Saturday, December 20, 2014

Encounters with Havana, 1958-1995

Photo by David Burnett, Time

My first encounters with Havana occurred circa 1958-1960 while sitting in Dr. Herbert Ernst's orthodontist's  chair in his cramped office on Lefferts Boulevard, Kew Gardens Queens (let the record who that I traveled there alone by bus, aged 10-12). Ernst, with his dark blonde slick-backed hair and toothy expression, along with his equally scary-looking assistant, Dennis, made Boris Karloff and his "Bride of Frankenstein" crew look like pikers.

While Ernst was busy twisting my braces around my bicuspids nearly to the point of bursting, I could glimpse a color photo of his Havana hacienda hanging on the wall over his right shoulder.

He used to serenade me with stories about how "Castro" had stolen his vacation house from him, but that someday he would get it back. I didn't yet really know who this "Castro" was, but I couldn't imagine that he could be more terrifying than Ernst himself, with a set of dental pliers in his hand and a wild look in his eyes that were but a few inches from my own. It was as if, with each little twist, he was extracting revenge on me as a kind of mini "Fidel."

Cut to November 1995, when I received a call at my office at Time Inc. – at the time, still the dominant American magazine company judged by advertising revenue and a division of Time Warner – from the company's lawyer in Washington D.C.

He told me that a member of the Senate was sending out signals that he wanted to know how a group of company executives and prominent guests were able to accompany a few accredited journalists and photographers to Havana, Cuba a month earlier. He also wondered how we paid for it, since financial transactions by Americans were illegal in Cuba.

Why was he calling me? Someone told him that I would be the point man for any questions regarding logistics, documentation, and payment for the recent round-the-world "Newstour", whose first stop was indeed Havana.

After a brief discussion of my actual relatively minor role in this corporate caper, the lawyer intimated that he would find a way to get rid of the inquiry. Case closed.

I did not mention anything to him about a conversation I had several weeks earlier with our contact "in the White House" about how exactly we would be able to document 70 people for that trip. People "in the administration" had noticed that the list of "journalists" wanting to visit Cuba included many names of people who were well know for not being journalists; to that I explained that they would indeed receive accreditation for the length of the trip. She said that she would see what could be done and gave me a contact in U.S. Customs with whom I could make certain unusual arrangements.

While I'm not at liberty to share the final arrangement, we left Dulles airport in our all-first class L1011 charter on October 6, 1995 and flew directly to Havana, where we arrived in the early evening and got settled into the grand old Hotel National. The trunk pictured below was the actual one used on our office at the hotel. The other one, marked "Beirut" was never used; that city was scratched from the tour at the last minute; both trunks were presented to me as mementos at the conclusion of the trip by Time magazine.

Since we were only in Havana for a short time, I did not get to see too much of the island. I did have a Hemingway mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, buy a hand-rolled cigar in the lobby of the Nacional for a dollar and smoke it under the pans on the terrace. I also shopped in the tourist market in Old Havana, and visited a farmer's market with a government minder who praised small farmers' ability to practice a meager from of capitalism (we suspected that the market had been concocted solely for our benefit).

Finca Vigia
My one regret is that I did not have time to visit Finca Vigia
Hemingway's hacienda. I hope to have that opportunity again one day, a hope that now seems much more realistic after this week's announcement of a new relationship with Cuba.

I was on duty at the hotel on the night that our group dined with El Presidente and missed having to listen to him drone on and on and on for three or four hours. The photo shown above was taken that night.

On the morning of  October 7, my crack American Trans Air crew had our aircraft loaded, prepped and ready for take-off. The bus with our guests arrived right on time, boarded, and we were waiting for clearance from the tower. And we waited. And waited.

Eventually, the Captain called me, as operations director, to the cockpit to say that the tower had orders directly from Castro to hold us at the airport; visions of the "Execs Captured" headlines in The New York Times danced in my head.

About fifteen minutes later, two military looking vehicles drove through the gate onto the runway and pulled up next to the huge, four-engine L1011. Through my translator I discovered that El Presidente had decided to send departing gifts to each one of the guests: 70 boxes of his favorite Cohiba cigars, and 70 sets of three bottles each  of Havana Club rum.

