Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 67% Solution

Update! Update! Update! Update!

With the predictability of a lunar eclipse, the New York Times today features a front-page report headlined:

Stimulus Plan Would Provide Flood of Aid to Education

So now the taxpayers--US--will be coerced into partnership with failed and corrupt banks, failed, corrupt and stupid carmakers, and a failed, corrupt, stupid and arrogant education industry. The Times article is excerpted here.

The proposed emergency expenditures on nearly every realm of education, including school renovation, special education, Head Start and grants to needy college students, would amount to the largest increase in federal aid since Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II.

Critics and supporters alike said that by its sheer scope, the measure could profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.

In this euphoric run-up to the ascension of The Oba-Messiah, all the usual suspects are lumbering toward the trough in order to slobber up the Fool's Gold now being minted by our leaders in Washington.

Consistently neglected in boom years, INFRASTRUCTURE is now the Golden Calf of the 21st Century New Deal, worshipped by one and all in every level of government.

Who can argue with it? Don't these worthy projects need funding? And aren't these the same public servants that have served us so well in good times and bad?

In recent years here in New York City the tax dollars fueled by Wall Street profits cascaded into the city treasury and--as in boom times past--roads, bridges and transit systems deteriorated.

Did any of our political leaders wail about our crumbling infrastructure?

"Sorry, bridges don't vote" came the reply from the political class as they shoveled money to voting blocs and interest groups for the express purpose of remaining in office so they could shovel more money.

Remember the gas tax? How about the bridge tolls that were supposed to benefit mass transit? Money, money, money with nothing to show. So now that stimulus is our government's most critical responsibility, the Fed is cranking up the printing presses.

Their mission: inflate the money supply to pay workers to dig holes in the ground.

Ten years from now when the next crisis hits we'll be treated to another round of bleating from those who advocate a commitment to infrastructure and we will have all forgotten about the previous roads and bridges scam.

This should come as no surprise.

Wasting money is what governments do and infrastructure is traditionally the way they do it. Nothing new here.

But what of social welfare, healthcare and education? Surely these are noble endeavors worthy of national mobilization and they figure prominently in the new administration's stimulus plans.

Useless infrastructure projects simply produce "Big Digs" and "Bridges to Nowhere" that impoverish our grandchildren. National commitments to worthy social and educational crusades typically result in stunted human development in the here and now. As an added kick in the ass, they prolong and entrench the delusions of the social engineers and educrats so that effective reform becomes impossible.

As an example, let's take issue with a government initiative that is beyond reproach: Project Headstart. Headstart was born in 1965 during America's Great Society frenzy. Its mission and vision, to promote greater school readiness among under served children, was self-evidently noble. Predictably, as the Headstart Medusa spread its reptilian ganglia from city to city, suburb to suburb and state to state, community action groups sprang up, taking proactive steps to keep the federal dollars flowing. Also predictably, advocacy groups such as the National Headstart Association resisted all efforts to provide accountability and financial transparency.

Instead, public money was poured into a black hole while self-serving measurements designed to assess the "SKILLS" promoted by the early education movement showed that these skills developed at a more rapid rate.

In effect, industry studies demonstrated convincingly that two-year-old children who were taught to place "A" blocks next to "B" blocks performed this valuable task better than two year olds who had not been conditioned like trained seals. More than forty years later, the beat goes on without a whisper of protest from those who know better but fear being branded as heartless.

Year after year, independent studies designed to measure long-term educational efficacy consistently demonstrate that when tracked through the four stages of cognitive development, children enrolled in Headstart programs show no greater proficiency in formal operational thinking than children who have started school as late as seven years old.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss biologist, philospher and epistemologist first identified the four stages-- sensory/motor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational--more than seventy years ago.

He also observed that by the end of secondary education about one third of all high school graduates were capable of formal operational thinking. Today, throughout the industrialized world, one third of all high school graduates demonstrate formal operational thinking.

Does this mean that the decline in public education is only an illusion?

I think not. It's true that the proportion of students capable of abstract thinking and symbolic logic has remained constant. However, the academic performance of the remaining 67% of high school graduates has declined precipitously. These are the
students who in past generations achieved a level of functional literacy which has all but disappeared.

Who is advocating for the great two thirds?

