Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Just Say No

The fact that two stories about pigeons, and reference to pigeons, appeared in major newspapers within the past week does not go unnoticed to this reader. Pigeons are in the news.

Second story first. Racing pigeons have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, PEDs. Shocking, perhaps, but surely expected. Any contest that offers money is worth cheating for. And if that means doing something to yourself, a horse, or even a pigeon, it's all in the spirit of trying to win.

The pigeon on PED has of course spawned humor. On 'The Crowd Goes Wild' yesterday someone from the staff came out dressed in what hardly looked like a pigeon, but nevertheless gave a Lance Armstrong-type news conference at a podium denying the use of PEDs. I'm sure 'Saturday Night Live', Leno, Letterman, Fallon have all weighed in on this piece of sad news.

Racing pigeons on steroids might surely sully the sport of bird racing, but my thoughts are a little closer to home. What if the pigeons that seem to defy the anti-roosting spikes at the railroad station somehow are on steroids and start to poop steroid enhanced waste? There's enough of the ugly stuff as it is, what will it look like if steroids are added? I've started to take extra care where I stand waiting for a train.

And then we have the first story that makes reference to pigeons. Last week the WSJ did one of their A-head pieces on stink bugs, and how they are swarming the Washington D.C. Maryland, Virginia area. The bugs eat crops and gardens, and I'm not sure they haven't hit here, further north in the northeast. I haven't seen a swarm, but something's done a good deal of damage to certain plants this year. And there has been something that's been big, jumpy and flying that we've whacked near the door.

The Journal story goes on to explain that the insect, when crushed, or threatened, emits a stench. A stink. Great. A flying, crawling, hopping skunk.

It is claimed that pigeons will put anything in their mouth, apparently even steroids, if fed to them by the conniving human. But apparently when they encounter these bugs near downtown Washington monuments, they spit the bugs out.

It just shows you how muddled the message is coming out of Washington. It is unfortunate. All that money spent to educate the lowly, unloved, vulnerable creature, and what do we as taxpayers get in return?

Pigeons are saying to themselves: 'Just Say No to Bugs.'


Monday, October 28, 2013

Reassuringly Free

I don't know if the use of the right word can ever really change anything. But it can be enjoyed, like a well-played piano. Mark Twain famously said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Absolutely right words can appear anywhere, however rarely. I sometimes find them in obituaries, and in particular those obituaries written by Margalit Fox of the New York Times.

A few years ago she got the call to write about Delbert Mann, a film director and producer, who had a start in television and was the director of the TV movie 'Heidi,' one of the most famous TV interruptions then and since. Ms. Fox wrote of Mr. Mann's credits:

They also include a film that would haunt him to the end of his life: “Heidi,” whose ultrapunctual broadcast on NBC in 1968 famously eclipsed the final minute of a dramatic football game between the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders.

On Sunday, Nov. 17, 1968, the Jets were leading the Raiders 32-29, with about a minute left to play. The game was broadcast live on NBC, and on the stroke of 7 p.m., the network, intent on keeping to its published schedule, dutifully cut away to “Heidi.”

Enraged calls flooded in: what millions of viewers did not get to see was Oakland scoring two touchdowns to pull off a last-minute victory, 43-32. Famous to this day in the annals of broadcasting bloopers, the debacle was known ever after as the Heidi Game.

As the saying goes, 'those of a certain age' clearly remember this pre-empting that saw the game telecast end precisely, ultrapunctually, at 7:00 P.M. The collapse to the Raiders in the 'Heidi' game might have proved to be the latent curse that has kept the Jets without a championship since 1969.

And now we have the phrase 'reassuringly free of sweat' as Ms. Fox describes fashion advertising in the first half of the 20th-century, as she recounts the life of Deborah Turbeville, a fashion photographer who dramatically influenced the art from the 70s on, with somewhat grungy depictions of models.

Apparently, prior to Ms. Turbeville, models were unfailingly depicted almost as wax mannequins. They'd be in fashionable tennis clothes, holding a racquet as if they just went a set with Bille Jean King, and wouldn't show a bit of exertion. They were, 'reassuringly free of sweat.'

