A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, Workshop at UnionDocs, September 8-10

The folks at UnionDocs is offering a three-day intensive workshop on the essay film, called A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, between September 8 and 10, to enable artists to articulate their ideas and explore new methodologies in crafting their work. The workshop will be led by filmmaker Lynne Sachs and will feature guest instructors Alan Berliner, Akosua Adoma Owusu and Roger Beebe, with scholars Timothy Corrigan and Nora M. Alter, co-authors of the book Essays on the Essay Film.

The workshop is open to filmmakers, students, artists, scholars, etc.

The workshop is currently sold-out, but you can join the waiting list at https://uniondocs.org/event/2017-09-08-explorations-essay-filmmaking/.

Roll of the Die

I never got to go to Cassette in Greenpoint before they abruptly closed. However, since then Purslane Catering took it over as an extended “pop-up” featuring Threes Brewing, and it’s a lot more convenient for me to go there than to trek to Threes’s brewery in Gowanus.

In any case, Threes’s Greenpoint location has some pretty intriguing specials, in addition to the weekday happy-hour specials, including:

  • Teacher Appreciation Day: $35 margarita pitchers, Fridays from 5 to 7 PM
  • Take a Chance: Roll a Die, What You Hit is What You Pay, Sundays from 5 to 8 PM

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What struck me, aside from the $35 margarita pitcher because I know of a similarly classy joint that offers them for $20 at all times, is that, with the right roll of the dice, you can buy a draft beer for as little as $1. (Their drafts are usually around $7 but can sometimes cost more.) But I wasn’t sure if they meant one die or two? What’s the difference between “die” and “dice”? It’s one of those things that I thought I understood, but now that beer is at stake, I really need to know the difference.

I did a little—and I mean, very little—research, and here’s what I found:

  • die is always singular. It’s as simple as that.
  • dice is the plural of “die,” but today, we usually use this term to refer to either one, two, or more die. In fact, it is so common that we don’t use the term “die” to refer to a single die anymore. We use “dice.”

It’s nice to know that they are referring to a single die (or dice) and even use the always-singular “die” for the sake of this “Take a Chance” contest. I would hate to pay $12 for a beer because of an unlucky dice toss.

It Turns Out: Banana Peels Were Actually Dangerous

Don't worry guys, disaster avoided. #banana #bananapeel #sidewalk #lookdown #slippery

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We’re all familiar with the old cartoons or old movies where a character slips on a banana peel and comes crashing down to the ground. But has anyone you know actually slipped on a banana peel and fallen? Probably not.

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But it turns out that banana peels were in fact dangerous, especially in the large cities of the East Coast at the turn of the twentieth century. Annie Correal, writing for the New York Times, profiles the secret life of the city banana and notes how their popularity over a hundred years ago also made them dangerous.

They were so plentiful that in some cities, peels became a hazard. Yes, seriously. People fell and were injured. At least one man actually died from slipping on a banana peel. A headline in The New York Times in 1896 declared a “War on the Banana Skin.”

The 1896 article recounts how, Theodore Roosevelt, then-president of the city’s police department, “explained the bad habits of the banana skin, dwelling particularly on its tendency to toss people into the air and bring them down with terrific force on the hard pavement.” Roosevelt charged the police precinct supervisors to crack down on fruit and vegetable dealers from dumping “banana peels, apple and potato skins, and similar articles” on the lower eastside streets where many markets were prevalent.

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Slipping on a banana peel was so common at these markets that it must have made an impression on Jewish immigrants who populated Manhattan’s Lower East Side. According to Correal, “the notion of slipping on a banana peel made its way into American culture, [Dan] Koeppel said, thanks to Yiddish theater, Vaudeville and, eventually, silent films.”1 From there, it was just a matter of time that it became a common trope in TV programs since then.

I knew I hated bananas for a reason.

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  1. Dan Koeppel is author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2008). 

We’re Biking to Philadelphia!

