Category Archives: Consumer Issues

One-Time Commercial Announcement

My readers/followers are aware that this blog has no commercial component — no ads or commercial promotions of any kind – and I intend to keep it that way. I did not undertake this work to make money.

I am, however, taking this one-time only opportunity to announce that I am today standing up Ruden Editing Service at https://www.rudeneditingservice.com If you have a need for the services available there, I will be pleased to provide them. If not, but you know someone who might benefit, feel free to forward the information.

You will not receive this promotion again unless you also in my personal Contacts list. If so, you may get it one more time, or you may see it once on LinkedIn or Facebook, but that’s it. No need to unsubscribe.

The themes of Ruden Editing Service are “where clarity rules” and “say what you mean.” I have chosen this line of work because I have long experience with it and believe I can do it well. The service covers virtually any work of written expression with a few noted exceptions. For example, I will not write papers for original student assignments. There are people who will do that, but I am not one of them. My goal is simply to help people express their written thoughts clearly.

While I am indulging in promotion, I want to put in a plug for my web developer. Deborah Newman at https://www.petitetaway.com This is the review I posted:

Deborah Newman took me from nowhere to a beautiful functional website in record time. She was always ready to address to my questions (including the really dumb ones) & responsive to everything I wanted to do. Took charge and walked me through the steps on related sites that I could never have managed on my own. Great experience in every way. Highly recommended.

 

Now, back to the blog. The next post will be entitled The Root of All Evil, but it’s not what you might think. Stay tuned.

Is Twitter the Next Republican Echo Chamber?

Social media are awash in problematic and near hysterical responses to the announcement that Elon Musk is cleared to buy Twitter. Having paid little attention to Musk, I have nothing useful to say about the acquisition as such.

I am, however, interested in the assertion that Musk is a “free speech absolutist” and that he will, therefore, apply that principle to his management of Twitter with dire consequences. Many observers believe this means Trump’s Twitter account will be restored, with predictable results. Trump himself reportedly says he won’t rejoin Twitter but anyone who has been mentally functioning for the past five years knows Trump’s word is meaningless. Meanwhile, people like Trump’s children have remained on Twitter all along, promoting their schemes, lying and all the rest. Is the furor just about Trump?

In any case what does “free speech absolutist” mean? Yesterday, Musk tweeted this:

By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.

Putting aside the logical issues with those sentences, if Musk really means that free speech must “match the law,” there would be little to worry about. Summarized, the law is that speech that is, for example, in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy or that is demonstrably false and harmful may be regulated, not only by private entities but by the government itself. The classic example is shouting fire in a crowded and darkened theater. Such “speech” is dangerous, and the speaker may be held to account for it. Similarly, solicitation of a crime combined with actual steps toward executing the crime may be prosecuted. Speech that is normally covered by, for example, attorney-client privilege that prevents compulsory disclosure loses its privileged status if, for example, the attorney-client communication is part of a criminal enterprise.

If, on the other hand, Musk means that going forward Twitter will not discipline participants and will depend entirely on the government to do so, we will have an example of the most cynical form of disinformation in history. Why? Because Musk knows that the government is not going to undertake direct regulation of social media platforms like Twitter and claiming to depend on “the law” to do so is the height of cynical misdirection.

Mr. Musk may, on the other hand, actually believe that speech is absolute in its “freedom,” so that, for example, Donald Trump should be free to claim in Future Twitter that the 2020 election was stolen and that no consequences should attach to such false claims. Maybe.

I don’t know for sure what Musk actually thinks. Twitter participants appear to be dropping out in large numbers over fear that Musk will turn Twitter into a platform for free-form lying by right-wing lunatics. Others argue that they will “stay and fight.” Many right-wing conspiracists are rejoicing at what they believe will be the New Twitter where anything goes, including blatantly false statements about important matters like elections. Such statements are already appearing in a multitude of tweets.

Staying and fighting may not be a viable strategy if indeed Twitter is going to adopt the policy that anything goes. If it does, it will almost certainly and very quickly attract the Flat Earth and other crazies who have nothing useful to say and are not open to reason. In that case, Twitter may well die, and Musk will lose a lot of money.

I say that because I am confident that a social media platform of Twitter’s scope will not long endure as a home for lunatic fringe participants. There are, of course, plenty of them already participating. Usually, the best approach is to just block them.