Perfect Madison Avenue. Americas love products, and we love to guard against perspiration. Europeans don't seem as obsessed with stains under their arms, but we seem to head for any product that promises to leave us 'reassuringly free of sweat.'

And at the same time Ms. Turbeville's life is being shared with us, and the era of being 'reassuringly free of sweat,' we have the World Series and the case of the Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester either using, or not using something illegal in his glove to add to the pitched ball to help fool the batters.

Mr. Lester's explanation is that it's resin in the glove because he sweats a lot and he needs something to help him grip the ball better and keep sweat off the ball. Resin is legal, and it's just that Jon apparently keeps it closer to himself so he doesn't have to bend down and use the rosin bag that sits on the back of the pitcher's mound. Why it looks green in the glove is a whole other story.

But apparently, there is some corroboration about Lester's sweating, even if it may not come from a completely independent source. The Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia says," I've played with Jon basically my whole professional career--he kind of sweats a lot, man. I know he loads up with resin all over the place. I don't even like going out there and telling him 'good job' and patting him on the back, because you get wet and stuff."

And there you have it. The pitcher may not be 'reassuringly free of sweat,' but the baseball is.

Madison Avenue still has work to do.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Yeah, So

The fallout from the Edward Snowden disclosures about United States spying continues. It is now claimed that the U.S. spied on its allies and other world leaders.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly perturbed and vocal about what she thinks might have been intercepted cell phone calls. Here she is seen at yet again another world conference showing off what she believes was bugged.

Off camera she's of course admitting that yes, she does speak to the Chinese.

She's told close associates that she hates to admit that she gets tired of that heavy German food, and has cultivated a taste for Chinese food from a hole-in-wall take-out place on the shady side of Berlin. They do deliver, too.

On a bike.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Birthday Rule

A friend and former colleague for many years was once again seated to my right in Belmont's Dining Room on Saturday. Another friend and former colleague was seated across from me. It is somewhat like school and assigned seats. We tend to take the same seats when we venture out for an afternoon of equine prophesy.

I've written about this gathering before, and once again find the proceedings and outcome to be noteworthy. And once again, the fellow to my right has applied unscientific methods to an unscientific game and created a nifty profit for himself.

Saturday saw an often applied technique called the "Birthday Rule" waved over the entries for each race. In the health and health insurance world from which we all sprang, the "Birthday Rule" applied to comparing the spouse and contract holder birthdays to determine what contract was primary when "coordination of benefit" rules needed to be applied. The earliest month and day birthday was considered primary, and so, that person's contract was used first. This could help mitigate an insurance carrier's total outlay. Always a goal.

As applied to lottery numbers and horse racing selections, the Birthday Rule has absolutely no set rules and no mandated time when it is applied. It is all in the head of the person considering selections for the upcoming race. A race card for a thoroughbred race usually maximizes at 15 entrants; there are no zeroes.

Thus, double digits beyond the top number and any number having a zero can necessitate creative thinking. And no matter how large or small the crowd at a racetrack, there are easily more creative thinkers present than there are faculty members and students at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. Easily.

Double digits are usually split, like aces in blackjack. Twenty-eight--a number significantly beyond an American Thoroughbred race--would be rendered 2-8; 8-2. This is perfect for developing exacta selections, where the bet is to pick the first two across the finish line, in the order they finished. "Boxing," or reversing the numbers is generally engaged in to capture the permutations. A triple bet is to pick the first three. A superfecta bet is to pick the first four. Payouts increase as the degree of difficulty in being right increases. Separate betting pools control these payouts.

A favorite two-number bet for the individual to my right has historically been the application of a son's birthday. 1-7, 7-1 gets played often. I think I remember which son it is, but I don't know if the selection, decoded, means January 7, July 1, or 17 of any given month. It is often best to just go with it, and not ask too many questions.