We loaded up, a plane-full of happy guests. Already, I was wondering how I was going to get those gifts through customs in Anchorage, Alaska upon our return home.

Our merry journey continued to Moscow, Bangalore, Hanoi, and Hong Kong. On October 14, our last night in Hong Kong, after a lunch with the last British head of government, Chris Patten at The Peninsula Hotel, I called that customs number. "Hypothetically speaking," I said to my contact, "if someone was returning to the U.S. with 70 boxes of Cuban cigars and 210 bottles of Cuban rum, how would they get those through customs?"

"That would depend," he began, "on whether or not you purchased those items, which, of course, would be illegal in Cuba, or if they were gifts; but, you would need to pay duty."

"They were indeed diplomatic gifts from a head of state and I will pay the duty," I replied. "can you call ahead to Anchorage?" Yes, he could.

I still have one of those cigars and El Presidente's card that came with it. The rum is long gone.

I wonder if Dr. Ernst's hacienda is still there? Perhaps some day soon, I'll have a chance to look for it, after a long postponed  visit to Finca Vigia.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Artificial Intelligence? Not So Fast, Dave

HAL from "2001 Space Odyssey"

Despite what Mr. Kevin Kelly has to say about Artificial Intelligence in the 22.11 issue of Wired (see link, below), I have ample anecdotal evidence demonstrating that AI is impossible to accomplish.

It’s not the engineers I am thinking about when I state that; it’s the rest of us.

AI presupposes human intelligence in the first place. With this, I have a problem. How could we make something artificial when there is scant evidence of its existence in the first place.

Allow me to present a few examples:

Crosswalks: On one of my recent morning walks, I was reminded once again that human beings behind the wheel of a moving vehicle in the northeast are pretty much incapable of stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks even half of the time. If you drive a Mercedes, that figure drops to twenty-five percent. Teenage driver? Fifteen percent.

Even the best-marked crosswalks, with signs and flashing lights, like one I use on many mornings (in front of Town Hall!), do not help much. A Google-car would stop? Why? The Google Boy Geniuses are basing their product on how we drive, with modest improvements.

No. I say scrap all pedestrian crosswalks except on the west coast. In California, Oregon, and Washington drivers actually stop for pedestrians. It must be from generations of eating whole wheat bread, tofu, and seaweed. The one exception is L.A. where being a pedestrian is against the law and will get you a summons.

Turkey Burgers/Turkey Baloney: It’s one thing to have the food-industrial-complex come up with these things, but quite another when people actually fall for them. Sure, they’re healthier due to having less fat, but the whole point of a good burger and a beef or beef/pork baloney sandwich – never, never on whole wheat – is that they taste great because of the fat.

"Gobble. Oink."
Occasionally, while driving through nearby marshlands, I will see a family of wild turkeys crossing the road. I have never heard one of those turkeys moo. Not once. The parents teach the little turkeys to gobble, and in school they learn about their proud history as the choice of the local Siwanoy tribe to offer early settlers for use in a Thanksgiving meal.

There is one highly unusual exception to my objection: turkey bacon. Through some quirk of creation and/or evolution, it turns out that a few, special turkeys can oink. Turkey bacon is actually not bad to eat, although its aroma when cooking in the skillet in the morning cannot compare with the porcine standard.

Self-Checkout: Just before Halloween, I went to a national chain pharmacy/convenience store to get some inexpensive candy for treats. I found four bags of candy, each marked $1.88, and proceeded to the automatic checkout counters.

I successfully swiped each bag. The total came to more than $18, which is not the same as 4 X $1.88, even in the new Common Core Math.

The only attendant helping customers get through these counters was occupied. So, I got on line at the one real checkout counter to lodge my complaint.

That line was not moving. The patron being served in front of me wanted Euros as his change, as he was about to leave the country. No, I do not make this up. The most amazing thing is that the human checkout person clearly did not know a) what Euros were, or b) that the store or any other store nearby did not give change in Euros. Non. Nein. Nada.

I replaced my candy on the shelf and went to a grocery store near my home to buy pretty much the same candy from a human who charged me $21. And, I was happy.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Always On, No Contract


Many readers have found it convenient to download “books” onto tablets, e-readers, or phones. The benefits of being able to carry around a whole library in your case or pocket and sometimes pay less than half the price of a real book to able do it are obvious.

