Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New month, new look for Kosher Computing

Well, it's been a while since I freshened up my first entry into the blogosphere. I would dare say it's about time that I did something to make this site look a bit more inviting to those who are interested in what I have to say. As the more informed will tell you, the Kosher Computing blog you are reading was the first of several Internet avenues I am now using to teleport my writing and interests to others. I have long written for print media, mostly weekly or monthly newspapers, for decades. Beginning in the late 1990s, I leveraged my interest in the Internet with my computer skills and started working as a chat host for MSN. It allowed me to get to learn about IRC chat rooms and a lot of the ins and outs of dealing with the Internet. I became a member of several MSN Forums and later created some of the first of several MSN communities (later called groups) for special interests in music (Musiclovers and Edwin McCain Fans). I wrote hundereds of pieces, which were posted over these sites. Over the course of several years those groups were unceremoniously dropped by MSN and have since been moved over to a site on Multiply.com that I admit I rarely go to these days. All of the online articles and comments made over the course of six or seven years by members of the group and me were, for the most part, lost to cyberspace. But, change is a necessary component to life and one that makes for interesting new possibilities. The loss of the MSN Groups meant that I was able to write for other outlets. Kosher Computing was one of those that sated my initial hunger for a place to write on the Internet. In more recent years my writing has declined on this location as more avenues have opened up for me. I have been writing for Examiner.com since early 2010 as the Performing Arts Examiner and more recently took on the additional title of Drinks Examiner. I also have expanded my coverage of music to write for Arts America, a new online magazine as their opera, classical and jazz music reviewer. Critic is sometimes a harsh word for me to accept, but, yes, I am also a critic. I have become a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and am also registered with the International Society of Theatre Critics. All of which leads me to render an apology of sorts. I must admit my sorrow at not having enough time to be here more. There is only so much time in the day for me to devote to all of my writing and, these days, this blog has suffered because of it. I can only hope that the lack of quantity will be supplanted by an increase in quality of writing. But we shall see. In the musical "Sunset Boulevard" the lyrics of "With One Look" sung by Norma Desmond as she acknowledges her unseen crowd say something about which writers also feel. "To my people in the dark, still out there in the dark." I can never know just how many people my words will reach or touch. I only know that this is my way to connect to the outside world. Though I may not write as much here as I have before, believe me that this is my first choice for opinion rather than reporting or criticism. Most will note, however, that my opinion pieces oftentimes tend to be more balanced than others. I credit that to my attachment to journalistic style and fair play rather than an active act of vacillation on my part. Nevertheless, I hope all of my friends and family out there in the dark appreciate the sentiment and earnest feeling on my part.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Security Fascists

I know that security has become a caveat for everyone in the computing industry, but there is a point when the ridiculous nature of uber security becomes intrusive and threatening. In the past unprepared banking and investment firms were hit hard by curious hackers and more malevolent criminals intent on stealing identities and funds. The industry's response has been to enlist the services of many of these very same hackers and to give them the keys to the security kingdom. Since they were successful in breaking into networks and protected servers, the CEOs reason, why not let them harden the protective layers to make future hacking improbable, if not impossible? What seems like convoluted logic has led to the most stringent of security practices being exacted on the masses, although the first line of unfortunate victims is usually the network administrators charged with protecting their firms through their own best security practices. Usually, these new security requisites can be logical and understandable. Such good security practices as locking the server room to keep workers' paws off the servers makes good sense. Increasing the length and complexity of passwords is also a common requirement, much to the chagrin of office workers who want to keep it simple like "password" or "fido." Having passwords change frequently seems like another good idea on face value, but in reality having secretaries and mid-level managers create their own passwords is a nightmare (usually they don't reach complexity or length on the first or even second attempts). Having the network administrator charged with keeping the ever-changing password list is also not very feasible, considering everything else he has to keep straight. If all of this isn't enough to drive a sane person crazy, then the new security practices checklist arrives in the mail and is sent from the CEO to the network administrator. Sometimes 20 or more pages, the security inquiries are in fact a questionnaire that determines the level of security enforced at the site. There's only one problem: one size fits all. According to these security fascists, who are intractable when it comes to asking for dispensation or special allowances, a security threat at a small firm carries with it the same weight as one at a major banking firm. Thus, everyone who has to answer their inquiries is put to the test as to how much they can put up with until they turn to these specialists and yell uncle. Recently, a firm hired to maintain levels of compliance for credit cards insisted they be "whitelisted" for the firewall and security device located at a client's office. This was because they were having trouble doing scans on the traffic being passed at the site and they wanted to investigate the traffic more deeply. In other words the device was working too well to keep them - and by extension others - from entering or possibly hacking the site. Other new requirements for VPNs (virtual private networks used for offices to pass traffic to remote sites or for telecomputing from home) include adding special characters (like $,#and @) to passwords between routers that already have extremely high levels of encryption. It is overkill on top of overkill and there seems no end in sight for this madness. Sure, I'm for good security practices. I believe in them. It's just these new restrictions are not breeding any confidence in me that the networks I am responsible for are truly more secure. They're just more complex and more difficult to maintain for the same remuneration. If only I could charge the so-called security experts for my additional time and effort and the costs to the networks to implement their demands.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food, glorious food

We all remember the classic scene at the beginning of the Academy Award-winning musical "Oliver!" by Lionel Bart. The film based on Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" depicts the children in the orphanage having been carefully fed a regimen of gruel - basically watered down oatmeal - and kept away from a diet which involved meat of any sort. This is to demoralize them and keep their spirits down. It is young Oliver Twist who implores Mr. Bumble for "more" and the tale goes off from there. In many countries the ability to ask for more doesn't even exist. Hundreds of children and adults in East Africa are experiencing hunger on a level few of us can fathom. Yet, here in America we take for granted the fact that food is in abundance and for the most part safely distributed from farm to market to table in an efficient system that assures quality and quantity of products. To be sure there are hungry people in the United States and many of them right under our veritable noses. But here we lack from the politics of food, where food is used as a weapon to keep the downtrodden in check and to prevent any possibility of a backlash against the powers that be. It's much like that in Somalia. The difference is that we have savage, bloodthirsty warlords there who withhold food intended to alleviate suffering because they intend to starve out their enemies. Not one of them is as innoxious a fellow as Mr. Bumble, I am afraid to point out. Nevertheless, we should consider that food is a necessary part of all of our lives. The sooner we remove its inaccessibility from those who need it, the better the human condition will be. Proper food and diets mean less disease and better general health. Think about that today - Blog Action Day - as we reach for the chips and dip, hot dogs or burgers just before we enjoy our regimen of football.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Justice delayed or justice denied

