April 1, 2015

Talking Transportation: Rethinking First Class

Any regular reader of this column knows that I hate flying.  I love travel, but getting there by air is a pain … and getting worse.  Our local airports are vying for third-world status.  The security searches by the TSA make a colonoscopy look like fun.  And once on the plane, the airlines’ seats and service make The Fung Wah Bus seem like a viable alternative.

Why is it that airlines are all vying for the cheapest products instead of the best?  Why this race to the bottom where low-cost-carriers like Spirit and Southwest are the models instead of overseas service exemplars like Singapore and Emirates?

I, for one, am willing to pay more to get more.  I may not opt for first class, but I will only fly in business class on flights to California.  It’s worth it.

But the legacy carriers like American and United ask for $1600 one-way from NY to LAX, and they get it.  Their business class is full thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But now there’s a cheaper, better alternative:  JetBlue.

When JetBlue began as a low-cost carrier in 2000, it found a loyal following by offering high frequency, friendly and comfortable flights.  Today they are an international carrier serving 87 destinations with more than 200 aircraft.  And they have one of the hottest terminals at JFK, T5.

And 10 of their newest planes, A-321’s, now offer a new product, “Mint”, with truly first class seating at lower-than-business class fares.  I finally had a chance to sample the service on a recent flight to LAX.

First, there’s the seating. There are just 16 seats with full, six foot lie-flat beds. I lucked out and got one of the four “private cabins” with 22-inch wide seats and a sliding door to the corridor.  My TV was a 15-inch flat-screen with live satellite feed, movies and SiriusXM Radio.  I had two AC outlets and a pair of USB plugs keeping all my gear fully-charged.

When I boarded, I found a welcome note, written by hand, from the flight crew thanking me for my business.  Also awaiting was a full duvet and pillow, an amenities kit and free Wi-Fi, coast to coast.

After take-off came the usual beverages and a most unusual meal … the choice of three tapas-like entrees from a menu of five on offer, prepared by Saxon+Parole.  The lobster mac-and-cheese was to die for.  But they also had Kosher, vegan and gluten-free options.  And coming soon, an on-board cappuccino machine.

The service was amazing.  This was one of the best flights ever, and I’ve logged miles for decades on five continents.  And the ticket was only $599 one-way.  I’d gladly have paid more.

The bad news is this amazing product is only available on flights from JFK to LAX (seven a day) and San Francisco (five times daily).  Rumor has it they may also add transcon flights from Boston, but you won’t by flying “Mint” on your way to Orlando anytime soon.  To the Caribbean, maybe.

So kudos to “New York’s hometown airline” for continuing to be innovative in offering more for less and making flying fun again!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. 

You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Innovators’ by Walter Isaacson

The_InnovatorsThis is the remarkable and intricate story of the computer, the Internet and the World Wide Web, all of which transformed and continue to alter this globe. It is a story of human collaboration, conflict, creativity and timing, from Ada, Countess of Lovelace in 1843 to the more familiar names of Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John Mauchly, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper, Robert Moore, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and, of course, “Watson,” the almost-human Jeopardy contestant of IBM.

Isaacson stresses the importance of the intersection of individual thinking combined, inevitably, with collaborative efforts.  Ideas start with non-conformists, in many of whom initiative is often confused with disobedience. But it is in collaboration that we have found the effectiveness of the Web, a “networked commons.”

These changes have come about through conception and execution, plus “peer-to-peer sharing.” Isaacson cites three co-existing approaches: (1) Apple with its bundled hardware and software, (2) Microsoft with unbundled software, and (3) the Wikipedia example of free and open software, for any hardware. No one approach, he argues, could have created this new world: all three, fighting for space, are required. Similarly, he believes that a combination of investment works best: Government funding and coordination, plus private enterprise, plus “peers freely sharing ideas and making contributions as a part of a voluntary common endeavor.”

