor residents borrowed or signed up for payment programs.  Others paid plumbers under the table to restore their water instead.
    In fact, the agency seemed to have poor records -- including for abandoned homes and buildings.  The Detroit Athletic Club, which considered itself current on its $20,000 monthly tab, was surprised to learn that it was in arrears $8,000 for a separate water account that it had not known it had.  There were other cases.

The Flint Fiasco

The city of Flint, a smaller version of Detroit that got its water from the DWS, joined several other cities and counties to generate their own water supply, also from Lake Huron.  As construction of more than 60 miles of pipe to bring the water to the consortium's new plant got underway, DWS cut off Flint's water supply in early 2014.  Flint's mayor, city council and emergency manager agreed unanimously to save money by using Flint River water until the pipeline was finished.  The city water department blessed the decision.

The downstream result is that Flint's water has for almost two years been dirty, fouled with bacteria and bacteria-treating organisms and tainted with lead leached from old cast-iron pipes.  Lead has been known for many years to be a particular hazard to the developing brains of children and babies in their mothers' wombs.

A Michigan blogger, Greg Branch, has written a pretty good explanation of what happened in Flint, and I encourage you to find it on  If you are short of time, here is his executive summary:

The Recap

  1) Flint’s elected leadership makes what is actually a solid, sound decision that will, in the long run, save the city millions of dollars and give it more control over its destiny – and, because it positions Flint as a wholesale supplier of water, possibly enhance revenues for them.

   2) Detroit Water Board decides to be spoiled and pissy and leaves Flint with no good options for the two years before its pipeline is built.

   3) Flint’s (Democrat) leadership and GOP-appointed EFM make a well-deliberated decision to draw water from the Flint River.

   4) Flint’s water staff – the people in Flint who are the experts on this sort of thing – apparently aren’t up to the task. And the people they count on to oversee and help them …

   5) The Michigan DEQ, is completely asleep at the switch. And once they discover their mistake, they lie about it and ask Flint to help them lie.

   6) US EPA is aware of a problem, but apparently trusted the kids playing in the DEQ sandbox to fix things.

Questions and Observations

The Idiosyncratist has no expertise in city water supplies, but is aware of no city that draws its drinking water from an adjacent river.
     New York does not tap the East River nor the Hudson, but rather imports water from the Catskills.  San Francisco water comes not from the Sacramento Estuary but from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Yosemite.  Los Angeles depends on the far-away Colorado River.  Minnesota is know as the "land of 10,000 lakes," but Michigan is said to have 11,000 inland lakes of its own.  Why start with the Flint River, which is silty and contains agricultural runoff, when seeking potable water?


By the end of 2014, it was clear that the federal EPA knew that Flint's treated water did not pass national standards laid out in the 1974 Drinking Water Safety Act.  In early 2015, the evidence of lead coming out of Flint water taps also was understood.  No federal oversight was offered or action taken as a result of these reports. The EPA director in charge of the district that includes Michigan resigned a few days ago and will leave her job, effective February 1, 2016.  Too little, too late.
     This is the third EPA mess in recent months.
      In August an EPA safety team accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River in Colorado. The water contained heavy metals and arsenic, among other substances, and turned the river bright orange.
     On October 23, when a major natural gas leak opened in a limestone reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, the EPA's first response was that it did not have authority over gas storage operations.  It took a California Congressman to point out that the agency did in fact have such authority.  As the released gas added 25 percent to the state's greenhouse gas emissions, the agency waited until December 18 to begin an investigation.


Estimates of the cost to repair/replace Flint's water infrastructure range as high as $1.5 billion. The city's population has dropped from more than 163,000 in 1950 to 99,000 or less today.  Would it be worthwhile to consider giving money to help Flint residents relocate rather than digging up and replacing underground pipes as people continue to move away? Certainly housing bargains and better water seem to be available in Detroit.


Both political parties are blaming each other for what happened in Flint.  It's an election year, and that's the kind of politics we have now.  Shame on them.

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Planet Problem

Caltech astronomers report they may have found a new ice or gaseous planet, 10 times the size of the Earth, way out in the nether reaches of our solar system.

Depending on whether you believe Pluto is a planet -- and the debate continues -- this is either the ninth or tenth planet.

I do hope this gets resolved quickly because one of my favorite mnemonics is at stake. It is this:

My very excellent mother just served us nine pizzas.

If you can remember this, you can name all the planets, for the period from 1930 to 2006 anyway, in order of distance from the sun.  Let me demonstrate now:

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

For a non-cosmologist to rattle off this list is an amusing and, in some circles, impressive parlor trick. 

