Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who Needs Terrorists When We Have the Infrastructure?

The gigantic steam-pipe explosion in midtown Manhattan last week, which cost one woman her life from a heart attack and burned two people caught in the column of steam, makes you ponder the age-old question: Who needs terrorists when we have Con Ed?

Limiting it to Con Ed, however, is understating the problem. The real question is: Who needs terrorists when we have the infrastructure?

In New York City, 83-year-old pipes are a snooze. In the early 1990s--if I recall correctly--a construction dig in lower Manhattan unearthed a hollow log that had been in service as a water main since, possibly, the time of the Dutch.1 Hollow logs were still being laid down as water mains well into the 19th century.2 Who knows how many are still in use?

The threats are above-ground too. All over town there are electrified street plates and give-way sidewalk grates. A lethal street plate electrocuted Jodi Lane in 2004; a 30-foot fall killed a homeless man who was sleeping on a rickety grate in 1990. 3

One could argue that New York's historical culture of corruption and/or sloth is part of the city's infrastructure. That, too, has cost lives. Take elevator inspectors, who long extorted money from building owners. In 1995, a man was decapitated by a spasmodic welfare-building elevator; in 1996, then-mayor Giuliani suspended 42 inspectors, leaving only 16 to eyeball 54,000 elevators. Indictments followed, but apparently not much else, including inspections. By 1999, elevator accidents had increased nearly 69%.4

The problem isn't confined to the nation's oldest cities. Could anyone forget the August 2003 blackout that left swaths of the northeast and Canada, from Baltimore to Detroit and across Ontario, powerless for hours?5 Wikipedia notes--one suspects dryly--that "the Milky Way and orbiting artificial satellites became visible to the naked eye in metropolitan areas where they cannot ordinarily be seen".

Since January, according to the see-some, know-all New York Times,6 a third of the nation's refineries have gone off-line for breakdowns, fires, leaks, and power outages (as if an oil refinery couldn't have a backup generator). "When they shut down they are accused of gouging the system," whined Charles Drevna, a veep at the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "When they don’t, they are criticized for overrunning their facilities.”7 Awwww. How could mere profits compensate for such abuse from the public?

Fact is, all these failures were human. For instance, the Con Ed pipe that erupted was inspected several times before it gave way because of changes tp the incredibly complex tangle of pipes under the street. In short, somebody blew it. Here's the true litany of causes:

•The steam pipe: Inspection failure.
•The electrified street plate: Maintenance failure.
•The collapsing grate: Political failure (why wasn't he sleeping in a warm bed?) or laziness (whose job was it to check the grate?), depending on your politics.
•The lethal elevator: Corruption.
•The power grid: Lack of cooperation.
•The refinery shutdowns: Greed.

In every case, an observant insider could have, or should have, seen, pointed, and screamed until preventive changes were made. Neither the press nor the public have the access to check these things ahead of time: We need the info from people who know. We need more human information leaks to have fewer steam-pipe leaks.

Blowing the whistle, even anonymously, has to be the right and duty of all employees who know the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure.

We can't expect people to commit career hari-kiri on behalf of the public. I hereby propose that some private zillionaire set up a reward fund for citizen heroes who point out threats to the safety of the infrastructure. Yes, even anonymous citizen heroes. As I understand it, the reward-for-information setup in a criminal case is that when the tipster calls, he or she gets a unique number that serves as an ID when it's time for the reward payout. It could work for whistleblowers too.

Of course, you won't see a fund like that set up by the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. But you might just see it from a zillionaire with a conscience.

1I've queried the New-York Historical Society on this point but have yet to hear back.
2Page 28, Phase 1a Archaelogical Assessment of Washington Square Park, August 2005. Prepared for the New York City Parks and Recreation Department through Thomas Baisley Associates by Joan H. Geismar.
3Jodi Lane, 30, died in 2004 when she stepped on an electrified street plate, was shocked, fell down, and was slowly electrocuted as she lay unable to move. At least one person, a policewoman, was herself shocked (but not killed) trying to rescue her. "Thousands" of street plates posed the same hazard. See; "Homeless Man Asleep on a Grate Dies as It Falls 30 Feet Into a Pit," New York Times, August 30, 1990.
4" Elevator Inspectors Indicted in Bribery," New York Times, April 25, 1997; "Elevator Kills City Worker In the Bronx," New York Times, January 7, 1995; "Council Faults Buildings Department Over Elevator Inspections," New York Times, May 18, 1999
5 Easily confirmed by a web search (and not just Wikipedia).
6Which is, nonetheless, the source of most of the info in this post.
7New York Times, 7/21/07 editorial

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why your dog cares how you look

Among the best arguments for city living since Deliverance is the delight that it brings small dogs. This is brought home to me three times a day when my endearing big-eyed spaniel begins his exercises (scratch my knee, bark, repeat 20 times). Like all other dogs, he wants to socialize.