But, a paper or cloth-bound book still has many advantages, a few of which are listed below:

– No password. Really, it’s true. There is nothing to hide.

– Also, no charger. No matter how long it sits on its shelf or on the bedside table, you will not have to charge it.

– Easy to read it in sunlight, even on the beach. Especially on the beach.

– No two-year contract needed in order to subsidize its purchase.

– A new model will not make it obsolete in a month, a year, or even a decade, although a new edition or translation may attract your attention.

– No need to plug it in, and there are no batteries. When it’s dark, you switch on a light and go.

– It does not vibrate, buzz, ring, or play music when you’re in a quiet place.

– It is easily shared with friends or strangers. You just pass it to them. Totally legal.

– It’s always in airplane mode; you can use it during takeoffs and landings without permission.

– Many are big enough to double as doorstops, or small enough to put in your pocket or purse.

– Want local, organic, artisanal, gluten-free? The village bookshop or library.

– Completely wireless; the only connection is you to it.

– You can decorate a wall of shelves with them or stack them on a table or floor.

– You can leave it at home without going into a total panic, running a light, and getting a ticket.

– It may contain a message, but never a voicemail.

– No accessories or apps to buy.

– A great way to raise a lamp; saves buying a taller table.

– Wherever there is light, there is service.

– Would Gideons place a copy of The Good Device in a hotel bedside drawer? Doubtful.

– Many books actually gain value over time, especially signed first-editions.

– You can leave it at a beach, lake, ski, or grandparents’ house without worry or missing your contacts or playlists.

– It won’t help your boss reach you. Ever.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret Adult Common Core Test Questions, Revealed!

Walter's Hot Dogs

Introduction of a national Common Core Math and ELA curriculum in grades 3-8, accompanied by standardized testing to gauge proficiency in it, has met strong resistance from many parents, students, teachers, and politicians. Some criticize the “nationalization” of curriculum, while others claim the states and feds did a poor job of planning, funding, and training which resulted in low test scores. Consequently, New York State decided that it might help parents of students and other adults to better understand the Common Core experience if they were able to take their very own comprehensive standardized test.

Below, is an exclusive look at some of the questions on that test.

1. The foundation of U.S. law and democracy is a document called:

             a) The Bourne Memorandum
             b)  Elvis’ Greatest Hits
             c) The Constitution
             d) Title IX

2. “Hamlet” could best be described as a reference to:

       a)  a village along the north fork of eastern Long Island
             b) a meal made with eggs in a pan, especially popular in France
             c) one of William Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays
             d)  a slice of bacon

3. Property taxes on Family Y’s new home in Village X will be $73,000 and 68% of that total is for school taxes, while the pre-transportation cost per student in Village X’s schools is $19,000. How many bedrooms could the Ys have before their taxes needed to be raised?

       a) 1.7
       b) 17
 c)   3, as long as they didn’t have bunk beds
 d)   Infinity

4. Two parallel lines form in the middle school lunchroom. One line, the organic veggie station is very short; the other line, named  “Pizza,” is very, very long. What is the formula for making those lines equal to one another?

             a) Make chef Thomas Keller the new Principal
             b) Serve only kale, broccoli, cauliflower and tofu mozzarella on pizza
             c)  Have the School Board institute a special “pizza tax”
             d) Move the school closer to “Walter’s Hot Dogs”*

5. Rising senior Dramatics star, Melinda, has already been recruited to Harvard, where she will play varsity Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Brecht. Since Harvard offers no Dramatics – or even athletic – scholarships, how much can Melinda earn while acting before she is disqualified from playing varsity?

a)    Zippitty Doo – Dah
b)   000000000…klahoma!
c)   Enough to buy 6 monthly Red Line passes
d)  “A Streetcar Named Nada”

6) The name of the first man on the moon was:

             a) Andy Kaufman
             b)  Louis Armstrong
             c) Michael Stipe
             d) The Man on the Moon
             e)  None of the above

7) Why is Albany the capital of New York?

             a) That’s where the money is
             b) That’s where the money was
             c)  The governor said so
             d)  Furs are making a huge comeback in China
             e)   “A” is the first letter of the alphabet