I can adjust the sentence if Pluto is disqualified.  (Astronomers voted at a 2006 convention to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet, one of many in the Kuiper Belt, but people still argue.)  Here is my non-Pluto memory aid:  

My very excellent mother just served us nachos.

See?  It's not particularly mellifluous, but it works.  I'm very flexible about these things.

Unfortunately, the astronomers seem to be planning to take their time deciding whether this newest potential planet is the real deal.  Worse, no name has been advanced for the planet/non-planet, except the term Planet Nine.   Let's see if we can come up with a sentence:

My very excellent mother just served us plain nachos.

Hmm.  Would potato nachos be better?  Peach nachos?

Here's my thought; I'm not going to waste time revising my sentence until we get a more definitive ruling than "maybe-maybe not" from the research community.

So -- get on it, scientists, I say.   Make up your minds, and soon.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


Heroin seems to be the drug of our time.

Last year, a newsmagazine published this graphic on the rise in US deaths deaths from heroin addiction and deaths per year, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control.  There is no indication the rate of deaths has dropped since 2013.

There seem to be several reasons why this is happening now.

More Prescription Opioids

In 1996, the painkiller OxyContin first hit the pharmaceutical market.

OxyContin was made of a highly addictive generic painkiller, oxycodone, that previously had been prescribed only for desperate sick people, typically those dying of cancer and in great pain.  The Oxy reformulation included a timed-release mechanism to frustrate abuse by spreading its painkilling effects over time and not in a single burst.

Purdue Pharma promoted OxyContin as a new, safer painkiller, and doctors began prescribing it for many more medical conditions.  It was a true blockbuster drug, with sales starting at $45 million in 1996, growing to $1.1 billion in 2000 and then to $3.1 billion by 2010.

Unfortunately, the addiction-blocking effects were oversold, and some people who were prescribed Oxy became addicted.  In addition drug enthusiasts learned to frustrate the delayed release function by crushing Oxy pills into powder that could be snorted and that yielded a high comparable to that of heroin.  A black market developed for Oxy, and addictions and overdoses followed.

After paying more than than $600 million in fines in 2007 for false advertising, Purdue re-engineered  Oxy to frustrate further street sales and abuse.  Its patent, which ended in 2013, was reset and the company was still selling about $3 billion of the stuff in 2014, when Forbes estimated the net worth of the company's family  owners at $14 billion.  (The article is up on

And Oxy was not the only popular painkiller on the street.  There others, including Vicodin, fentanyl and codeine.

(By 2007, the CDC reported, Americans accounted for less than five percent of world population but consumed 80 percent of prescription painkillers.  In that year, prescription opioids were involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.  Use of these medicines had increased 400 percent in the previous 10 years.)

Here is an interesting chart circulated by the CDC about painkiller prescriptions written in each state in 2012.

The implication is not that people in some states suffer more pain but rather that doctors in some states wrote many more painkiller prescriptions.

There was a public debate during the period about whether painkillers were being overprescribed.  The pro-prescription people argued that pain itself was debilitating and that the mitigation of suffering was a reasonable medical goal.

Those opposed warned of addiction, and in fact a black market for Oxycontin and other prescription opioids had developed during the period.  Some users became addicted over the course of using  painkillers prescribed by physicians, others after buying the drugs on the street.

State and federal authorities began tightening the rules on painkillers and prosecuting doctors who appeared to be writing too many such prescriptions without justification.

More Heroin

In 1996, the same year that Oxycontin was introduced, California became the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for "medical" purposes.  This opened the door for more legalization, less enforcement of marijuana laws, more private cultivation of marijuana plants and wider availability of marijuana generally.

Unfortunately, this disrupted the business model of Latin American narcotrafficantes who for years had been growing and exporting marijuana to the U.S., and making good money at it.

So the Sinaloa Cartel, and others, sized up the market.   They recognized that there was solid demand in the U.S. for harder drugs.  The narcotics gangs cut back marijuana cultivation and started growing opium poppies instead.  The resin of the poppies was used to make heroin.

There were several pluses to this strategy:  First, the country already had a large number of prescription drug abusers -- recreational users as well as addicts who could satisfy their cravings with heroin.

Second, if exported at a certain scale, the heroin could be supplied more cheaply than Oxy -- at $4 a dose, say, compared with the street price of $40 for an Oxy pill.  In markets, the cheaper producer generally wins greater market share.

