Category: Culture

Take Five

Many months ago, I was passing though the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and saw that not only was there something called “Jazz at Lincoln Center” but that Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis were playing in one concert. Despite my eclectic taste in music I’ve never been much of a Jazz person, but even I’ve heard of and appreciate Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis as two of the living legends of Jazz. You’ve probably heard of Dave Brubeck’s most well-known work Take Five. I barely missed hearing Dave Brubeck a few years ago in Seattle and I jumped at the opportunity to hear him in NY.

Dave Brubeck first stepped to the microphone to make a small correction in the program. Instead of being 83 as listed, he was actually 87 and joked, “how time doesn’t fly.” Later he displayed some more of his humor describing how he wrote the song “London Sharps, London Flats” and dedicated it to his manager after a particularly difficult European tour:

You’ll notice how my right hand goes up the keyboard on the sharps and my left one goes down on the flats.
It sounds terrible.
On purpose.

Of course it didn’t sound that bad. Actually I hope I can play the piano that well when I’m 87.
Ramsey Lewis may not be as familiar, but is well known for jazz arrangements of other songs. Perhaps the most recognizable piece being a cover of Dobie Gray’sThe In Crowd,” but he also included a jazz cover of the Beatles’ In My Life.
While Dave Brubeck’s pieces played with chord structures and time signatures Ramsey Lewis’ music more more rhythmic incorporating jazz, blues, gospel, and even a calypso riff.
Anyway, with everything else that’s been going on this week, the timing (so to speak) couldn’t have been better.

A Farewell To Dean Hyman

YU’s Commentator reports that Revel dean Dr. Arthur Hyman will be stepping down from his administrative post, but will continue teaching courses in Jewish Philosophy. To some students, Dean Hyman gave the impression of a grandfatherly adviser, one of Yeshiva University’s many eccentric characters. This perception and the Commentator’s relatively light coverage1 neglect Dean Hyman’s contributions and tireless efforts to improve Revel’s academic reputation.

Like all good New Yorkers, I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday’s game. It was actually the first time in years I can remember watching the game with friends with the intent of actually enjoying the game – as opposed to “parties” where socialization or watching for the commercials1 takes precedent.
I’ll leave the actual football discussion to those more qualified, but I did notice three trends with how people relate to the game. The first trend is historical revisionism and occurs when the media completely rewrites the narrative depending on the outcome. Had Plaxico Buress not made the deciding catch, we would be talking about Wes Welker’s inspired performance, how Brady’s ankle was a non-story, and how Randy Moss made the difference in the game and achieved redemption. Many football games are decided on one play at the end of the game, and yet that microcosm of football will retroactively influence all which preceded it. This is of course most convenient for media writers who are expected to churn out “analysis” on a moment’s notice and likely have two versions of the game written up, and will be ready with either narrative regardless of the outcome.2
Given that sports media rarely have opportunity (or capacity) for insight, talking heads will often resort to glib clichés. One such example is the post-game assertion that the winning team “wanted it more.” This is nonsense for two reasons. First, in high-profile games such as the Superbowl, it is safe to assume that both teams desire victory. It’s the Superbowl after all! One caller to WFAN similarly opined before the Giants/Dallas playoff game that the winner would be “who wants it more.” The host correctly responded that it’s the playoffs! Everyone wants to win in the playoffs! Secondly, the assumption is that mere desire wins games, not the ability to execute plays.3 Did Plaxico Burress want to win more than Wes Welker? Tom Brady more than Eli Manning? Jason Tuck more than Teddy Bruschi? Tom Coughlin more than Bill Billicheck? Equating after-the-fact results with desire is disrespectful to the effort of both teams.
Finally, I noticed a gender-based clichés in how men and women approach the game. Naturally the men were more into the game, but were clearly focused on the seriousness of each play and how it would effect the outcome. By the end of the game we were joking that according to our conversations were at least seven “biggest plays of the game right here.” On the flip side, the hostess had a less-competitive approach to the game, saying more than a few times, “regardless of who wins, this is a really good game.” She gets credit for trying, the guys were having none of it, “no, it’s about who wins.”
Got any more of your own?