Who will campaign for functional literacy?

Moreover, will anyone have the courage to admit that America's continued prosperity depends on Americans who can operate a CNC lathe at least as much as it depends on Americans who can design a CNC lathe?

In a matter of weeks the Fed will start pouring buckets of depreciating Greenbacks into the feeding trough.

And you can be certain that the Early Education Pimps will be there, cheek-to-jowl with the porcine infrastructurists, their snouts buried deep in the stimulative slop. So take heart. There will be new roads and gleaming bridges and modern transit systems to speed Americans to work in this grand new epoch of 21st Century jobs. But traffic will be much lighter than normal if there aren't enough qualified Americans to fill these dream jobs.

For today, though, the skies are brighter and the air is fresher and a brave new world is just beyond the horizon. God help the 67% who will be left behind.

Orfeo ed Euridice... or... I've Just Gone Through Hell for This Chick and She Still Won't Do What I Tell Her

We went to see Orfeo again last week at the Met. We don't usually attend a performance a second time, especially so soon, but this is a breakthrough production so here goes.

Proving once again that there's nothing new under the Sun, the Metropolitan Opera wound down its 2006/2007 season with a spectacular production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Orpheus myth, here's a quick synopsis:

Orfeo is mourning the death of his young wife, Euridice. But he sends everyone away because his grief is so overwhelming even their sincere and heartfelt support sinks him deeper into despair.

Then along comes Cupid, yeah Cupid, suspended from a wire no less, who tells him that all he has to do is follow his beloved's spirit into the underworld and bring her back.

But, she orders, he cannot look at her, or tell her why he can't look at her, until they're back home or she will die. And this time, for keepsies.

Yada, yada, yada... he descends into Hell, gets past the Furies, finds his wife and they start home.

"But why won't you look at me?," she asks, "Am I no longer beautiful?"

"Just shut up and follow me." implores Orfeo, but she's relentless.

"Is it because this dress makes me look fat?"

"Have you found someone else? It's that little tart from Thessalonika, isn't it?"

At this point the Missus turned to me and said "What a wimp. Why doesn't he just grab her by the scruff of the neck, tell to STFU and drag her out of there?"

Why not indeed? But this is an opera.

Finally, when he can't take her nagging anymore, he turns and looks her straight in the eyes and she promptly drops dead... again.

At that point poor Orfeo collapses to his knees and wails: "Che faro senza Euridice" (what shall I do without Euridice). Well lets see... for starters I'll play golf, go fishing and drink as much beer as I want anytime I want.

But no.

All Orfeo has to do is threaten suicide and Cupid returns to snatch the dagger from his hand. Touched by his devotion Cupid brings Euridice back to life and she immediately starts nagging him to finish mowing the lawn. What oh what shall I do without Euridice? What oh what shall any of us do?

Well, they live happily every after, have five kids and Orfeo gets a job playing in the house band at Euridice's father's catering hall. They are Greek, after all.

And we can only speculate as to how Orfeo's life would have turned out if he had passed on Cupid's "descend into Hell" offer and just looked around for a younger woman. After a respectable mourning period, of course.

But this is pure fiction. For the happily married among us, thankfully, Orfeo's tragedy is a prospect that few of us (gentlemen) will have to confront. All you have to do is glance at the obituary page or take a walk past your local assisted living center to recognize that we're not going to outlive our wives. It brings back memories of the old Alan King routine, "Survived by his wife." In fact, I'm sure that if we followed the Orpheus legend to its conclusion we'd find Euridice sitting in a beach chair in Boca Raton cashing Orfeo's pension checks from the Amalgamated Greek Lyre Players Union.

Face it, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So when you're tempted to blurt out, "Why can't you do what I tell for once?", understand that this is a male/female dynamic that's been going on since there have been males and females. Just swallow those words before they jump out and get you into trouble because the odds that she'll do what you say are roughly equivalent to the chances that Alex Rodriguez will hit a bases-loaded homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series while still wearing a Yankee uniform.

It ain't happenin'.

Next week: Wotan, the King of the Gods, chides his teenage daughter Brunnhilde for her disobediance. "You're grounded, young lady!", he shouts. Then he places her on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire for all eternity. Would that it were...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I'm, Like Ya Know, Available

Caroline Kennedy is breaking hearts again.