A Cavalier King Charles is a designer dog. We chose the breed for its loving temperament, but they're so incredibly cute that you want to dress them in ridiculous outfits that match the colors of your own clothes. We resist, but others in our neighborhood don't. (If you've never seen a Cavalier, think of Lady in Lady and the Tramp. The movie says she's a cocker spaniel, but she's really a Cavalier.)

The cuter the dog, the more it functions as a fashion accessory. One wonders exactly what the dog's friends think of such human eccentricities. Certainly they gossip. Ours is so keen on the news that he checks every corner, curb, sign post, and hydrant for messages and then leaves one of his own. Seeing other dogs in the flesh is even better.

Living in the suburbs as an only dog is a canine equivalent of meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. But of course few dogs--except for the praying dog at much sign of spiritual insight. Nosirree. Dogs aren't cut out for monastic life either. You can confirm this in any dog run.

Nor does doggie fashion hold much interest for them, seeing as they're more focused on smell than sight. However, dogs do have eyes. In their eyes, your role in life is to help them circulate in society.

So no matter what you and your dog are wearing, face it: You're leash candy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On Universal Health Care

Allow me to bless the earth with my opinion on universal health care. If you hear complaints about the U.S. health system now, just wait till America has a health system like Canada's or Britain's. There'd soon be a de facto two-tier system, in which the wealthy pay for insurance that provides them with better care than they'd get from National Health Service.

That stomps the true appeal of universal health care--its basic fairness.

I agree that competently provided health care is a right. A federal universal health care system is not, however, and I don't think it's even a good idea. Just look at the Medicare regulations. Or the tax code.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

When Moms Attack

One reason I'm terrified of children is the effect they have on formerly sane women.

A week ago, at the end of an 11-hour drive, I pulled up behind a silver SUV at the de-facto loading zone outside our apartment--next to the fire hydrant, where 20 feet of open curb lets two people get a carful of stuff upstairs. (One person has to stay with the car in case you have to move it for an emergency vehicle.)

Next to the SUV was a brown-haired woman in a taupe sheath dress, talking out loud and pacing in a tight little pattern that would have made me dizzy.

I waited in the car for my better half to come downstairs. The woman came down the sidewalk and started talking at me through the car window. I opened it and stared at her in a stupor. I thought, "This person seems to be talking to me. Why would this person be talking to me?" I wasn't taking in a whole lot, having been on the road so long. I did hear the words "Back up!"

I flashed back to the last time a wound-up person in an SUV had accosted me in this spot. A white Land Rover pulled up behind me during a rainstorm and started flashing its lights over and over. I thought, Okay, I'll be a good person. So I got out of my car, in the rain, and asked her, "What's wrong?"

She said, "I'm going to park there!"

I said, "You'll get a ticket!"

She said, "I'm going to park there!"

I got back in my car and thought a minute about whether people that rude ought to be indulged. I decided, Well, I'll be a good person. So I drove away.

Later, I decided I wasn't going to do that again. I mean, Really.

Now, I thought, I don't know what this lady is yelling about, but she has plenty of room to pull out of her spot. I didn't say anything.

Then the woman got back in her SUV, started it, took off backward, and slammed into my front bumper.

I sat there with my mouth open as she jumped out of the SUV, charged over to me, and started screaming about what a horrible person I was. "I asked you to back up! You blahblahblahblah!" she yelled, waving her arms.

Mind you, she'd just bashed my car. It made me mad. I said, "I'm not backing up."

With an intense scoffing tone, she said "What is, this, your New York way of being?"

I said, "I'm not backing up."

She said in a loud stage aside to someone I couldn't see, "I blahblahblah because this person is an asshole!" Then she came back over and yelled, "I asked you to back up and--"

I said, "I'm not backing up. Get used to it!"

She stormed off somewhere and came back with some man who stood about 15 feet away--apparently to watch for traffic police--and vanished again.