1. With few exceptions (the FedEx pigeon, the balloons, Carville/Frist, and the Terminator assaulting the irrationally irritating Fox Football Robot), this year’s commercials were particularly depressing This is not surprising considering that Superbowl commercials have collectively declined in quality for several years. This trend started several years ago when the ads became more tongue-in-cheek postmodern self-referential satires of the institution of “Superbowl commercials.” Think of the “we just wasted $1,000,000 on this ad” commercials or GoDaddy’s commercial which referenced the previous year’s commercial. Since advertisers went for snark and clever over funny there has been no going back to the glory days of talking frogs and Bud Bowl.
2. For an amusing example of such a hedge, see the Amazon page for 19-0: The Historic Championship Season of New England’s Unbeatable Patriots which includes the following Amazon marketing line, “Buy this book with New York Giants: 2008 Super Bowl Champions by Sports Publishing today!”
3. Another in a long list of football clichés.

30 Is The New 50

Since turning 30 last August I’ve been a little more aware of my age, making the occasional self-deprecating grizzled remarks about the old days. Age is especially noticeable in the increasingly youthful Washington Heights community where the shul is even running a single’s event specifically for people ages 22-29.
All this I can deal with, but then I get the following in the mail:
AARP Membership
On the plus side I guess this means I can cash out on social security earlier and join one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country.
Now get off my lawn.
*waves stick*

A Use For A Liberal Arts Education

There’s a running debate on the merits of a liberal arts education. Detractors generally claim that it’s useless in “the real world” and supporters generally counter that it “teaching you how to think” or provides some non-monetary worth. But there are times when being moderately well-read could have some financial benefit.1
Today’s NYPost reports that the Manhattan DA’s office is investigating fraud related to the demolition of the 9/11 damaged Deutsche Bank building. Thus far the demolition process has compounded tragedies from the worst of political bureaucracies to the fire which claimed the lives of two firefighters. WSJ’s Daniel Henninger covered the negligence in detail.
But aside from the general risks of government waste, there were some more obvious red flags. As the NYPost reports:

The construction site’s manager, Bovis Lend Lease Corp., which was contracted by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. to oversee the entire $150 million project, retained the John Galt Company to demolish the building and remove hazardous materials from it.
The LMDC, which purchased the land and the building for $90 million, was under pressure to get the demolition moving because the building was slated to be replaced with a new structure and remained a bitter eyesore next to Ground Zero.
“They were in a bind and wanted it done,” one of the sources said.
“They did not ask too many questions, and that may be why there was room for f- – -ing around.”
As it turned out, Galt was little more than a corporate entity utilizing officials from two other companies working on the site: Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Co., and Safeway Environmental Corp., which had its own questionable histories and little experience.[Emphasis added]

Readers of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged will immediately recognize the name “John Galt” as one of the stories main characters. But since “John Galt” is a normal enough name and not as well known literarilly it would be easier to pass off than “Dumbledore and Associates” or “Hamlet Incorporated.” But had anyone literate been paying attention, someone should have at least asked if it was a legitimate company. On the other hand, given the irony of The John Galt Company being instrumental in government waste and special interest pandering, it’s possible the founders were just being postmodern.2
In either case, the lesson here is that liberal arts can be rewarding – either in identifying fraud, or apparently, perpetuating it pretentiously.

1. Excluding quiz shows.
2. It’s possible they could have been referring to the Scottish novelist, but I find this reference more ironic.

Christmas In Brooklyn

Like most people, there are some experiences in life I usually try to avoid. Most of the time it’s part of an aversion to some sort of discomfort, usually phusical or psychological. Then there are those aversions which are completely irrational and get their own category:
I call one of them, “Brooklyn.”
I can’t really explain why I get so unnerved in Brooklyn. It could be the multi-million dollar mansions situated in anotherwise aesthetically depressed area, or the overwhelming particular Jewisness of the area one that can only be circularly defined as “Brooklyn.”
Still, all fears must be confronted at some point so yesterday I joined my mother and grandparents on a little errand running excursion to Coney and J. The thinking was that while the rest of New York would be shut down – I can’t remember crusing down the West Side Highway that quickly in midday – Brooklyn would be running along as usual. I didn’t break out into hives or start convulsing, but there were definately some notable Brooklyn highlights:

  • I was in Eichlers and overheard a father and mother (different families) with respective children recently engaged (not to each other) were comparing notes on wedding preperations (ketuvah, “backup tenaim,” etc). In the course of their conversation, the woman complimented the man’s tie. In the spirit of holiday, the man replied, “You like the tie? It’s yours. I can get these for $5.” and proceeded to take off his tie, puts it on the counter, and gives it to the dumbfounded woman.
  • Waiting for my mother and grandmother in one of the Brooklyn dress shops, I noticed that the background music was not only sung by female, but the song was “White Christmas.” I can excuse the vocalist because the only men who would enter the store would presumably already be beyond saving. But regarding the song choice, perhaps they consider it Jewish Music after all.
  • Someone behind the counter of a pizza shop called over a teenager and asked him if he was new in town. The teen said yes and asked how he knew. The man said it was because he noticed that every time the teen got up from a table someone else came and took it, adding with a smile, “you’ve got to be more careful around here – don’t be so trusting.”
  • And finally there was this priceless exchange at the same pizza store with an obviously appreciative customer:

    “God bless Christmas”
    “Yeah, only a Yid could pull this off.”

You know, I may need to take Brooklyn off the list.
Maybe just for Christmas anyway.

Discrediting Subprime “Victims”

We recently mocked big business for outsmarting themselves in the subprime crisis, but it seems that there’s plenty of criticism to go around. Take for example, this powerful New York Times article of the subprime crisis’ impact on communities. To be sure, people are living scared and are understandably nervous about losing their homes and even treading financial water. And we can even grant that lenders have and still do engage in predatory lending practices, including student loans.
But just as we must hold big businesses accountable for their unethical practices, we must also examine the motivations of the affected individuals involved as well. Specifically, while big businesses are motivated by profit, many “victims” sought to maximize consumption with minimum immediate and therefore minimum visible cost. For example, the article reports that one person facing foreclosure, “bought her Bronx home for $535,000 with no cash down.” For many people, myself included, $535,000 is a great deal of money. To “purchase” a house for that amount entirely on credit demonstrates not just a lack of financial acumen, but the immature mentality of expectation and entitlement i.e. that desires ought to be satisfied immediately.
Worse is that people aren’t even learning from their mistakes. The article continues:

In some cases they cannot even work up the money to furnish their homes. Few customers have visited Boston Road Furniture, despite a handwritten come-on taped to the window that promises anyone can ?Get Up to $3,000 Instantly No Job No Credit Check.?

The proprietor adds:

?We need a government loan,? he said. ?This country is falling apart. We need customers. We need some help. So many ?For Sale? signs in this neighborhood. People just have to leave their homes and run.? [emphasis added]

The communal mentality is firmly entrenched in credit as a normal way of operation. True credit and financial liquidity are an essential part of economic systems, but here we have the epitome of short term financial thinking. Immediate interests are always satisfied, while the inevitable costs are simply ignored and disregarded – out of sight, out of mind.
Big businesses did take a hit for their own corporate greed to the tune of several billion dollars, and deservedly so. But while there are no doubt actual victims of the subprime crisis, there are also affected individuals who are now facing the consequences of their own materialism.
I refer all others to SNL’a helpful advice.

Subprime Opportunities

In the world of competitive finance, there’s never a bad time to make money. Sure the subprime market has many feeling the pinch, but the real opportunists find ways to profit in any circumstance. For example, one strategy is short selling or in other words, betting on a loss. In a must read NYTimes article, Ben Stein examines Goldman Sach’s practices of knowingly creating and selling flawed financial investments while covering themselves in the process.
But it’s not just the Big Guys who are getting all the breaks. In my favorite story of the subprime fiasco, some people are fighting foreclosures with impressive Talmudic reasoning:

A Federal Court Judge rejected 14 foreclosure claims by Deutsche Bank, which was trying to collect on securitized sub-prime mortgage loans it acquired. The judge stated that the Bank did not really own the ?bad loans? because it acquired them after defaults had already occurred. He asked the bank to prove it held the mortgage at the time of the foreclosure notices or said he will dismiss its claims.