This individual applies elements of traditional handicapping, but hedges everything they do with application of the Birthday Rule. This results in the purchase of several tickets and combinations per race. This can result in so many combinations being concocted at the last second that the hand they are holding is not really known until after the race, when the tickets are checked more closely. The fun often lies in realizing what was done after the race finishes. It almost becomes a scratch-off lottery game. There are surprises.

The fifth race at Belmont saw the Birthday Rule wanded over the entries, and mixed in with handicapping elements. This can be a potent approach that sometimes yields results that are so solid they might resemble having the answer key template placed over a standardized test before the test starts.

Amongst the several bets the fellow to my right made on this fifth race was the triple box of 2-8-11, for $1. This covers the six permutations of 2-8-11 of any order of finish of those three entrants; a $6 overall bet. Someone's birthday was involved, but I really didn't delve into the details.

I myself could see in the 2-8-11 boxed sequence my oldest granddaughter's birthday of 11/28. But my approach to betting doesn't go the Birthday Rule route.

The 2 horse was a solid selection, despite being a so-called "career maiden"--many starts, never winning--but being the bridesmaid by running second 11 times. There are horses like this. No matter where they run, who they run against, they just don't win, but they can manage second.

Stock Fund, despite this tendency, was a deserved favorite at 2-1, and quite realistically, once again, looked capable of being first. The rest was a jump ball of scrambled eggs. Birthday Rule was applied in betting a triple by the fellow to my right.

The race was finished, and there were only two of us at the table observing the posted order of finish: 2-11-8.  Birthday Ruler hadn't yet returned from the window. They were likely watching the race on a TV monitor nearby, a few levels up.

It was commented by my opposite number that the second place horse, an unraced horse ridden by a moderately successful journeyman, upstate jockey, was 53-1. Considerable odds to finish second. In New York, outright long shots such as this don't often get in the money to win, place, or show. But in this race, one did. The third place horse was 11-1, moderate odds that aren't really considered to be an extreme long shot. I myself commented that Birthday boy might be counted on to have a part of the play in the 53-1 shot. It was just a feeling.

Birthday Ruler made it back to the table before the prices were posted, rapidly telling some narrative that they weren't sure they got the tickets they wanted; "The lady didn't get all my bets in," before the betting was closed. A quick shuffling check of the tickets however revealed that they did indeed beat the bell, and all intended bets were being held.

It's very hard to predict triple payouts. Win prices can be easily predicted based on observed final odds, and exactas invariably tend to ring up as a very close product of the win price and the place price of the second horse.

A 53-1 shot anywhere in an official triple sequence is a rarity. Separate triple pools govern the payouts of this wager. Guesses as to the payout by the gathered at the table were all over the place. But they were never near the $3,204 that was going to be paid out for a $2 triple wager on the 2-11-8 sequence when the OFFICIAL sign went up.

Since Birthday Rule boy had a $1 bet, his take was half the $2 payout. When it comes to money, racetrack payouts are sharply mathematical. Thus, the reward was $1,602. Major high-fiving and loudness ensued all around.

When I retold the story to my wife on the way home she asked the inevitable question of why didn't I just bet what he bet?  Simple. "How the hell am I ever going to know whose birthday this guy is going to use when he finally gets to the window? He doesn't know." She saw my point, but was still sorry to realize I didn't read minds.

If you're not the big winner yourself (and I wasn't), it's great to be in the presence of a big winner. And just think, Birthday Ruler didn't even arrive with a pen to write his picks with. He borrowed one of mine.

He did return it.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tempus Fugit

Based on his reading of the Book of Revelation, the Reverend Chuck Smith, a Southern California minister, began predicting the end of the world in the early 1980s, a prediction that has repeatedly proved wrong. He has been undeterred. "Every year I believe this could be the year," he told an interviewer. "We are closer than we were."

Reverend Smith passed away on October 3 at this home in Newport Beach, California, at 86, of lung cancer.