In his concluding chapter, Isaacson raises the question of the future for AI, artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking has warned, yet again, that we may create mechanisms that will not only think but also re-create themselves, effectively displacing homo sapiens as a species. But Isaacson is more optimistic: he sees and favors a symbiotic approach, in which the human brain and computers create an information-handling partnership. Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that the human brain is, in many ways, a limited automaton (see System One of Kahneman). But our brain, with its ability to “leap and create,” coupled with the computer’s growing ability to recall, remember, and assess billions of bits of information, may lead us, together, to better decisions.

His final “five lessons” are worth inscribing:

  1. “Creativity is a collaborative process.”
  2. “The digital age was based on expanding ideas handed down from previous generations.”
  3. “The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties.”
  4. “Physical proximity is beneficial.”
  5. To succeed, “pair visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them.”

Isaacson’s final lesson:  humans bring to our “symbiosis with machines . . . one crucial element: creativity.” It is “the interaction of humanities and sciences.”

And we wouldn’t have LymeLine without the Innovators!

Editor’s Note: “The Innovators” is published by Simon & Schuster, New York 2014.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150

About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

 

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Legal News You Can Use: Choosing Quality Nursing Home Care

Choosing a nursing home for a loved one requires careful research.

Choosing a nursing home for a loved one requires careful research.

As our population ages so does the need for safe and healthy nursing home care.  Whether the purpose is to treat physical ailments, provide rehabilitation, or care for a patient dealing with dementia, nursing homes are here to stay – even with alternatives like assisted living and home care assistance.  So how do we choose the right nursing home for our loved ones?

Of course, the first consideration may be based on the availability of a bed or room.  Sometimes there is no vacancy.  That aside, what should we be looking at?  Forget the nice entry and lobby furnishings – these things tell us nothing about the quality of care.  We should be able to determine what the track record of care has been for the facility(s) we are considering.

The first step in a thorough investigation should start with the “Connecticut Department of Public Health’s Survey of Nursing Homes” which includes information on “official” staffing which has been reported to the state.  Note well any deficiencies. However, the latest report was published in 2011-2012, and staffing statistics often change over time.

A number of other online listings such as the Medicare.gov Nursing Home Compare site, show “deficiencies” for each facility reported by inspectors.  They also show ratings for health inspections, staffing and other quality measures that may be useful in assessing the level of care at each home.  Be especially aware of the same types of deficiencies that are found in subsequent years.  Some of the deficiencies we are particularly concerned with in a legal sense deal with medication errors, malnutrition, falls, abuse, and bed pressure sores (decubitus ulcers).  Tragically, in our law practice we have seen cases of bedsores down to the bone due to neglect.

Of course, it’s most important to visit prospective facilities in person. Multiple visits to a particular home of interest, at different times and shifts, may reveal what really takes place.  Do not rely on advertising and marketing materials!

When interviewing a prospective nursing home, ask for a copy of their Admissions Agreement to take home and review. Especially look out for a mandatory binding arbitration provision.  This provision usually prevents a lawsuit when the facility has injured a patient through its own negligence or neglect.  Arbitration clauses are usually heavily biased in favor of the facility and should be avoided if possible.

Once your loved one is settled in to a nursing home, one of the most important things a family can do is to visit frequently and regularly. If there is any suspicious activity going on, keep a journal or diary, and take pictures.  Photos of happy occasions (e.g. birthdays, anniversaries, holidays) whenever the family gets together, as well as photos of problems, may be important later on to illustrate that the patient was originally doing well, and that the family cares and is not just looking to capitalize on a law suit.

The age of a patient does not give any facility the right to cut a person’s life short through neglect or abuse, or to make their remaining years full of unnecessary pain and suffering.  The last years of life may be the most precious, and it is important for your loved one to retain their dignity and respect.

