Ben Gazzara 1930-2012: Killing of a Chinese Bookie

While walking in midtown last week my partner and I started talking about my addiction to art and independent film. “Like Cassavetes?” he remarked. Well, sort of, I mean I know I’m supposed to honor John Cassavetes as the godfather of independent film in America, but I have tended to put him in the box he built for himself with his acting roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. Last night I rented his 1976 film, Killing of a Chinese Bookie and settled down to watch his one and only gangster movie, one destined to live on in the Criterion Collection.

When I was finished I ran the star’s name through Wikipedia — Ben Gazzara — one of those iconic character actors of the 60s and 70s that I thought I knew so well but ultimately didn’t until I watched Bookie.

I was also surprised and sad to learn Gazzara died last month, February 2012.

from the Criterion Collection

I’m not one to judge if Gazzara’s crowning achievement was Killing of a Chinese Bookie, nor am I familiar enough with Cassavetes to declare it his masterpiece. But the film came relatively late in their careers (Cassavetes died in the 80s at 59 from cirrhosis of the liver) and was a commercial flop thanks to the beating it took at the hands of the critics.

Forty years later and I was riveted. It is the simple story of a preening strip club owner, Cosmo Vitelli,  who finally gets out of debt, pays off the shylocks, then celebrates with his trio of loyal strippers by blowing $23,000 at a mob owned gambling club only to slide back into the hell of indebtedness. The gangsters (beautifully and quirkily played long before Scorcese borrowed them for Good Fellas and Casino and Jim Jarmusch in Ghost Dog) give Gazzara an option to erase his debt. Kill a Chinese bookie in Chinatown.

Cassavetes was not one for action scenes and bang-bang sequences, but he nails it during the assassination of the bookie and the resulting mess as the original gangsters try to rub out Vitelli. The art of the film is inside of the Crazy Horse West club, a Fellinesque (the most cliche adjective in film writing) setting of grotesque nudity and humor delivered by the awesome Mister Sophistication, a louche, sad, emcee that some critics say is Cassavetes himself, in all his artistic despair. Remember, Cassavetes acted in B-movies to make the money to make his art films: shooting them over several years when he could afford to, casting his friends and wife (Gena Rowlands) with no promise of payment, and paying for them out of his own pocket rather than take on an investor who might demand changes.

John Cassavetes from Wikipedia

Phillip Lopate wrote a great appreciation of the movie in the Criterion Collection’s online film blog, Current.

 

On Spring

As I shiver this March morning, I think back to America’s favorite weather sage, Mark Twain, and an obscure quote of his which is overshadowed by his more famous weather utterance: “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait five minutes.”

(Twain never said “the coldest summer I ever spent was in San Francisco.”)

In a speech to the New England Society’s Seventy-First annual dinner (in New York City which is not in New England), Twain said:

“The people of New England are by nature patient and forbearing, but there are some things which they will not stand. Every year they kill a lot of poets for writing about “Beautiful Spring.””

So warned I will not wax poetic this season about baseball’s opening day (which was today, in Japan of all place, between the Mariner’s and the A’s), spring harbinger cliches like ospreys, herring, shad bushes nor Mustapha Kunt.

Handing over the keys to the Facebook

The news that some employers are asking job applicants to turn over their Facebook passwords as part of the “reference” check process is producing the predictable hair-on-fire reaction that the new InstaMobHysteria otherwise known as social media fueled non-news events (see Kony2012, Pink Slime Beef) has been doing the past few months. The Big Brother Is In Your Facebook meme is this week’s celebrated cause to  post on your Facebook walls and hand out likes and pluses and retweets to mark your solidarity with whatever zeitgeist there is to be solid with.

First off, what specific employers are asking for Facebook passwords? A cursory search with the Google reveals this “trend” was kicked off by the Maryland Department of Corrections asking a prospective prison guard; not Goldman Sachs, McDonalds or some other reviled institution. I can’t find any other examples, but I am assured by Google News that this a pernicious trend that various legislatures are quickly swinging into action to ban.

From AllThingsD .....