Nothing beats eventually being right.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dig We Must, for a Dying Norway

Years and years ago, when Con Edison used to put up wooden saw horses around their digging sites in New York the saw horses displayed the company slogan: Dig We Must For A Growing New York. This was the meant to be the pre-emptive apology for eliminating traffic lanes and creating bottlenecks. Any barriers that are now placed around work sites do not carry any slogan or apology. Just dig, baby dig. And splice.

Con Edison continues to dig for a growing New York, as Norway apparently digs for a dying Norway, or, to be more specific, digs to reuse graves so that the newly deceased can be buried where there were once others.

This is a form of recycling we don't see here. No, there are no old Norwegians pushing shopping carts of virtual empty graves. Or full ones. It's high tech all the way.

The WSJ's A-Head piece yesterday recounts the Norwegian policy of reusing graves after 20 years if the original descendants or caretakers do not extend what in effect is a 20 year lease on the use of the land. In Norway, even graves expire.

This holds true only if the deceased was not wrapped in plastic at the time of their burial. Apparently once in Norway there was a practice of wrapping bodies in plastic for sanitary reasons, and then inserting them in coffins, and then in the ground. The plastic has done a very good job of preserving the body, so in effect, it doesn't decay, even after 20 years.

Norwegians are not a callous lot. They just need burial space. So, what do you do with plastic wrapped bodies that are not decayed after 20 years in graves that no one wants to keep the seat license active for? Lime.

Any slightly attentive movie-goer knows that the mob uses lime to speed the decay of bodies they don't want found. No sense having evidence pop up in a dog's mouth if there are ways to prevent it. The story describes, and shows the efforts that are used to inject lime into the grave to hasten the decay of the remains, thus releasing the spot for the next occupant. And in a perfect symmetry with the body disposal properties of wet cement, someone with a cement background has aided a former graveyard worker to perfect the lime-injection-body-disposal system. Everything, of course, is done with approval.

Real estate space is tight in New York as well. And finding an apartment in Manhattan is difficult, even ones that can minimally be afforded. It is not mentioned in the story, but the application of lime to living people, or barely living, might be a way to create apartment vacancies. Death has a way, sometimes, of removing tenants. A white powdery blast from an elevator shaft might clear the floor of old people as they make their way to Gristede's. For the shut-ins, something white and feathery wafting through the heating system might create the desired turnover.

Cultural differences. Norwegians apparently have never had to bury American Indians, or slaves. Or maybe they did, and they're under some very expensive skyscrapers in Oslo.

For the price of legal fees, there might be new owners of those buildings.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The World is a Noisy Place

It is no secret I like to read Clyde Haberman's 'Breaking Bread' piece that appears every other Monday in the New York Times. Mr. Haberman takes in a meal with people who you might describe as being somewhat under the New York City media radar, but who, nevertheless contribute to how things are run.

Take the latest meal with Arline L. Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, who even in her 70s helped revise New York City's noise code. Ms. Bronzaft connects back to the John V. Lindsay mayoral administration. This can date a person for sure. When I was a kid, anyone connected with the Mayor Hylan era was getting the door held open for them at the family flower shop.

It is also no secret that my train of thought can be thrown from the tracks like runaway tanker cars in Quebec. Mr. Haberman only needed to mention that the place they ate in was near Ms. Bronzaft's apartment on York Avenue and I'm seeing maps and hearing conversations about the Second Avenue subway, Avenue D and Burt Lancaster.

Ms. Bronzaft's field of expertise is how noise affects health. It's not directly mentioned in the piece but Ms. Bonzaft's apartment is two blocks east of the construction for the Second Avenue subway, as noisy and disturbing an endeavor as you can absorb, given the occasional sound of explosions in peacetime.

Second Avenue subway. There was one once. It was an elevated line, that connected to Astoria via the 59th Street/Queensboro/ Ed Koch bridge. A family heirloom is a destination sign my father took from one of the trains as a kid. It is a black metal rectangle, with stenciled white letters, that would tell you that the train was headed for 'ASTORIA VIA 2nd AVE'. My daughter now has it in a living room bookcase.

