Sunday, November 30, 2014

Air Sickness Bag

As anyone who has been paying attention to these blog postings might by now have realized, I've been reading obituaries for a long time. In a lot of settings, but usually on a commuter train, at my desk, or in my living room.

I have to say, if I had been reading the NYT obituary for Francis Fraser on a plane and there was the slightest of air turbulence, I might have been reaching for the air sickness bag. I have to say, I've never read so much about as revolting a character as "Mad Frank" covered in an obituary that spans two full columns of a major newspaper. It's a beaut, for a brute's life.

The picture of Mr. Fraser is the first clue, without even reading the caption. Mr. Fraser was 91 at his passing in a London hospital. The 1997 photo above shows a jacket and tie dressed man whose face resembles lumpy oatmeal, or one of those newly designed gold courses with plenty of grassy knolls on the way to the pin. He is not smiling, likely because there are aren't many teeth left.

Then there is the picture in the background. The Kray brothers in boxing glove poses? Twin psychopathic gangsters from the London underworld in days gone by?

But the second line of the headline is the clincher: "Cashed In On his Cruelty." The obit is by the newspaper legend, Robert McFadden. This gives you an idea that Mr. Fraser achieved so much fame for his deeds that his advance obit was written by a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has been retired for many years, but who themselves is still with us. The NYT obit editors been waiting a good number of years to spring Mr. Fraser's obit on us, but it had to wait until the man turned 91.

Mr. Fraser was easily England's composite of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, Willie Sutton and Whitey Bulger.

Mr. Fraser practiced dentistry on dead-beat clients whose movements were not prevented by an application of Novocain, but rather by virtue of being nailed to the floor. You expect he waived the co-pay.

A first season episode of 'The Knick' shows a New York City turn-of-the 19th century bookmaker- loan shark-sex procurer-drug dealer extracting a tooth in his office from a refined gentleman who happens to  be a hospital administrator who is behind in his payments. There is no carpentry in the scene, however.

Mr. Fraser spent nearly an equal number of his years in prisons of various sorts, as he did out of them. The near 50% ratio is really a bit more lopsided toward incarceration when you consider that they didn't pop him into a juvenile center until he was 17. He probably just wasn't bad enough until then, or that's when they finally caught him. For the first time.

There must he something so theatrical about the British that Mr. Fraser was such a celebrity outside of prison that he gave West End performances until the 1980s. As famous for their misdeeds as Willie Sutton, "Sammy the Bull," and the elusive Whitey Bulger were, I don't think there is any record of either of them playing Broadway.

There were plenty of ghostwritten autobiographies of "Mad Frank" in addition to his live performances, DVDs and CDs. Imagine, a British Pulitzer version for spoken word being awarded to Frank for mumbled word, and you get a sense of the adulation he received.

It is easy to be hard on Mr. Fraser and his lifestyle. But there were redeeming qualities, even in someone whose claim to fame was his cruelty. As he himself pointed out, "sure I was violent, but only to people like myself."

The police call this a community service.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ginkgo Stinko