Maybe Twitter really is worth $44 billion but the investment could easily be squandered by turning the platform into what Trump’s Truth Social was supposed to be but never achieved. The good news is that it won’t take too long to see which way the mendacity is blowing.

Twitter as a free-to-lie/cheat/steal platform, Twitter as the new home for Fox News and the like, can be replaced by a platform that respects truth, rejects disinformation and honors the true meaning of the idea of “free speech.” Call me naïve, if you like, but $44 billion for a platform that promotes false information is probably a bad investment. We’ll see.

The Usual Suspects

Eight Republican senators have written the Department of Justice to urge rejection of Delta Air Lines’ request for a unified no-fly list addressed to a specific cohort of passengers. The list is designed to add further deterrence against passengers who refuse to comply with government and airline policy regarding masks and who engage in violent aggressions against flight crews and other passengers. In some reported cases, these individuals have tried to open aircraft doors in flight, jeopardizing the lives of the passengers and crew as well as potentially people on the ground. They have also physically attacked air crew members.

According to Apple News, https://bit.ly/354uOLn, the story was reported in the Washington Post but seems to have been taken down. It was, however, also reported in The Hill. https://bit.ly/3rR4NYP So, as insane as this is, I am not making it up.

The authors of this masterpiece of obfuscation are:

Kevin Cramer – North Dakota

Ted Cruz – Texas

John Hoeven – North Dakota

James Lankford – Oklahoma

Mike Lee – Utah

Cynthia M. Lummis – Wyoming

Marco Rubio – Florida

Rick Scott – Florida

Why do I say it’s obfuscation?

  1. The senators admit that airlines are “free to deny service to any individual over past transgressions on their flights;”

Thus, the issue is not about the list; it’s about allowing the airlines to cooperate against violence without government sanction for such cooperation; the senators want less effective management of the issue rather than more effective management. Why are Republican senators siding with people who engage in violence in the air, jeopardizing the crews, passengers, and people on the ground?

  1. The senators’ main concern is not with the safety and convenience of most air travelers but with the opprobrium that will attach to the violators who, they say, are anti-maskers;

The letter claims the government-approved list “would seemingly equate them to terrorists who seek to actively take the lives of Americans and perpetrate attacks on the homeland. Indeed, it would. Because there is no functional difference between a “terrorist” and someone who attacks the crew because he objects to mask policies. It’s not about motive. It’s about threat. What will these upstanding senators have to say if one of their anti-masker constituents succeeds in bringing down an aircraft? Or when one of them kills a flight attendant or another passenger? Here’s what  they will say: “we strongly condemn any violence towards airline workers,” the equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” when the damage has been done.

  1. The senators’ motivation is driven in large part by their continued politization of the mask mandate the efficacy of which they claim is subject to “significant uncertainty,” citing only a Congressional hearing comment by the CEO of Southwest Airlines.

It’s true that Gary Kelly testified that masks “don’t add much” to the COVID-protection armory, an observation rejected by at least one other airline executive at the same hearing. But then Kelly contracted COVID. And then Kelly took the opposite position from his Congressional testimony. As reported by Bloomberg News in late January, Kelly said: “Adding the mask is an added layer of safety, and given the fact that we’re right in the midst of this omicron surge, now’s not really the time to revisit that question, in our opinion,” ….There will come a time when the mask won’t be necessary, and I think we’ll all look forward to that, but now is not the right time.” https://bloom.bg/3GUpuXZ [emphasis mine]

Did these Republican senators deliberately mislead the Department of Justice?

  1. The senators have apparently decided that people engaged in violent acts against flight crews and passengers are “not terrorists.” They’re … something else. Why? Because they said so. In fact, they don’t even approve of the anti-terrorist TSA no-fly list, citing “lack of transparency and its due process concerns.”

It’s true that there have been issues about “transparency and due process” regarding the no-fly lists. The fact that they could have been done better, despite the hysteria-driven fear of another attack on the homeland, is no reason to reject a cooperation arrangement that prevents violent passengers from simply choosing another airline next time.

  1. The senators express greater concern for the “constitutional right to engage in interstate transportation” than they do for the protection of the vast majority of passengers who comply with the law and respect the role of air crews in applying that law.