Astoria was where North Beach was, which was the area that was later turned into LaGuardia airport. My father recalled being hustled off by his mother with fruit in a paper bag, along with some of his brothers for a day at the beach. It beat diving into the East River off 32nd Street, which was another way they got wet.

York Avenue. Never knew until I read it referred to in a Peggy Noonan column that it was named for Sergeant York, a WWI Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who was born and died in Tennessee. His connection to New York is not immediately understood, and so far goes personally unresearched. He might have had lunch here, or made a speech.

York Avenue. An old-time neighbor in Flushing who grew up in East Harlem told be that it was once named Avenue D. He also told me that when he was growing up there were guys who knew Burt Lancaster as a kid, and that Burt was called 'Dutch.' Burt came from that area.

Burt's not around to ask about York having once been Avenue D. My old-time neighbor is not available for further questioning either.

But my fate is clear. As long as Mr. Haberman reports on a meal he's taken with someone in any of the five boroughs, it is going to dislodge, for a moment, some nostalgic and likely worthless piece of information from my brain.

It's up to you if you want to read about it.


The Weather's Clear, the Track is Fast

I no longer review any book I haven't finished. I have steered away from that habit after someone more deeply connected to books than myself chided me for it. So, this is not a book review of 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling.

I am however reading the book nightly, and only about a quarter of the way through it. It moves along, as does the night.

The book needs no further publicity, but like anything that is well written, there are what I call internal nuggets of poetry within the prose. I love these.

Take the main character, the private investigator with the odd name, Cormoran Strike, who on one Sunday early in the tale has some time on his hands and plops down on a bench facing the Thames with a newspaper he's filched or, as the author writes, "twitched" from a receptionist station.

"The sun was warm on his head and shoulders. Seagulls cawed, wheeled overhead, and Strike, happily aware that he was due nowhere, and expected by no one, settled to read the paper from cover to cover on the sunny beach."

...due nowhere, and expected by no one...

This is the good phase of retirement.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Wild Bunch

The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is seen with her posse getting off the plane in Las Vegas, headed for the Steel Cage Ultimate Fighting Man Championship fights being held at Caesar's Palace.

By all accounts, she has good seats.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oh, I See Words

I see from my high school alumni newsletter that the English teacher we had as juniors who was met with absolute silence when he asked a classroom full of 30-some-odd boys to name some words that ended in "ic" has recently passed away. No one came up with a word. Even after a fairly long silence to compose ourselves. He told us he could think of many words that ended in "ic." It primed no one's pump. The request floated to the floor, and never came up again.

No age was given for Mr. Michael Marks, but I'd have to guess he was at least 80, given when he started teaching at the school and when he retired. He wasn't a substitute either. He was our regular semester English teacher. He really hit a dry well with that "ic" stuff.

I have no idea why, but several years ago I started to think about that lazy afternoon in school. Of course by then I could come with many words that ended in "ic." I was amazed that no one that day, including myself, could come up with at least one. At some point I decided to start a list. The words just kept coming and coming.

By now I was married with two daughters. I enlisted the aid of offspring Susan. I explained the whole thing. She easily came up with numerous words. I now organized the list.

With the goal of making the list suitable for framing, as I once did for a list of homographs that became my hobby to create, I came up with a draft version of what I'd like to frame.

I've never been to a high school class reunion, basically because there's never been one for my class. Classes before, galore. Classes after, many, many. We fell into a black hole for some reason. No one wants to remember our time in the 60s, I guess. We're coming up on the mid-century mark, so there are surely fewer of us, and probably few teachers.

If there is a reunion, I might bring the list, but I'm not sure who'd I'd show it to.

For now, rigorous proofreading is still required, but Sue's not home yet.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Watt Gets Left to Whom

There is absolutely so much you can learn if you pay attention to what you are reading.

Take the meaning of skew. Or, at least the meaning of the pronunciation of skew, as in skew number--the ubiquitous SKU numbers we see everywhere on items we buy.

