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Archive for August, 2010

Here Comes Earl- Sort Of


As of mid-afternoon, Tuesday, 8/31/10, Hurricane Earl is a fairly ferocious Category 4 storm centered just northwest of Puerto Rico, with maximum sustained winds of 135 mph and moving WNW at 14 mph.

Storms like these are of particular interest when they come near the Northeast corridor, of course, since it’s the most densely populated area of the United States. Late afternoon, evening and overnight on Thursday, the western part of the hurricane may hit the North Carolina coast- folks on the Outer Banks are expecting to be evacuated in the next 48 hours.

The Maryland, Delaware and Jersey shores are next on the likely hit-list followed by a brush of Manhattan, a good swipe of Long Island and then by Friday night and into Saturday, a good chunk of what’s left of Earl may well go right over eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

East Coast storms are not that unusual. Hatteras gets hit about once every three years. Atlantic City, New Jersey about once every 13 years and Cape Cod gets smacked about once a decade. New York City itself is long overdue while Long Island has been battered quite a bit over the last quarter of a century.

I have personal remembrances of three hurricanes, two that hit and one that came close.
Hurricane Donna in 1960 was quite destructive and even though I was just 4 years old, I remember me and my family having to get the heck out of Lavallette beach in Jersey. I can still recall the daring glimpse we took of the ocean as the waves and the churning sea presaged Donna’s arrival. And I remember a massive oak tree that fell across the driveway of a family friend’s house in Orange, NJ.

The remnants of Agnes passed over the Washington area in 1971 and that was really something. I remember water about one foot below Chain bridge, the C&O canal being completely submerged and the downed trees littering the Potomac shoreline for what seemed like years.

Hurricane Felix ruined a perfectly wonderful Outer Banks vacation back in 1995. It was a big Cat-4 with 140 mph winds lurking a few hundred miles offshore and acting very undecided in terms of its direction. The surf was dramatic and they made us leave but not before I filed for CBS News Radio from the deck of the beach house, made a few hundred bucks and earned a comp day. There was a 7-hour traffic jam crawling out of the Outer Banks all the way to friggin’ Norfolk.

At one point the tie-ups were so bad, cars just stopped and people got out and compared their tales of misery. One guy I was talking to actually recognized my voice from the report he had just heard on the CBS hourly news on his car radio. What I had just filed a couple of hours before from the beach house deck. That was weird.

Felix changed his mind and kept on trucking north after we evacuated and never made landfall anywhere. But it did have the distinction of becoming extratropical, last seen tracking toward Norway before finally dissipating.

I have friends who used to love keeping track of hurricanes on their little maps with grids on them (reading this, Bill?), entering latitudes and longitudes as they kept personal track of these storms, waiting breathlessly for the latest update from the National Weather Service. One of our producers at NPR is a hurricane nut and one of those old grid maps is still hanging on the wall in the newsroom. I’m guessing they’ve become obsolete now and if so, that’s too bad. Hurricanes are an amazing manifestation of the power of nature and plotting their course seemed like a perfectly reasonable way of trying to understand the vagaries of life.

Then God invented the Weather Channel.

Dreams on Hold


Yikes. Stephen Strasburg likely needs reconstructive “Tommy John” surgery on his elbow and will be out from 12 to 18 months. Jordan Zimmerman, who started last night for the Nats after undergoing the very same thing is evidence that there is a 90% success rate for this procedure.

But it’s a long, tough road ahead for the Nat’s young phenom who finished the season with the highest strikeout to innings ratio of any pitcher in the major leagues. He’s flying out to the West coast to get a second opinion.

The human arm was not really built for the strains of major league pitching. Young pitchers are like thoroughbreds; capable of generating so much power, but ultimately extremely fragile. The Nationals have been extremely cautious with Strasburg, making sure he’s limited to 90 or so pitches per outing; putting him on the disabled list for a shoulder strain and pulling him promptly last week when he winced in pain after throwing a change-up.

If the reaction of my colleagues in the office is any indicator, this is a stunner. No, more than that- it’s heartbreaking. All the promise and potential…on hold…while the Nationals and the Washington area at large holds its collective breath for the next year.

Ouch.