The senators produce no authority to support the point that there is a constitutional right to air travel despite the engagement in violent acts of resistance to government and airline policy. I don’t believe such authority exists. This is just another case of Republicans claiming that “my rights are superior to your rights.”

  1. Next, the senators pull out the traditional “slippery slope” argument, suggesting that there is a real risk such a list would lead to “future unrelated uses and potential expansions of the list based on political pressures.”

Thus, the Republican senators want to put you at risk today to prevent some possible future use of the list for political purposes. Of course, they don’t address how, or why, such misuse could occur in an industry as hungry for, and competitive in seeking, business as the airlines. This is the “be afraid” of your government routine that Republicans often turn to when all else fails. It violates the well-known principle that you don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

  1. Finally, the last desperate straw: the senators want this issue turned over to Congress, where in the age of Republican obstruction, most good ideas go to die.

The senators know that no Republican senator would likely support legislation to create the list in question and that in any case it would take many months, but more likely years, for Congress to act. Meanwhile, every air passenger in the country will be exposed to greater risk because a small minority of people believe they have the right to attack flight crews and other passengers to protect “rights” they don’t have.

Is there a possibility that a no-fly list of the kind proposed by Delta could someday be abused? Maybe, but there is also at least an equal chance that as long as anti-maskers are willing to engage in violence aboard aircraft, a serious disaster may occur. Given the risks and the awful consequences, compared to the potential for misuse, the rational approach is the best one. Enable the industry to jointly respond by banning miscreants who engage in violence. Any violation of someone’s rights down the road can be addressed and no one dies. That’s the choice.

See also, https://shiningseausa.com/2022/02/09/terrorism-in-air-ban-perps/

Terrorism in the Air – Ban the Perps

This blog has twice addressed what the media and airlines continue to call “unruly” passengers who refuse to follow flight crew instructions: Time for Strong Action Against Unruly Air Travelers  https://bit.ly/3uyZn6w and An Anti-Masker Walked into a Bar …  https://bit.ly/3Jj9xMP

I have noted that the term “unruly” fails to describe the violent conduct of these, mostly, anti-maskers accurately and fully. The current of today’s post describes their behavior as terrorism. That, I submit, is closer to the truth. Bear in mind that these people are almost certainly among those who are fond of telling Black people to “just comply” with police instructions and, in effect, blaming them when they are killed. These events usually occur at traffic stops but there are many other examples. Yet, when these people board aircraft, knowing what the mask rules are, they chose not only to refuse compliance, but they physically assault flight attendants and other passengers.

I have advocated that the situation presents immediate grave dangers that should be addressed with aggressive, immediate and automatic enforcement of the law and common sense.

It is now widely reported that Delta Air Lines has written the Department of Justice to request government creation of a no-fly list for these terrorists. It’s about time.

The main reasons I believe that airlines have been hesitant to simply exchange the names and agree to ban these nuts from flying is the antitrust laws. Someone would no doubt accuse the airlines of conspiring to limit competition. While I don’t believe such a claim has merit, it would be expensive to defend and pointless in the end. The better solution is the one Delta has finally requested. It remains remarkable only that the entire industry has not joined immediately in this request.

I haven’t found the letter yet but continue to believe that a government-approved no-fly list is an excellent idea, although the same outcome could be achieved by DOJ issuing a Business Review Letter, a common technique permitting firms to propose courses of conduct that might raise issues and to ask DOJ to clear them in advance. This is not a subject on which competition is materially involved or that could possibly be jeopardized. It’s a problem of safety about which there should be no “competition.”

As for the administrative difficulties of managing such a list, remember that airlines have always been able to manage connecting flights involving not only their own flights, but also their flights in conjunction with other carriers’ operations. A no-fly list would be a piece of cake compared to that.

So, come on, DOJ, let’s not turn this into another endless investigation. Take the action Delta requests. As for the terrorists, it’s simple: just comply.

 

Why I Hate the Snow

We had fair warning even though my two weather apps had drastically different predictions of how the second snow of the year would play out. Until the snow had already exceeded predictions, both said it would amount to little, somewhere between a dusting and three inches. Not that big a deal. And anyone who has lived a while or read books about weather will know that predictions are highly uncertain. Fine, as far as that goes.

My tale.