My husband came downstairs to unload the car. He said, "What an idiot! She's expecting you to back up into traffic?" He went back upstairs with some stuff.

The woman returned with a stroller, which she put in the back of her SUV. Then she stormed off again and came back carrying a child not quite two, curled sleepily over her shoulder with a pacifier in his mouth. She buckled him in and came back to scream at me again.

"Look what you did!" she yelled. "Look what you did!"

I drowned her out with, "I'm not big on self-righteous mothers! I'm not big on self-righteous mothers!"

She went away huffing, got in her SUV, and left. I still have no idea why she wanted me to back up.

My husband came downstairs again, and I finally got out of my car. The damage to the bumper wasn't any worse than the usual parking-garage ding.

I drove away thinking, I don't feel the least bit guilty about this. Better she should scream at me than her family, because I don't care. It was a wierd experience not to care another person's feelings. But here in the city, everyone's a stranger. There are few consequences to standing up to a bullying wacko.

Even if she's a mother.

Posted by FididdlyDaily at 10:57 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wall Street Sharks, and how to tell them


If you squeeze a shark's nose, it'll go into a trance.* In one documentary I saw,1 in which they demonstrated it on some sharks in a public aquarium, some knucklehead also tried it on a great white shark at sea, from the safety of a boat, with a shark on a hook. There it was, waving its nose above the water, and a guy leaned over the gunnel, reached, and squeezed. It really did seem to relax.

I like that idea. I'd like to use it on the sharks of Wall Street.

In the 19th century, you could get yourself challenged to a duel by pulling a man's nose. The deal was that a man (this only applied to men) presented himself as a gentleman in his outward appearance, and his outward appearance was typified by his profile, the most pronounced element of which was his nose. If you pulled his nose, you made fun of his claim that he was a gentleman. That in turn meant...well, gentlemen were respectable. They mattered. And in the days when being well-to-do implied virtue, you implied he was one of the great unwashed--or, in the South, akin to a slave.2

It's been a while since white-shoe firms dominated Wall Street. They're still there, of course, and people from wealthy backgrounds still dominate financial circles. But smarts and scrappiness outdo Old Money any day, and no one expects gravitas in a financier, let alone a sense of the public weal.

Today, the financial world is a game, exhilarating to its players, in which the score is in dollars, in which the nimble player outsmarts everyone else and darts through legal loopholes just as they close. The closer you skate to the edge of the ethical line, the more clever you are, assuming you don't lose too many lawsuits. The last trace of gentility in finance is that an actual indictment means Game Over.

In the 1870s, at least one financier lost most of a fortune to save the stock market from two Wall Street sharks who tried to corner the gold market.3 Can you picture that happening now? Would Bill Gates shore up the U.S. Treasury?4 Of course not.

Nowadays, if you are not playing the financial game, if you aren't nimble and street smart and ready to bite, you're just prey.

So next time I'm in a big-money negotiation, maybe I'll reach out and squeeze the other guy's nose. If he just looks at me funny, I'll walk away. If he slugs me, I'll close the deal.

*CORRECTION: The trance behavior occurs when you turn the shark tummy-side up and is called "tonic immobility." It has been tested on various shark species and their biological near cousins and works on almost all of them.

I owe this information to a diligent librarian at the Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Marine Biological Laboratory, who contacted a shark expert on my behalf and also found an article from a 1994 Zoo Biology: "Tonic immobility in 12 elasmobranchs: Use as an aid in captive husbandry," by A.D. Henningsen of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. According to the abstract, the aquarium uses the technique for critter maintenance--measuring the animals, drawing blood, and so forth.

As for that guy squeezing a shark's nose over the gunnel of his boat--I wonder what he actually wasdoing?

1[PLEASE SEE CORRECTION ABOVE.] I saw this in a documentary this past winter. I've already spent hours trying to track down a transcript. So far, no luck.
2According to Kenneth S. Greenberg's 1997 book Honor & Slavery, on the South.
3The Gold Ring by Kenneth D. Ackerman, 1988.
4Yes, Friends of Bill G., I know Bill Gates isn't a financier. But he sure is a shark.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Why you don't see fat people at Macy's Stamford

If you ask for plus sizes on the women’s clothing floor at Macy's in Stamford, Connecticut, you’ll be directed to the escalator. You’ll travel down past the second floor where Macy’s keeps the men's clothing department and the jewelry, and then down again to the half-floor on the basement level, which has no pedestrian link to the rest of the mall.

