Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Memo from NYC

In the history of art -- music, literature, painting, sculpture, film, etc. -- blogging is a very new arrival. In fact, it's so new that many people might not think of it as Art at all. How much skill, you might wonder, does it take to sit down at a computer, pound out a few words on the key board, link to a few sites, upload a few pictures, and hit "Publish"? Not much, you might presume. However, making an interesting blog takes a certain amount of thought, talent, and attention, therefore blogging is more of an skilled "art" than you might think.

In this era of the Internet, art of all kinds is widely disseminated online. How artists get paid for work available at the click of a mouse is an endless, almost maddening point of contention between artists and consumers. This is not a subject that I will belabor here because it is, quite frankly, a hopeless and unsolvable bore. But I do want to make one point: companies expecting artists to give them free work is a goddamn outrage! 

Remember Wil Wheaton?

If you're a child of the 1980s, like moi, you certainly do. He was in the 1986 movie Stand By Me and then the late 1980s/early 1990s TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kind of a big deal back in the day. As a grown up, Mr. Wheaton continued to act but he also worked in tech. He also is a blogger and, apparently, he recently posted something on his blog that was so interesting that the Huffington Post asked if they could re-post it on their site. He asked, quite reasonably, how much they would pay him for it. Their answer? Nothing! Oh no, they told him, the compensation is that we give you a ... "platform" ... which will give you ... "exposure" ... so that somehow ... somewhere ... someone down the line will pay you for ... something ... But, in the meantime, a big wealthy company gets free content.

Mr Wheaton was livid. They wanted to post his work and not pay him for it. He was pissed -- and rightly so.

This happened to me very recently. I thought about blogging about it earlier but didn't because I assumed no one would care. But the fact that this happened to Wesley Crusher's doppelganger shows how over matched us humble artists are against the corporate behemoths that would exploit us like 19th century plantation owners.

This is my story.

Several months ago I got a message from Uber.

Yes, that Uber -- the corporate giant that wants to take over the taxi industry in every city around the world. They wanted me to blog about how great Uber was. I had never actually used Uber but, hey, if they wanted to pay me for a writing gig, I was willing to listen. Give me a free Uber coupon or something, give me some dough, and I'll write something. I'm happy to be a sellout -- for the right price. So I told them this (well, I left out the "sellout" part but said that I could write something) and asked how much money I would get.

Their answer? Oh, we can't pay you a dime but we'll link to your blog on our site and won't the "exposure" for you be great?

I didn't bother to answer Uber and deleted all their messages. Expletive them.

The noive.

Uber is currently valued at $51 billion dollars. The Huffington Post is valued at $1 billion. And yet, somehow, these BILLION DOLLAR companies can't afford to pay bloggers a few bucks to post their content? As De Niro exclaimed in Goodfellas: "What the matter with you? What's the f@#$@#@#ing matter with you?"

I get that we now live in a so-called "disruptive sharing" economy (whether we like it or not), but when big companies like the Huffington Post and Uber ask writers for free content, that ain't sharing -- that's theft. Plain and friggin' simple. Links that provide "exposure" on "platforms" is not compensation -- at most, it's a favor. Not compensation. Get the difference?

This blog is written by moi as a labor or love and its content is free. This is my choice. And what (very) little money that this blog generates goes directly into my pockets -- cause I created this blog and all its damn content. That's my business.  But if I write something for a big for-profit company like Uber that exists to enhance their business and not mine, then that is not a labor of love -- that's just good old-fashioned capital-L Labor. And, for most of the last couple of centuries, people have expected to be paid for their Labor. Civil wars have been fought and revolutions started over just this very point of contention. But now these big tech and Internet companies think they're so special that they should be the exceptions to this rule that undergirds most of civilization.

Some might think that people like Wil Wheaton and yours truly are just big greedy complainers. But no, this is not greed. This is about respect and proper compensation for "services rendered." Capitalism is about the exchange of goods and services. Asking people to give you free stuff ain't capitalism. It's not an exchange. It's not fair compensation. It's just nasty, mean-spirited theft and exploitation. And nothing more.