My wife is flying back to Washington DC from California, scheduled to land at National Airport (DCA to we cognoscenti) at 4:53 pm, a few hours after the snow was expected to start but given the predictions, we should have no issues. I drive a Ford Escape Hybrid that, in addition to extraordinary gas mileage, has front-wheel drive. It’s really a computer on wheels, with multiple sensors around the perimeter (aside: on road trips it will often suggest, by flashed dashboard message, that I am tired and should take a “rest”).

I set out from our apartment in the West End of DC at 4:30, plenty of time given that my wife checked her bag on the return flight. I am monitoring the flight’s progress on a cell phone app that, it will later appear, provides way more information than anyone could need, making the key information very hard to read while also trying to stay on the road whose lane markers have long ago disappeared.

Indeed, traffic is very light, although it’s apparent immediately that the car in front of me has no business being out in this weather. I carefully navigate Washington Circle, one of the cruel gifts of the original French designer of the city’s layout, and proceed down the hill to the Memorial Circle (site of the iconic Lincoln Memorial) and cross the Memorial Bridge to the George Washington (yes, that one) Parkway leading to the airport. Road conditions are not great but I’m moving right along and arrive at the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary parking lot, a short hop from DCA. I join a handful of other cars hopefully waiting to proceed to the airport where the cellphone “waiting” area is very small and the other places to stop and wait are patrolled regularly by police with guns.

[Aside No 2: According to the Washington Post, Roaches Run is named that because “The stream that feeds the lagoon is named for the family of James Roach, who ran a nearby brickworks and owned a mansion, since torn down, called Prospect Hill.” https://wapo.st/3KhGU3R Do not read that article because you will then be tempted to read the Comments where you will find yet another unnecessary war of words between two readers set off by an allegedly “off topic” comment and followed by “you’re one – no you are – no you…”]

After a while, I glance at my phone and see that the flight arrival is being pushed back. Not surprising considering the weather, runway clearing, etc. My weather app now changes as well – we’re now looking at 3 to 6 inches. No problem. Even had I known that before departure, my plan would not have changed. After all, I drive a Ford Escape ….

I wait. I look at the phone again and BOOM, I now see that the flight has been DIVERTED to Dulles International Airport (IAD to we cognoscenti) which is about 27 miles away and road conditions are deteriorating fast.

I depart Roaches Run, drive into DCA, and go around by the arrivals terminal so I’m now driving north on the GW. There are a few options for routes to IAD, but I choose to stay on the GW Parkway. I know the road well and traffic is sparse though road conditions are deteriorating fast. Several of the cars that also chose this route for whatever reasons are regretting the error as they slide around and, in some cases, get stuck in the mounting snow/ice/slush.

Undeterred, and in any case irrevocably committed to my chosen route, I forge ahead. I believe I am racing against a jet airplane that could be in final approach. Road conditions are deteriorating fast, but it could be worse. Only one driver does something really stupid, forcing me to brake suddenly to avoid him. I do. It’s all good.

I reach the Capital Beltway (the ring road around DC known to cognoscenti as 495), which is the link to the Dulles No-Toll superhighway that takes you straight to IAD. Traffic is much heavier on 495. Why? Is it really necessary for all these people to be driving on a Sunday night in a snowstorm when road conditions ….? Dumb question.

Still, I’m making good progress until the exit for the Dulles No-Toll Road. Here the snow has apparently melted near the pavement, the plows have missed the area and several cars are having that uh-oh moment of realization that they are now spinning in one place. Even my chariot is having a lot of trouble maintaining forward momentum.

But I ease around the floundering cars, leaving them in my dust (very figuratively speaking) and make it onto the No-Toll road. I could take the Toll Road that parallels (literally right next to) the No-Toll Road but why pay when you can drive for free (the Devil whispers in my ear)? I think I will make it to IAD in plenty of time because the government usually keeps the No-Toll Road pretty clear, and traffic remains light. I am maintaining a nice steady 20 mph on a road designed for 55 and often driven at 65 to 70 by many (other people).

Once clear of other cars and with open (figuratively speaking) road ahead, I glance at my phone for a time check. WHAT???? The flight has been RE-DIVERTED back to DCA!!!!