Cash Hoarding is Killing the Economy

 

It’s a horrendous vicious cycle.  Major corporations, including banks, have the largest cash reserves on record waiting for an economic upturn to happen that will never occur if they don’t spend the money they’re hoarding to hire people and lend to homeowners and small businesses.

It is a self-defeating psychology.  Absent the political leadership that could potentially inspire business leaders to do what’s right, not only for the American people, but for the health of their own businesses- the cycle may wipe us out.

In the U.S., the efforts have been half-hearted.  On December 14, 2009, President Obama called the leaders of the American banking industry into the oval office for what was billed as a good old-fashioned visit to the woodshed.  I blogged about it here that day.  What became of it?  Absolutely nothing. 

All the right words were said.  The President lectured the banking leaders that it was their responsibility to give back to the American taxpayers  who bailed them out of the problems the banks themselves caused back when they were lending money like drunken sailors and creating phony and creaky investment instruments that brought the American economy to the brink of another great depression.  

The bankers left the oval office after having their tea and cookies and proceeded to continue not lending, to hoard cash, and to help build up those liquid reserves by nickel and diming their poor and increasingly jobless customers with invented fees and skyrocketing overdraft charges.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of banks in our current economic situation.  They lend money to small businesses who hire about 60% of the American work force…and they are not writing loans.   The housing market has now entered its second recession because homebuyers with good credit and sterling backgrounds are being turned down by banks.  So-called lending institutions have gone from predatory practices and inflating people’s financial assets and salaries to denying loans to families with solid credit scores and legitimate stability.

It’s not all banks.  Major non-financial corporations are stashing money under the mattress too.  They are not investing in new tools or products or hiring people.  And if you’ve checked out interest rates lately—they’re practically at zero.  Corporations are not exactly getting a good return on all the cash they’re hoarding these days.  It’s a stupid strategy.

The time to start lending and investing and hiring is NOW.  There is no greater bully pulpit in the world than the oval office and it’s high time the President exercised leadership and used some of that vaunted soaring oratory that got him elected in the first place to charm, cajole and otherwise inspire America’s business leaders into doing what’s right for their country, and in the end, what’s good for their own bottom lines.

500 Channels and Nothing to Watch

August 24, 2010 1 comment

 

Is Pay-TV going the way of the dinosaurs?  High unemployment, rising costs, poor service and increasing on-line viewer choices have officially begun to put a dent into the Pay-Television business.  For the 1st time ever, the numbers of subscribers to cable TV, satellite and telecom services are down.

It’s not all economic, but this lingering recession may have been the match that started the forest fire.  It’s not hard to figure out.  When you get home after HR has just handed you your walking papers and you sit down to do your new jobless budget- what’s one of the first things to go?  Cable.  Satellite.  Fios.  

But everybody manages a way to keep their internet access.  Hello Hulu. Hello Netflix.  Play Stations, Wii’s and X-Box’s put the shows and movies you want to watch on the big TV; the lap-top does the same and also serves as the portable alternative.  

I say it’s only partly economic because it isn’t just the ever-increasing monthly bills for Pay-TV services that rub people the wrong way.  Folks with dishes are fed up with losing their service every time it rains or the wind blows.  And the only time anyone actually wants to watch a commercial is when the Super Bowl’s on.  The old lament of 500 channels and nothing to watch is truer than ever; it is amazing the amount of drivel on cable/satellite/fios these days.

I would expect battles, particularly between cable companies and content-providers to escalate into full-blown wars.   Pay TV is not in a position to keep pricing customers into oblivion.  They are going to have to reduce the costs of their services to consumers if they’re to remain viable.  More and more they will have no choice but to stand up to TV and Cable networks and their increasingly exorbitant demands for increases in their percentage of cable subscriber fees.  As their game of chicken continues, inevitably, one or two or three networks just won’t be available on some cable systems anymore.

Somebody is going to have to figure out how to innovate their way out of this spiral, but I think it has definitely begun and you can mark the 2nd quarter of the year, 2010 as the moment Pay TV began its descent.   The full implications of it all are mind boggling. 

But if someday CNN, Fox and MSNBC disappear- somebody’s going to have to tell me about it because it will have been years since I watched that crap.

The Heritage of 60’s Music

August 22, 2010 2 comments

I stayed up way too late over the weekend- so late that I ran into one of those half-hour Time-Life infomercials- this one touting a multiple CD set of the best songs of the 60’s.  These are meant to appeal to one’s nostalgic urges.  It worked.