Through the Bike Wheel at the Magic Garden

I lost count how many times I’ve ridden my bicycle from New York Newark to Philadelphia, but I’ll be doing this ride again on Sunday, August 13. The ride will run through the New York Cycle Club and is listed on their Upcoming Rides page (look for the “Cheesesteak Century”). If you are a member, you can sign up for the ride through this direct link.

After a ride to Montauk, I consider this to be a ride that every NYC-area cyclist must do at least once.

More likely than not, we’ll be doing the same route I’ve done the last few times, most recently in December 2015. However, if I have an intrepid group of riders with me that day, I’m tempted to try a more challenging route that crosses the Delaware River at New Hope, Pennsylvania and reaches Philadelphia through the northwest suburbs, instead of the usual route that crosses the Delaware at Washington Crossing.

Washington Crossing in New Jersey

The last time I tried to do this ride in the summer was as a first-leg of a ride to Baltimore. But this in the middle of brutal heat wave. Temperatures during the ride were as high as 103° so after I arrived in Philadelphia, I packed up my bike and shipped in home. I continued to Baltimore on a Mega Bus.

August 2015 Bike to Philadelphia

Let’s hope that we get more temperate weather on the 13th and a few cyclists get to check this ride off their list.

Trumpcare Collapsed Because Republicans Cannot Govern

As you may have heard, Trumpcare—the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—appears to be dead. Jonathan Chait attributes the reason to the Republican party and conservatism as a movement because it is incapable of governing and meeting basic public needs. As he writes:

The collapse of the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare is an especially vivid demonstration of the broader problem. The cohesion Republicans possessed in opposition disintegrated once they had power, because their ideology left them unable to pass legislation that was not cruel, horrific, and repugnant to their own constituents.

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. Back in May, I wrote that the Republican Party is incapable of governing because their ideology is incompatible with government playing any role in most aspects of public life. In other words, they can’t govern because they basically want to abolish government. However, the reality is that government intervention is necessary when the market fails to provide necessary services. For most of the twentieth century, the government has generally balanced private industry and public intervention on the grounds of the “public good,” using a formula that looks something like this:

  1. Allow the market to operate freely and provide whatever it is we need.
  2. Identify areas where market failures do not provide for the public good.
  3. Devote government resources to provide those necessary services.

We’ve done this with labor protections, the environment, civil rights, education, and, in expensive localities, with rent control. But we haven’t done this with healthcare, and that’s why we’re in this mess.

Market-based healthcare is a failure because healthcare providers charge as much as they want and because patients have no idea or control over what those costs are. Insurance providers and government health plans can only negotiate with the providers in an opaque system that keeps costs high for everyone. This is even more true for those who aren’t covered by a group insurance plan, such as those provided by an employer, or by a government health program, such as Medicaid or Medicare.

What is necessary to truly reform healthcare is universal regulation over rates for health services. The free market has failed to control costs, and that’s the real reason why health insurance premiums are higher every year. There’s nothing to control those underlying costs. The Republican Party line—that “Obamacare is a failure”—is true because it didn’t address the cost of health services: it only made it so that health insurance cover more people that couldn’t afford it before, including the poor and patients with preexisting conditions. The Affordable Care Act can’t keep premiums low because it is an attempt to reform from the supply side. Its aim is to give health insurance companies more customers so they could spread healthcare costs over a bigger pool of patients. But what we truly need is a demand-side reform. Regulate the health services markets, standardize the rates, freeze their costs, and reward providers who implement efficiency measures to provide better health services at a lower price. In essence, this is what single-payer healthcare does, but this is not the only possible solution.

Government reform of the health services market would do what we need most in the US healthcare system: cover everyone and keep health insurance premiums down. But doing this requires Congressional leaders to put on their big-kid pants and to actually govern, and we see what happens when we let try to do that.

Mikkeller to Open Brewery and Restaurant Inside New York Mets’ Citi Field

When Citi Field and Yankee Stadium 2.0 opened in 2009, there were inevitable and exhaustive comparisons between the two. The consensus was, at least among my friends, that the Mets park was much better than what the Yankees had built in that it felt more like a baseball stadium. It seemed that the Yankees didn’t build a baseball stadium as much as they openend an airport shopping mall with a baseball field in the middle of it, peppering it with a few hot dog stands. Also, Citi Field had better food offerings: a pair of Danny Meyer food stands, a beer garden, and vegetarian options.