Attorney Matthew Shafner is a Director at Suisman Shapiro Attorneys-at-Law in New London, and a nationally recognized lawyer in the fields of personal injury, asbestos injury, maritime injury and workers compensation law. Please contact him via email at mshafner@sswbgg.com or via phone at (860) 442-4416 with questions about laws regarding nursing home negligence.

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Talking Transportation: Malloy’s Transit Land Grab

Don’t look now, but Governor Malloy is trying to take your land, or at least control of the land around your local train or bus station.

When the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently tried to shove a private development down the throats of Stamford under the guise of, “transit oriented development,” in replacing the garage at the train station, city fathers were justifiably upset.  They voted through a zoning change giving them some say on the project, as well they should.

As revenge Governor Malloy is now proposing a statewide “Transit Corridor Development Authority” (TCDA) that would bigfoot the towns and cities, giving the state control over land, buildings and development within a half-mile of all transit stations.

Your favorite coffee shop across from your Metro-North stop could be torn down and replaced with offices.  Parking lots could be enlarged with fees set by the CDOT, not the towns where the lots reside.  If the state wants to erect a building taller than local zoning laws allow, too bad … they can and will.  As one critic described it, this is, “eminent domain on steroids.”

The TCDA would be run by political appointees, a majority controlled by the Governor and not answerable to the local residents whose land would be affected.  The agency could issue its own bonds financed by rents and taxes on the very structures they want built.  And the agency would continue with this power forever, under, “perpetual succession”.

The TCDA would have the power to condemn property that it alone claims it needs to further its goals.  Town and regional planning and zoning boards can just go pound sand, powerless to stop them.

Because train and stations are usually in the downtown of cities and towns, those municipalities would lose control of the development destiny of their very core.  The Governor’s bill would have us believe that Hartford, or this new agency of political hacks, knows what’s best for us, not our elected mayors and first selectmen.

It has been proven that the private developer chosen for the Stamford garage project just happened to have donated $165,000 to the State Democrats  before and after his selection.  Yet, there’s nothing in the Governor’s TCDA bill (HB 6851) to prevent such “pay for play” activities.

Were Dannel Malloy still mayor of Stamford, he would scream bloody murder if a bill like this were introduced in Hartford.  But as Governor, he seems to have no qualms at telling 169 towns and cities in this state that he knows best … that Hartford will determine if skyscrapers built by private developers should be plopped down in your town and mine.

“Transit oriented development” makes sense and should be encouraged.  We all need to promote housing and commercial growth focusing on our train and bus stations.  But this is a local issue, not a state right.

If we are to preserve the local identity and feel of our communities, we must stop the Governor’s land grab and keep control of our destiny.  Tell your State Representative and State Senator you oppose HB 6851 and Malloy’s land-grab.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘On Aggression’ by Konrad Lorenz

On_Aggression_book_coverAre we naturally “aggressive?”  What a way to greet the spring!  Today’s headlines seem to indicate that we simply cannot avoid creating friction among human beings.  This sent me backwards in time to re-read Konrad Lorenz’s monumental On Aggression, first published in German in 1963 and in English in 1966.

Lorenz defines aggression as, “the fighting instinct in beast and man, directed against members of the same species.”  The forms, objectives and examples of aggression include:

  • behavior
  • preservation of the species
  • physiology of instinctual motivation
  • the process of ritualization
  • how instinctive impulses function
  • mechanisms evolution has “invented” to channel aggression to harmless paths
  • social organization (“anonymous crowds”)
  • bonds of “love and friendship”
  • the “virtue of humility”
  • counter-measures against the malfunctions of aggression (including examples among fish, birds and four-legged mammals).

He concludes: “aggression . . . is really an essential part of the life-preserving organization of instincts.”  And our own-species aggression is “essential for its preservation.”

The “principle of the bond” seems to require some degree of aggressive behavior: we apparently need something in common to be defended against outsiders, such as territory, brood, opinion and, most dangerously, ideology. Aggression thus becomes “necessary to enhance the bond.”

