“The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men Go Oft Awry”

img_2414For some weeks now, work crews have been busy ripping out the pay phones on New York City streets, replacing them with streamlined 9.5 foot high WiFi kiosks that offer free WiFi connection, free phone calls, and USB ports for charging your various devices. Before they are done, they intend to install 7500 of these kiosks.


 With the proliferation of cellphones, the old pay phones have become obsolete. You never see anyone using them and anyway many of them don’t work.

So in the name of progress, the City has entered into a 12-year franchise agreement with a consortium that has agreed to install the kiosks at a cost of over $200 million. Here’s the deal: the consortium will pay all the costs of installation, including the laying of fiber optic cables. They will sell advertising on the large lighted panels on the side of the structures and the City will share in the ad revenues. Everybody, it seems, will make a lot of money; the City is slated to receive no less than $500 million over the 12-year period of the agreement.img_2417

 When interviewed by West Side Rag, my neighborhood newspaper, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, one of the groups comprising the consortium, had this to say: “The big goal is addressing digital inequality. . . . Without fast access to the internet, you cannot have equal opportunity.”

 A cynic might suggest that the “big goal” has more to do with the financial arrangements rather than bridging the digital divide, but let that go.


 Now it seems that maybe they should have given more thought to just how the opportunity to access free web browsing might work out.

 Homeless vagrants have been pulling up overturned crates or cast-off chairs and couches left for the trash trucks in order to sit comfortably while they listen to music or watch pornographic movies for hours on end. This does not make residents of nearby apartment buildings happy. In fact, complaints have been so numerous that as of September 14, they have had to shut off web browsing altogether.


 Anne Roest, commissioner of the City’s Department of   Information Technology and Telecommunications admits, “We are going to make adjustments. . . . A lot of these things are things we really weren’t anticipating when we went live.”

 And that’s the way it’s always been.

Life will never go according to the epistles,

Expecting  whistles, flutes,

Expecting flutes, it’s whistles.

“You Never Know,” a variation of Da Bienes Fortuna by Luis de Gongora (1561-1625). The full poem will be found in Did You See This? Poems to Provoke the Politically Correct by Herbert Knapp, to be published very soon by Girandole Books. 



Filed under Poetry, Technology

This Is Not a New Yorker Cartoon

Actually these are deadly serious 19th-century drawings meant to inform readers of the different methods of hydrotherapy available to sufferers of many ailments.

Hydropathic Applications

Never mind the nonchalance of the gentleman reading in the sitz bath, who we must assume is sans culottes but who keeps his boots on and his dignity in intact.

I don’t know about you, but I find this funny. However, it occurs to me that a 19th-century audience viewed the drawings with an entirely different frame of reference.

My friend Ann discusses the place of hydrotherapy before the advent of modern medicine in the current post to the blog she writes for the Merchant’s House Museum, a historic house museum I have been affiliated with for over 20 years.

She points out that at least the “water cure” was more benign than other therapies available, namely bloodletting, cupping, and blistering, which caused actual harm

As it happened, the day Ann’s post was published, I found it necessary to get myself to the emergency room in a hurry because of a severe allergic reaction manifesting itself as a case of hives! Believe me, I am extraordinarily grateful for the injections of prednisone and benadryl on offer there. A hundred fifty years ago, I would probably have found myself wrapped in a wet winding sheet.

To read Ann’s interesting discussion of hydrotherapy, go here.


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I So Hoped They’d Invent This!

imagesAnd Samsung did: the Family Hub Refrigerator! It has built in cameras that take a photo of the interior every time the doors close. The most recent photo appears on your camera. Thus we are relieved of the onerous responsibility of looking in the refrigerator before we go to the store to make sure we have enough butter or eggs.

And that’s not nearly all. You can write messages and reminders on your phone that will appear on the 21.5-inch touch screen on the refrigerator door. I suppose that you can take a picture of your kid’s artwork, pin it to the refrigerator screen and throw the real thing away. Less clutter.

And Samsung hasn’t thought of this, but you can keep a sharp eye on the leftovers wherever you may be and the minute they start showing that fuzzy stuff that indicates they’ve done their time, you can move in immediately to liberate them.

One problem though: At around $5000, it’s more than I’m comfortable spending on a refrigerator. And it doesn’t come in a 24-inch model, which is all the kitchen real estate I can devote to a fridge.


Filed under Technology

A Reason To Celebrate

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

We celebrate our founding as a nation, not because, like most people. we have a sentimental attachment to our homeland, but because never before in the history of mankind had a nation been founded on the principle that rights are bestowed by God, not man.

In Federalist 14, Madison wrote that the American Revolution “has no parallel in the annals of human society” and that the new republic “has no model on the face of the globe.” He was not bragging. It was the truth.