Death chamber for lethal injection
For the family of slain Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail the last two decades have moved slowly and steadily with no closure in sight. His accused killer Troy Davis was charged with the cold-blooded crime despite not a speck of physical evidence. The prosecution proved their case. Nine men had testified that he had done the deed. A Georgia police officer, husband, father, brother and son had been slain. The jury found him guilty and because this was a capital offense involving the killing of a police officer, Davis received the ultimate punishment during the punishment phase of the trial. He was to be executed by the state. In plain and simple terms Davis waited for his date with the executioner for nearly two decades. Over that time he exhausted appeal after appeal. They were denied, but at each turn he was spared and his team of attorneys continued to press their case. Curiously, the longer the conviction stood, the fewer of his accusers were certain Davis was the responsible party. At first, one then two recanted their testimony. Three became five and that soon led to seven out of the nine who changed their minds. Davis never admitted he was guilty. Indeed, he was defiant. It was someone else that had killed MacPhail, he maintained. He was innocent. He pressed his case for a new trial. Another person confessed to the crime, but the courts did not overturn the verdict. Davis' attorneys hoped that some august body of judges would hear his case and grant that a new trial was in order or else find some opportunity to commute the sentence to life in prison while they continued to demand justice. The MacPhail family needing closure for their loss pressed just as hard. What kind of world would allow a public servant who was killed in the line of duty to be forgotten and his killer to remain free? At every appeal there was the MacPhail family demanding justice and there was the Davis family vigorously campaigning for a new trial decrying no semblance of justice. Recently, Davis had gotten closer to the executioner's needle, but last minute reprieves kept his chances and himself alive. But the clock kept ticking. The MacPhail family became jaded. They wanted to know their son had not lived and died in vain. The Davises labored long and hard, reminding the public and officials it was better to let ten murderers go free than to put one innocent man to death. And on it went. When his latest appeal was turned down and the governor refused to act, Davis prepared to meet his maker. Outside the prison and elsewhere there were protests of considerable size. People carried placards and shouted out, while Davis contemplated the meaning of it all. To the end he maintained his innocence even as the IV was attached to his arm and the drugs were sent coursing in his veins. Was this justice? The MacPhails say so. Those that hoped Davis would live say no. In the end it's just one man's life and with the wanton fashion in which lives are snuffed out in an instant these days one may question why the ruckus. In 16 states and the District of Columbia there is no death penalty. These include New York, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts - some of the most populous states - and North Dakota, Vermont and Alaska - some with the least populations. Elsewhere in the world countries like the United Kingdom proscribe a death penalty. Is a lifetime behind bars a proper punishment for someone who has deprived another human being of their ultimate right - the right to life? Some of Davis' last words are haunting: "I am not the one who took your son, father or brother!" Only the Allmighty knows if he was telling the truth and if the State of Georgia railroaded a verdict against an innocent man. Fully 65% of Americans believe in the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. If this execution proves nothing else, it proves that Americans are still sharply divided over the right for any state to take a life. In the end there are two families suffering from loss and neither has been fully served by this execution. No one is truly happy. Yes, the MacPhail family has settled for closure. It is simply not possible to bring back Officer MacPhail. Likewise, the Davis family can no longer visit their loved one and they mourn his execution. One thing is certain: the suffering will continue as will the contentious debate over the death penalty.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gamers defeat HIV mystery

HIV - Could scientists and gamers be on to a cure?

Interesting news today from the computing world. It seems that online gamers have done what scientists have been unable to do by themselves, that is, decrypt the structure of an enzyme in a family of retroviruses that includes the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The monomeric protease enzyme is described as a cutting agent used to tailor retroviruses on a molecular level. Scientists have known about the enzyme for a while, but they could only observe it under an electron microscope which yielded a flat, two-dimensional image. Thanks to a partnership with the gamers, who utilized a special gaming program called Foldit, the scientists were able to understand the complex three-dimensional structure of the enzyme. Understanding the structure could eventually lead to further insight as to how certain diseases like HIV spread and how to design specific blockers to halt them. Foldit was developed as a game by the University of Washington in 2008 in which teams of gamers were enlisted to unfold chains of amino acids, considered the building blocks of proteins. In just three weeks time the gamers were able to unlock the mystery of the enzyme and delivered an accurate three-dimensional model of its structure. Scientists who credited the gamers for the discovery along with themselves say this is the first time that computer gamers have contributed to such a discovery. It shows that the gamers' human spatial reasoning can rise above the skills sets enployed by computers alone. Scientists failed because they could not develop a way to interpret the data from the computers without this extra level of spatial reasoning honed in Foldit. It shows that computers need humans in order to advance to a higher level and dashes much of the doom and gloom forecasts of the downfall of human intellect attributed to the computer. The entire story is presented in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. (You may want to take my word because the cost of reading the article is $32.) This may be just the first step in many new ones to come which could lead to the understanding of the behavior of retroviruses like HIV and could help bring about a cure for the devastating disease of AIDS.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Dust (revisited 9 years later)

The Dust

The field of honor that was once

A testament of steel

Has now been cleared of all debris

Except that which we feel.

In the ruins of sorrow

Families cry for those that won’t return.

Children wail and lovers weep

For those of whom they yearn.

The uniforms of blue and white --

Reminders to us all --

Are fused with red, which is the blood

Of those who heard the call.

And brave men out on foreign soil

Now wage the battle proud.

They rattle sabers gleaming bright

Their caissons ring out loud.

The sinister force from far off lands

Sent assassins from the skies

They thought that killing innocents

Would reinforce their lies.

But what beheld them following

This cowardly attack

Was a steely-eyed America

That was ready to fight back.

The dust that fell from towers tall

Still lingers to this day.

It flows throughout our beating hearts --

It shows up when we pray.

And while we fight these craven foes,

We know we’ve just begun

To honor those that passed away

The date of Nine-One-One.

©2002 Alan Smason

Friday, September 9, 2011

Becoming a YES man

Late last week I received an invitation by e-mail I had never thought would ever be extended to the likes of moi. The simply worded explanation told me that David Cuthbert, the retired theatre critic for the Times-Picayune had elected to retire from "Steppin' Out," the weekly arts review show seen for most of the last two decades over PBS affiliate WYES-TV. The note asked me to join them as the local theatre reviewer and to add my picks for best bets on the scene. I've known WYES for years before they became known as the home of "Sesame Street." It is one of the oldest PBS stations in the country and I remember it changed its original call number from Channel 8 to its present Channel 12 sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. That switch was made to accommodate the then-ABC affiliate to occupy the more coveted VHS position in the market. With cable and satellite television today such swaps are hardly necessary. WYES-TV is a member-supported PBS station, but does require and receives a good amount of local support as well from area businesses, most notably through the very successful art and other auctions it stages every year. A number of local productions are financed through The Producers Circle, a group dedicated toward the creation and proliferation of local programming at the station. "Steppin' Out" is hosted by Peggy Scott Laborde, a well-known and respected TV journalist, whose local productions on a number of themes of local interest have been acknowledged as having set high industry standards and worthy of numerous citations and awards. As the host of "Steppin' Out," Laborde lords over various authorities and gets their take on the local arts scene. When the program first began, the late Al Shea, a longtime fixture in New Orleans TV and on the local theatre scene, was called upon to give his take on local theatre as well as to opine about the various actors, producers, choreographers and directors whose work was essential and important. After Shea passed away two years ago, Cuthbert was the logical person to take over the theatre reviews on "Steppin' Out" insofar as he had just retired from the newspaper and was (and still is) considered one of the most informed authorities on theatre in New Orleans. There is no doubt that I love and have loved theatre for most of my life. The love of music was probably bred in me in vitro. I sold classical, opera and musical theatre recordings at my family record store for decades, but also became a local radio broadcaster out of college. Because of that, I probably know more about musical theatre than most, but admit I still have a lot to learn in many areas and am in fact still learning. I have been a member of the Big Easy Theatre Committee for 12 years and have written extensively on the local theatre scene in print and online at Examiner.com. Yet, to have an invitation extended to me to take over this slot after such an outstanding legacy by these two gentlemen I have so admired and respected, most assuredly makes me feel unworthy and unsure. I accepted because I really do believe I can do this job, but I do so humbly and with respect knowing that the path I follow has been so expertly laid before me that I must take care not to undo what they have done or upset the delicate balance they have set. Today is my first day and I hope I am up to this challenge. The broadcast is shown on Friday nights at 6:30 p.m. and re-broadcast at 11:00 p.m. I say yes to WYES and I hope the staff there and others who watch say the same right back to me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The drama that is theatre