Third, at such a price, many more people could be induced to try heroin.  If all worked out, the new heroin customers would become addicted.  They would be much more regular customers than the old marijuana customers had been.

There were only two downsides.

The first was that turf battles among drug cartels and between cartels and law enforcement and citizens led to an estimated 100,000 killings in Latin America.

The second was that heroin could be laced with dangerous other substances, bad ones, that could sicken or even kill people.  (And there was always the problem of overdose deaths.)

But people who produce and sell illegal drugs generally aren't afflicted with high-minded scruples.

That is how you end up with charts like the one at the top of this article.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Killing Ourselves

Two reports in recent weeks describe a strange phenomenon:  During a period when medical advances have never been higher, more adult Americans are dying at younger ages than before.

The trend has been noticed among white adults under the age of 65.  Hispanic and African American populations are not so much affected.

Here's a chart from the first series of articles about death rates among various groups of 45- to 54-year-olds.  White Americans (red line) and Hispanic Americans (blue line) are compared with similar-aged adults in several western European countries.

This week, the New York Times has been reporting that the trend is even broader.  After examining CDC data on deaths between 1990 and 2014, a Page 1 article said this:

        "It found death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening
        for all adult age groups under 65 -- a trend that was particularly 
        pronounced in women -- even as medical advances sharply reduced
        deaths from traditional killers like heart disease.  Death rates for 
        blacks and most Hispanic groups continued to fall."
There were other observations.

First, the death rate rose faster (23 percent) for people without high school educations, but slower (4 percent) for those at least one college degree.

Second, the rate of drug overdose deaths for young white adults, aged 25 to 34, increased 500 percent between 1999 and 2014.

Generally, alcoholism, drug dependency and suicide seem to be the proximate causes in the rising death rate. 


The early revelations about middle-aged deaths led many to speculate that the poor economy had led many people to give up on their futures, and to turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort.  It was compared to the epidemics of vodka addiction, drug abuse and early death that were observed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There may be something to this, but I find it hard to reconcile.  

For one thing, the chart at top showed a steady increase in deaths during the recovery from the recession of 2000, which seems at odds with the idea.

For another, Hispanic and African Americans by and large have had it much worse -- lower incomes, lower net worth, higher unemployment -- and do not seem to be dying at higher rates.  

I may have it wrong, but it seems to me that personal isolation has become a greater part of American life over the years.  Fewer of us participate in religion or study philosophy.  More of us live alone, and more of us are divorced. Social scientists say we have fewer friends than in the past and that we spend more time every year watching screens. 

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote an influential book, "Man's Search for Meaning" that is read less often these days than it was in the last century.  He said this:  “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

Note:  One practical factor that surely figures into the increase in deaths is this: easy access to heroin.  Let's discuss that tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

News from Science

"A new study suggests that the more potatoes in a woman's diet, the more likely she is 
to develop gestational diabetes, a serious pregnancy complication."

                                                                                                              January 19, 2016
                                                                                                          The New York Times 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Oscar Talk: Creed

I'm not a big fan of sports films, but like everybody else I saw the first couple Rocky movies and found them moving.

So when I read that a promising new movie took up the Rocky story for a new generation, I went to see it.

I liked it very much, but a Los Angeles Times film writer described the appeal best:

        In a world in which reboots, sequels and spinoffs are typically the product of bottom-
        line-minded studio groupthink, "Creed" has an unusually personal back story, one
        befitting a franchise that has always been about heart, determination and beating long
        odds. And it all comes back to (Ryan) Coogler and his dad.


"Creed" was released at the end of November 2015 and by the end of December grossed $118 million, the 28th highest seller in 2015.  It breathed new life and the promise of future movies into a Rocky franchise that had gasped its last breath 10 years earlier.

Ryan Coogler

Coogler grew up in Northern California, the son of a father who loved the Rocky movies and shared them with his sons.  When Ryan got to college, a writing teacher noticed his talent and suggested he reconsider his early plans to go to medical school.  He went to film school at USC instead.

His first movie, "Fruitvale Station," was well received and won two awards at the Sundance Festival in 2013.

Later, at a moment when his father was ailing, Coogler began to reflect on the Rocky movies they had shared and, we can guess, the importance of fathers or father figures in their sons' lives.  With a friend, Coogler wrote a screenplay based on the theme of a young fighter convincing an older Rocky to foster and train a younger man whose father had died but who was hungry for glory in the way Rocky had been.