And “ the danger to modern man arises not so much from his power of mastering natural phenomena as from his powerlessness to control sensibly what is happening today in his own society.”

Is there a ray of hope?  Lorenz thinks it is possible.

First, our, “insatiable curiosity is the root of exploration and experimentation …  a linking of cause and effect … the conscious foreseeing of the consequences of one’s action.”  This “unrelenting demand for causal understanding” may well lead to a “scientific enlightenment [that] tends to engender doubt in the value of transitory beliefs long before it furnishes the causal insight necessary to decide whether some accepted custom is an obsolete superstition or still an indispensible part of a system of sacred norms.”  Our inquiring minds may often be too far ahead of how we react!

And why are our young so often at the center of disruptive behavior?

Lorenz suggests an answer.  “During and shortly after puberty, human beings have an indubitable tendency to loosen their allegiance to all traditional rites and social norms of their culture, allowing conceptual thought to cast doubt on their value and to look around for new and perhaps more worthy ideals … At the postpuberal age some human beings seem to be driven by an overpowering urge to espouse a cause and, failing to find a worthy one, may become fixated on astonishingly inferior substitutes.”  Shades of the Middle East today, one might venture …

But he is, nevertheless, optimistic  — Lorenz suggests some preventive steps to counter our natural aggressive instincts.  First, he reiterates the famous Chilton/Socrates admonition to “Know thyself,” acknowledging some obstacles:

  1. unawareness of our evolutionary origin
  2. reluctance to admit that our “behavior obeys the laws of natural causation” (there is no “free will!”)
  3. a heritage of “idealistic philosophy”

His conclusion: “Truth, in science, can be defined as the working hypothesis best fitted to open the way to the next better one.”  Nothing is “absolute!”  And, finally, allow humor to play a major role: do not take ourselves too seriously.

There is nothing quite like stepping back in time to re-read some earlier thoughts …

HFK_headshot_2005_284x331About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Nibbles: Now is the Time to Bake a Spice Cake

On Sunday, March 1, I decided that winter was done. That afternoon, though, I drove to the Ward’s home in Madison to celebrate Zimmy’s 90th birthday. There would be around 40 of us and the food promised to be yummy. I had bought my Coca-Cola Cake and a slow-cooker full of Cincinnati four-way chili. Both were good but Eugenia’s baked rigatoni along with chopped liver, potatoes Lyonnaise and Norma’s  gorgeous jelly roll, 18-inches long ringed with beautiful berries were even better.

It was snowing as I drove my car out of the garage and the light precip turned into serious snow (I’d worn real shoes instead of the knee-high mukluks’ I lived in for more than a month.) By the time I got to Madison, there was an inch on the ground. The party was fabulous, but by late afternoon, people began to head home.

When I got into my car, it was a serious snowstorm, and I had “miles to go before I sleep,” as Robert Frost wrote. The usual 45 minutes tuned into two and a half hour, never seeing a white or yellow line. All I could do was follow the cars in front of me. Fortunately, I made it home safe and sound.

Obviously, my decision that winter was over made God laugh. Once home I made a cup of tea and warmed my toes with a blanket. After watching “Downtown Abbey,” my new decision would be to make a spice cake the next day.

Old-Fashioned Spice Cake

Adapted from Linnea Rufo, Bee & Thistle Inn, Old Lyme, CT

Yield: serves 10 to 12 people

old_fashioned__spice_cake1 cup sugar
One-half cup (1 stick) butter
One-half cup currants or raisins or dried cherries (optional)
One-half cup candied ginger, chopped
2 eggs
2 tablespoons molasses
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
One-quarter teaspoon cloves
One-half teaspoon ginger
One-teaspoon salt
1 cup milk

  1. Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition.
  3. Whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt. Stir dry ingredients into egg mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.
  4. Pour batter into prepared tube pan. Set on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until cake pulls away from sides of pan and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Cool cake in the pan, set on a rack, for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and spread on icing at once, while cake is still warm.