For several months now the battle has raged. There have been accusations and recriminations on both sides as the struggle for control of Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carré has persisted. The facts have been disputed by both the Board of Governors and the Le Petit Guild members, but the love of the country's oldest community theater (founded in 1916) is not in doubt. The passions on both sides are fierce and run deep. For those not familiar with the controversy, I shall in a cursory fashion sum up what has transpired thus far. The theater building bordering on Jackson Square has been and still is in great need of repairs. Although several valiant figures have emerged through the last decade to lead Le Petit, the board had found itself in ongoing financial trouble. Damages from Hurricane Katrina and recent improvements to the main stage were costly and a balloon note on the mortgage for the historic property also loomed large. There were indications that the bank would call their loan. With sadness last year, the entire season was cancelled in December of 2010 when it became apparent to the Board of Governors they could no longer afford to put on productions without losing more money. Board members looked at several options from different quarters and eventually decided to invite local restauranteur Dickie Brennan to develop a significant portion of the facility into a restaurant. The agreed upon price would be $3 million. The facility would, for the most part, remain a theater, sharing common space with the restaurant such as the central patio on the property. This led to a number of people in the theatre community crying foul. Some did not want to lose the smaller of the two performing spaces - what had been formerly known as Teddy's Corner or Muriel's Cabaret Theatre - to a restaurant at all. Others stated that to use the space for a restaurant, which it had been previously, would be more judicious and proper. Some liked the Brennan family's track record with restaurants. Others questioned the need for yet another Brennan restaurant in the French Quarter. Meanwhile, the Le Petit Guild, an advisory group made up of friends of the theater for the past half century, took the opposite tack. They argued the board was not looking at other alternatives. Recently, they claimed the valuation of the building was far beneath what had been suggested in pending documents for the lease and that to proceed might not only be criminal, but could put the tax exempt status of Le Petit into question. A vote by the Board of Governors on the subject was called to change the bylaws allowing the sale of a portion of the property to Brennan to take place. The Guild members challenged the vote by taking the matter to Civil District Court. The Board of Governors countered by challenging the order from one court by having another opinion offered by another judge. He decreed the Guild members were to cease and desist their tactics and were not allowed to engage board members in any way. The battle over the last several months was pitched and combatants bound by their love of theatre literally waged war against the other. Last night the board assembled all voting members - season ticket subscribers - and the outcome was a 74-58 win for the Board of Governors. The sale of a portion of the building can now proceed, the mortgage can be retired, new repairs can be made and the healing process over what is now a major rift in the theatre community can begin. As a lover of theatre and a reviewer of most productions seen on the local front, I have taken no side and I do not wish to broker animosity from my friends on either side. Nevertheless, my opinion today is that we urgently need to make strides to bring these two factions together. The hurt on both sides runs about as deep as it can go and I am saddened that such a vibrant and robust community could be split to its core over one issue - albeit a major one. After Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that decimated the city, the first artistic group that returned in force was the theatre community. Even while residents were living in trailers and eating at taco stands, there were actors, singers, dancers and technicians coming together to put on shows to bring some happiness back to a town full of anger and rage. These brave souls took the sting off a horrible chapter in this city's life. Recently, we have lost an invaluable performing venue at Le Chat Noir and several major performers and directors have felt compelled to leave New Orleans and may never return. Now is the time for us all to come together and ease each other's minds. The vote has been taken, a decision has been made and change - the essential part of life - must go on. Acceptance is tough to take when one is on the losing end and the board members should be gracious as plans are made for the future of Le Petit. It would be a real life tragedy if this drama persists any longer.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Where did those decades go?

Members of the Fortier class of 1971 at the recent reunion
It seems that it was only but a few years ago when I was forced to read "Beowulf" and had my first crack at cold reading a play, nailing the role of Tom in "The Glass Menagerie." But, no, it was much more than a few years. Indeed, it is well over 40 years ago that I endured the end of the period of time known as the Sixties. That point was driven home this weekend as I joined in the celebration of my graduating high school class. The class of '71 had a lot of things to endure. We were part of the generation that welcomed or fought court-ordered desegregation. Our class was literally half black and the other half mostly white, Hispanic and Asian. This balance did not extend to classes before or after. Our class was the tipping point. In later years the majority of students were black. The dwindling number of white and Hispanic students, whose parents chose to enroll them elsewhere, led to disparities of 90% and higher for black students. When the balance between races was more balanced as in the Class of '71, it forced students to confront those issues of racism that existed in outside society and glean more perspective from other quarters. Our class also dealt with a large amount of sexism. Women were not considered able to take on certain jobs such as policemen and firefighters. Very few politicians were women and a woman had yet to be nominated to the Supreme Court or be a candidate for either President or Vice-President. Need I mention the school-sanctioned Future Homemakers of America club? We were also embroiled in an unpopular war (or any wars really popular?) that was sending our own peers to fight an unknown enemy - and possibly die - in faraway rice patties. We had experienced assassinations in rapid succession of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate and Senator Robert Kennedy and were still reeling from those losses. Is there any wonder with so much to consider that many of our generation took to experimenting with drugs? While there were some pharmaceuticals that were popular in some circles, the most abused drugs at that time were tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. That marijuana had taken on such widespread acceptance along with a host of psychedelic and mind-altering drugs such as L.S.D., peyote or hashish during this period could be credited to a number of factors. Suffice it to say that conditions were ripe for members of the Class of '71 to question the American lifestyle and the manner of what was considered the norm (a nuclear family) and the trappings of success (money, fancy cars, etc.). We had tuned in and turned on and listened to the music of revolutionaries like the Beatles, the Doors and the Rolling Stones who advised us to love and party while we still had the time. We also heard from urban voices who cried for change like the Temptations in their anthem "Ball of Confusion" and Sly and the Family Stone with "Everybody Is a Star." What brought all of this back home recently is that I shared this past weekend with my former classmates at our (gulp!) 40th reunion. The faces have changed, the hair has grayed or disappeared in many cases and the waistlines have spread. But we are still very much the same. We are glad to know one another and while we don't see everyone that often, it is good that we get together and reminisce about where we were and how things were when we were still impressionable and for the most part without families of our own. Some members of the class have as many as six grandchildren and one admitted to having several great-granchildren. Some have been married as long as 45 years, but none of that really matters. What matters are the connections we made in a very turbulent time in our country's history. It was a time when we grew up and a time which made us very different than those that have followed including our own progeny. I am immensely proud to have been a class officer and to have been part of leading this class. I hope to be here for many more of these celebrations and have volunteered to lead the efforts in ten years when we will be celebrating our golden reunion. Our school, Alcee Fortier Sr. High School, is no more. It was restructured after Hurricane Katrina into Robert Mills Lusher Sr. High School, a charter school. But even so, we as a class are still very much together. All praise our alma mater. She lives within our hearts.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Killing innocents