Many People In Line At The Citi Field Shake Shack - Black & White Version; Flushing, New York

Although both stadiums were built almost exactly where the old parks stood, the two parks were built as centerpieces of urban redevelopment in the South Bronx and at Willets Point in Queens.

The Yankees opened a Hard Rock Cafe that is open year-round, even when the Yankees aren’t playing. I don’t know a single person that would plan a trip to go there.

Hard Rock Cafe Yankee Stadium

At Citi Field, however, there will be a much more compelling reason to schlep to Willets Point during the baseball offseason. Danish brewery Mikkeller is coming to Citi Field:

Mikkeller announced that it’s expanding, and will open its first East Coast Brewery this fall at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens. The forthcoming brewery “Mikkeller Brewing NYC” will be in a non-ticketed part of the stadium, and remain open year-round.

I think the Mets outdid the Yankees here, again. Mikkeller has a sterling reputation among beer nerds with their breweries in Copenhagen, Denmark and in San Diego, California and with two bars—also in California—in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This will be their first foothold in the US East Coast. And although the food options are “safe,” trafficking in established household names of contemporary cuisine, namely David Chang’s fried chicken and Pat LaFrieda’s burgers, it sure beats eating whatever passes for food at a Hard Rock Cafe these days.

Mikkeller NYC is due to open this fall, presumably shortly after the Mets have been eliminated from qualifying for the postseason.

Square Cash, You’ve Changed

Square Cash, the peer-to-peer payment service by Square, has undergone some changes over the years, and some of them I do not like. However, the final straw came when they required me to verify my account by connecting to Facebook to add funds to my Square Cash balance. To echo the sentiment that John Gruber holds towards Facebook, I’d like to tell Square Cash… we can’t be friends!

I was a fan of Square Cash for years, and I even defended it against my friend’s protestations. In fact, I preferred using it to other peer-to-peer services such as Paypal or Venmo, which are incidentally owned by the same company but do slightly different things. Venmo, for example, has emoji.

Square Cash was better than either of these peer-to-peer services because:

  1. You could send money via email. This was so simple. You emailed your friend and cc’ed cash@square.com and put the amount in the subject line. After a quick setup, the money was transferred between user’s bank accounts.
  2. Square Cash used debit cards to process transactions, instead of ABA routing and account numbers. This made signing up a lot faster and, also, most banks offers some fraud protection with debit card purchases. I don’t believe they offer such protection with these ABA transfers. How secure can an ABA transfer be, considering that it was developed in 1910?
  3. Most payments were free and instantaneous. When you sent money, it would charge your debit card as a purchase and then withdraw the funds from your checking account. When you would receive funds, it would add the funds to your checking account, as if you had returned a purchase.

But over the years, many of these advantages have gone away.

  1. Most transfers over email fail so you have to use the mobile app or login to your account on a browser to send someone money.
  2. New users reports that they must provide an ABA routing and account numbers when sending money over a certain amount.
  3. Transfers from one bank account to another are no longer instant. Now, you must “cash out” to transfer the money to your bank account. Also, instant transfers to your bank account are no longer free. You can opt for an instant transfer, but Square will deduct 1% of the amount as a fee. Next business day transfers, however, remain free.

I don’t mind that last one because as I wrote years ago, they need to make money somehow, which is why they made a virtual debit card that you can add to your Apple Wallet and pay anywhere Apple Pay is accepted. The card withdraws from your Square Cash balance. I liked this feature because it allows Square to make money from the merchant via the interchange fee, and it doesn’t directly cost me anything.