Now, for those who don’t know, the thing about the No-Toll Road is that, because it’s free and might be abused by commuters who want to escape the frequent congestion on the parallel Toll Road, once you’re on the No-Toll Road you may not exit until you reach the airport. Aaarghhh!!!

There are, of course, a few “Official Vehicles Only” exits with dire warnings about high penalties, gates, red lights, and other reasons not to use those exits. Once entering one of those lanes, you might not be able to get out and the police are around trying to help motorists when the can.

Soooo, I chicken out and keep driving – allllll the way out to IAD where I circle through the airport. My computer-on-wheels is now flashing all manner of dashboard warnings to the effect that the sensors that tell you when you’re about to crash and burn are blocked. I am a bit concerned that the computers may simply shut the engine off, so I stop in a no-stopping zone at the end of the terminal, exit the car and try, unsuccessfully, to remove the ice caked all around the lower perimeter of the car (where, naturalement, the sensors are located).

To hell with it. I get back in the car and head back onto the No-Toll Road back toward DCA, still 27 miles from where I just came. I can’t be sure, but it appears that my wife’s fight is still circling DCA so I’m still good on arrival time.

Indeed, the snow is turning to rain/sleet (a miracle?) and while it’s cold as hell (world class mixed metaphor), the rain is clearing the road of snow much better than the snowplows could. I am traveling 40 mph at times. I stay on the No-Toll Road until it merges with I-66 (known to cognoscenti as The Road Where Cars Go to Run Out of Gas While Idling in Traffic) and miraculously arrive in Crystal City (don’t ask if you don’t know). The phone rings — my wife is in the terminal with a large group of people awaiting delivery of their luggage, running back and forth from one carousel to another (Guess Which Carousel If You Can – a favorite game of the baggage handlers at DCA). I slow down, arrive in the “road” that serves as the airport pick-up zone for arriving passengers, acquire my wife plus luggage and head back to DC.

She is starving because she believed that having been served a meal traveling west, she would also get one coming east. She had, after all, paid for an upgrade to Premium Economy. In reality, enroute from LAX (Los Angeles for cognoscenti on a flight that exceed five hours, she was served a … cookie. Meanwhile, my total driving time was almost as long as her flight, so there’s that.

All’s well that ends well, of course, and the ride from DCA was uneventful, I didn’t get a ticket for the U-turn I didn’t make on Pennsylvania Avenue to acquire carry-out at the local Thai place, and we settle in to watch a blood-soaked movie starring an aging Pierce Brosnan who, miraculously, fought like a twenty-something.  There is hope.

 

 

Three-Park Palooza

No, that’s not the name of an obscure card game. The title reflects that over the holidays we visited three local parks expecting to see little wildlife based on recent cold-weather experiences. As is often the case with expectations, ours were defeated, repeatedly, but in a good way. As these photos reveal.

After Christmas, we returned to our familiar haunts at Huntley Meadows Park. We immediately saw that the resident beavers had been hard at work since our last visit:

More familiar residents of the park were seen:

But we were really fortunate to capture this magnificent bird in flight:

in addition to seeing these Northern Shovelers

Numerous Northern Pintails:

and last, but certainly not least, these beautiful Hooded Mergansers:

On December 28, 2021, we returned to Great Falls Park on the Virginia side. We walked all the way along the Potomac River to the dam that is actually below Riverbend Park further north. This is the dam, looking upstream:

We spotted the long-term resident of the Great Falls Park — the  Great Blue Heron — just standing around as he seems usually to do:

D

Geese were plentiful, diving for whatever they find in the river this time of year:

In the trees behind us we spotted one of the park’s treasures, a Bald Eagle in a far tree:

It is not unusual to see an eagle at Great Falls Park, but we were very surprised to see both this woodpecker:

and, even more so, this spectacular Indigo Bunting:

This beautiful creature attracted a bit of a crowd but never budged.

Finally, we visited Great Falls Park on the Maryland side, where I had last been decades ago. The physical side of the park here is alone a remarkable sight. Trees and rocks are covered with green lichen and moss.

The fast-moving water is a playground for adventurous kayakers who sometimes don’t know when to quit:

But, of course, we didn’t come here just to see people in tiny boats trying to overcome the outsized forces of nature. No, this is what we came for:

Heron:

This huge bird extracted something from the water in a narrow channel and struggled to swallow it, but eventually his superior size and power won the day.