It would happen in the fall. There would be a strong stench from the trees alongside the Murray Hill LIRR station in Flushing, along the 149th Place side, between 41st Avenue and Barton Place. A really rancid odor that, if there was such a thing, would be called "tree poop."
And in many ways it was tree poop. It was ginkgo nuts that fell from the 4-5 ginkgo trees that became squashed underfoot, or by cars. Very smelly tree road-kill.
It was like that as long as I can remember. And that would take me back to the early 50s. I once read an explanation of female and male ginkgo trees, and that the nut-bearing female trees were planted there by mistake, but to me, that was just urban legend.
And then the WSJ's November 25th A-HED piece revealed all. Accidental planting of female ginkgo trees is exactly what happened in parts of the city, and on that particular stretch of block by the railroad station, which at some point in the 60s was no longer a building but rather just a set of staircases going down to the platforms. The station building that was once there was torn down because of vandalism and the distinctive permanent urine smell it held inside. It had become a hangout, and unsocial things were being done there.
The A-HED piece goes on to explain that "one man's soup is another man's stench." A ginkgo nut is a delicacy used in Asian cooking. But squashed on a pavement, it's worse than fermented dog-do.
It turns out that when the city was planting ginkgo trees, it was hard to tell the female trees from the male trees. And that it took 25 years for the female ginkgo trees to bear nuts. Thus, mistakes were made. If female trees were planted near even one male tree, nature delivered ginkgo produce.
My theory is that when the LIRR open cut trenched the Port Washington line in the late 1920s from street level tracks, they surely had to do some fresh landscaping. A ginkgo tree is an attractive tree, if it's not belching. The leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall, and have a nice, delicate fan shape.
So, at least one male was mixed in with the women. This pre-dated unisex toilets. And for years and years, no one could care less, because the trees didn't produce anything but leaves. But, then came maturity, probably sometime near the dawn of my birth, and suddenly, there was a holy stink that filled the air in the fall as the nuts fell and were trampled open, and wafted out their odor.
In the 1980s, Asians increasingly moved into Flushing and found the trees. The ginkgo nuts were a prized commodity to these Asians, and they went to some extremes to harvest a free tree crop. I never saw anybody actually climbing the trees, and they were too mature to shake in order to make them give up their crop, but I did see people picking up the nuts before they were smashed. Often, several people.
And then there was that one Sunday morning when I went for the paper and someone was tossing a two-foot plank of wood up into the branches trying to dislodge nuts. Over and over again, until they got enough or were discouraged with their haul. I had to walk around this ginkgo nut and his falling boomerang.
David Marcelis, in his A-HED piece, tries to describe the smell of mutilated ginkgo nuts. He tells us the pulp of the nut contains butyric acid, the same as found in rancid butter, and everyone's favorite fragrance--vomit. I kid you not, he's got it right.
The byproduct of the increasing Asian population was that the stink no longer lasted very long in the area. The nuts became scooped up before they could be crushed and turned into the opposite of air fresheners.
As for myself, I solved the problem of smelling the trees (and a few other problems), by moving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The New Journalism

Easily the oddest ending I've ever read to a news story. Reprinted, in its entirety, an AP story from the WSJ, November 24, 2014.


A naked man fell through the ceiling of a women's bathroom at Boston's Logan International Airport on Saturday, then ran out of the restroom and assaulted an elderly man, state police said.

Cameron Shenk, 26 years old, of Boston, was arrested and charged with attempted murder, mayhem, assault and battery, on a person over 60, assault and battery on a police officer, lewd and lascivious conduct, and malicious destruction to property.

After crashing through the ceiling, an incident reported by a woman who was in the bathroom, Mr. Shenk assaulted an 84-year-old-man, biting his ear and attempting to choke him with his own cane. It wasn't known if Mr. Shenk had retained an attorney; his phone number couldn't be located.

Did you find his clothes? Might be in there.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Identity Theft

How can you keep someone from stealing your name? Easy. Have a name too big to steal.

When you think about it, it is not really too far fetched. How many truly big things go missing? The United States Navy has not had any of its aircraft carriers stolen. Why? Probably because they are too big to steal. They all are easily over 1,000 feet long: three plus football fields in length. Size counts.

Take the recently deceased Duchess of Alba, an 88 year-old Spanish aristocrat who had more names than a Mayflower moving van has state license plates on it.

Try presenting her full name, Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart de Silva, at the mall with a fake credit card that only carries 20 characters. Can't do it. It's no wonder when she passed away she was reported to be worth $4.4 billion. No one could take it away from her.

She only married three times but the last two were to successively younger men, the first 11 years younger than her, the second, almost 25. Like a pulley, as her age, the weight went up, the other side of the rope went down.  The 'Guinness Book of World of Records' recoded her as a noble with the most titles: 40 plus. If she were to meet the pope, the protocol did not need dictate that she knell. She could ride a horse into Seville Cathedral, presumably with her clothes on.

For us here in the States, she was easily the richest woman we never heard of. Her land and palaces in Spain would seem to out-do Disney. Whether a Spanish language station will do a 'Downton Abbey'-like story of her life now that it is even more out in the open remains to be seen.

For sure, a woman like that didn't have a 'Target' or a Spanish 'Hacienda Depot' credit card. But for those of us who do, it might be better if our names were protected by increased length. As things get more complex, they are harder to duplicate. Think of paper money and counterfeits. Extensive changes have been made to paper money to thwart counterfeiting. The bills are way harder to criminally reproduce now. So then, should our names be harder to reproduce.

On forms these days whether online or on paper, there are usually two address lines to provide a street address that may not be contained on one line. So, there should also be for our names.

There should be a second line where our expanded names go. The free format nature of this field invites so much variability that it would make stealing a name even harder. The cyber-thief has to deal with more characters, and has to get them in the right places.

But, it is always hard to defeat those who are tempted by the financial incentives to duplicate something or be someone else. I'm sure at times there were many people who would have loved to have been considered to be Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart de Silva.