When AT&T revamped their unlimited wireless plans earlier this year, they offered a $10 discount to customers who signed up for auto-pay with a debit card or a bank account. (Credit cards are excluded presumably because it costs AT&T more to process these payments.) When I changed to the new unlimited wireless plan, I added my Square Cash virtual card as the payment method for my AT&T Wireless account. This made sense because two other people pay me for their share of the wireless bill through Square Cash, and it was more convenient for AT&T to just bill against my Square Cash balance instead of transferring that balance to a bank account and then paying AT&T there.

Billing against that Square Cash virtual card, however, has been painful.

For the first month, I didn’t have enough funds in my Square Cash balance to cover the transaction so it failed due to insufficient funds. This seemed counter intuitive. If I initiate a peer-to-peer payment and don’t have enough funds, Square Cash will charge my debit card to cover the transaction. This was not expected behavior.

To get around this, I had to add funds from my checking account. Since my bill is about $200, I tried to add $100, but when I did, I was surprised to see a request to connect my Square Cash account with Facebook.

No, Square Cash! We can’t be friends.

Dammit, Square! I don’t have a Facebook account! Well, I do have an account, but I deactivated it almost three years ago after Sarah and I split up. While I have long ago recovered from that break up, I really enjoy not having a Facebook account, and I don’t see adding $100 to my Square Cash account as the reason to reactivate it.

There’s no way around this. There are only two options: selecting “Continue,” which takes me to a Facebook login page, or tapping on an “x,” which only returns me to the previous screen. If I tap on that “x,” I’m back trying to add $100 to my Square Cash balance, thus requiring me to connect a Facebook account. I’m caught in a loop.

I asked Square on Twitter about this. However, I forgot to include a screenshot, although I did link to Gruber’s post about Facebook.

To their credit, they did reply.

But I am not starting out. I’ve been using Square Cash for several years and have transacted thousands of dollars in that time.

The ironic part of all this is that I am encountering this problem because I am trying to let Square Cash make money. Assuming a 1.5% debit card processing fee, Square stands to make about $3 from my nearly $200 monthly wireless bill.

I did find a workaround. Like a criminal, I have to “structure” my transfers, adding small amounts, around $50, each day to build up enough of a balance to cover my wireless bill. That avoids the requirement to connect my Facebook account to my Square Cash account.

But I’m not doing this again. I am switching my payment method over to my bank’s debit card. I’m certainly not reactivating my Facebook account just to make Square a few bucks.

A Brick Building in Beacon, 2007 vs. 2017

Beacon, New York

Speaking of photos I took of places that have undergone lots of changes, I was struck by the number of changes in Beacon, New York over the last decade or so.

I first visited Beacon in February 2005 on a class trip to the Dia museum. I was taking a Video Art class and as part of our curriculum, we were to visit the museum where many works by video artists—not just on video but in a variety of different media—are housed. Our class met on Thursdays, and instead of meeting at NYU, we met at Grand Central Terminal to take a Hudson line train to Beacon.

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It would have been a great trip, except that the museum is open Friday through Monday during the winter months. The museum was closed on this particular Thursday.

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I have returned to Beacon many times over the years, including a three-night trip in late July 2007. A lot of places that were around then are still there. These include the Bank Square Coffeehouse, Max’s on Main, and BJ’s Soul Food Restaurant. One place that stood largely unchanged was an abandoned brick warehouse on the corner of Main Street and East Main Street. (Yes, Beacon has three main streets: Main, East Main, and, yes, West Main).

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Last weekend, I returned to Beacon for a midsummer day trip. It was the first time I had been there since October 2015, and there were a few new places, or at least places I hadn’t noticed before. There was Draught Industries (a craft beer bar), Pandorica (a kind of “New Age” restaurant), and an expansive taproom for the Hudson Valley Brewery.

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And like before, there was that abandoned brick warehouse on the corner of Main and East Main Streets. But something was different. The warehouse wasn’t abandoned anymore. It was being renovated for conversion to residential lofts.

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As you can probably tell, a big reason why I wrote this post is to share two photos of the same place, ten years apart. So here they are side-by-side, allowing you to get the full effect.