Coogler did all this before he pitched the idea to Stallone.  Coogler admitted afterward that he wasn't optimistic that he could convince the older star, who wrote all six Rocky screenplays himself, to buy into the project.  But Coogler prevailed; in a way, Coogler is a sort of Rocky character himself.

Oscar Nominations

"Creed" was nominated for a single Academy Award:  Best Supporting Actor for Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone is great in the film; he's never won for acting, he's 69 years old and people seem to be favoring the old guy on this one.

Some African Americans in what Southern California calls "The Industry" are objecting that Creed did not attract other nominations, and I tend to agree with them.

From the first black Academy Award (Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress in "Gone With the Wind in 1939) to the 2014 Best Film Award ("Twelve Years a Slave" in 2014), significant Oscars have recognized African Americans for their struggle, for being African American, for being different.

 To me the general trend reeks of condescension.

"Creed" is a movie about a young man (yes, African American) and an older father-figure who have much in common.  It is not about racial differences.  Like the early Rocky series, it is not about race but rather the merits of skill and perseverance in a brutal, almost primal, sport.

Coogler's next project is a film titled "Black Panther," and my guess is that it too will be good.

We are a broad culture now -- young, old, immigrant, ethnic, racial -- and I'd like to think that, in his future films, he will be allowed to take these broader views into account.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Up and Down with American Apparel

Above is a picture of an American Apparel store in my neighborhood.

Ten years ago, American Apparel was a hot clothing brand much favored by young people.  No longer.

When I walked by this store last week, I looked inside to see what was happening.  Nothing was happening.  The only people inside were employees.

The company's rise and fall make for a good story, a more interesting version of the now-common tale of retailers trying to attract and keep the loyalty of young buyers.

American Apparel

American Apparel opened its first retail store in 2003 on Sunset Boulevard in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Its idea -- selling non-logo clothing basics to teenagers and young twenty-somethings -- originated with company founder Dov Charney, a serial entrepreneur who started his business while in college and had already been through at least one company bankruptcy.

Basics in bright colors was not a new idea -- Gap had made it work years earlier -- but Charney added several fillips.  One was vertical integration, selling only American-made products from his Los Angeles factory.  Another was company commitment to political causes, including sustainability, gay rights, universal healthcare and immigration reform.

A third was out-there advertising, associating simple products with overt sexuality, a reflection of the man himself.  In the early days he masturbated in front of a journalist who was interviewing him ; there were reports of public blow jobs and Charney walking through headquarters clad only in a pair of American Apparel briefs.

This interesting combination of new stores and a libertine for an owner worked for a while.

The Early Years

At first, American Apparel store numbers grew very fast.

From three opened in 2003, American Apparel set up shops in Europe and other American cities -- 65 in 2005 alone.  (At its peak the company operated more than 260 stores from Brazil to Israel to China to Australia.)

But growing a retail franchise is expensive.  It requires up-front investment in locations, managers, employees, distribution and product that pay off only afterward in sales revenue.

Charney may have been a visionary about his brand, but he was not smart with money.  When he got around to hiring an actual financial officer, the executive soon found a "lack of accounting knowledge" in the company's central office.  Its banker was hounding American Apparel for unpaid interest.  Trade creditors also were demanding payment and delaying shipments of raw materials.

By late 2006, financial reports had undergone two significant downward revisions, and two negotiated refinancings had been canceled by the money people.

At that point, another CFO arranged a deal with an investor group.  It transferred American Apparel's equity into a shell corporation in what is called a "reverse merger" and got the company listed on the American Exchange, raising much-needed cash.  The investors who organized the deal wanted Charney to leave, but he dug in his heels and stayed.

(Reverse merger listings do not require as much financial scrutiny as traditional IPOs; most likely the American Apparel stock buyers were wowed by the company's brand name and didn't pay attention to its financial prospects.)

Even at that point, dark clouds had begun to gather.  While same-store sales had risen 74 percent in 2004 and 45 percent in 2005, the revenue gains in 2006 were 7 percent.

The Decline

In 2008, the first of a number of sexual harassment lawsuits were filed against Charney by female American Apparel employees.  All were resolved short of the courthouse door, but people still share stories of his irregular behavior inside and outside company offices.

In 2009, immigration officials raided company facilities in Los Angeles and found that 1,800 employees were illegal immigrants.