Forced by personal reasons to inform Governor David Paterson that she is unable to serve her state and her country in the Senate, Princess Caroline will now retreat to her Eastside townhouse and suffer in private.

Unlike that other paragon of the New York City conspicuous-charity scene, Bernard Madoff, Ms. Kennedy will not be required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

Her voluntary confinement, however, will be no less unplatable or reflective than that of Bunko Bernie, 21st Century Ponzi.

Perhaps, however, now is the time for the rest of us to reflect on how shabbily Her Grace was treated. How dare we question her motives, her qualifications, her resolve, her... like, ya know... experientials, and most of all her... like, ya know... wantingness for the job.

Poor dear. I suppose that she can go back to writing books, but I'm told that a member of the vast-right-wing conspiracy hid her box of Crayolas.

Shame on us.

But enough about the Lady from Hyannis.

Let's get down to business.

You're in a bind, Governor. The recent high-jinx in Illinois make it nearly impossible for you to sell this position at anywhere near what it's worth. Appointing another high-profile Democrat risks roiling the wrath of the House of Kennedy, especially that despicable ex-cousin in law. For the same reason, likely candidates are hiding under the couch in fear.

So Governor, since there's so little time and so few potential takers...

I'm available.

Here are the reasons why I am the perfect choice.

I have no relevant experience.

I have no appropriate training or education.

My interpersonal and communication skills are, to be blunt, crude and a little creepy.

Since I'm likely to be impeached or indicted before the next election you'll soon be able to sell the seat at the current market price. By next year that Blay-Go-Jevich stuff will have been long forgotten.

And lastly, my father is a very jolly, very likable fellow.

Oh, and did I mention... after paying my New York State tax bill I really, really, really need the money.

So call now. This offer won't last forever.

Yours truly,

Rufus T. Firefly
Soon-to-be-Former President
Democratic Republic of Freedonia

Oh yeah... Thanks JetBlue

Balancing the demands of shameless and brutal commerce with the impossible dreams of the preservationists, JetBlue has restored a measure of sanity into this cruel and sterile world. JetBlue resisted the temptation to raze Eero Saarinen's iconic Terminal 5 to make way for their new JFK complex. Just as significant, they also pushed back attempts to preserve the site as an obsolete museum piece.

The new JetBlue JFK terminal complex places Saarinen's masterpiece at the center of a beautiful, functional and, environmentally-friendly facility.

Nearly 50 years ago, after the concrete was poured, Saarinen and his chief engineer stood underneath the structure as the scaffolding was being removed.

When the last support was dismantled the architect paused for a moment, turned to his colleague and said:

"If this whole thing came came crashing down on my head right now, I would die a happy man."

It didn't. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Vitruvius would be proud.

Bravo JetBlue.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monuments & Anti-Monuments: The Death of Artistic Vision

I was confronted by three strands of cultural connective tissue this week which portend the death of artistic expression. No, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment or government suppression. It has everything to do with the tearing down of greatness and the worship of mediocrity by the dominant cultural elite.

First, Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Second, the Zurich Opera's production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal.

And third, that gaping hole in the ground where New York's World Trade Center once stood.

Terminal 5 was and is an architectural wonder.

Designed by Eero Saarinen nearly 50 years ago it stands as a soaring monument to flight and mankind's unquenchable desire to reach for the heavens.

Unfortunately, Terminal 5 was also the site and the title of an ill-fated "Art Exhibit" in 2005.

Organized by the Generation Y nouveau dilettante Rachel K. Ward, Terminal 5 featured works of quackery that spoke directly to those to whom they speak directly--folks who would not know a work of art from a hole in the ground.

In fact, these imbeciles often worship holes in the ground as breakthrough works of art.

Case in point, Vanessa Beecroft whose naked narcissism is hailed far and wide by adoring acolytes who admire naked narcissism.

In addition to the Beecroft masterpiece, which was never shown, there was a square carpet made of padlocks, a red carpet leading nowhere, and a breathtaking message board with nothing on it.

Look out Michelangelo, the giants of 21st Century art have you in their sights.

Bottom Line: The opening night gala turned out to be a closing night disaster.