Even if they were only at the mall.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Big A

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen here in Auckland, New Zealand greeting the New York Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriquez and administering the out-of-training-look-me-in-the-eye drug test required before all players report to training camp for the 2015 baseball season.

Chancellor Merkel was looking for telltale sings of bulk that might have been built up in the off-season; thus, the shirtless Rodriguez.

Out of range of the camera, also waiting to be tested, was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been known to go shirtless while riding bareback.

Results of the testing will be made available at the conclusion of the G20 conference now being held in Brisbane, Australia. But don't expect he Russians to admit or deny anything. They may even tell us there is no Russia.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Most Happy Fella

Live till you're 93 and you can leave a lot of life behind. In the case of Manitas de Plata, a virtuoso of Flamenco guitar who has just passed away at 93, that life can contain many women, one wife, 13 legally recognized children, and a total of perhaps 11 to 15 others, that, with DNA testing, would undoubtedly be linked back to him with legal certainty. He was a busy guy. He could have been chosen to be the Grand Marshall to lead the French Fathers' Day parade.

In yesterday's NYT obituary on Mr. de Plata, Bruce Weber renders affection and respect when he describes Mr, de Plata as having lived "a life of fulfilled appetites."

Known as a free spender, as well as a money making machine from his recordings and concerts, Mr. de Plata perhaps not surprisingly outlived what fortunes he made by wide margins. He befriended numerous famous people, generally in Europe, and especially on the French Riviera.

As the Cher song goes, he was "born in a wagon," a Romany Gypsy caravan in 1921 in Cette, France as Ricardo Baliardo. He adopted the name Manitas de Plata, which translated means "little hands of silver."

Usually, when someone who achieves notoriety in any field passes away, the names of the immediate survivors are given, along with a count of grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren. Given Mr. de Plata's joie de vivre lifestyle, only the name of one of his female partners is given, (and not the sole wife) Claudette Mariaux, and a daughter from that relationship, Francoise.

It is easy to understand why Mr. de Plata might have had financial trouble. The birthday presents and cards alone would strain any income.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Anything But the 1999

I don't think I will ever forget reading an October 18, 1996 NYT Op-Ed news piece by Pete Hamill reminiscing about The Lion's Head Pub that was due to close that Saturday night.

I will be handed a menu in some restaurant and remember the night a man died of a heart attack at the table beside me and someone asked the waitress, "What did he order?"

It's easy to think something like that didn't really happen, but I'm sure it did. I'm also sure variations of it have been repeated all over the world. Like the neighbor's sister who dropped dead of a heart attack on the dance floor at the neighbor's son's wedding.  I think it was before the cake was cut, too.

Keep living and reading and you'll hear of more. Take the recent obituary for Hubert de Montille, 84, a legendary winemaker in Burgundy, France.

He suffered a fatal heart attack at lunch with friends in Alsace, drinking his own wine, a 1999 Pomard Rugiens. His son, Etiennne de Montille, said he died, "glass in hand."

The vintage will no doubt be left off the death certificate.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How Many Do You Want?

Quick. Server brings over the two desserts you ordered. There are the same. They are familiar Italian pastries, very closely associated with Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee Hall-of-Fame shortstop and legendary broadcaster.

Does the server bring you two cannolis, or two cannoli? No computer, word processing, grammar usage, spell checking software in the world is probably going to help you here. You need more research. Hit the books.

The whole realization about the word cannoli was touched off when the news carried a story that a fire recently destroyed a family cannoli factory in Mount Vernon, New York. The factory was responsible for such an ungodly supply of the item that a holiday shortage is expected. The factory produced "10 million cannoli" a year. Laid end to end (if you're so inclined) the article pointed out this number of cannoli would stretch 500 miles, from Mount Vernon to Richmond, Virginia. That is of course if you're going south from Mount Vernon. There are other options, but that's what mobile apps are for.

Ten million is certainly more than one. It is plural, so the word it is associated with should be plural too. And there, in the NYT, the word is cannoli. So, if cannoli is plural, what's one cannoli, aside from half the price of two?

There are two printed, paper, hardbound dictionaries that I generally consult and keep handy. Sometimes, the first go-to one is the 'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.' Many people are familiar with this one. It is quite comprehensive, and is two thick volumes. Either one of them is a door stopper. Given the size of the two volumes, the fact that it is it the "shorter" version always reminds me what the full-size version is. Well, that's 20 or so volumes, of equal thickness per volume. So, I always wonder what words I may not be getting.