No sooner had the cyber ink dried off the horrific story about Lieby Kletzky, then news came out of Norway of the stunningly gruesome and sadistic automatic weapon attack at a children's camp following the coordinated bombing of the prime minister's offices in downtown Oslo. Seven people were killed and 11 injured in the bomb blast, while latest reports state that at least 85 teenage children were killed at the camp, many of whom were the offspring of government officials. It staggers the imagination that anyone could ever justify killing helpless children for political purposes, but that's what the accused assassin seems to be boasting through his attorney. Eyewitnesses said that he arrived on the island shortly after news of the bomb blast circulated throughout the camp. Dressed in a police officer's uniform, he beckoned the youngsters to come to him and, once the unsuspecting victims approached him, opened fire on them. Some took to the nearby beach and ran into the water, trying to find a way to escape. Those who were not shot in the back were picked off while splashing in the water. Survivors claim that the "police officer" would call out to the children, suggesting he was there to help them. Once they came out from hiding, they were mowed down. Some who had been hit by automatic fire pretended to be dead; others used the bodies of other victims to shield them as they lay hoping for help. The death toll climbed so high because it took nearly an hour and a half for the real police to arrive by boat on the island. When they did swarm the island, Anders Behring Breivik surrendered peacefully to the authorities. Aside from the revised death toll of 93, the number of injured stands at 97. It is the worst attack on Norwegian soil since World War II and the worst ever perpetrated by a single gunman. According to news reports, Breivik confessed he acted alone and police are still checking to see if the evidence supports that claim. Sometime after the attacks were over, news reporters claim to have found a 1500 rambling "manifesto" detailing his political leanings as a conservative Christian and how he advocated against "Marxist diversity." The ruling Labor Party, which has been running a coalition government favorable toward liberal immigration, including Muslims, was apparently singled out by the gunman for their policies. Authorities were able to quickly verify he had ordered six tons of fertilizer that could have been used to manufacture a high yield bomb, but they were still questioning as to whether or not he had help in preparing the bomb that targeted offices in downtown Oslo. Norway is in mourning and everyone from the king and queen to the parents of victims are asking the unanswerable question: "why?" Why must the innocents pay the ultimate price for a misguided terrorist, who claims to take such outrageous acts in the name of religious philosophy. We've seen this time and time again in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs kill and maim the young. In Sudan we are seeing the politics of religion being utilized to justify the slow and systematic starvation of thousands of refugees who are caught up in the continuing civil war there between Muslim and Christians. Whether the victim is dispatched by a bullet to the back, a stabbing attack or withheld from proper food, the ending is the same. Only the speed of the onset of death is different. The thousands of dying children in Sudan can hardly utter the words to speak of their pain and there is little news coverage of this tragedy. The sudden cries of young shooting victims on Utoya Island or those injured in the Oslo bomb blast still ring out and are echoed in the news media, but for how long? But the persistent questions still remain. Why can someone whose religion values life so highly be so quick to extinguish it? Where is the breakdown between religious fervor and morality? What can we do to prevent another such incident? The next time this happens it may not be a single gunman, but many gunmen coordinated in a single attack strategy. The next time this happens it could be your sons or daughters or mine. If history has taught us anything, it is that man can be interminably cruel and can kill with little or no forethought. I pray this is the last such heinous act, but I know I am probably more hopeful than realistic. My prayers go out to the young innocent victims of violence who never asked to be involved in such horrors. They deserve a right to life, liberty and happiness. Unfortunately, as we have seen, they find out too soon they have nothing at all.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Remembering Lieby

LIEBY KLETZKY (Photo courtesy New York Daily News)
I cringed this week when the horrific details came out about the abduction, doping, murder and dismemberment of eight-year-old Lieby Kletzky, a member of an Orthodox Jewish family in New York. Alone for the first time on his way to a summer day camp, the boy became confused and asked directions from a stranger. Unfortunately, the stranger he asked was laying in wait for an opportunity to abduct a child (authorities have still not stated whether there was a sexual assault) and Lieby became an unsuspecting victim. Levi Aron was arrested at his apartment after video surfaced that showed him walking off with the child and the two of them entering an automobile. New York police officer Tom Burke, a specialist in identification of car models, was woken from a sound sleep when authorities could not tell the make, model or year of the gold automobile shown on the tape. Within a short time Burke was able to identify the automobile as a 1990 Honda Accord. Officers found the car parked on the street in front Aron's apartment. Police reported finding the bloody severed feet of the child on the premises. When confronted, Aron supposedly confessed and led police to a suitcase in a dumpster which contained the other remains of the hapless victim. As authorities moved ahead with the prosecution of the alleged murderer, it became clear that Aron is mentally unstable and probably psychotic. One of his attorneys resigned from handling the defense over his inability "to stomach" the story, while the other attorney has reportedly told a court that his client hears voices and can't readily distinguish good and bad acts. It is possible this was not a first incident, so police have begun the somber task of going through the accused's home, even digging up the backyard for signs of other potential victims. This is a parent's worst nightmare and there is no doubt the other victims of this crime are the family members left behind. Lieby's parents and Chabad Rabbi Binaymin Eisenberger have set up a website dedicated to his memory. However this is not just a simple memorial to a dead child. They have begun collecting funds on the website to be dispersed to do good deeds so that the memory of Lieby will never be forgotten. They hope to raise $1 million dollars and so far are closing in on the $200,000 mark. For those inclined to donate or to see the unusual response by the family to such a gut-wrenching loss, click here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Napoléon, you have met your squeeze

Jourdan Binder holds a bottle of Mandarine Napoléon with Mark DeKuyper of Royal Dutch Distilleries

In just a few short weeks (in September) the DeKuyper family's Royal Dutch Distilleries will officially relaunch the fabled Mandarine Napoléon, a product of Belgium that was long regarded as one of the most iconic spirits distilled in Europe. Over the course of the last several months Jourdan Binder, the managing partner of Workshop, a public relations firm with a very good reputation for helping promote and brand companies, has worked diligently to relaunch this cognac-based spirit that encompasses the flavor of mandarins and clementimes (or, as we in New Orleans refer to them, satsumas). The DeKuper family recently acquired the label and U. S. company president of Royal Dutch Distilleries, Marc (R.B.) DeKuyper chose Workshop to take the lead with relaunching this smooth liqueur that can be mixed with soda or as a base for more inventive bar recipes. One of the important aspects for the relaunching is that the upside down fleur-de-lis used by Napoleon, for whom the spirit was named, and the black tri-cornered hat adorned by the French emperor is prominently displayed on the label. Mandarins are indicative of Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon, another connection to the historical figure. The original formulation goes back over 100 years to 1892, but the DeKuyper family hopes it will become a favorite for spirit lovers the world over.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Don't carry tales; Tales will carry you!

Carousel Bar's 1840 Sazerac made with Cognac 1840 by Pierre Ferrand

The 2011 Tales of the Cocktail is under full swing and it brims with promise that this will be the best series of events ever presented under the auspices of the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society (NOCCPS). Today's highlights will be the recognition of Sazerac Seal of Approval winners at 2:00 p.m. in front of the Monteleone Hotel, which serves as the base for Tales of the Cocktails seminars and presentations. On Friday president Alexandre Gabriel of Pierre Ferrand will unveil his company's latest distillation, Cognac 1840. It is at Gabriel's direction that this cognac will enjoy favor in the city known for creating the Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans and regarded as one of the oldest cocktails in America. When the Sazerac was first concocted by pharamcist Antoine Amedée Peychaud, it was described as a digestif and was made with a specific cognac, Sazerac-de-la-Forge. Cognac 1840 recreates the formulation of cognacs as they existed back in the days when Peychaud was promoting his creation and droves of customers were flocking to pharmacies and coffee houses to down this potent potable. This Friday the bottles will flow with the kickoff of what could be a return to the original formulation of the Sazerac that will feature Cognac 1840. The Monteleone Hotel's famous Carousel Bar has already been given a headstart on promoting the new spirit. They are offering an "1840 Sazerac" (see photo above) made with Cognac 1840, Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe and the obligatory Peychaud's Bitters. The cocktail is definitely smoother than the standard Sazerac most commonly prepared with rye whiskey and works well with the simple syrup added to sweeten it. The color is a perfect light red with hints of gold and is served with a lemon zest. It may well be that this new entry into the local drinking scene could change drinking habits in a way where everything old is new again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What good is sitting alone in your room?