If getting people to work for free is part of the "new economy", then count me out. Call me old-fashioned, call me a troglodyte, but I think people should be paid for their work. I think big wealthy companies exploiting people is wrong. I've never sat at the cool kids table so if my attitude on this subject is "uncool" then so be it. The uncool never bothered me anyway. 

As a person I onced worked with said, "I may be a whore, but I will thank you that I'm not a cheap one."

Or, in this case, a free one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

HEY, WHERE DA' PORN AT? The New Times Square

So Goes Times Square, so goes NYC ...

I've blogged countless times over the years about the transformation of NYC from a bustling, fun, dirty, dangerous city into a sanitized fun-house mirror of itself catering to tourists and rich foreigners. The cost of living in this city, while never cheap, is now astronomical, and the vestiges of old NYC - like coffee shops, rent controlled apartments, corner drug stores, and porn theaters - are fast disappearing. Because NYC is so vast, because it's a hodgepodge of over 300 neighborhoods (many of which are bigger than most towns and cities in the rest of the country), it's impossible to point to one spot in NYC as representative of greater whole changing dynamic. However, if you had to look for one example, then obviously Times Square, Crossroads of the World, is the place. It has changed so dramatically over the last quarter century, done a complete 180 in the city's and the public's imagination, going from "scary" to "boring", from "gross" to "respectable", that's it's almost impossible to comprehend. Times Square basically is NYC -- only more so.

This lengthy article from this week's New York magazine reviews the transformation of Times Square over the years, from a den of moral inequity to a den of economic inequality. Times Square, it reminds us, has always been the nerve center of the city, representative of it in so many ways. So when it changed, the rest of the city was destined to follow it.

Also, you might be interested to read (or read about) a new book called City on Fire about NYC in the last 1970s era, when the city was dangerous -- and wonderful.

Then, finally, read this article about the boom in 1970s New York nostalgia. Apparently, it's a "thing" now.

If you get a time machine and travel back 40-something years and tell New Yorkers what their city would become, most of them would ask to get into the time machine and travel back to the future with you. But for many of us, if we could go back to that old NYC, some of us, including yours truly, might choose to stay there ... for a while at least.

As Fran Leibowitz said: Times Square today is like a gay bar in the 1970s -- no one admits to going there.

Preserving the Past

Sure, lots has changed in NYC over the years but two things in this city seem immune to the ravages of time: Chinatown and the Dakota building. How have they survived while so much has been changed?

First, in Chinatown, the community, politicians, and business leaders have made a concerted effort to keep this classic neighborhood intact. It's a wonderful example of how vision, intelligence, political will, and good old fashioned hard work and fight huge forces -- like big money and the real estate industry -- to keep a great neighborhood alive.

Second, the Dakota -- this old fashioned building has stood the test of time. Why? Who can say? Perhaps it's because it's just such a gorgeous building that the idea of demolishing it or changing it substantially seems incomprehensible. Perhaps the residents have kept its integrity intact (unlike the Apthorp). Who knows? The only thing we do know is that it still stands -- and probably always will.

Did you see this?

A couple of weeks ago, DNAInfo published a map of NYC neighborhoods -- the borders of which were drawn by their readers. 

There are several hundred neighborhoods around the five boroughs, all leading and bleeding into one another. Where the boundaries of one neighborhood end and the others begin has been -- and probably always will be -- a matter of debate. 

And what this map proves is that, while we may all agree that we live in NYC, exactly where in NYC is open for discussion. 

You know, us New Yorkers, we love to argue, even about where in the city we live!


Apologies for the long absence. Since I last blogged, Mr NYC has reproduced yet again -- my second Little Miss NYC was born two weeks ago and, as you might imagine, that took precedence to blogging. However, I'm still sentient and will try to blog as much as possible. Till then!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Mighty New York Times -- and Its Future

If you watch the TV show Game of Thrones (or have even read the books its based on) then you know all about Lord Tywin Lannister. He's the richest man in the "Seven Kingdoms", has served as "Hand" to two insane kings (one of them his own grandson), has won many battles and crushed many rivals, and who also controls the most feared family in the fantastical realm of Westeros.