I found out.

Cannoli. Not there. Cannikin...cannon. Not there. I am surprised. This isn't going to make me want to acquire all twenty volumes just so I might capture the word cannoli, but they were right. It is the shorter version. I found a word that's not there.

Plan B. Go to the much easier to pick up, one volume, 'Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.' Cannikin...cannoli...cannon.

Cannoli is described as the plural form: 'pl but sing or pl in constr.' So, 10 million cannoli would be right. Two cannoli would be right. One cannoli? Right as well. There is no singular version of the word. so therefore, there is no need to add an s to the word to make it plural. There are no cannolis. Especially if someone ate them all. Or, the factory went on fire.

This is quite a piece of news. I've lived long enough to be on my 12th president, and I just now learn that cannoli is already plural.

Anyone want to discuss data?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Faux Chevaux

Bill Finley, once a horse racing reporter for the New York Daily News, wrote a piece in the NYT as a stringer that thoroughly described the difference between a donkey and a mule. There are actually mule races at some lower level tracks in California, generally called Fair racing. But I never thought there might be a difference between a donkey and a mule. They aren't the same? No.

Bill's story was about a highly proficient mule mare, Black Ruby, that had so far, at the age of 10, won 57 of 75 starts. In 2002 alone, through July, Black Ruby had won 21 of 22 starts. The story was written in July 2002.

Black Ruby is half a horse. A mule apparently is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Mules cannot reproduce, and run considerably slower than a thoroughbred. They race up to half a mile, which is four furlongs. That they run at all goes against any pre-conceived notion of what a mule can do.

Isn't a mule what Juan Valdez uses to bring the hand-picked Colombian coffee beans down from the slope to your favorite barista? Possibly. But you might also be thinking of a donkey.

Wikipedia tells us:

There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdevolped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals. Working donkeys are often associated with those living at or below subsistence levels. Small numbers of donkeys are kept for breeding or as pets in developed countries.

A male donkey, or ass, is called a jack; a female a jenny or jennet; a young donkey is a foal.  Jack donkeys are often used to mate with female horses to produce mules.

And when it comes to mules:

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). Horses and donkeys are different species, with different numbers of chromosomes. Of the two F1 hybrids between these two species, a mule is easier to obtain than a hinny which is the product of a female donkey (jenny) and a male horse (stallion).

I'm starting to read words I've heard all my life. So, a mule is not a donkey, and a fake is not a forgery. Huh?

Just as mule and donkey seem to be used inter-changeably in speech, fake and forgery get used in the same context. But apparently when it comes to art, a fake is not a forgery.

Reading about a museum in Virginia that has purposely placed a competent fake amongst an exhibit of originals of James E. Buttersworth's famous nautical paintings, the difference between fake and forgery is explained.

The museum has done this to engage the museum goer into really looking at the works. Apparently, a fake, is a reproduction of a work that has already been produced. It is a copy. A forgery is a piece being portrayed to have created by the artist that has not been seen before. It is being portrayed as a new original piece, when really its creator is not the more famous artist. 

Being a fan of the TV series 'White Collar', I can't think of there ever being a time when Neal Caffrey, the con man, art forger supreme, explains to Peter Burke, his FBI handler, that fakes and forgeries are different. Neal, you've been holding out on us. Again.

I've made the joke that on 'The Antiques Road Show' you don't want to hear the four letter f-word uttered about your great aunt's vase: fake.

So, mules and donkeys are different, and fakes and forgeries differ. But what's a jackass?

Someone who spends beaucoup bucks on a fake or a forgery and tells you it's real.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley

I'm sure there are those out there who, needing a Downton Abbey fix, have actually travelled across the pond to see the new season, or gotten someone in the U.K. to send them some bootleg CDs. The new season won't hit us here in the States until January, just like last year.

Well, they really didn't need to do that. I thought the two-part 'Death Comes to Pemberley' should have been an adequate fix to tide the desperate over until the real deal gets here.

The time setting is 100 years earlier than Downton, but you really can't tell by the house. Or the grounds. In this case, Pemberley manor. There are no phones of course, no motor cars and no electricity,  no toasters or typewriters. But there are many over-dressed people whose clothes make them so stiff they seem to have trouble sitting down. The evil international threat is Napoleon, whose name gets dropped once. But no maps roll out, and there doesn't seem to be a globe in sight.