In 2010, American Apparel's auditor, Deloitte & Touche, resigned, refusing to affirm the reliability of 2009 financial statements.  Investigations were initiated by the SEC and the lawyers/publicity hounds of the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Also in 2010, the Guardian newspaper in the UK, which had covered American Apparel avidly for years, published a profile/eulogy of the company's decline.  (It' s a fun read; find it on  The nut graf:

        It is a chaotic final chapter in the story of a bombastic figure whose out-of-control carnality
        has, at times, overshadowed the fact that Charney is also an old-fashioned captain of
        industry – an eccentric, erratic, brilliant figure – with a disconcertingly simple concept:
        to make humble T-shirts, jogging pants and sweatshirts seem exciting.

Things just kept getting worse, and Charney didn't seem to develop any self control as he moved into his mid 40s.  He was fired at the end of 2014.  (He of course filed a nine-figure civil suit that will go nowhere.)

Charney was replaced by an executive with a strong resume and relevant experience, but by that point the company was a mess.  Less than a year later, American Apparel filed Chapter 11 (reorganization) bankruptcy.

I can't find full financial statements online, but it appears that American Apparel hasn't made a profit since the fourth quarter of 2009, and that followed three full years of losses.  Since then, it has lost $384 million.

In its bankruptcy filing, management projected profits of $6 million in 2018 and and $23.7 million in 2020.

Yeah, right, I think.


     -- American Apparel is downsizing.  In December, it closed its first store in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

     -- Charney, still swinging, found an apparently credulous investor group to back him in a bid to buy the company out of bankruptcy.  Last week the judge said no.
     Now American Apparel will be owned by its bondholders.  Wish them luck -- they certainly will need it.

     --Youth fashion is a tough game.  Other once-popular stores that have run into hard times include Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, Wet Seal and American Eagle.
     The only youth-fashion store that seems to have gone the distance is the first one, Gap, which itself has been in financial trouble for years.  Its customer base also has shifted; the last time I visited a Gap store, the youngest customers in the place were in their 40s.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Selling Fashion to Young People

You may remember American Apparel.  From about 2005 until 2010 or so, it was THE hot clothing store in the US, and several other countries, for teenagers to young 20-somethings.  

AA sold bright-colored basics made in America by well-paid workers in Los Angeles.  The company took up popular causes, including sustainability, gay rights and immigration reform.  It sent clothes to hurricane and earthquake victims.  

It even sponsored a celebrity bikini carwash to raise money for a noble cause.

The company grew like mad, but probably not for its good citizenship.  American Apparel courted attention with flagrantly sexualized ads, some featuring porn film stars. 

Here are some examples from those days.

In 2007, as the company was growing, a generally approving NY Times Magazine profile called its advertising "highly suggestive, and not just because they are showcasing underwear or clingy knits."

        " . . . . (they) depict young men and women in bed or in the shower; if they are
        casually lounging on a sofa or sitting on the floor, then their legs happen to be spread;
        frequently they are wearing a single item of clothing but are otherwise undressed; a
        couple of the young women appear to be in a heightened state of pleasure. These pictures
        have a flashbulb-lighted, lo-fi sultriness to them; they look less like ads than photos
        you'd see posted on someone's Myspace page."

How Times Have Changed

We still have plenty of raunch in our culture -- Tinder and Ashley Madison websites; Fifty Shades of Grey books and a movie and sado-masochism product sales, and news reports of children and politicians flashing pictures of their private parts to friends and online acquaintances.

But some things have changed, at least at our colleges.

Now students demand, and get, "trigger warnings" if they are expected to read literary classics that discuss sex.  There are "safe spaces" where students may retreat when they feel threatened by speeches from scary dissident feminists who do not agree with them down the line.

All very strange.

American Apparel isn't the dominant youth fashion store anymore.   Arguably, H&M is.  Here are some of its ads from 2015.

Every model is fully dressed!

The last ad above even promotes the store's interest in business from Muslim women, who dress far more conservatively than those nubile children from the American Apparel ads of the aughts.

I can't remember a time when I quoted the Grateful Dead, but I will do so here:

What a long, strange trip it's been.


American Apparel's business history is a fun story on its own.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The New Sweater

Those who know me will attest that the Idiosyncratist is no fashion plate.  But I do keep my eyes open, and I observed a new trend in women's knitwear yesterday.

It is the long, long cardigan sweater.    Here are a few that I spotted on the Nordstrom website.  Later, I saw several others in shop windows on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the current millenial hot spot in Venice, CA.

Keeping Warm

If you must know, I have been looking for warm sweaters because, as usual, I packed the wrong clothes for my latest trip.  (Packing the wrong stuff is a sort of specialty of mine, not that I'm proud of it.)