Last night was both a celebration and a wake for the soon to be shuttered Cabaret Le Chat Noir. The brainchild of Barbara Motley and husband Biff, Le Chat Noir opened its doors 12 years ago at 715 St. Charles Avenue in a building that had been previously abandoned for 18 years. Two years prior the Motleys had been enjoying the sights and sounds of New York when they happened upon a sign advertising a cabaret show for later that night. They were not aware of what cabaret was, but the star of that show was none other than Andrea Marcovicci - "the Queen of Cabaret." Marcovicci's performance opened the Motleys' eyes and ears. Barbara became obsessed with providing a similar workspace for cabaret performers in New Orleans and she started calling on cabaret owners and performers finding out what it would take for her to open such a venture. She did her homework well. From the time she opened her doors to the public in June of 1999, Le Chat Noir became one of the most important venues for local small theatre works in addition to providing a launching point for cabaret careers for a number of local performers and a well-known hot spot on the national cabaret circuit. For many years the cabaret sponsored a contest for new one-act plays that were submitted and judged. The winners had their works exposed to the public as part of a "festival" sponsored by Le Chat Noir. In addition the Bar Noir was considered one of the quaintest and most interesting watering holes in a city famed for lounges. It was Barbara Motley's initial hope that cabaret would be the primary offering for the club, but it became apparent that local tastes ran more towards theatrical works and she and her gal Friday, Su Gonzcy, worked to balance the number of cabaret dates offered against a plethora of well-attended short plays and musicals by talented locals. The plays brought customers in droves and once they learned of the charm of the venue and of the quality of performances being offered, the cabaret side of the business began to do much better. Only three years after opening, Le Chat Noir boasted dates with one of the brightest of cabaret stars, Karen Akers. It was Akers' appearance at the then unheralded Le Chat Noir that got notice to booking agents and other cabaret performers that this was a very special venue and a management team that was professional, courteous and gracious. Through the intervening years Akers returned four more times in 2004, 2005, 2007 and just six weeks ago for her final appearance. Other nationally and internationally regarded performers included Amanda McBroom, Anna Bergman, Billy Stritch, Bryan Batt, Donna McKechnie, Jason Graae, Jason Robert Brown, Karen Mason, Klea Blackhurst, Liz Callaway, Rich Look, Steve Ross, Todd Murray and Tommy Tune. But aside from attracting stars of such great magnitude, one of the most important influences the cabaret had was on the local cabaret scene. Prior to Le Chat Noir's appearance there wasn't even a scene to discuss. After a few years of operation, Barbara Motley found out about the Yale Cabaret Conference, held each summer for enterprising cabaret performers. Through her efforts several up and coming cabaret performers applied for the very selective process, were eventually accepted to the program and found themselves headed for New Haven, Connecticut for intensive course work taught by some of the leading cabaret performers. As a result they were instructed in the art of cabaret and trained as to how to perform, act, sing and select material appropriate for their own repertoires. A cottage cabaret industry was thus born and encouraged by Le Chat Noir. Even after weathering the storm called Katrina and the citywide evacuation and flooding, Le Chat Noir continued to garner great press and important reviews across the country. It was among the first of spots to reopen its doors in the wake of the tragedy and helped focus efforts on the parts of many of the members of the theatre community to reorganize. The wall of photographs of performers at Le Chat Noir filled up through the years with 8x10 portraits of the national stars alongside local stars. Pictures of deceased performers such as singer-actress and cabaret performer Cynthia Owen and actors Roy Dumont and Paula Prelutsky, all of whom had performed at Le Chat Noir in various roles, still grace the southwest wall of the club, a tribute to their lasting legacy and their contributions towards making Le Chat Noir the remarkable gathering place it was for some of New Orleans' most talented writers, singers, actors and composers. Last night's final show was titled "In Here Cabaret is Family" and starred seven ladies, all of whom could credit their burgeoning cabaret careers to this incredible performing space. Amy Alvarez, who just finished a successful cabaret tour to Baltimore and New York and her pianist and musical director Jefferson Turner, both graduates of the Yale Cabaret Conference, directed the show along with veteran jazz performer Banu Gibson. Although Gibson had already established her career prior to the institution's rise, some of her biggest career shows were held at Le Chat Noir, most notably sold-out performances for her Fred Astaire and George and Ira Gershwin programs. Also on the program were Anais St. John, a former cocktail waitress at the club and Lisa Picone, both graduates of the Yale Conference, in addition to Dorian Rush and Leslie Castay. St. John and Picone both had retrospective shows on their career idols: St. John's well-received show was on Eartha Kitt, while Picone's Peggy Lee tribute won her last year's Big Easy Award for Cabaret. Rush won the 2009 Big Easy Award for Best Cabaret performance for her role as Janis Joplin in "Livin' Janis." Castay, a former New York singing actress for the past two decades, returned to her New Orleans home a few years back and continued her successful career with a one-woman cabaret show titled "unscripted..." at the club twice this year. At the end of the night all the ladies came out on stage and sang the one song that one would expect to close the house, the title song from Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret." It was a special night that ended with everyone spilling out into Bar Noir and hoisting quite a number of cocktails until the break of dawn. The reason for the closure of the cabaret is that the Motleys want to shed the weighty responsibility of maintaining the mortgage on the building. In order to find a buyer it was necessary to cease operations - at least temporarily - until a sale could be finalized. The possibility that the club may rise again at its present site or at another location remains until the possible sale of the building is finalized, but for now the club is closed and negotiations are in full swing. The public will have to console itself with the past 12 years of history, knowing that another club like Le Chat Noir may never come again. Clients celebrated and mourned the passing of this performing space that was so much more than just a venue. It was very much like a family. It's loss will be hard to replace, but most people are hopeful that it will rise again like the fabled legend of the phoenix. So, as the song fittingly says and the ladies sang it last night, "Life is a cabaret, old chum. And we love this cabaret!"

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Fourth of July and a nation like no other

It's been a while since I waxed politically about this great nation of ours and, with the luxury of a long holiday weekend, it's about time that I do something to deserve that worthy appellation of writer, which I am prone to bandy about from time to time. First of all there is little doubt in my mind that the United States of America - no matter the current or past political leadership - is the greatest representative democracy to ever hold sway over one nation. While some may accuse it of having devolved into some form of socialism, facism or anarchy, I am of a mind to believe that it is still a beacon to other nations as to what form of government they would prefer for their own. This land of wealth and luxury is marked by an upper echelon whose lifestyles, if we believe what we see on reality TV, are probably way out of control. Meanwhile, the lower strata of the impoverished, needy and homeless is readily improved through assistance from government agencies along with established charities, faith-based organizations and the efforts of well-meaning and altruistic individuals. Oftentimes, the idealistic individuals taking care of the unfortunates of society are our young, spirited volunteers who have time and time again demonstrated their readiness to stretch forth their hands of charity as they are to pick up a smartphone and text their friends about the latest gossip at school. I saw this with my own eyes following the flooding in New Orleans related to Hurricane Katrina, when I was a recipient of such help. And I've seen it time and time again from natural disasters in Haiti and Japan are even in our own backyards this spring when rivers and streams overflowed their banks. America's strength is in its charity and in its diversity. We are a nation that has embraced immigrants to its shores and into its borders since its inception and we need to be conscious of the fact that five centuries ago the natives who occupied it were happy to welcome us to this New World. It is important that we keep in mind that no matter our age or station, we are but mere tenants, awaiting our replacements. Our country has amassed the most powerful and fearsome force on the planet, but we have had the capacity to understand that our might should not be unleashed frivolously and that the strength we exercise in diplomacy can be far greater and yield more beneficial results than that which would be gained through force. Sadly, we are still embroiled in far-off conflicts and our brave soldiers are still dying for the cause of protecting our freedom. It is easy to say these words when we have not lost a loved one or neighbor and for those who survive such a loss, we should be understanding and grateful for the sacrifices made. With the death of Osama bin Laden our country has shed some of the collective shame we felt in allowing the attacks on America to occur. This upcoming tenth anniversary will be a time for us to reflect on where we need to be vigilant against present and future foes. We need to consider that our ability to act as the leading nation in the world may be compromised in the future by other nations who are moving ahead technologically at a greater pace than we are. China in particular is about to pass the United States for the first time in the number of patents granted, the first such occurrence since records of that sort have been kept. We no longer have the record for the tallest skyscraper in the world: that trophy now goes to Dubai. We are deficient in several other areas where we had previously led the world, but the question we should ask is does this portend a loss of our own strength or, more likely, a change in the parity of the world's nations? We should still be proud of all that we have accomplished and keep in mind that we are probably stronger and less inclined to have to police the world when we have active partners engaged in commerce and protecting their own interests. This eliminates the need for us to carry the day by ourselves. Certainly, the cynics will decry such a thought that strong allies make for a more peaceful world, but it is important to remember that the old suppositions of win-lose may no longer have any validity in today's landscape of up and coming nations all vying for a bite at the apple. So on this Fourth of July, I hope we will all concentrate on the freedom and liberty we enjoy as a sovereign nation. Perhaps the good feelings we have towards our neighbors will spill over to other nations who will look at what we have and envy us for all of our many blessings.