And that truth is indeed something worth celebrating.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody.


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Why I Finally Broke Up With My Kindle

1 Fran_ois BoMadame Pompadourucher (French painter, 1703_1770) Madame du Pompadour


My Kindle and I have had an uneasy relationship for over three years now. I tried to love it; I really did. But I finally had to admit it wasn’t working out. Best we just call it quits.

First of all, I don’t like the way I can only look at one page at a time. Until I got the Kindle, I didn’t realize how often I fan the pages of a book, looking for information I’ve forgotten or to see if I have time to finish the chapter before dinner. I also didn’t realize that I typically read the last few words on a page as I make the turn. You can’t do that on a Kindle.

I like to write in my books. God doesn’t care. They are, after all, my books. Of course I would never write in someone else’s book or a library book—curses on those who do—but I happily scribble in mine. I like to pick up a book I’ve already read, and fan the pages looking for the stars, the underlines, and the marginal notes to myself and to the author that I’ve made in my own handwriting. I like to dog-ear pages, paste on sticky notes, insert bookmarks.

In short, I like to handle a book, that is to do a lot of things with my hands as I read.

And I like to know where my books are— and I do. They’re on the bookshelves. I can identify them by just looking at the spines. Some books are fat, some thin; some tall, some short, and they’re all different colors . I like them around me; I don’t want them dancing off into the atmosphere.

But the most disqualifying aspect of the Kindle for me is the fact that I simply cannot concentrate on what I’m reading on a screen for more than 15 or 20 minutes.

To be fair, I should acknowledge that there are certain advantages to the Kindle. You can make the type bigger. It’s easier to read lying down because you only have to hold the reader; the book literally weighs nothing. You can read in the dark; there are lots of free books available, and if you travel, you can carry any number of books with you without adding weight to your luggage.

You’re a nice device, Kindle. But let’s face it; as far as you and I are concerned, it’s over.



Filed under Education, Technology, Uncategorized

Chatty Cathy to Hello, Barbie—Where are We Going With This?

51QJYEvG-YLWhen Elly was four, her Uncle Mark gave her a Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. I remember it well. We were all amused and intrigued by this “talking doll.” You pulled and released a ring pull on her back and she “spoke.”

However, the concealed recording only produced 11 phrases and even the four-year old knew the doll wasn’t really talking. Cathy’s charm wore off rather quickly.

Fast forward to now. The paradigm has shifted and talking toys have taken on a weirdly sinister character. Thanks to the digital revolution and advances in the field of artificial intelligence, the new Barbie can simulate a real conversation, responding to comments as if she understands them. Actually her roll out may have been somewhat premature since, according to some of the reviews, the most often produced response when you push her belt buckle is “Uh oh, I can’t find a WiFi connection.”

But don’t worry, Barbie’s conversational skills will improve in short order. Today she is programmed to recognize spoken clues that direct her to select from among 8,000 responses.. And she remembers some of what she hears, like the child’s name, a pet’s name, etc. and she incorporates that information into the conversation.

Even though children understand that Barbie is not really alive, they cannot fully grasp just how she works (who can?) and a doll who responds to whatever you say in a reasonably logical way is a powerful plaything especially if the adults, intent on their own electronic devices, don’t often pay close attention to what you are saying.

We all need to have face to face interactions with other humans who have feelings of joy, anger, disgust, admiration—and love— and who express these feelings through language and facial expression. This is how children learn to have feelings of their own and to empathize with others. The process starts when the infant first brings his mother’s smiling face into focus and continues throughout life.

Barbie, however, does not— and never will— have feelings. And children who spend a lot of time with a robot risk becoming, in some measure, 479459-hello-barbierobotic.

After a childhood relating to talking toys and an adulthood conversing with Siri and Alexa and their as yet unimagined sophisticated and smarter progeny, these kids should have no objection to a nursing home where their caregivers will be robots that look like nurses.

Don’t scoff. Such a scenario is already in the works with Japan leading the way. They expect a shortfall of 380,000 nursing care workers for the elderly by 2025 and robots are already on the job there. So far they don’t look like people, but they’re working on it.

O, brave new world/ That has such people in it.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1.




Filed under Education, Technology

How a 100-Year Old House Became an Historic House Museum

And now, 80 years later, The Merchant’s House Museum still offers visitors a unique window into the lives of  mid-19th century New Yorkers.

The Merchant's House Museum

The Merchant’s House Museum

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Enter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant's House

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant’s House

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.

A mirror reflecting the 19th century.Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

To read a sample chapter from Miracle on Fourth Street, go to http://girandolebooks.com.



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Filed under Architecture, Conservation, Historic House Museums, Merchant's House, Preservation, Restoration