No, I didn’t buy the Time-Life CD set, but I did jot down some of the songs and promptly bought the ones I liked at the I-Tunes store and put them right on my I-Pod.  I am sure this would come as a disturbing development to the people at Time-Life- I can’t be alone in this.

Anyway, as a songwriter for many years (like my whole life), I have a special affinity for the well-written and constructed pop song.  Some of the songs I downloaded and what makes them interesting:

Ode to Billie Joe- Bobbie Gentry 

One of the greatest “story” songs ever written.  Ingenious, mysterious lyrics written by Ms. Gentry, whom I admit having had quite a crush on when I was 14.  She’s 66 years old now.  It’s already been 33 years since she dropped out of the business.  So what did Billy Joe McAllister and Bobbie throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?  It’s been analyzed to death for decades.  Was it a baby?  Was it flowers?  Here’s the beauty of song-writing.  It doesn’t matter.  As Bobbie Gentry said herself in an interview a quarter century ago, the meaning of the song has nothing to do with what the heck they threw off the bridge.  It’s all about the incredible indifference people have to human suffering.  It’s a gothic treatment of the emotionally constipated culture of the South in those days.  “Papa said to mama as he passed around the black- eyed peas…well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits please.”  By the way, her record company made her excise some 7 verses because the song was too long to be commercially viable.  No one’s ever seen them or heard them except for Bobbie Gentry.

Hot Rod Lincoln- Commander Cody

Coolest electric guitar lick ever, weaving its way through the fast-paced, narrated, hilariously rhyming tale of a highway racing incident in which a Lincoln beats the crap out of a Cadillac.  Along the way, the driver with no sense watches telephone poles passing like a picket fence, the driver sees spots, the lines on the road look just like dots.  And a truck is side-swiped.  The fun ends as “I look in the mirror and a red light’s blinking, the cops was after my Hot Rod Lincoln.  They arrested me and put me in jail and called my pappy to throw my bail and he said, son, you’re going to drive me to drinking if you don’t stop driving that Hot. Rod. Lincoln.”  Meantime, electric guitars simulate the sound of a car engine unwinding to maximum power and a fiddle replicates the sound of the police siren.  Clever, clever, clever.

Wichita Lineman- Glen Campbell 

Who would have thought to write a song about a guy who works for a power company complete with references to power-grid technology?  “I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road, searching in the sun for another overload.”  “I know I need a small vacation but it don’t look like rain. And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.”  Oh, and he hears his girl “singing through the wire.”  And ol’ Glen caps it off with one of the most romantic lines ever written. “And I need you more than want you.  And I want you for all time.”  A heavily reverbed electric guitar echoes the melody in vintage Campbell style (it’s featured in Galveston too).   I always found his tumultuous relationship with then 21-year old pop star, Tanya Tucker to be quite interesting.   Talk about an impressive body of work.  This former Los Angeles session musician and occasional Beach Boy fill-in, churned out over 70 albums over his 50-year career, selling 45 million records, appearing on the charts 75 times, 27 of them in the top 10.

This Guy’s in Love with You- Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

Schmaltzy, corny, syrupy and sentimental and composed by some of the greatest song-writers of all time- Burt Bacharach & Hal David.  The guys had 70 top-40 hits in the United States.   Another 52 top-40 hits in the United Kingdom.  They made an absolute killing writing songs for Dionne Warwick.  Walk on By.  I Say a Little Prayer.  I’ll never Fall in Love.   Bacharach also produced hits for Dusty Springfield and my girl, Bobbie Gentry.

I have always been fond and in awe of Herb Alpert.  The man founded A & M records, for Christ’s sake.  One of the great musicians and music entrepreneurs of our time.  He’s also one of the most generous.  His foundation has given away $13 million for music eduation and his name adorns the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.  A cooler cat has never existed.   I mean, really- look how cool he looks now?

Bus Stop- The Hollies

 I have heard this song covered a zillion times and no one, and I mean no one, ever properly recreates the incredible acoustic guitar licks that punctuate this cleverly written and cute song about romance blossoming beneath an umbrella at a bus stop.  The harmonies are classic.  God bless you, Graham Nash.