Having a family member who went through the security clearance process years ago, I’ve had some first hand experience (a visit from the Men in Black) with the level of detail a government security agency will go through to insure that the next hire doesn’t turn out to be a mole. Basically it comes down to this: if you want to go through the locked doors of the National Security Agency or be the next Jason Bourne, you’re going to get a proctological exam of everything from your medical records to your drunken tweets.

The current NetGenMillenials have been warned for a while that their public utterances are open books to prospective employers. I’d add the advice that if you apply for a gig that entails handing over your passwords … either declare “F$%k That Noise” in and turn over the desk before stomping off in righteous indignation, or, pre-seed your timeline with pious accounts of your good deeds and shine them on.

 

 

 

I Secretly Want to Punch Walking Texters In the Back of the Head

Ah, the perils of urban life. Every week this coastal clamhead drives 250 miles to Manhattan and takes up temporary residence as a not-too-sophisticated urban “eBusiness Advisor.” This means navigating the sidewalks around my office and apartment to find food, caffeine, meet friends, see movies, and make appointments with clients.  Each and every expedition leads to a clash with some heads-down-eyes-on-the-smartphone dork who thinks it’s cool to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to finish punching in “OMFG” with their thumbs. I am waiting for that special gruesome moment when someone gets blown out of their Sketchers by a crosstown bus as they blindly jaywalk across the street.

Casey Niestat offers this public service announcement to urban sidewalk texters.

Mosswood Solar Proposal

[Update: Cotuit’s town councilor, Jessica Rapp-Grassetti succeeded in killing this proposal]

In Cotuit news …..

The local weekly, the Barnstable Patriot, carried two letters-to-the-editor this week expressing citizen alarm over moves by the town and the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative to build a photovoltaic solar energy array on 11 acres of scrub pine forest behind the western edge of Cotuit’s Mosswood Cemetary.

The CVEC and the town’s energy department have been working on a number of projects on public land, proposing and installing solar panels on municipal buildings, behind schools, and adjacent to various properties such as the senior center and elsewhere. According to the CVEC — a regional consortium consisting of representatives from the Cape’s towns and counties — “In 2010 CVEC, with its project partner ConEdison Solutions in the role of Power Purchase Agreement provider, completed installations totaling approximately 750KW of photovoltaic power at 7 CVEC member sites across Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. This is enough clean, renewable electricity to power over 125 homes and offset .517 metric tons of CO².”

The Cotuit project came to the attention of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association at a recent meeting when the project was presented by the town’s energy coordinator. This raised the recent alarm and hence the letters to the editor, marking the first time I had been made aware of the project although it had been publicly advertised since September 2011.

The CVEC website yields some information, such as this description of the project:

There are no photographs or simulations of what the hardware will look like installed, but I assume it will consist of rows of black cells mounted off of the ground on some form of pedestal with a collection point then wired out to the general grid. Here’s an example of an installation:

The land lies out behind the Cotuit Kettleer’s ball park, accessible by the dirt road segment of Old Post Road that runs west from Putnam Ave. and northwest towards the water department’s Main Street water tower. It appears to abut the village’s well field that provides drinking water.

I can’t determine what the projected kilowatt output of the array would be, any technical or cost details, as the CVEC site is remarkably unfriendly to a layman seeking information.

According to the two letters, one by Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association Secretary Tom Burgess, the other by village resident Francis Parks, the objections to the project center around:

  • Surprise. The project was only shared with the civic association six months after requests for proposals were issued.
  • “Desecration”: Mosswood is a cemetery and there is concern that the project would be inappropriate given the solemn purpose of the property and possibility of future expansion.
  • Environmental: the village has a tradition of preserving open green-space, especially in that area, and Ms. Parks raises the issue of possible contamination of the village drinking water and impacts on wildlife.
The parcel is literally out-of-sight and hence out-of-mind. If the solar array was built today, a driver on Putnam Avenue wouldn’t see it. A walker on the dirt road behind the property might catch a glimpse through the buffer of trees. The only way to be aware of it would be to fly over it.
A look at the aerial photograph of the project captures the scope and remoteness of the location. (click for a full-sized view).
My personal politics favor renewable energy. I support the Nantucket Wind Farm proposal and would, if I had the cash and confidence in my old roof, install solar panels myself. Placing solar arrays on public property is a noble idea, but aesthetically can be an eyesore. A recent drive on Route 100 in Vermont through the Mad River Valley revealed a few private solar arrays installed behind dentist office’s and the like. They aren’t exactly objects of beauty. but aesthetics shouldn’t be issue for the Mosswood proposal given the backwoods location.Environmental disruption what it does to wildlife habitat, rainwater permeation, and contiguous green space would be on the top of my list of negatives.
The town needs to respect Mosswood more than it currently does. A large parking lot was recently installed out of the blue, and now two rows of cars and pickup trucks gleam through the trees along Putnam Ave.  I’m suspicious this as a harbinger the town’s department of public works regards Mosswood as its western “depot” and center of operations. I would not be surprised to one day see snowplows, mounds of sand, and heavy equipment begin to be parked there given the way things are proceeding.
The inadvertemt lack of respect and communication by the CVEC and town probably means this project will meet with opposition by the time it gets in front of the town council. I’m sure no ill-will was intended, nor was this planned on being a cloak-of-darkness project, but the lack of public relations and a lack of online details may damn this well-intentioned project.

 

 

Lit’ry Life: March 19

Some good stuff passed before my eyes in the last few days but there is never enough time to read it all.

Sanctuary

Starting with an obscure journal only available to members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society — Sanctuary — is the spring edition devoted in its entirety to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book credited with kicking off the eco-movement, banning DDT, and leading to the restoration of avian species such as the Osprey (which, come to think of it, must be ready to return to Cotuit Bay any day now).

Carson took on the chemical industry and government regulators with a bleak ringing of the alarm that pesticides and rampant pollution were trashing the environment. A resident of Duxbury on Massachusetts’ South Shore, her insights were local ones and led to massive reforms, and a lot of personal attacks.

 

Mass Audubon is a quintessential Massachusetts non-profit, founded in the early 20th century to stop the devastation of the tern population by the fashion industry which keyed in on the particularly stupid notion that sticking a bird’s wing in a ladie’s hat was a good thing. Sanctuary is not available online and is one of those member only things. I have been a long time member because Mass Audubon owns Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck in Cotuit, manages it as an Arctic Tern rookery, and have rangers who come around checking for membership cards if they find you lounging on the sand.

The Atlantic

The April issue is a strong mix of sweet and sour. On the sweet side is a piece by Blackhawk Down author Mark Bowden on the man who broke the banks of several Atlantic City casinos without resorting to card counting or other tricks. Don Johnson is a veteran gambling industry manager who took advantage of the economy’s effect on the Casino’s policy to discount a gambler’s losses from 10 percent to 20%. I was unaware that the heavy hitting gamblers, aka “whales” can negotiate a break on their losses or a stack of free chips to get them to the high roller tables. Johnson knew the casinos were greedy, wasn’t known as a particularly successful gambler and therefore wasn’t regarded as dangerous to the bottom line, and then just swooped in and played smart blackjack and took them down on the order of $10 million.

On the sour side: a lengthy cover profile of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke with the provocative teaser “Ben Bernanke saved the global economy. So why does everyone hate him?” Big macro economic policy pieces are rough going for me. I don’t have an appetite for the dismal science, but Roger Lowenstein is the master of making financial matters palatable and even exciting. The former WSJ writer’s biography of Warren Buffett remains one of my favorite business books. Anyway, if you want to get smart on the state of economy, Bernanke, and how he pisses off both sides of the aisle with the Fed monetary policy, this story is for you.

Finally, a look at Rahm Emanuel’s first year as Mayor of Chicago. I thought he brought a lot of intelligent f-bomb dropping testosterone to the Obama White House during the dark days of 2009 and this piece presents a hyper, hands on, technocrat in action in  the City That Works.

The New Yorker

I’ve only found the time to read John Seabrook’s story [behind the paywall, sorry] in the March 26 issue about hit making song writers and producers and how they churn out number one “smashes” with great precision for big name artists like Rihanna.  The process is fascinating, involves a Blackberry and a “box” running ProTools, and a strange process of mumbling out phrases to hooks and rhythms. Somehow, at the end of the conveyor belt, a song emerges.

End note: ever wonder why magazine dates are so far in the future? The dates aren’t for the readers as much as they are the day newsstand vendors are supposed to take their copies off the rack and replace them with the next edition. Hence I am reading a March 26 New Yorker on March 19. On March 26 the news vendors pull this issue and replace it. Now you know.