Obviously, these sweaters are longer than the long sweaters we saw in the legging/jegging period a few years back.  In those days, if women weren't wearing tunics they were wearing cardigans that covered the derriere, and for the obvious reasons.

These new, longer sweaters seem to be paired with slim pants, but not tight-tight ones (fewer of which I'm seeing this winter.)

Stores and websites are pitching the new sweaters as "coat alternatives," perhaps in reaction to the global warming trend we read about so often these days.

In fact, retailers were reported to have started 2016 with large inventories of unsold cold-weather coats.  The news has been taken as further evidence of a general decline in department-store shopping and sales.

This, I think, goes too far.  I have spent many cold winters in the Northeast, and I have never purchased a warm coat before January.  Two reasons.  First, the weather doesn't get really chilly until sometime after the new year begins.  Second, retailers always panic and mark down prices on coats after the holiday season has ended.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David, We Hardly Knew You

Here is a photograph of David Bowie, taken last week.  

Bowie knew he was dying when the picture was taken, but he chose not to share that with admirers and friends.  Instead he posed for the picture and then released a final album, his 25th, two days before before his death.

The "Fresh Air" Interview

In 2002, Bowie sat with Terry Gross, the perceptive NPR interviewer.  She asked about his early work -- Ziggy Stardust, glam rock -- which was so different from from the rock esthetic of its moment. He said this:

   DB: I guess a certain contingent of the musicians in London at the beginning of the '70s were
   fed up with denim and the hippies. And I think we kind of wanted to go somewhere else.
   And some of us, I think, us small, pompous arty ones... kind of got the idea that we were
   entering to this kind of post-culture age and that we'd better do something postmodernist
   (laughter) - quickly, before somebody else did.

Gross continued, and this exchange followed.

   TG: So let me stop and see if I have this right - wearing a T-shirt and jeans seem phony to you?
   DB: Yeah.
   TG: But wearing mascara and eye makeup seem right.
   DB: I didn't say that wearing a glamorization of the rock artist was any truer from the other thing...
   TG: Oh, OK, right. It's artifice....
   DB:  It's all artifice.... I think my main point would be that the T-shirt and denims thing, in my
           mind, was also an artifice.

Another bit:

   TG: Did you see the gender stuff as being a statement about postmodernism or a statement
           about sexuality?
   DB: Well, neither -- I think they were just devices to create this new distancing from the
           subject matter....

And finally, this: 

   DB: I'm not actually a very keen performer. I like putting shows together. I like putting events
   together. In fact, everything I do is about the conceptualizing and realization of a piece of work, 
   whether it's the recording or the performance side. And kind of when I put the thing together, 
   I don't mind doing it for a few weeks, but then, quite frankly, I get incredibly, incredibly bored
   because . . . I don't live for the stage.

When you get right down to it, David Bowie was a public artist -- projecting many images as an artist -- but personally a private man.

Bowie the Artist

If you asked any novelist or painter or any other artist about that artist's life, the answer you would get is this:  Look at my work; that is what I want to share.

So it was with David Bowie.  He kept his apparently happy family life separate from his music and acting.  

Still, people who love an artist's work want more.  Because the work has moved them, fans invent a personal connection that isn't really there.  They want to participate in the artist's life and even his death.

This is why a gathering pile of candles and flowers has built over the last couple days in front of Bowie's SoHo home.  It is why so many people have written articles that seem to be about Bowie's life and work but are really about how his work affected them.       

My guess is that Bowie would care little for these displays.   He wanted to be remembered as the smartly dressed, energetic fellow in the final photograph, even if posing for the picture cost more energy than he could spare in his last days.

He treated death as a subject in the strange song, "Lazarus," from his final album, "Darkstar," using music and imagery to say all that he was willing to share with the public about his death, which turns out not to be much.

But it will have to be enough.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Redskins and Behavioral Economics

It is old news by now that the Washington Redskins lost their Wild Card game at FedEx Field last night and, with it, their post-season hopes.

The history is not pretty.  The once-formidable team (which won three Super Bowls in '82, '87 and '91) has by my count gone through seven coaches and 16 quarterbacks in the last 16 years, always hoping for another Lombardi Trophy.

One player said this to a Washington Post reporter:

"There's no moral victories.  We don't walk off this field smiling and saying, 'You know, I tell you what.  We won the division.'  All that is in the past.  All we wanted to do was to get a win at home, and we didn't do it."