Espresso Icing

1 and one-half cups of confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon of espresso
1 tablespoon milk

Whisk icing ingredients together.

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Letter From Paris: Greece Given Four Month Debt Deal Extension … But Then What?

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

During the last week of February 2015, intense negotiations took place between the Greek government and the three members of the “Troika” – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Central European Bank (CEB) and the Eurozone.  On Feb. 27, the Bundestag, by a massive majority, approved the four month extension of aid to Greece.

It looked very much like a “déjà vu”scenario: Greece deep in debt, Greece kept alive thanks to several rounds of loans, Greece repeating its promises to curb public spending, and put a stop to fraud, corruption and tax avoidance.  The creditors, however, wanted to give the new government of Alexis Tsipras. a chance to prove itself.  The objective was to strike a compromise between austerity reforms and measures granting some respite to the most vulnerable segment of the population.  The Greek government had five days left before running out of money.

Greek President Alexis Tsipras

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras

Greece joined the Eurozone on Jan. 1, 2001.  Before 2000, the Greek deficit was about 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP.)  By some miracle, in order to meet the criteria for joining the European Union (EU), the deficit was brought down to 3 percent, or more precisely to 3.07 percent.  Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other organizations, pondered over the figures.  The situation was confusing, especially after the Goldman Sachs experts helped Greece with some “creative accounting” by deducting currency swaps and derivatives amounting to 2.8 billion from the calculation of the deficit.

Before 2012, Greece’s creditors were mostly private banks, such as the Société Générale in France.  In March of that year, the banks agreed to cancel 70 percent of their loan or 107 billion.  In 2010 and 2012, the “Troika” granted two rounds of loans, amounting respectively to 110 and 141 billion.  Germany supports 30 percent of the Greek loan, France 23 percent (or 40 billion) and Italy 20 percent.  The participation of the Eurozone members is proportional to the size of their population.  The loans’s maturity is 30 years, 10 percent of the loan carries zero interest and the remainder has interest as low as 2 percent in 2015.  It is important to note these facts in order to counter a lot of disinformation available on the internet.

The discussions, held in Brussels, went well until the disastrous final press conference when the new Greek minister of finances Yanis Varoujakis posturing as a cool Bruce Willis, (to use the Le Monde expression) first demanded that the “Troika” change its name and then asked for a “restructuring” of the debt.  His tour of European capitals, ending in Berlin (where he should have started) was not much appreciated by the German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble, who commented, “We agreed not to agree.”  Varoujakis retorted, “We did not even agree not to agree.”

At a time when refugees and migrants try desperately to reach Europe, the immigration policy of the Tsipras’s recently-elected Syriza party is quite unsettling.  Their plan calls for the retention centers, where refugees and migrants have been held until now, to be turned into “open centers;” to grant citizenship to 150,000 second generation children born in Greece; and to provide housing, schooling and medical care.  How are these programs going to be financed?  The wall built to protect the border between Turkey and Greece fell into disrepair after recent floods.  Maintaining this wall is not a priority announced the government.

There is pretty much a consensus about Greece’s inability to ever pay back its debt.  The creation of the European Funds of Stability and Finances in 2013 to “mutualize” the debt will help Europe absorb the Greek default with more serenity.

But it is far from a done deal.  In four months, before your know it, there will be fierce opposition to write off the debt.  Countries like Portugal or Spain are struggling through austerity and are are not about to continue bailing out Greece.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Why We Love to Hate the DMV

What three letters strike fear in the hearts of every Connecticut motorist?  DWI?  NSA?  No, the DMV, our beloved Department of Motor Vehicles.

I had the pleasure of getting my new “verified” drivers license at their Norwalk office recently, girding myself for what the DMV’s own website promised would be a two and a quarter hour ordeal.