8) A synonym for or meaning of the word “testy: is:

            a) a feeling one gets after scoring lower on a test than their children did
            b) a African fly whose bite causes sleeping disease
            c)  Something to do with cricket or crickets
            d) Mood after finding that what you don’t know fills a bigger bucket than what you do know  

9) Why does February usually have only 28 days?

        a) so there’s one less snow day
        b) something to do with the Man on the Moon
        c) Because the Romans couldn’t count and had to use letters like V, I, and X. So dumb.
        d) How else could it get to 29 days in leap year?
        e) Too hard, we need much more preparation

10) Name Russia’s most important export in world markets:

        a)   Polish vodka
        b) Bank hacking services
        c)   Borscht belts
        d) Maria Sharapova
        e) Educational testing services

*Walter's is strategically located across the street from a public high school in Mamaroneck, NY. It is widely considered to serve the finest hot dogs in the universe.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Golden Days of October

©text and photos/2014twmcdermott

GreyTops VII Invitational/Oct 4
These are the golden days of October when even our biggest mistakes are ringed with sunlight. 

Elsewhere, people suffer from disease, and others rampage in the mistaken belief that the path to heaven is strewn with bodies of the vanquished ones who are not as worthy.

These things must be acknowledged, but they cannot diminish the golden days of October, when a feast shared from the back of an old station wagon, on picnic tables folded on the shining lawns of our alma maters, make Thomas Keller weep with envy.

These are the golden days of October, when grey-topped men compete in the racquet game they love, celebrating, as one more season nears its end and combining to ensure that young players in need receive a chance to play.

On a crisp September day in 1956, my father took me by the hand and we walked up the steep stairway of Forest Hills tennis stadium to take our seats. Hoad and Rosewall, and Seixas and Althea and a former Wimbledon Champion named Dick Savitt danced about the lawn that day; I was instantly and forever smitten, driven to try and recreate the moment over and over again. And so I do.

Miraculously, I partnered with Rosewall nearly 50 years later at the same place. and recently, we received last minute US Open tickets for a box directly behind the stadium court at Flushing, in the second row. The owner of the box? Dick Savitt. There are no coincidences in life. 
Weep Not

Did someone say “Too bad there are no New York teams in the postseason?”
Or “What a shame that Jeter did not get his October ending.”

I protest. Exhibit A, The baseball Giants of San Francisco; née, the New York Giants, who somehow managed to enter into the golden days – called nights in MLB and on Fox – while the Dodgers faltered, and beat the Cards 3-0 last night.

Apologies to my friends who love “dem Bums;” I too admit a certain affection due to their 1955 World Series win over the Yanks in seven, which earned me a day off from my Brooklyn Diocese school.

One more thing: a month ago tomorrow, my daughter married a Bay Area Giants fan – with access to tickets! Thank you, baseball gods.

Another summer day in 1956 my father took me by the hand and we rode the subway to the Polo Grounds station where we alighted, then walked past the orange and black tiles on the station walls, still there today, and into the ancient Polo Grounds. I can close my eyes and see the team in the same cream-colored jerseys still worn at home, and see Johnny Antonelli’s autograph clear as an October day on the team ball my father bought for me.

These are the golden days of October when the usual fog or gloom surrounding thoughts of family lift and scatter into warm golden sunlight.

And, about Jeter? Once, in 2001, when the September ashes were still floating above Manhattan, like a Greek god, he stretched October into a 32nd day. In a Series game that began on All Hallows, tied by Tino in the ninth, past midnight, Jeter took a patented inside-out poke at a ball, sending it into the right field stands to end the game, and tie the Series at 2-2.

After last at bat/still soaring
That homer proved to be only a temporary balm to the local fans, as the gods of November turned triumph into tragedy in the Arizona desert.

But,  that ball that Jeter shot with his ash bow had the glow of October, despite what the calendar said, as it soared into the night. Don’t cry for Jeter; he is still swinging and that ball is still soaring, at least in my eyes. I was there to see it in person, with the DG by my side.

These are the golden days of October in which our good deeds look even better and even our worst mistakes are ringed with sunlight.

Carpe Diem Octobribus.