Washington fans are trying to look on the bright side.  The team won nine and lost seven games in 2015, its first winning season since 2012, when it went 10-6 and also lost the Wild Card game.  Hopes are high for the latest quarterback and coach.

Maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I have the impression that an economist named Richard Thaler watched the game, perhaps from his office at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and that he was smiling.

Enter the Economist

Lately I have been reading Thaler's popular book, "Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics." Last night I happened to come across its discussion of how professional football teams employ sub-optimal strategies when selecting players in the annual football draft.

Thaler has much to say about the Washington Redskins.

(The theme of Thaler's book, and of the field of behavioral economics in general, is that people often act like "humans," making decisions based on impulse and emotion.  This insight refutes the primary assumption on which classical economic theory had rested for hundreds of years -- that people act like "econs," rationally evaluating choices and seeking to maximize their outcomes.  Thaler's examples run from humorous to humiliating; he does seem to be on to something.)

At the end of the last millenium, Thaler and his colleagues analyzed many years of football player drafts and came to some counterintuitive conclusions.

While teams treasured early first-round draft picks (there are seven rounds in each year's draft) and were often willing to trade away several lower-round or future year's picks to get each season's most sought-after player or the second one, this strategy didn't yield the best results.

"So," says the book, "our research yielded two simple pieces of advice to teams.  First, trade down.  Trade away high first-round picks for additional picks later in the draft, especially second-round picks.  Second, be a draft-pick banker.  Lend picks this year for better picks next year."

Turned out that you couldn't hang a team's future on a single player.  Also, that the most highly rated player might not be as good as his college stats suggested when he reached the NFL.  The better bet was to take a longer view -- selecting several promising second-round players each year.  Over time, more of these players tended to outperform expectations in their first contract years and offer more value (and wins) for the money spent.

When you think about it, it makes some sense.  There is no "I" in "football team," and building any kind of team is usually a process that takes years.

On the other hand, professional coaches who have spent years studying football games may be reluctant to consult number-crunching, matrix-spreading economists when looking for skilled talent on the field.

Thaler and the Redskins

The Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder, bought the team in 1999 and learned shortly afterward about Thaler's research.  Snyder had team executives call the economist, and there followed several group meetings in which the econs explained their football drafting strategy.  The football guys seemed to like the plan.

Then came the 2000 football draft, in which the Redskins shocked Thaler by reverting to "human" principles.  He writes:

      "The team did the opposite of what we had suggested!  They moved up in the draft and
      traded away a high draft pick next year to get a lesser one this year.  When we asked our
      contacts what happened we got a short answer.  'Mr. Snyder wanted to win now.'"

The story continues:

      "This was a good forecast of Snyder's future decisions.  In 2012 the Redskins had the
      sixth pick in the draft, meaning they had been the sixth worst team in 2011, and they
      were desperate for a high-quality quarterback.  There were two highly rated quarterbacks
      that year, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (RG3). Indianapolis had the first pick and
      had announced their (sic) intention to take Luck.  The Redskins wanted RG3.  The second
      pick belonged to the St. Louis Rams, who already had a young quarterback they liked, so
      the Redskins made a deal with the Rams.  They moved up four spots from the sixth pick to
      the second one, and in addition to giving up that sixth pick they gave the Rams their first-
      and second-round picks for the following year, 2013, and their first-round pick in 2014.
      This was an astonishing price to pay to move up just four spots."

Football fans remember the result:  RG3 had a great start, then several injuries and then not so much success.

Thaler was still annoyed at the Redskins' failure to adopt his drafting suggestions when he was writing his book, which was published in May 2015.  Here is his postscript to the football chapter:

       "The Redskins had a late-season game in 2014 against the St. Louis Rams, the team that
       received all those picks Washington relinquished to acquire their dream player.  At
       the beginning of the game, the Rams' coach sent out all the players they had chosen with
       those bonus picks to serve as team captains for the coin toss that began the game.  The
       Rams won the game 24-0 and RG3 was sitting on the bench due to poor play.  We will
       see whether Mr. Snyder learns to be patient."

Hell hath no fury like a behavioral economist scorned, it seems.

Note:  This story calls to mind the popular Michael Lewis book of 2003 -- "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" -- that profiled an Oakland Athletics general manager who used player statistics to hire talent that allowed the As to perform better than expected against teams with much higher player budgets.

The GM, Billy Beane, looked for players who got on base more often than others, whether by hits or walks.  It yielded higher scores for Oakland, at least until other teams started to copy the strategy.

Baseball people always had been more absorbed by player stats than football people.  Beane just took the analysis further.