A lot of what I’ve seen in Beacon is what some would call a “renaissance” and others would disparage as “gentrification.” Regardless of what you call it, this process is not a straight line. One place that had shown up over the years was The Hop. I first went in 2013 when it was a beer store with a few seats and a small kitchen.

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Over the years, the place had moved up the street, rented out two stores, and expanded to include a full bar and a sit-down restaurant. When I went there in July 2015, the place was busy, and business seemed to be great.

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So it came as a bit of a shock when I saw that The Hop was closed down.

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Apparently, the place abruptly closed last October without much explanation. All that remains is some of the furniture, a few memories, and couple of my photos.

My Photo of the Not-So “Bad Old Days” of DTLA

It happened again! Someone used a photo I posted on Flickr for a news story.

KPCC, an NPR member radio station in Pasadena, California, used a photo I snapped in January 2010 to illustrate a story about the rising crime in downtown Los Angeles. The 37% increase in crime, over the last two years, has recently unnerved residents, workers, businesses, and tourists. The area has undergone a “renaissance” over the last decade, perhaps best exemplified by the presence of a Whole Foods Market at Grand Avenue and 8th Street. But the recent rise in crime could undermine gentrification in the area.

I snapped the photo in January 2010 during a Los Angeles Conservancy walking tour through the Historic Core of downtown Los Angeles. The photo shows a bustling street on a Saturday afternoon, teeming with pedestrians walking alongside the businesses on Broadway that largely catered to Latinos. A lot has changed in downtown since I took this photo.

Los Angeles Historic Core

Although this is not the first time that a photo of mine was used for a news story, nor do I mind very much that it was used in the first place, I do find its use to be a bit uninspired. The photo doesn’t really illustrate anything that is discussed in the news story. My photo doesn’t show the relatively new nightlife scene, it doesn’t show any symbols of gentrification in the face of growing homeless camps in the area, and it doesn’t show any signs of crime in the area.

But to be fair, this is not something unique to KPCC. You can see this on just about every news outlet’s site that doesn’t employ a professional photographer or photo editors.

My Favorite Bike Lights: Blackburn 100 Front & 20 Rear Light Set

Having used dozens of different bike lights over the years, my current favorites are the Blackburn 100 Front and 20 Rear Light Set. I bought a set back in December, but they were stolen when I parked my bike on a busy street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I ordered a replacement set, and because I bought them from eBay, I was asked to write a review. Below is an expanded version of what I posted to eBay.

The set comes with a white front light and a red rear light, each with three modes: a mix of steady light and blinking modes. The front, white light is rated for 100 lumens, and the rear, red light is at 20 lumens. In practical terms, these are bright enough to be seen on city streets, where there is some streetlamp illumination, but they also work in a pinch as “see” lights to shine your path on a dark road.

Mounting the lights is easy. Just stretch the rubber strap over your handlebar and seat post, and fasten the strap over the notch. The lights are also easy to remove and are portable. This is important because you should remove your lights when parking your bike, otherwise you might find that someone has stolen them. That’s exactly what happened to me, as I noted above. However, these lights are a little bigger than most other lights I’ve used, but they’re still small enough to fit in your bag or even your pocket.

The other great thing about these lights is you can use them for a long time between charge cycles. The lights are a bit bigger than the Knog Blinder lights that were my previous choice, but the increased bulk presumably supports a larger battery. You only need to charge these lights about once a week in the dark, winter months, and significantly less often during the summer.

There are a few of minor drawbacks, however. First, the package includes only one Micro USB charging cable. Unless you have other cables lying around, you can only charge one light at a time. However, you can buy short Micro USB cables for a few bucks. Second, if you have a handlebar with an oversized, 31.8mm diameter, you have to really pull on mounting strap to wrap it around your handlebar. I’ve done this for months, and as long as you uniformly stretch it, it won’t weaken or break.

One of the things that you’ll find if you buy bike lights is that there are so many bad ones out there. At the moment, these are the best ones because they offer bright illumination and portability, are easy to remove without tools, cost about $60 for the set, offer a long burn time, and can be charged via USB.

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