Vulture:

Migrating birds:

Hawk:

Vulture (spooky):

and, last but not least, a cute dog that can’t read:

He obviously did not understand why his owner would not let him cross the bridge.

The Free Press on the Brink

I read in Sunday’s New York Times an “Opinion” piece, entitled “The Free Press Needs Our Help.” https://nyti.ms/32c2wNh where the title is “Independent Journalism Is at Risk. Here’s How to Save It.” The article is co-authored by a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Maria Ressa) and a former NYT chief executive and director general of the BBC (Mark Thompson). Their argument is a familiar one.  It makes a compelling case for its main point: “around the world, independent journalism is on the brink of extinction.”

Their solution is the creation of the International Fund for Public Interest Media that will be funded by governments, foundations and private companies and then make grants to “promising and trustworthy independent news providers worldwide.” Clearly an ambitious undertaking, likely to be challenged by, among other things, the reality that governments in some cases have been the primary force undermining the free press. That said, it’s a good idea.

I was most intrigued, however, by the reference to “trustworthy independent new providers.” What exactly is that? Is there a commonly understood meaning for it? In the United States, how does that concept square with the existence of entities like Fox News, Breitbart, OAN, Newsmax and the others? Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone in social media screaming for the government to “shut down Fox!” That, of course, is not going to happen as long as TrumpPublicans do not control the government and those entities continue to toe the right-wing line with the proper fervor. [There is also the First Amendment, but a second Trump administration faced with (however improbably) an insufficiently sycophantic Fox News would likely have no problem with a direct attack to compel compliance or else].

These random thoughts led me to reflect on certain “realities of American life,” the main one being that if it’s not prohibited, you may, legally, do it. That is one of the root/core principles that govern the American legal and political systems. On the other hand, the “ideal” of total freedom had some dire consequences. Thus, we regulate practices like law, medicine, hair-styling and other occupations who, absent qualifying instruction and demonstrations of minimum [or minimal] competency could make a real hash of things.

Still, even those principles have a fuzzy edge. Some people with doctorate degrees call themselves “Dr.” and mostly no one objects. Most people with doctorates don’t add that appellation outside interactions within their discipline, but some do. It burnishes one’s image in some circles to be known as “Dr.” Mainly, in the U.S., the status of having earned a Ph.D. is added at the end of one’s name, as in ShiningSeaUSA, Ph.D. (or JD for lawyers).

As with all such matters, the history is fraught and complicated. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_(title) if you have time on your hands.

My central idea (at last!) is that in “journalism,” almost anyone can claim the title, regardless of training, certification, experience or, well, regardless of just about anything. Thus, I can claim to be a journalist when I’m covering a protest at the Supreme Court for a potential blog post and who is to say nay? Armed with a camera (Nikon, if you please), and, if needed, a home-made “press badge,” I am indistinguishable from the other “real” journalists who write for actual media like the New York Times and Washington Post.

It occurs to me, then, that we have an opportunity to improve our situation by establishing some criteria of legitimacy for people who want to use the term “journalist.” We could, for example, establish national standards for the use of the term that, like the practice of law and medicine, would sanction persons with demonstrable relevant education and knowledge to call themselves journalists.

I well understand this would be complex and controversial. And, of course, someone (likely someone wanting to be considered a journalist but having neither education, training nor demonstrable knowledge of the field) would bring up the First Amendment. A good argument can be made that the 1A would not be implicated in a proper regulatory system because the requirements do not prevent anyone from speaking or reporting. They would only forbid the unqualified from calling themselves journalists.

I can hear the screams of outrage now, but I think this is an idea worth considering. It would not shut Fox News or Breitbart down, but a properly constructed code of ethics could go some distance to prevent such entities from passing themselves off as journalism. And, by the way, the same goes for the likes of CNN which, over time, has made a practice of presenting right-wing shills as “journalism” when it’s really something else.

This suggestion will not solve the entire problem, which is obviously complex, but this may well be a situation where we should be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.  Something to think about.

 

Steaming at Blues Alley

‘Twas a wet and blustery night

With cold descending on the town,

But the smoke was pouring hot

From the best jazz club around.