In season one of the show, King Robert Baratheon, supposedly the most powerful man in Westeros, constantly moans about how much in debt (both literally and otherwise) he is to Lord Tywin. Tywin helped make Robert king and Robert is married to Tywin's daughter, Cersei, creating what has become a miserable alliance between Houses Lannister and Baratheon. At one point, a drunk and resentful King Robert calls his menacing father-in-law "the mighty Tywin."

Tywin is the ultimate "power behind the thrown", someone who supposedly does not wield the real power in the land but who controls the kings that do. He is in fact more powerful than the kings he's supposed to serve. He can make kings -- and destroy them -- like Tywin did to Robert's predecessor. Power brokers like Tywin do not get any glory but are deeply, deeply feared by those who do. And, as Machiavelli said, "'tis better to be feared than loved."

In New York City & State, and in the country at large, we elect governments to represent and rule us. Democracy is supposedly about the people controlling those who have power over them, but, as we know, a political system awash with money means that those with money really control our government. There are also "bosses" who can throw the weight of a political party apparatus behind selected candidates -- thereby choosing who gets elected and who gets shafted. But there is one thing more powerful than money and bosses -- the media. The people who "buy ink by the barrel", who broadcast and broadband to hundred of millions of eyeballs and ears around the country, who are the ones who really control the leaders we supposedly elect to rule us. They can make and break reputations and thereby empower or destroy the careers of our rulers. And in this town and country, no media outlet wields more power and influence over our governments than The New York Times

Oh, the mighty New York Times. The "newspaper of record" is easily the most feared news outlet in NYC and one of the most feared in the country. It wields enormous power and influence. 

Just some examples: In 2003, it published story after story saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The result? It gave mainstream, respectable legitimacy to the Iraq War which, of course, turned out to be one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history. (The stories turned out to be bogus, the Times later acknowledged, but the damage was done). Another example: the Times' power can directly affect the fortunes of politicians, especially in NYC. It can endorse candidates for office and make (or unmake) political careers. I recall seeing a TV interview with Scott Stringer in 2005 when he was running for Manhattan Borough President. He had just gotten the Times endorsement for his run that year and he looked like a guy who had just lost his virginity to a supermodel while being spoon-fed Beluga caviar from a crystal goblet. He won the borough presidency that year, he is now the Comptroller of NYC, and he very well may become mayor one day. Such is the power of the "mighty" New York Times.

So who controls the newspaper that controls NYC?

For over a century, the Times has been ruled by the Sulzberger family. Sons and grandsons of its founder, Adolph Ochs, have been running it for 119 years. The position of Executive Editor at the paper is the ultimate designation for the Power Behind the Throne of New York and American power. The current "mighty" Sulzberger is Executive Editor Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who is now in his 60s and is beginning to think about who might replace him when he retires. As this article points out, there are currently three leading candidates, all members of House Sulzberger, who might very well one day become the next Executive Editor. Currently, America is in the madness of a yet another protracted presidential election which will culminate in November 2016. However, something that will be less noticed by the populi but is no less in important is who will become the Times' next EE. Whoever that is will have tremendous power over our city and country for years to come -- as many mayors, governors, and presidents come and go.

Right now the Times is using its power and influence to unmake one potential president -- former US Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They have been writing creepy, oddly-sourced stories about how she "might" be a criminal, about her complex marriage to former president Bill Clinton, about any controversy, real or imagined, concerning her life and presidential campaign. Anyone reading the Times' nasty coverage of Hillary Clinton can only reasonably conclude that "the paper of record" wants to prevent a potential Hillary Clinton presidency and destroy her and her family's reputation. The paper tried and, uncharacteristically, failed to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency. When he was in office, in the 1990s, as this article points out, the paper issued story after story, editorial after editorial, slamming the Clintons and their administration. Of course, Bill Clinton wound up becoming an incredibly popular two-term president still much admired to this day. But the Times' tried to stop that and they are trying to prevent what might become yet another incredibly popular two-term Clinton presidency. Many quoted in this article believe, quite rightly, that the paper has had a twenty-year plus vendetta against the Clintons, that they are the Times' White Whale, that to destroy the Clintons will be the ultimate demonstration of the Times' power. Of course, those currently leading the paper protest, way to much, that this is not so. But anyone rational person knows that it is.