Because the scions of the New York art scene descended upon Kennedy Airport, got drunk, trashed the terminal, vomited on the floor and added their own personal artistic touches--in the form of spray painted graffiti--to Terminal 5's iconic white curved walls.

Then there's Parsifal. Now, I must confess that I am a theater throwback. When I buy a ticket and take my seat I willingly suspend my disbelief. Same thing at home when I pop the NetFlix DVD into the player. So if I'm watching a story that's supposed to take place in a forest in the Pyrenees I don't mind if the trees are made of papier mache and the rocks wobble a bit at the slightest touch.


Not today. No, now we're treated to theater pieces designed and produced by people who hate theater.

So the clearing in the forest becomes a minimalist classroom with abstract furniture.

The Grail Knights are now represented by a professor in dusty frock coat and his slobbering pupils.

The wounded King is a pathetic wimp in a bloody white leisure suit being wheeled around on a stand-up hospital gurney.

Thankfully, as with Robert Wilson's putrid interpretation of Lohengrin, there's always the music. Close your eyes, drink in the monumental score and let your imagination run wild. It's better than watching the visual atrocity on the stage.

Which brings us to the hole in the ground in downtown New York.

As it stands, or more accurately as it doesn't stand, the World Trade Center site is an Al Qaeda victory monument. Every day that the site stands vacant is an expression to the world that Osama bin Laden has won the battle. Politicians debate. Interests groups demand a seat at the negotiating table. Construction workers and heavy equipment lay idle. And the overwhelming majority of Americans wonder...


There was great hope that the completion of the Calatrava Transit Hub would be the impetus to get the project moving.

Now, even this beautiful, functional and environmentally innovative project has hit a logjam.

Superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, who has a reputation for being able to exceed an unlimited budget, has created a magnificent structure that actually pays homage to Saarinen and adds 21st century technological innovations that will make it the greenest facility of its kind in the world.

However, cost overruns along with the anti-monument thinking of small-minded bureaucrats have conspired to halt construction.

The excuse du jour is the cost, but modifications to the mechanics of the facility can bring the budget in line without changing the integrity of the design. It's much more likely that the design will be trashed in favor of a transit hub that looks less expensive and costs twice as much. This isn't a unique paradox. I cannot count the times that a client has told me to design an event that "doesn't look expensive."

On his home-building blog Tedd Benson recently invoked Vitruvius, the Roman architect.

A building, said Vitruvius, must be strong, it must be functional and it must be beautiful--firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Strong is easy. Functional is a bit more challenging. Beautiful? Artistic? Inspiring? These are qualities that are, today, all but impossible.

Today, the anti-monumentalist, anti-artistry movement represented by Ward, Beecroft, Wilson, et. al. worships the puny, the plain, the unimaginative.

In this day and age the Philistines no longer have to tear down the shrines.

They have simply enshrined mediocrity.

As was stated so clearly and so cynically by Ellsworth Monkton Toohey in The Fountainhead:

"A man more able than his brothers insults them by implication."

Heaven forbid that great thinkers, artists and builders insult those with small intellect, small imagination and small ambitions.

Is this the death of artistic expression in everyday life?

Maybe not, but it's definitely on life support.

Friday, January 16, 2009

If This is What They're Thinking About...

Thought you'd all get a kick out of this.

Just got a letter from the District Court of Nassau County, Criminal Term. Since most of you already know that I'm a hardened criminal, I'm not giving away any secrets.

I did it, and I'm glad!

Yes, I exceeded the 5MPH speed limit on my jetski in Freeport Creek last summer. After a desperate struggle I was finally subdued and served with five bogus summonses, all of which (except for the speeding) were immediately dismissed.

Rather than spend another full day sitting on the "Group W" bench with slumlords and drunk drivers, I capitulated and paid the fine.

Now, the criminal justice system here in NYS is checking up to make sure that I'm remaining on the straight and narrow.

The letter reminds me that I (the defendant) shall abide by the following conditions of conduct:

- Avoid injurious or vicious habits.

- Refrain from frequenting unlawful or disreputable places or consorting with disreputable persons.

- Work faithfully at a suitable employment or faithfully pursue a course of study or of vocational training that will train me for suitable employment.

There's more, but you get the idea. My personal favorites are the requirements to seek psychiatric treatment and make restitution of the fruits of my crime.