Friday, July 1, 2011

AJPA Conference 2011

AJPA President Amy Doty welcomes new member Alan Smason
The American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) met in Dallas this week for its 44th year as the consortium that represents the oldest and most prominent of Jewish publications as well as some of the very best minds in Jewish journalism. The conference dealt with a number of issues confronting traditional print organizations and how they are coping with dwindling subscription bases, higher costs and increased competition from newer technologies such as web-based news sites and applications designed for mobile users. Demographer Ira Sheshkin gave attendees a lot of information to consider about the changing habits of the Jewish newspaper reading community and what the lack of young readership portends for the future of Jewish broadsheets, tabloids and glossy magazines. Several panels featuring major players and commentators spoke on topics such as issues confronting present-day Israel as well as offering sound practices attendees could use in their businesses. The conference was crowned with the presentation of this year's Rockower Awards for excellence in Jewish journalism. Dozens of submissions from newspapers and magazines were grouped by distribution size and critiqued by an anonymous slate of judges who determined their selections as this year's very best. Originally scheduled for Denver, the conference was switched to Dallas at the Galleria Westin Hotel for logistical reasons, graciously hosted in part at the Galleria Westin Hotel by Texas Jewish Press Vice-President and current AJPA President Amy Doty. All meals served were strictly kosher with supervision by Dallas' own Vaad Hakashrus and attendees were treated to an indoor feast featuring Texas-style barbeque on Tuesday night sponsored by Washington public relations firm Rabinowitz-Dorf Communications. Kudos also go out to AJPA Executive Director Leslie Honaker and assistant Alex Trujillo for their work in organizing and coordinating the conference.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hot doggin' in Congress

I guess it could have been scripted better had his name been Senator Pole, Representative Longfellow or Secretary Johnson. Suffice it to say that as names go, though, Congressman Weiner is pretty funny considering what he finally fessed up to. A respected member of the august body of the United States House of Representatives elected to take a picture of his own august body and send it anonymously through his Twitter account to a woman he didn't even know. This smacks of either complete stupidity or, more to the point, is overwhelming evidence that this congressman apparently had way too much time on his hands. At first Anthony Weiner categorically denied he had ever done such a thing. After all, he was recently married to a staffer from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office. It should be patently obvious from all of the interest surrounding her husband's own philandering that anyone connected to Hillary would be sensitive to avoid anything smacking of sexual indiscretion. I would expect his embarrassed wife may have her husband in the proverbial doghouse for some time to come. Yet, unless she learns of something other than this peccadillo, she should probably be lenient. After all, to his small credit Congressman Weiner did not do anything physical to anyone. There was no cigar involved and no one was tapping on a bathroom stall. The only thing he touched was the send button. In today's cyber world of social networking the opportunity to reach out and touch someone has never seemed so real nor have the lines blurred as to what is appropriate or intelligent when using hand-held devices. Ever since man devised a way to capture the human form - whether that be on the walls of caves, atop a sheet of canvas or through a photographic lens - the idea of displaying body parts has not lurked far behind. We are reminded of Greek and Roman statues, not the least of which we may recall the Venus di Milo. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for his renderings of the human body, many of which were drawn from corpses he arranged to view for added realism. The explosion of nudes in art may have begun in the Renaissance, but found its way into other periods of art including the cubist period championed by the bawdy Mr. Picasso himself. The sexual side of man's nature has always been a challenge as to what society deems is appropriate. The still photography of yesteryear has evolved into film and videos with high definition and 3-D effects. With today's new technology the envelope is constantly being pushed. A 14-year-old girl with a crush on a high school junior sends him a picture she snapped in the mirror of her breasts. Although it may seem innocent to some or as a misguided and ill-advised way to get his attention, the law has a way of viewing it. Child pornography. If the recipient passes it along to someone else over a cellphone or from his computer (and what teenager boy would ever do such a thing?), he is probably guilty of violating federal law by trafficking in child pornography. One image is all the law requires. A conviction could follow and he could be considered a sexual offender for the rest of his life. This is very scary stuff. This is also not Las Vegas: "What goes up on the Internet stays on the Internet." That includes Facebook and My Space postings and unlike our frail bodies that will eventually give way to dust, cyber images will never fade as long as there's a chipset lying around. So, Congressman Weiner has taught us another valuable lesson and provided for us a cautionary tale. Despite a call from House Minority Leader Pelosi for an investigation from the Ethics Committee, he refuses to resign and is hoping to move on. I hope he is successful and learns above everything else that lying to the press is not the best course. Despite the glee from comic writers across the globe, the Honorable Mr. Weiner has admitted the truth after what essentially was a relentless hounding by members of the press. Unless he is an idiot (an accusation of which many politicians have been accused along the Beltway), he should never again be accused of tweeting images of his Vienna sausage or kosher salami. There will be none of that for this weiner and being in this pickle has hardly been a picnic.