So as we look forward to a change in leadership both in America and at the "paper of record", the question is simply put: will The New York Times remain mighty or has it, like American power itself, started a slow, long decline? 

Monday, August 3, 2015

KIDS @ 20

Twenty years ago this summer a low-budget movie about teenagers hanging out in Manhattan hit theaters. The movie had no stars and was shot in a documentary, cinema verite style (basically it was a 1990s American version of an Italian neo-realist film). It also had an unassumingly simple title: KIDS.

But oh ... the kids in this flick were doing very un-kid like things. Oh my, they were hardly paragons of youthful innocence. They were doing very nasty and quite disturbing things, like having sexual intercourse, and consuming drugs, and getting into street fights, and even skateboarding in a very dangerous manner. It was an expose, a "shocking" look at young'uns in America (or at least NYC) gone wrong. It was, as one reviewer at the time put it, "a wake up call to the world."

Yes, right under our noses and on our streets and in our buildings, teenagers were behaving very badly.

The "plot" of this film concerns a teenager named Telly who likes having sex with virgin girls when he's not hanging out with his friend Casper whose main interests are drinking 40 ounces of malt liquor and sticking tampons up his nose. Together, they spend a day "cold chillin'" in NYC with various friends. Meanwhile, a girl named Jenny that Telly previously de-flowered discovers that she has HIV -- and that means Telly, her only sexual conquest, was the culprit. She spends her time during this day trying to find him but can she do so before the self-described "virgin surgeon" strikes again? Oh my indeed.

One thing that's interesting to see in this movie, and what makes it something of an historical document, is that cell phones/smart phones and social media are totally absent in it. They didn't exist yet. Heck, these kids don't even have beepers! (Remember them?). Remember, this movie came out in the mid-1990s so Jenny actually had to track down Telly in person to inform him of her (really their) plight. Doubtless, today, Jenny would call or text Telly (assuming she had his number or knew someone who did) or she'd just go on Facebook and flame "THAT TELLY MUTHAFUCKA GAVE ME AIDS!"

I remember when this movie came out in '95. It was the summer I went to college. The movie was very controversial and very much discussed in the press. And then it was pretty much forgotten about. After all, once the shock value wore off, people were just left with watching a rather gross, tedious movie. That said, the movie had its virtues. KIDS did not moralize. It didn't claim to have any answers about the youth crises in America. It was just a look at a bunch of teenagers living lives of boredom in despair in the richest most powerful nation in history ever to bestride the face of the earth. It reflected the mirror to nature, made us look at the world we had created. And it sucked.

However, now that the film is older than most of the actors who were in it, those of us who were teenagers back then seem to be remembering it. Here's one article that is a retrospective of KIDS, of what it meant to American society and popular culture at the time, and its legacy today. And here's another one about many of the locations in NYC that appear in the film (it was shot in 1994) and what they look like today.

One thing about this movie that really dates it: the teenagers in it are clearly lower-middle class kids, kids who aren't academic geniuses or great athletes, kids whose futures seem very bleak. Today, in post-Bloomberg NYC, there are barely any lower middle class people in Manhattan anymore. If this movie was being made today, these kids would probably be hanging out in some of the rougher parts of the outer boroughs. KIDS takes place in the era when the great bad old days in NYC were ending and the Comeback city was emerging. Take, for instance, Washington Square park. Back then, it was a run-down haven for young people and the disaffected to hang out, do drugs, and get into trouble (in this movie, a scene in Washington Square park turns into a violent melee). But today, the park is ... bucolic ... serene ... a friendly place for families and NYU students alike. Today, if a bunch of kids beat someone up there in broad daylight, they would be arrested and booked within seconds.

In many ways KIDS is ... old.

The crime is gone. The AIDS crises has largely receded. Teenagers are having less sex and pot use is virtually legal. The city has changed. Now being a non-having sex, book loving, computer using nerd is considered cool, even sexy. Being a druggie loser has lost its appeal for many young people. But in looking back at this movie and at the time and place and issues of the day it addresses, you have to wonder, won't kids always be kids?