It was Saturday night and Kenny Garrett’s sextet was playing at Blues Alley, the premier Washington jazz club in the heart of Georgetown. The club is really located in an alley, which adds somehow to its charm. Inside, it’s the real deal. Tightly packed tables seating 140, surrounding a compact stage that is crowded on a night like this because the sextet has a lot of instruments.

We booked late, a bit unsure about attending such an event indoors, but we had seen Garrett several times before and the attraction of live jazz again, just a few blocks from our apartment, was too much to resist. Very wisely, the club has a firm policy: proof of vaccination to enter and masks-on when not eating or drinking. Even Garrett wore a mask before starting to play. All the audience seats appeared to be occupied as a few late walk-ins arrived to take the few remaining.

The traditional tools of the jazz trade jammed the stage: piano (baby grand, I think), drum kit (everything you can imagine), full-size bass, many microphones and, in this case, a full set of bongos, sound devices whose names I can’t guess and, in the center, a small electronic keyboard. In the hands of musical masters, these instruments enable the creation of the magical place a jazz club can be when a master of the art accompanied by others of surpassing talent are at the top of their game.

The people attending this event were primed for some top-level stimulation and they got it. Garrett’s sextet included: Vernell Brown Jr.: piano; Corcoran Holt: bass; Ronald Bruner Jr.: drums; Rudy Bird: percussion, snare; and Melvis Santa: vocals and keyboard, among other things. Those folks can play. For me, the drummer stood out, driving the music forward with powerful strokes and extraordinary energy. Few people can play like that for so long. But in truth the whole ensemble was a unit in an exceptional display of jazz at its most powerful.

At the end, Garrett called on the audience, already fully tuned up by the propulsive sound, to rise up and “work it out” to the closing number … and they did. I have never seen anything quite like that after attending many jazz performances over the years. Dancing in the aisles, even where there were no aisles.

Garrett’s style may not be for everyone (the first number lasted probably 15 or 20 minutes) but the crowd Saturday night was totally into it, as were all audiences in prior shows we saw. Typically, his entire body rocks back and forth to repeated riffs of sound. Maybe it’s how he keeps time. Doesn’t matter. The man can blow. He never seems to tire. His saxophone dominates the music, but the other instruments have their time as well when the tunes go from post-modern bop to Latin, Cuban, Afro something something, who knows. It’s all great.

At the end, Garrett dismissed each performer by name. The crowd erupted in appreciation and one-by-one the musicians exited. Garrett departed next-to-last, leaving the drummer, playing, for him, sedately. Then, he stopped and just walked off. It was all over but the vibrations. The steam subsided … until the next set.

Tickets are still available for tonight’s shows at 8 and 10.

The 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction–My Nomination

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded each year (usually) for books published the previous year. Thus, the 2021 Pulitzer went for a book published in 2020.

I am, therefore, in time to make my sole nomination for the Prize this year. I have never done this before.

My nomination is Late City by Robert Olen Butler. Butler already has a Pulitzer for the remarkable, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. But that was way back in 1993. With Late City, I believe Butler should be considered for the rarified club of double winners occupied by my favorite author, John Updike plus Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and Colson Whitehead.

I cannot improve upon the dustjacket’s description:

A visionary and poignant novel centered around former newspaperman Sam Cunningham as he prepares to die, Late City covers much of the early twentieth century, unfurling as a conversation between the dying man and a surprising God. As the two review Sam’s life, from his childhood in the American South and his time in the French trenches during World War I to his fledgling newspaper career in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties and the decades that follow, snippets of history are brought sharply into focus, moments that resonate profoundly forward even into our own century.

Given that story line, I was surprised at the deep impression the book made. Butler’s prose is remarkable, and his storytelling has few equals. This book is cleverly constructed and brilliantly written. Part history, part memoir and more. I give you three short examples with little context.

Sam is often beaten by his father. At age twelve, he reads a report of the 62 lynchings of Negroes that year. Sam asks aloud “What’s wrong with us?” and more. Sam’s father prods him with his foot and says, “Stand up.” Sam knows what is coming “But I understand this blow is different. It’s the first one for an idea. An idea that feels like my own.” His father speaks,

“You will not indict America for this, he says. “You will not even indict the misguided white men who did this. These men are your people. They were hasty. They acted unlawfully. But they have grievances. They rely on you for understanding, not censure. Is that clear?”