Bobby and Papa Dave

Although I had been on a plane to Miami as an infant, I never left New Orleans for purposes of leisure until 1968. I was 14 years old and my 65-year-old maternal grandfather David Smith (for whom my son is named) decided to take a chance on me. He had not traveled with me before and as it turned out, he would not travel with me ever again. But let me not get ahead of myself. The destination for the trip was San Antonio, the site of the historic Alamo and the world exposition known as the HemisFair. It was the first world's fair since the gigantic 1964-65 New York World's Fair. My maternal grandmother had made no secret she wanted no part of traveling to the Big Apple with her only grandson. She elected to take my younger sister. As any kid who feels left out, I must admit I was quite jealous not to be able to experience the thrill of seeing the displays and exhibits or to enjoy the rides there. No, I had not been chosen to see the twin Observatory Towers or the iconic Unisphere. Instead, I was headed for the Tower of the Americas, the 750-foot tower, that stood as the symbol of the world's fair titled "The Confluence of Civilizations in America." My grandfather and I boarded a Delta Airlines flight with an open-ended return. In retrospect I was not the best choice of a traveling partner for my grandfather. He was very set in his ways. Every morning we had to find a place that would serve him his shredded wheat cereal with hot milk. Nevermind it was 90 degrees outside. He wanted hot milk. He also retained a pronounced Eastern European Jewish accent, which was an embarrassment to an over energetic and insensitive teenager like me. We stayed across a broad avenue from the fair at the brand new Palacio del Rio, a Hilton Hotel that had been constructed by innovative modular design in a record 221 days. The hotel had taken advantage of the site nestled against the newly-restored San Antonio River and its new River Walk, an amazing achievement. By most standards the HemisFair was successful. It transformed the decaying downtown area into one of positive growth and progress and made the once putrid waters of the San Antonio River clear and navigable for tourism. Boat tours began plying along the water then which still run to this day. The grounds have been rededicated there as HemisFair Park and the city's modern convention center occupies much of its area today. The time my grandfather chose to travel - the beginning of June - was fraught with uncertainty. The presidential campaign was moving ahead, but race relations were frayed following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which had occurred only two months previous. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate, had a large number of electors promised and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was picking up steam, but no one Democratic candidate seemed to be able to reign in Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, the former Attorney General and brother of slain president John Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention was going to be held in August in Chicago and anti-war fever was beginning to increase. I watched the news voraciously because I admired Kennedy and his thoughts about how he could help transform America into a better place. I thought his chances to capture the Democratic nomination were much better than most suggested. He had charisma and he had momentum. The time was very late (well after 1 a.m. in San Antonio) when I watched the news that Kennedy had won the California Primary. He announced that it was time for them to move on to Chicago, a reminder that the battle for the nomination still needed to be won. I remember thinking here was the next President of the United States. My grandfather was trying to sleep, so as soon as I thought everything was over, I turned off the TV. History tells us now that had I waited to turn off the set another five or ten minutes I would have been privy to the live transmission that occurred at the time when Sirhan Sirhan trained his weapon and fatally shot the Senator. The morning papers had special editions at the newsstands and network television was all over the story when we rose later in the morning. By the time Kennedy finally succumbed from his wounds later in the day, my grandfather had decided that enough was enough. He had had enough of his grandson, who made fun of his having to have hot milk with his shredded wheat every morning and who kept him up watching TV late at night. That evening we were winging our way back to New Orleans, the trip cut down from a week to four days. Today marks the 43rd anniversary of that trip to San Antonio and Kennedy's assassination. My grandfather and I made peace some years later, but he never took me away on a trip again and I guess I can't blame him. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have been a bit less trying and a lot more respectful. But the Almighty in his infinite wisdom has designed teenagers to operate outside of the loop of proper behavior as defined by grandparents. The price of wisdom is the cost of recognizing the folly of our youth. Today I recall both Bobby Kennedy and my grandfather, both of whom are gone and both of whom I shant ever forget.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The rapture to come or just another Shabbat

It is interesting how quickly things spread over the Internet these days. It would seem that much of the traffic comes in waves. When the New Zealand earthquake and Japanese tsunami devastated those countries, the chatter was at a very high level and then tapered off. The same things occurred after the Navy Seals dispatched Osama Bin Laden. E-mails, Facebook entries and connections spiked at a very high level and have only recently leveled to what might be called normal levels. It would seem that the prediction by a San Francisco preacher, Harold Camping, of the imminent return to Earth of Jesus has all the earmarkings for thousands of devout Christians of another high water Internet event. It also has the naysayers, atheists and other religious leaders who disagree standing on the sidelines and waiting so they can ridicule this non-event on May 22. As a non-Christian, it is important for me to be supportive of those who wish to ascend to heaven this Saturday. However, as I clearly will not be in that number, I also hope they will not be too upset with me if I arrange my schedule accordingly. Why Camping has received so much interest, particularly when one looks at his track record (he originally predicted a similar event would occur back in 1994), is beyond my understanding. Too many people with nothing else to do, I guess. No, I think I will look on Saturday as just another Shabbat, a day dedicated to rest and peace and quiet introspection. If I'm right, all of this discussion will be thrown on the trash heap of yesterday's Internet chatter and if I'm wrong, it won't really matter. Meanwhile, I hope that Rev. Camping hasn't stopped paying his bills. He may find out his creditors are not nearly as forgiving as his fellow Christians and others will be on Sunday.

Monday, May 2, 2011

From April to May Day

©2011 Time.com
The last few weeks have left me shell shocked. No, I wasn't necessarily caught in the whirlwind surrounding the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (or as NBC kept referring to it "the wedding of the century"). It was more a succession of events that included the celebration of Passover and a number of deadlines, not the least of which was that which revolved about the IRS and taking care of my tax liabilities. And then there was work. I have been extraordinarily busy, which is a good thing. I have had very little time to attend to my writing, which is regrettable. In fact, this is the slowest period of blog activity I have had since I took to writing my thoughts here. But not to worry. I am beginning to see the start of a period where, hopefully, more time will be available for me to devote to this blog. The recent events in Pakistan which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden have given me time to reflect on what all of this should mean for Americans. I am immensely proud of what our Navy SEALS accomplished and without any loss of life on our side. While I can't say I am sorry that this man of hate is dead, I am sure that we will not receive more security by his quick and terrible dispatch. We as a nation will have to be vigilant and know that there are many others who stand ready to take his place. For those on the fence this may be a lesson to keep them from making a commitment, but for some Bin Laden's death may serve as a source of inspiration. There are crazy people out there who usually don't make any impact on American society. Unfortunately, Bin Laden did and it took three presidents and five terms of office to finally put him into a watery grave. I can only hope that we never again experience an attack so vicious on our heartland and that we will never let down our guard to permit it. I reflect back on the key words uttered by the SEAL commander to let the President and others in the situation room know that Bin Laden was captured or killed. It was a phrase named in honor of a Native American who had waged war on Washington, but whose fighting style was so legendary that it survived him. What President Obama, Secretary Clinton and others heard was "For God and Country. Geronimo! Geronimo! Geronimo!"

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

April means festivals

A young festival goer in New Orleans

There is something magical about New Orleans in springtime. The azaleas are in full bloom with dazzling displays of purple, white, pink and red against a sea of green. By mid-March and April the air is typically fed by high pressure cells and the relative humidity plunges downward, making for several very pleasant, temperate days. Occasionally, violent thunderstorms will emerge as low pressure cells from the Gulf of Mexico clash with them, but those days are few in number. With the onset of this mostly pleasant weather comes the opportunities for outdoor fun and exploration. It doesn't take a genius to know that spring is here and the time for festivals abounds as much as those blooming azaleas. The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival at the end of March kept a number of the literati busy discussing what is the centennial of the birth of one of America's most famous playwrights. Several attendees caught the last of the Historic New Orleans Collections display "Drawn to Life,"a half century of Al Hirschfeld's drawings dealing with Tennessee Williams plays. It closed April 3. While that was intended to keep most folks indoors, the Freret Street Festival last Saturday was just the first of several small festivals intended to boost one neighborhood or specific food group or item. Tomorrow the French Quarter Festival begins for the first time on a Thursday; it has become so successful that a fourth day of fun was added this year. Last year an estimated 400,000 locals and tourists swamped the French Quarter, enjoying food, the unique architecture and a plethora of stages with live music acts. Meanwhile, the folks in Pontchatoula will be hosting their annual Strawberry Festival this weekend as well. For those that make the drive to the country there are several musical acts of note and countless ways to enjoy the noble aggregate fruit. The succession of festivals will continue. By the time the month starts to ebb, the granddaddy of them all - Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) - will be in full swing. Ah yes, it's definitely springtime in New Orleans. I can hear, see, smell and taste it all.

Friday, April 1, 2011

This is no April Fool's post

No Time for Fools

There was a time when I was a prankster.
Others' misfortunes made me smile.
But as the years have progressed, I confess, my friends
I haven't felt that way for a while.

As a boy, I loved Larry, Curly and Moe
As they poked each other in the eye
And Laurel and Hardy I confess, they too
Gave me a giddy and not-so-guilty high.

Yet, perhaps it's because I understand now
That no good comes from laughter born of pain
That to love someone means keeping quiet
When they trip and fall down in the rain.

Or when a board is swung full circle
And smashes a bloke on his crown.
I shouldn't break out in a guffaw,
But should emphasize, instead, my frown.