Thaler did something similar by studying when football players were selected in the draft and then analyzing their subsequent achievements over several seasons of play.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Manhattan's Middle Market

Yesterday I discussed the high end of Manhattan's residential property market.  Here are a few current listings for somewhat more modest apartments.

Below is a wide-angle shot of a nice 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in the established Sutton Place neighborhood.  The unit is priced at $1.6 million; with good credit and a 10 percent down payment, the monthly nut (taxes, mortgage, common fees) would be about $9,500.


A 610-SF, one-bedroom apartment in this Chelsea building is for sale for $980,000.  (It was listed at $639,000 four years ago and sold for an undisclosed price -- Chelsea is hot now.)  With 10 percent down, total monthly charges are estimated at $5,500.


This 364-SF studio in a snazzily renovated Wall Street building last sold for $399,000 in 2007 and now is listed for $625,000.  It comes with a tenant who is paying a monthly rent of $2,700.

2015 Stats

A New York real estate brokerage has released details on 2015 sales of condominiums and co-ops in Manhattan.  Some of the news:

     -- The average price of a Manhattan apartment was $1.94 million in the fourth quarter, up 10 percent from a year earlier.

     -- The median price was somewhat lower, $1.15 million, but up 18 percent from 2014.  (The reason for the difference is that a small number of very expensive apartments, selling for $10 million or more, distort the average price.)

     -- Demand was great; the average price paid was almost 99 percent of an apartment's listing price, and there were many reports of bidding wars for updated units in attractive areas.

     -- The average per-square-foot price rose above $1,800.  This implies a $1.8 million sales price for a 1,000-SF condo, which is pretty steep.

There is much more detail in this glossy report:


Manhattan always has been an expensive place to live, and prices used to be very volatile.  Here are some numbers from the years before and after the Great Depression.

                                      Mean Price                           Median Price

1920                                $42,500                                  $25,000

1929                                $75,700                                  $40,000

1939                                $30,300                                  $15,000

Those were different times, of course.

More recently, prices declined during the city's financial crisis in the 1970s and the Great Recession in late aughts.  Here is another brokerage's mapping of trends since 2003.  (The blue line is for new construction, the purple line for existing apartments; the bars indicate sales volume changes from year to year.)

One obvious conclusion is that developers are building new housing for the high end of the market, almost certainly a reflection of increasing land costs.

Real estate professionals, leery of softening world markets and recent stock price declines, are not so sure that Manhattan real estate prices will be increasing again this year.

It may be the prices are high enough already.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Manhattan Real Estate, Part I

The Top of the Market

Above is a rendering of One 57, a 1,000-foot-tall condominium tower that sits atop the Park Hyatt New York and across the street from the southern end of Central Park.

The year before One 57 opened, the most expensive Manhattan home sale had been a condo that fetched $88 million.  The buyer was a Russian billionaire who wanted a home for his daughter, a college student in New York.  (Also, it was rumored, a spot to shelter assets as he and his wife were divorcing.)

Then, One 57 condos began to sell.  In December 2014, a deal closed on an 11,000 square-foot apartment.  It was a duplex (89th and 90th floors; duplexes in New York are two-story apartments).  The buyer, an LLC whose owner is not known, paid $100.5 million.

Last year, the most expensive condo sold in New York was another one at One 57.  Bill Ackman, the Pershing Square hedge fundie, paid $91.5 million for a 14,000-square-foot duplex on floors in the mid 70s.  It was reported that Ackman didn't plan to live in the unit but instead to flip it later for a profit.

Not all the 94 apartments at One 57 are this expensive.  Some are priced around $50 million, and others are even more affordable.  Many of these are owned by faceless corporations; the general belief is that most are fronts for people from other countries who have greater faith in the security of wealth stashed in the United States than in their native lands.

(This trend started long ago in trendy London neighborhoods, where many expensive townhomes and apartments have largely absent owners;  the displacement of full-time local residents has in some cases starved neighborhood businesses of custom.  Nobody who has spent time in midtown Manhattan recently expects such an effect, no matter how many One 57 wannabes and other sumptuous residences are sold in the area.)

In fact, the 34 apartments on One 57's lower floors -- 32 to 39 -- were designed to be rentals, not that ordinary mortals could afford their monthly rates, which ranged from $13,000 to more than $50,000.  Recently, however, the building's developer said these less premium units too would be sold, perhaps a reflection of the health of New York City's property market.

Tomorrow:  Manhattan's Middle Market