The down escalator ends at the furniture department, where you take a U-turn and pass luggage, cookware and tableware, and, bearing right, arrive at a tiny women’s collection tucked into the most remote corner of the store, across from the much larger linens department.

Or as they say up in management: “Presto! The fat people have disappeared!”

Now, I know that cross-marketing is a big deal in store layout, but one wonders. Plus size women are drawn to cookware; that’s food, right? The appeal of tableware is just as obvious. But does Macy’s think plus-size women flatten enough chairs to merit a trip past the furniture department?

Or, if fat women don’t find the clothes they want or need—a likelihood in a department that doesn’t include suits, coats, or lingerie--does Macy’s expect them to step over to Linens and buy togas?

It’s clear that plus-sized women are not welcome at Macy’s Stamford, but it is worse still when the plus sizes are put on the only floor that has no other apparel of any kind. It implies that plus-size women are not human beings at all.

Some people actually believe that size 8 is normal, size 12 is embarrassing, and fat people cannot be considered entirely human. Honestly, though, do those people have to make the decisions about department store layouts?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Ask meets Won't Tell

You can see the man coming from half a block away. He's tall, thin, and has an unbalanced walk. He lives nearby, in a home for the developmentally disabled.

When he gets closer you see his crooked beige-rimmed glasses, which are too narrow for his face and make him look as if he's peering at a bug. But no, he's looking at you. He's always looking at you, because he wants to ask you a question.

He raises his hand up next to his ear, palm forward, and says "Hi!"

You say Hi back. Then he says "What's your name?" You say your first name. He doesn't say his. Then he says "How old are you?"

At this point I say "What?," pretend I'm in a hurry, and take off down the sidewalk. This always makes me feel bad, but what am I going to tell him? The truth?

So one day I smiled and said, "You know, you don't ask a lady her age because she might not want to tell you."

He looked confused. "What?"

I repeated it.

He thought this over and said, "You're oversensitive!"

The man's got a vocabulary, and he's not afraid to use it. The question is: What'll he ask next time?

Monday, July 2, 2007

And furthermore....

London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, says "polls" show approval ratings for congestion pricing running 2 to 1 in favor.*

But London beefed up its bus services big time before the pricing started. New York City’s “fact sheet” says that the extra money the city rakes in “would be used” to improve public transportation.

That means after the money is collected.

What's more, automobile-owning Londoners get a 90 percent discount on congestion pricing. For residents of Manhattan the mayor proposes no discount at all.

Get back to work, Mayor Bloomberg. Real-life projects take more than a big green flapping mouth.

*"Clear Up the Congestion-Pricing Gridlock," Ken Livingstone, New York Times, July 2, 2007.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

On Congestion Pricing

You can say a lot for congestion pricing. It’ll cut down on CO2 and haze and lung cancer. It’ll raise New York noses even higher. It’ll make the mayor look good in a green-conscious world.

Never mind that Manhattan drivers will have to pay $4 just to take a car from the parking garage to drive Gram to the family dinner, and $8 to get out of town. Never mind that Queens drivers already taking any toll-free bridge to save a buck will pay the full $8 extra. Never mind that the less-congested bridges (that is, the toll bridges) will be more crowded than before, thanks to that EZ-Pass discount in the mayor's plan.

Instead, think about what it’ll do to the subways. Already the 4, 5, and 6 lines are past capacity at rush hour. If you watch the L train in the morning, it'll remind you of those 1950s photos of teenagers cramming themselves into a phone booth to see how many would fit.

Remember, too, that the big argument for congestion pricing is that it will make New York air healthier to breathe. But compare New York's above-ground air with the stink of a subway platform, what with all the urine, rat hair, fermenting garbage, and contagious fellow riders all competing for oxygen in a fetid, underventilated underground. The police call it the Electric Sewer. Will you be any healthier--or just more stressed out--when all those cranky overcrowded people start snarling at each other? How about when you get mugged?

Los Angeles has the country's most polluted air. The American Lung Association ranks it #1 for smog and airborne particles. New York ranks tenth and 18th, respectively.

Mr. Bloomberg: LA needs you. Go do your good deeds there.


1 “Some Subways Found Packed Past Capacity,” New York Times, 6/26/07
2 Wikipedia; Life magazine.
3Reported on