Elsewhere, in another context entirely, Butler’s gift for prose shines in phrases like “the chaste seemliness of the age, which we have inevitably assimilated.” In another scene, “… our thighs tightly and unwaveringly aligned, ardent but chaste, as our shoulders square around to each other and our lips speak wordlessly of what we have become.”

This is, I believe, a genuine masterwork. Maybe it will surprise, delight and move you as it did me.

An Anti-Masker Walked Into a Bar ….

Actually, no, it’s not a bar and it’s not a joke. They’re boarding airplanes, knowing full well that there is a federal policy requiring that masks always be worn except when actively eating or drinking. Yet they continue to reject compliance and, in many cases, verbally and physically abuse flight crews and fellow passengers.

The situation is so bad that the Federal Aviation Administration is publishing monthly Unruly Passenger Statistics. See https://www.faa.gov/unruly

It’s time to stop calling these miscreants “unruly passengers” and call them by their true name: Criminals. Why?

As stated by the FAA:

Interfering with the duties of a crewmember violates federal law

“Unruly passengers” can be fined by the FAA and criminally prosecuted by the FBI.

“Can be,” yes, but are they? Some are, for sure. You can read about some of the fines imposed in Travel Pulse: FAA Fines 10 Unruly Passengers $225K for Alleged Assault, https://bit.ly/3qGcoJm That’s some serious coin. The Washington Post reports that the FAA has referred 37 cases to the FBI for prosecution. https://wapo.st/3BQT5iq

The problem, as I see it, remains that only a small share of the cases is being pursued, despite a “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the FAA at the beginning of 2021:

The FAA reported 5,033 incidents of unruly passengers as of November during this year, 3,642 of which were related to mask-wearing. From the total number of incidents, the FAA initiated 950 investigations, a sixfold increase from last year.

The agency initiated enforcement action in 227 cases, some of which will lead to a civil penalty. Of the 227, 37 of the most egregious cases of disruptive or violent passenger behavior were referred to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.

The progression from 5,033 incidents to 950 investigations to 227 enforcements to 37 possible criminal prosecutions suggests to the irresponsible anti-masker (who thinks it’s perfectly fine to violate federal law, assault flight attendants and possibly endanger the safety of an entire aircraft in flight) that his chances of getting away with “unruly behavior” are pretty good.

The words we use are important. Calling someone’s misconduct “unruly” diminishes its significance. It superficially equates attacks on flight attendants with talking too loudly, playing music without earbuds and generally being a slob. But those latter misbehaviors – obvious acts of unruliness — are in a completely different category from refusing to comply with masking rules and, even more obviously, physically attacking a flight crew member.

Aircraft in flight are no place for scuffles and fist fights. Nevertheless, in many cases other passengers have engaged miscreant anti-maskers in efforts to protect flight attendants and to restore order. It’s good that there are people prepared to engage in this way, but it should never escalate to that stage.

I well understand that airlines are reluctant to sound too “authoritarian” in presenting passengers with the “rule of the airways” after boarding, but the fact remains that the dangers of violent passengers on an aircraft present a uniquely problematic situation – for the passengers and crew as well as people on the ground.

The AFA-CWA International that represents flight attendants has argued that,

Expeditiously referring the most violent, physical assaults against crewmembers and passengers to the Department of Justice for public prosecution is the most effective way to deter bad actors and put a stop to the spike in disruptive passengers. https://bit.ly/3Cj0eZh

Absolutely right, but I would go even further and argue for criminal referral of every act of assault against crew members, as well as every act of refusal to follow flight crew instructions to “mask up.” If in the off chance that a crew member oversteps, the passenger can take it up with the airline after the flight, not by verbally or physically attacking the crew. Based on experience to date, it seems clear that the only way to deter this dangerous criminal behavior is to create the certainty that criminal prosecution will ensue.

So, FAA, start using the right words to describe the conduct and refer all the cases to the FBI. And while you’re at it, adopt the flight attendants’ union’s call for,

the creation of a centralized list of violators who will be denied the freedom of flight on all airlines. If a passenger physically assaults crewmembers or other passengers on one airline, they pose a risk to passengers and crew at every airline. They should be banned from flying on all airlines. Period.

The time has passed for putting that issue “on the table,” as suggested by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. It’s time to act.