Graham was inducted in the Rock  n’ Roll Hall of Fame this year for his contributions to both the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  He’s had a good year.  He was also appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Now 68 years old, Graham was born as the Nazi’s were bombing the hell out of England.  For safety’s sake mother and son had to be evacuated to a safer town.  It’s in the 1st lines of Military Madness.  ‘In an upstairs room in Blackpool, by the side of a Northern sea, the Army had my father and my mother was having me.’

Harper Valley PTA- Jeannie C. Riley

A cultural classic about Southern hypocrisy.  Widowed wife, Mrs. Johnson wears mini-skirts and sleeps around and the PTA whips off a letter saying she’s not fit to raise her kid.  She shows up at the PTA meeting in her short skirt and skewers the entire town.  Bobby Taylor is sitting there and 7 times he’s asked her for a date.  And Mrs. Taylor seems to use a lot of ice whenever he’s away.  Mr. Banker is asked to explain why his secretary had to leave town.  And perhaps Widow Jones should be told to keep her window shades completely down.  Mr. Harper couldn’t be there because he stayed too long at Kelly’s bar again and if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath you’re sure to smell some gin.  It climaxes with what was then very hip terminology as Mrs. Johnson’s daughter remembers the day her mother “socked it to” the Harper Valley PTA.  

Boy, talk about a head filled with useless information.  “Sock it to me,” of course, was popularized on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  Richard Nixon appeared on the show once uttering the memorable phrase.  And the first winner of  “So You Want to be a Millionaire,” got the top prize by answering a question about Richard Nixon’s appearance on Laugh-In.  How do I know this?

Ok.  Enough nostalgia.  I’m going to go listen to some Drop Kick Murphy’s now.  Ah, nothing like Irish music with wailing electric guitars.

Politicians on Vacation

(Associated Press Photo)

Everybody needs a break but politicians always seem to get slammed for taking vacations when the country is in crisis.  The First Family is off to Martha’s Vineyard for 11 days.  Congress is in the midst of six weeks off.  Is one more excessive than the other?  Beats me but I do know I don’t have the wealth or vacation time for either.

The Presidential Vacation

Now the facts and some history. The 1st family begins its 6th vacation of the year today, heading up to Martha’s Vineyard for 11 days of summer downtime.  Some think this is a bit much, but for the President himself, his 5 vacations have totaled exactly 20 days.  (It’s only five vacations for the President because he didn’t do that fancy Spain trip the 1st Lady went on).   

George W. Bush averaged over 100 days off per year through his two terms.   Obama also tends to get interrupted on his vacations having had to pull away once for the Detroit underwear bomber and once again for the death of Senator Ted Kennedy.

Last year, there was a great uproar about the 1st family choosing to go to Martha’s Vineyard as it was seen as too upscale for the average American to relate to.  Ironically, Bill Clinton once commissioned a poll on where he should go on vacation.  And he ended up going to Martha’s Vineyard too.  I suppose 1st families could go to Six Flags and shop at Walmart if they really wanted to relate to “average” Americans but I do not foresee this happening anytime soon.

The Congressional Vacation 

And then there’s Congress.  One curious question about what is not happening this congressional break is crazy, out-of-control town hall meetings like those that spread like wildfire last Spring.   As a stumped colleague recently told me, “It’s not like people are any happier.”  

Here is a highly amusing, official explanation from the official website of the United States Senate on how these long summer Congressional recesses came to be.  It all started, apparently, because of a lack of air conditioning and the dawning recognition that August in Washington, D.C., just plain sucks:

 By tradition and by law, Congress recesses for the month of August. During the Senate’s early years, members attempted to adjourn in the spring, before the summer’s heat and oppressive humidity overwhelmed them and their small staff. When the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, senators were optimistic about its “modern” ventilation system, but they soon found the new system ineffective. Long sessions were plagued by hot and stormy weather. The 1920s brought  “manufactured weather”  to the Senate chamber, but even modern climate control could not cope with the hottest days, forcing 20th-century senators to escape the summer heat. In 1970, finally facing the reality of long sessions, Congress mandated a summer break as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act. Today, the August recess continues to be a regular feature of the Senate schedule–a chance for senators to spend time with family, meet with constituents in their home states, and catch up on summer reading

Not mentioned in the official explanation of what lawmakers do during recess- is raise money.  Other than a short real vacation getaway here and there, that’s what members of Congress always do during recess.  It has been well-documented that about 40% of a lawmaker’s time is spent raising funds for re-election.   Spending time with family, meeting with constituents and catching up on summer reading is not quite the whole story.