It's heart warming to know that the State of New York is using all their considerable resources to protect the citizens of the Empire State from dangerous marauders who would ride their jetskis at 10MPH in a 5MPH zone.

Now we can all sleep easy.

Perhaps our state's highest law enforcement official, Saint Cuomo the Younger, should coordinate an undercover operation at the new Waverunner attraction in the Nathan's gameroom.

Looks like a career criminal to me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prudence and the Pill

Everybody loves a rollicking British bedroom farce.

In the 1960s sexual taboos were called into question, popular culture was in a transitional stage, and David Niven and Deborah Kerr starred in a harmless bit of cinematic fluff entitled:

Prudence and the Pill.

In keeping with the cultural imperative of the decade, "The Pill" of the title was looked upon as a Magic Bullet that could shield man and woman, young and old, from every manner of irresponsible behavior. As in all farce comedies, things go awry, birth control pills and aspirins get switched and mother and daughter wind up pregnant. A laugh riot.

Today we have another version of Prudence and the Pill.

Prudence is the sense of responsibility and discipline demonstrated by the great majority of Americans who live within their means, work hard and pay their bills.

The pill, in this case, comes in the form of government bailouts for the idiots and incompetents that have spent the last four decades running their old-economy enterprises into the depths of Hell.

These dinosaurs have no logical or rationale basis for their continued existence beyond the "too-big-to-fail" argument.

But what would happen if we were to turn that "too-big-too-fail" excuse on its ear?

What if we were to determine that a money-losing enterprise was too big to continue on life support? Now there's an idea.

Keeping General Motors, AIG and CitiGroup alive prevents younger more innovative companies from jumping in and filling the void. Pouring money into moribund Detroit manufacturers, irresponsible banks and predatory mortgage companies rewards bad judgement and forces those of us that bought cars and houses we could afford, after saving enough for a down payment, to subsidize those who refused to defer gratification.

It's exasperating. Time after time, our government steps in to save the fools from themselves. The result is that every well-run enterprise in America is placed at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Worse, they are forced through penal taxation to fund their competitors' idiocy.

And it seems that this folly will never end.

Instead of our prudence being rewarded we're forced to swallow the biggest and bitterest pill our government has ever served up.

And how will future generations look upon this sorry period in American history?

Will this this episode resemble a British farce?

I think it's much more likely that the ending of this drama will be An American Tragedy.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Faces in the Crowd

We toyed with the idea of ringing in the New Year at Times Square, but that was a few days ago when the forecast called for mild temperatures and light winds.

As the days and hours ticked off and the forecast changed from mild to brutal, the notion of a quiet New Year's Eve at home became more and more appealing.

Besides, with the kids planning their own acivities, staying close to the phone and not trapped in a Bloomberg pen seemed more prudent.

Then, early yesterday L'il Angel developed a cough, sore throat and congestion so it was off to the doctor. No strep. That was good news and the doctor said that going out with her friends was not prohibited. I think he's as scared of her as I am. But when the time came, she said that she wanted to spend New Year's Eve with her family. What a crock. So Matt invited his friends over to our house and we all celebrated the coming of 2009 in front of the TV. First it was the Twilight Zone Marathon, then the celebration from Times Square.

Did I say celebration?

We've been to New Year's Eve at Times Square prior to the Bloomberg restructuring of the iconic celebration. It was quintessential New York--a raucous, spontaneous and chaotic affair. You could be a child again. No rules. Total anonymity. Anarchy... PRICELESS!

But now? You have to get to the venue by the appointed time.

You must stand in the designated place.

Once there, you cannot move about or wander past the barricades.

Participants in this atrocity are given party favors, told when to cheer and invited to sing along with Lionel Richie. I know it was Lionel Richie because they told me. After multiple plastic surgeries you have to take their word for it.

"Wave your blue balloons. Jump in place. Sing along."

It's not New Year's Eve, it's a Bar Mitzvah.

And worst of all, in this Brave New World the stars of the show aren't the anonymous revelers drawn to the Hub of the World from every nation on Earth.

No, our senses and sensibilities are assaulted by the giants of American culture... Carson Daly, Kellie Pickler... The Pussycat Dolls!

Spare me.

Happy New Year.

Now let's switch back to The Twilight Zone.