When I see a lady flying forward
After slipping on a banana peel
I must make myself quite contrite
I must not let out a gay squeal.

When I know someone's going to sit
I must resist with all of my heart
Not to place underneath them the cushion
Whose sound gives everyone a start.

Or to offer a stick of gum to a friend
The kind that turns black as they chew it.
I must keep tightly inside my shoes,
Not give into temptation - just screw it.

So I'm guessing you know I am changed
That today when I think about pies
I'm savoring the taste of those tarts
And not smashing them into your eyes.

It feels good to know I am mature
And now follow these simple rules,
But I tell you my friends that it's hardest
On this day that we call April Fools'.

©2011 Alan Smason

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Big Easy Theater Awards

Master of Ceremonies Bryan Batt, right, with partner Tom Cianfichi

Last night the New Orleans theater community honored its own at the 2011 Big Easy Theater Awards. It was a grand night as the awards ceremony hosted by Broadway and screen actor Bryan Batt returned to Harrah's Casino after a one-year hiatus. More importantly, it signaled the separation again of the theatre awards from the music awards that honor local musicians. Those ceremonies will be held next month at Harrah's. Top honors for Best Musical went to Le Petit Théåtre du Vieux Carre's "Hairspray," many of whose performers were underage and could not attend the ceremonies held at Harrah's Theater because it is in the adults-only gaming hall. Best Drama honors went to "Frozen," produced by the Crescent Theatre Collective, while Theatre 13 snagged the Best Comedy award with their frenetic paced "The 39 Steps." The Honorary Theater Awards Chairman was Dennis Assaf, the artistic and executive director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. John O'Neal, the founder of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Theater for his nearly five decades worth of accomplishments in local and national theater Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeff Roberson) received the 2011 Theater Entertainer of the Year Award, accepting in a taped message designed to appear as a live feed from Skype. Su Gonczy, the dedicated lighting director and girl Friday at Le Chat Noir, who helped guide the show's technical direction, was honored with the first "Standing Ovation Award," designed to honor those behind the scenes who contribute so much to the theater scene. Quite rightly, she received two standing ovations before and after her acceptance speech. The glitzy affair included several performances by members of nominated productions including "The Producers," "Grey Gardens," "Hairspray," "Mame" and "The Threepenny Opera." For a complete listing of all winners, click here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The once and future queen

(Image ©cosmomovies.com)

When the news came out that legendary actress, successful business woman and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor had expired from congestive heart failure, it signaled what may have been the end of an era. At this juncture only Mickey Rooney (who also racked up at least eight marriages) still survives as the last vestige of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. The iconic beauty whose motion picture career began in 1941, was first signed to a contract at Universal Studios, but that contract was trashed by Universal Production Chief Edward Muhl who complained that despite propping from her agent Milton Selznick (producer David's brother), "She can't sing. She can't dance. She can't perform. What's more, her mother has to be one of the most unbearable women it has been my displeasure to meet." It was a short year later that she was signed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star for $100 per week for three months opposite Roddy McDowell in "Lassie Come Home." Other early starts included "National Velvet" in 1944, but her incredible beauty made itself evident first in "Father of the Bride" starring Spencer Tracy in 1950. By then she was a star of epic proportions and the films that became her calling cards - "BUtterfield 8," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Giant," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "A Place in the Sun" - began to be churned out by Hollywood to great fanfare from critics and movie goers alike. By the time I was old enough to know who she was, she was already on husband number four (Eddie Fisher) and I remember reading about her reaping an unprecedented salary of $1 million dollars for her work in "Cleopatra" opposite husband number five and six (Richard Burton). Even at such a tender age, I was amazed at how beautiful she was and it was the first time I had ever heard of anyone having been described as having violet eyes. Yes, truly violet eyes. They were definitely not blue and definitely not brown, but an intense light purple that almost denied adequate description. To this day I have only met one other person who had violet eyes. While her eyes may have been her most striking point, the rest of her body in her prime was almost that of a gliding goddess who had set down on earth. She was magnificent. While her career hit the skids in the last two decades, she managed to become an integral founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) after the death of her friend and former co-star Rock Hudson as well as a well-known designer of jewelry and a manufacturer of perfume. She was a bright woman whose compassion shone even during times when she was besieged by a number of health concerns or private tragedies. A winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress in "BUtterfield 8" and "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," she was a star among stars. Her passing from congestive heart failure will never diminish her legacy nor dilute her importance on the Hollywood scene. She will live on as long as we remember her and treasure that gift of her many moving and brilliant performances she has bestowed upon us and other generations of film lovers to come. Rest, sweet lady, for you have earned your peace. And we shall have you "to-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow."

Get the lead out

Daneel Playgrond looking out from the middle of the park toward St. Charles Avenue

An alarming announcement came from city officials yesterday. Not one, not two, but three different playgrounds have come under scrutiny as having had high levels of lead in the soil. This follows a similar report and closing of Markey Park in the Ninth Ward this past January. That park's soil was remediated and, after several weeks of efforts by city workers was declared safe and reopened earlier this month. The most recent announcement concerns Daneel Playground in the uptown area along historic St Charles Avenue as well as Taylor and Annunciation Playspots in Central City and the Lower Garden District respectively. These parks are considered as having the highest priority, since the levels of lead tested out much higher than most of the others. City officials have acknowledged another 10 playgrounds have tested for higher than permissible levels, but they fall short of the top three. In 2008, the last year such testing data is available, Orleans Parish children tested as having had the highest levels of lead in the blood than any other parish in the state. The shocking level of six percent announced by state officials is of particular concern because high levels of lead exposure have a direct link to delayed development, difficulties in learning and violent behavior by older children and teenagers. New Orleans neighborhoods tested for higher levels of lead exposure than permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 15 out of 46 neighborhoods. What concerns me is that Daneel Playground was the playspot where my son used to enjoy hanging out on the slides and swings. It's serene atmosphere was recently enhanced when Kaboom!, a non-profit group that specializes in upgrading existing or installing new playgrounds replaced equipment there in July of 2009. So, just how did the lead get into the soil? Scientists suggest it is an outgrowth of rampant sandblasting and the use of lead paint over many decades. Leaded gasoline, while now outlawed, might also have contributed to particulates in the air from exhausts of automobiles and fallen to the ground. It seems our children have been swimming in a virtual sea of lead toxicity right under our very noses. Why it's taken so long to discover this is a mystery. Pre-Katrina the results of testing showed Orleans Parish students as among the worst in the state. To say they were challenged by poor facilities, poor curricula and poor teachers would probably be the understatement of the year. In the post-deluvian time as charter schools have sprung up to attempt to bridge the gap in delivery of education to the children of Orleans Parish, we have seen test scores indicate a marked improvement. It is by no means perfect, but indications are that education efforts had begun to turn around a system that failed students in significant ways. Throw into the mix lead toxicity and all of the gains that have been made in the last five years could be threatened. It is expected that the three playgrounds will be fenced and signs will be posted in the coming days alerting the public to the problem. Then a mesh will be placed on the ground to seal the leaded soil and a new layer of fresh soil will be added on top of that to ensure the safety of play areas. If all goes well, the turnaround should be in six weeks or less. Thank goodness the present city administration took the initiative to investigate. The question should be posed: what was going on with the previous administrations that didn't allow such testing to take place? Why did it take so long to respond to the level of lead exposure in our greatest hope and resource for the future (our children)? Also, what can we do to ensure that we don't inadvertently expose our offspring to lead? Should we keep them indoors or is the danger inside from leaded paint even more dangerous than that found in natural environments? My child is a fully grown adult, but I feel for those parents who must now make decisions to protect their children. I pray the closure of these three parks will be the beginning of a new era of health service by city officials to protect the young rather than a way to protect investors and backers of future administrations.