I never gave any thought that these three letters might have a larger meaning other than to be pronounced skew. Turns out, SKU stands for "stock-keeping units," a means to track inventory. (Some sources say the "s" stands for store, or shelf.)

I gleaned this from a WSJ story on light bulbs. Ralph Gardner Jr. has got to be one of the more prolific newspaper writers outside of obituarists. His nearly daily piece appears in the City News section under the title 'Urban Gardner,' a name he apparently hates. But that's another story.

Since his most recent piece opened my eyes to the meaning of skew you might say it was enlightening. And since the piece was about light bulbs, it was even further enlightening. 

Parts of the story I already knew about. Like the part about the diminishing supply of 100 watt incandescent bulbs because of their being phased out in favor of CFLs, more energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, and their cousins, the LEDs, light emitting diodes. Energy efficient at a hefty up-front cost. There is no free lunch.

I can never forget Con Edison's 1960s effort for New Yorkers to save energy by advertising the "Save a Watt" campaign. It turned out New Yorkers listened, used less electricity, and in turn decreased the amount of money owed Con Edison to the extent that in the following year Con Edison needed a rate increase, stating that their fixed costs were high, and that there was less money coming in because usage was down. Therefore, they needed more money in the coming year. It made sense to them.

My father was ahead of this curve. He had his own save-a-watt campaign. He had the unnerving habit of wondering why utility companies wanted his money on a monthly basis. In Con Edison's case at the time it was a forgiving every two months. Still too often for him. My father's late and non-payments lead to tug-of-wars carried out in the mail and by phone. Such tugs were always won by the phone company, as our phone was turned off almost regularly every two months.

It was harder to wear out the patience of Con Edison, but my father managed to accomplish it in June, some time in the early 1960s when they dutifully came as promised and did something to the fuse box in the cellar of our two-family home and turned our lights off for non-payment. We were saving watts every minute of the nearly four days we were without electricity.

My father didn't seem to mind. He just didn't come home when the lights were off. The bill was soon paid, perhaps even by him, and our lights came back on. This only ever happened once.

In Mr. Gardener's piece, complete with photos from the 'Just Bulbs' store on East 60th Street in Manhattan, we not only see a little of the wide variety of bulbs that can be purchased, we learn a good deal of where lighting is headed. The owner of the store, David Brooks, tells Mr. Gardner that he has 35,000 different SKU's in stock. As the title of piece tells us, it is a bright future. For someone.

Anyone who has been looking for 100 watt bulbs, or moans about their near extinction, will be heartened to know you can get 100 watt LED bulbs for $60.95. (NYC sales tax not included.) Who this is good news for is unknown. But the bulbs last for 40,000 hours, vs. the 750 that we've been used to getting.

As Mr. Gardener points out, the bulb might outlive you. Depending on your age at purchase, you might not ever have to change the bulb again. Forty thousand hours equates to 1,666 days of continuous use, about four and a half years.

The four plus years might not initially seem so outside your life expectancy, but when you consider that it is considered that a bulb will be in use only three hours a day, there are then 13,333 days of illumination expected, or a little over 36 years. This might surely, coupled with the asset value of the bulb at the outset, place bulbs in the domain of assets that need legal distribution on one's demise. It might even re-classify crimes.

Years and years ago I worked with someone whose marriage disintegrated and whose wife, while he was at work, removed everything from the apartment that she considered hers. My friend, on returning home that evening and seeing the nearly empty apartment knew immediately what had happened. This didn't prevent him from hesitating for one minute in reporting it as a burglary to NYC's Finest.

When the police arrived and took a look at the place my friend said one of the cops passed his hand over an exposed light switch. He remarked that he had never seen a job like this. They had even taken the switch plates.

If this crime were to take place today, there is a possibility, depending on the removal, or non-removal of the light bulbs and their type and wattage, that the break-in could get classified as grand larceny over petty larceny.

Father knew best? Over 50 years ago my father saved-a-watt and made light bulbs last longer. It was just hard when then sun went down to thank him.