No, this is a murder mystery, based on the novel by P.D. James, who uses the characters from Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' and takes them out a little further in time and surrounds them with a murder in the woods, on the grounds, and therefore, potentially quite scandalous to the family.

I will admit, I never got through even the Illustrated Classics comic book version of 'Pride and Prejudice', or Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights.' No matter. You don't need to the steeped in knowing anything about this era, or the characters to enjoy 'Death Comes to Pemberley.'

Anna Maxwell Martin as Lizzie is once again the ever clever foil who solves everything and gets in the most polite of zingers, especially when she's talking to a woman with a big hat. The bigger the hat, the bigger the biddy, I always say. She repeats the type of role she played in 'Bletchley Circle' and South Riding'. She's great.

Matthew Rhys plays Mr. Darcy, her husband, and for reasons I don't really know, keeps getting called 'Darcy', rather than by his first name, Fitzwilliam. In the hit series 'The Americans', Mr. Rhys of course is Philip Jennings, the 1980s married KGB father planted in the Virginia suburbs, who, with his wife, Elizabeth, fight the Cold War, Russian-style by acting like Americans while raising kids, shopping and doing laundry and listening to coded messages in the cellar. They are a tough pair to come across.

In 'The Americans', Philip, Mr. Rhys is the Red. In 'Death Comes to Pemberley', as Mr. Darcy, he is surrounded a bit by British officers in red uniforms. My guess is Mr. Rhys feels right at home with this.

As Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rhys can go back to his natural British accent, but of course has to endure the clothes of the early 1800s. As of course does his wife Lizzie. So of course when the required love scene is filmed, no one has shed anything, (unbutton, yes) lest too much time be spent getting undressed and out of the mood. It still works, however. Remember, no four hour warning back then.

But of course the real star of the show is the house and the grounds. The grand house of Pemberley is the actual Chatsworth House. So, the Downton crowd gets its fix on the splendor of these homes. The film crew must have been in a prolonged state of ecstasy when filming. There are some truly nicely framed shots.

In fact, if there are those who paid any attention to the recently run Breeders' Cup run at Santa Anita over the weekend, they might have caught the piece on Highclare Thoroughbred Racing. Highclare, the actual mansion used to shoot 'Downton Abbey' is in real-life, among other things, the site of a thoroughbred training facility. Highclare Thoroughbreds had the Irish-bred Telescope entered in the $3 million Breeders' Cup turf race at a mile and a half. A premier event. And a premier horse.

The horse's sire is the champion Galileo, so the name Telescope more  than fits. Thus, NBC felt the need to give us a bit of tour of Highclare, and insert some 'Downton' scenes. If watched, it might have even further eased the withdrawal pain for those smitten with Downton-itis.

Unfortunately, for me and other backers of Telescope, he didn't see everything coming, and was beaten by another good horse Main Sequence, as he finished fourth, beaten by two and a quarter lengths, in what was a typical turf bang-bang finish. Enough of that.

The death at Pemberley is a murder in the woods, occurring when two chaps burst out of a carriage, one in a red uniform, and the other in the finest flummery the wardrobe people could find. Two go into the woods, and one is coshed to death. But who did the coshing?

Thus, we get CSI 1800s-style, and inquest and court room proceedings full of conflict of interests and blatant leading-type questioning that is allowed to keep going by a judge who wants to get out of the ridiculous clothes he's wearing and grab a whiskey. And that wig!

No spoiler alert needed. It can be difficult at first to distinguish who's who because of the clothes and hairstyles. Then there are the re-la-tion-ships. Whose sister is that? But there aren't that many characters, so even I, with the help of close captioning and some DVR replay, was able to fully know who's who.

There is of course an unwed mother and the question of who the father is, but this of course adds to the story, and more than you might think at first. There is the required tour through the kitchen by Lizzie, the lady of the house to inspect the food preparations that are underway for the upcoming gala.

There are curtsying kitchen maids, and the cook's tour. Lizzie lefts the lid on 'white soup' and says it smells delicious. And then there are the 'almond faggots.' The delicacies abound. A Wendy's wrapper is nowhere in sight.

If you give any logical thought to the events as the denouement is reveled, you wonder what kind training the British were giving their soldiers and especially their officers. They lack hand-to-hand martial arts skills, and seem to get easily lost in the underbrush. No wonder we won.

Never mind. The two-part mini-series will soothe the Downton bunch. And if they still need more, dig up the replay of the Breeders' Cup, 9th Race at Santa Anita on Saturday. I bet you can pick the winner now.