The snowballing effect of subprime defaults is the result of repackaging, revaluing, and reselling various debts to various investors. However, once the debt is securitized and resold it can be difficult to track down who owned what and when. As a result Deutsche Bank not only loses on the initial investment, but cannot even recoup the losses through the typical hedge of property foreclosure.
Almost makes you feel sorry for them.

JPMC’s Fred Thomson Town Hall

This campaign season JP Morgan Chase has been holding Town Halls featuring various presidential candidates. Apparently one of CEO Jamie Dimon’s mandates was that the company become more involved politically in terms financial support or interest. Thus far the company has not only supported multiple candidates, but has assigned senior people as liaisons to various campaigns. (One would assume such support dwindles once front runners are more established). Furthermore, by holding Town Halls, we give the impression that JP Morgan Chase does not only financially support candidates, but its employees are politically interested.
The implications should be obvious that a multi-billion dollar company is attempting to gain influence in politics, no doubt to advance its own financial benefit. In fact JP Morgan Chase has its own PAC responsible for among other things donations (PDF).1 On the candidate’s side, they get more money and exposure. From the employees perspective, we get to bask in the glory of a presidential hopeful and get away from our desks for a bit.
But as the emcee pointed out, the main problem with running these events is that the candidates have more important things to be doing – like trying to get elected. As the campaign continues, the only people who will be available will be the ones who have already lost or have nothing left for which to run. A few months ago, JPMC scored Hillary Clinton – and event which I was unable to attend. This brings us to today’s event featuring Senator Fred Thompson, which didn’t quite fill the 200 seat auditorium.
Unfortunately the entire program was roughly 30 minutes. Sen. Thompson spoke for about 15 minutes followed by 3 audience questions. Given the time constraints I cannot blame Sen. Thompson for not going too in depth on any particular issue. My quick impression was that he seemed subdued, down-to-earth, and very straightforward. He outlined the main principles of his platform which sounded typically Republican (free markets, free trade, strong military, lower corporate and personal taxes). Of particular interest was his policy on social security reform which would tie benefits to inflation as opposed to wages.
Given more time, I would have liked to hear his response to William Voegeli’s pragmatic assessment of Republican policies but considering the current polls that might not be an issue.
I will say that from a personality perspective, Sen. Thomson came across as a “straight-shooter.” He calmly presented what he feels are the most important concerns of the country and what he would do differently. Perhaps it was the lack of mainstream media and celebrity, but I found the tone refreshing.
There were some requests for other candidates including Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama, which I doubt would leave open seats. I’ll post if anything interesting come up in the future.

1. I A quick survey of the PDF shows n 2006, JP Morgan’s PAC made 820 donations nationally totaling $1,342,909.78. It seems that on a national level JPMC tries to hedge between Democrats and Republicans. Certain imbalances are due to JPMC reporting donations made by companies which were later taken over by JPMC. The largest individual beneficiary I saw was Ways and Means Chairmen Charles Rangel with a $10,000 donation.

National Brotherhood Week

Delivered with visual aids on the second day of Sukkot 5768 at B’nai Israel Congregation of Baltimore.1

One of the more popular interpretations of the Lulav bundle is that each of the four species represents a different type of Jew based on their possession of Torah or good deeds (Vayikra Rabba 30:12). Specifically:

  • The lulav has taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not possess good deeds.
  • The hadass has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who possess good deeds but do not study Torah.
  • The aravah has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both Torah and good deeds.
  • The etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and good deeds.

Homiletically, this midrash teaches a message of communal unity. The lulav bundle, also called an “aggudah” (B. Sukkah 33a), represents joining of religiously diverse Jews, presumably towards the service of God. Practically speaking, this message is largely ignored as evidenced by the widespread infighting amongst the divergent Jewish communities.

I suggest that this midrash is not to be taken in isolation. Rather, the homiletic symbolism of the lulav bundle may be understood in conjunction with the corresponding halakhot to provide not only a unique model, but instructions for maintaining a unified Jewish community.