There’s also a good case to be made that while it may appear to be a bit of a disconnect that lawmakers vacation so much- we should probably all be grateful for the inactivity and the peace and quiet that comes with their long absences.  It’s just that much less damage that can be done to the nation.

The Benefits of Umbrellas


Actually, what I’m talking about is the disadvantage of not having an umbrella when you need one. I’m not a driveway-to-parking garage kind of person. I don’t have a car. I walk. And I somehow missed the forecast and left both of my umbrellas and a lovely rain coat…at work.

So I employed several strategies in the face of this morning’s steady rain.

♦ I tried to get it to stop raining. If I had known any rain dances, I would have done a reverse one, but regrettably, none of my Native-American friends have ever taught me any.

Then I had a brief, fruitless conversation with God. He and I have a complicated, occasionally humorous relationship, but I think he had other issues to deal with this morning, because he did absolutely nothing to even slow the pace of the rainfall, much less make it go away.

♦ I asked the concierge at the front desk of my apartment building if anyone had recently left an umbrella in the lost and found. “No, I’m sorry, Mr. Garcia- got nothing. We used to have complimentary umbrellas but nobody returned them.” The bastards, I thought to myself. Here, these selfish little yuppies take a perfectly good communal “complimentary umbrella” program and ruin the whole thing by stealing umbrellas. I’m sure they didn’t think of it as stealing, more like extended borrowing, but nonetheless, their actions over the years had now compounded my predicament.

♦ I tried to make an umbrella magically appear out of nowhere by returning to my apartment and wishing it to be so. This is somewhat similar to my earlier conversation with God only I was trying to conjure up my own, unassisted miracle. It was not totally irrational- sometimes, you know, you have stuff you don’t even realize hanging around in assorted closets. Not this morning.

♦ I pouted for a short period of time. “This would not be happening to me if I was still in New York,” I said quietly to the cats. “They sell umbrellas everywhere in Manhattan. The corner hot dog stand guy sells ‘em, for crying out loud.” There was a drug store like 100 feet from my apartment on the Upper West side; here in DC- forget it, it’s like a half a mile.

♦ I sucked it up, went out onto the street and as I am getting soaked, I’m thinking to myself, “This really isn’t so bad, it’s just a light rain. I’ve seen monsoons. This is nothing like a monsoon.” I duck under an awning at a closed Chinatown restaurant, see my reflection in a window and realize, no, I am really, really wet; my suit is wet and my hair is wet and I look like some kind of rat that snuck off some Liberian container ship at the Port of Baltimore.

♦ Suddenly my cell-phone rings. It’s the concierge. “Mr. Garcia, are you still near the building?” “Ha!” I’m thinking to myself- an umbrella has turned up! No. It just occurred to her that I could have asked her to call me a cab. Yeah, woulda, coulda, shoulda. “Thanks, but I’m too far down the road, buh bye.”

♦ I look enviously at every one else on the street with an umbrella. How could these people all be so well prepared? I start criticizing them in my head. “You know what? They’re all anal retentive. Keeping their little umbrellas stashed neatly by their front doors, probably in actual umbrella stands, next to their friggin’ galoshes.” This feeling is not unlike the time you forgot your #2 pencil and your school books in the 2nd grade and everyone else is prepared and you aren’t.

♦ I ran. This made progress quicker and I was surprised that my usually right bum knee was responding pretty well as I dashed across Massachusetts avenue. Home stretch- just a half a block to go. Puddles be damned! I’m soaked but I see the goal- I’m there! Immediate visit to the men’s room to try to make myself presentable.

♦ It was kind of an emotional reunion as I finally unlocked my office door and turned on the light. There were all my little friends. Primary black Umbrella #1. Principle Back-up, blue Umbrella #2. London Fog raincoat hanging on the back of the door. “Hi, umbrellas! Hi, raincoat…man, I missed you guys!”

Lesson learned. I will never be without an umbrella, a raincoat, or a #2 pencil, ever again. Ever.