New York Times:

I like David Carr’s column this Monday morning on how reporting by people with an agenda used to be called propaganda. He tackles the Foxconn/Apple manufacturing abuse one-man-show fiasco at NPR perpetrated by monologist Mike Daisey who prevaricated and committed many calumnies in his quest for entertainment. Hey, the issue isn’t whether or not Chinese electronics factory workers are abused or work too much for too little so we can dote on our shiny Apple toys: it’s about Daisey fibbing and blowing it at the expense of good journalists like the Time’s Charles Duhigg who actually reported and sourced the same story, albeit without the drama that makes for good theater and podcasts. Carr deftly co-indicts the poor guy who made the Kony 2012  “documentary” and then folded under the attention and scrutiny to the point where he had to take off his clothes and dance naked in a sidewalk while committing felonious mopery.

 

Boating begins

I launched on a super low tide and before I could return to the boat after parking the trailer my son had the motor running without any issues. So off we bounced across the deserted harbor, spooking flocks of sea ducks before us, for a 5-minute eye watering spin through the inner harbor. Clams are in my future.

[flickrvideo]http://www.flickr.com/photos/churbuck/6847761842/[/flickrvideo]

Personal Analytics: Track Thy Self

I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.

One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.

In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time.  Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.

I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.

I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.

For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate.  The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.

The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.

To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.

Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.

The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.

A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.

Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being.  The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc..  One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.

Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.

One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.

My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.

 

Much ado about Goldman

I’m a little stunned by the coverage in the New York Times this morning (3.15) over the very public resignation by a Goldman Sach’s employee  in the Times’ Op-Ed section on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning I read Greg Smith’s eloquent public condemnation of the investment bank from beginning to end, raised my eyebrows at the severity of his anguished indictment of the culture of greed and burned clients that we all knew and suspected was the true agenda of the “too big to fail” world of Wall Steet, and marveled that a 33-year old over-achiever within one of the top white-shoe institutions would take to the public soapbox to share his resignation. I suppose the new tradition of Wikileaked internal memos and insta-meme driven news (see the Olive Garden Restaurant Review lady from the same day) means we’ll see more and more of these flash-in-the-pan news events, but it’s the day-after ouruboros reaction of the Times to its own Op-Ed that stuns me and which needs to be seen in print to understand the importance the Times’ editors thinks this Dear John letter deserves.

The main story leads the front page. Bigger than anything else. Top priority. That’s pretty indicative right there of the impact that Greg Smith’s screed had on the news cycle yesterday. Is it really that big of a deal? I guess if you’re a New Yorker riding the PATH or MetroNorth train into the city this morning to your job at some financial institution in the financial capital of the world, then yes, this is a big deal. If you’re in Omaha it is a scathing confirmation that the weasels of Wall Street indeed got away with murder, and have yet to be brought to account, and continue to slash and burn in the interest of their annual eight figure bonuses.

The Times pulled out the stops yesterday to own this real-life Jerry Maguire.

Along with the front page mainbar the jump inside also has a sidebar on pejorative nicknames that various industries have for their customers. Smith revealed Goldman calls its clients “muppets”. The Times teaches us that flight attendants call passengers “Clampets” or “Platinum Trash”, etc..  And there is a sidebar on the parodies that popped up yesterday, my favorite being Darth Vader’s resignation letter and great proof that meme-driven news is no longer working on a “nine-day wonder” cycle as it did forty years ago, but is now on a nine-hour wonder cycle. All in all I’d guess the Times devoted a couple thousand words to their own news event.

Yes, I’m second guessing the placement decision of the Times’ editorial board to elevate this mid-level investment banker’s “I Quit” letter above all other news. It’s great drama, it keeps the financial crisis in the spotlight, and it shows the Times isn’t about to relinquish ownership of what is arguably the most interesting and discussed news event of this week. Heck, I’m writing about it along with countless other blog bloviators, right?

What is particularly interesting by contrast is how the Wall Street Journal treated the Smith resignation. Yes, it is on the front page of today’s paper, but buried in the “What’s New” digest, jumping inside to lead the C section.