Arriving at 1 p.m. to a full parking lot, I knew I was in trouble.  After 11 minutes in the first line titled “Information,” I received my number, A104, and was told to wait.  At that point the automated system was calling A70 along with D759 and a few B numbers.  As numbers were called, people would scurry to the assigned window, but as time wore on, people moved from griping to just bailing out, leaving some numbers called but nobody appearing. That helped move things along.

My number was finally called at 2:15 p.m. for a transaction that lasted all of four minutes.  The clerk was pleasant and efficient.  I paid my $72 fee (set by the legislature) on a credit card, waited another six minutes for my picture, and was out the door at 2:37 p.m.

There are 2.6 million active drivers licenses in Connecticut and 430,000 are renewed each year, most of them by mail.  But every six years your renewal requires a new photo and more recently, an in-person visit, thanks to Homeland Security’s “Real ID” program.

As of October 2020, only “verified” drivers’ licenses (or a passport) will get you past the TSA and onto a plane.  “Verified” means your license has been issued after you show the DMV a slew of documents … passport, W2, birth certificate, bank statement, pilot’s license… proving both legal residency and identity.

You can opt for a normal license and even have it issued at AAA, if you want.  But as that 2020 deadline draws closer and people realize their driver’s license is really an ID card giving you permission to fly, the lines will get even longer.

My approval for a new license took just minutes because I had more than enough documentation.  But anyone ahead of me in line lacking even one crucial certificate slowed up the process.

Add to the mix the thousands of undocumented aliens seeking drivers’ licenses now allowed under a new law, and you get the sense that the DMV is getting very busy.

The agency has added staff, but the offices are still jammed.  The DMV says that Wednesday and Friday mornings have the shortest waits, but who’s got a job that lets them take off that much time for a paper chase?

All told my experience at the DMV wasn’t too bad.  The clerks were as speedy as their cumbersome process allowed and they even had a nice little coffee and snack stand in the waiting area.  I just am grateful this is only necessary once every six years.

Seeya in 2021!

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Legal News You Can Use: The Do’s and Don’ts of a “Good” Divorce

We are delighted to introduce a new column today, which will be a monthly feature written by attorneys at Suisman Shapiro Attorneys-at-Law in New London.  This month’s column discusses ‘The Do’s and Don’ts of a “Good” Divorce’ and is written by Attorney Robert G. Tukey.  He is a Director at Suisman Shapiro whose practice concentrates in family law.

The Do’s and Don’ts of a “Good” Divorce

Divorce_photoUnfortunately, more than 40 percent of marriages in the U.S. will end in divorce.  Divorce can be financially and emotionally devastating and especially stressful for children involved.
If you are faced with the prospect of divorce, it is in your family’s best interest to approach it from an amicable perspective.  As many divorced couples understand, it is possible to have a healthy breakup and start a new life.

Do be respectful and maintain a cordial relationship with your spouse. Try to keep the lines of communication open.  Be reasonable about expectations, and cooperate with your spouse to achieve the best results for your family.

Do put your kids first, and ensure they know they are not the cause of the divorce.  Make sure you and your spouse send a consistent and coordinated message to your children.

Do get professional counseling if needed, for yourself and your children.

Do document everything.  Understand your assets and liabilities.  Get appraisals, and make copies of important documents.

Don’t draw your children into your arguments, and never question them about your spouse’s activities.  Always be respectful of your spouse in front of the children, and remember the Golden Rule: if you do not have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.  Kids do better when they maintain close relationships with both parents.

Don’t violate custody or visitation agreements, including the Automatic Orders that attach to every divorce. These Automatic Orders include not taking the child(ren) out of state without written permission or consent from the other party, maintaining an open line of communication between the child(ren) and the non-custodial parent, maintaining  the child(ren) on any existing medical coverage, and completion of the Parenting Education Program for the benefit of the child(ren).

Don’t attempt to shield property or assets from your spouse.  All items of value must be disclosed.  Your credibility is your most important attribute, which cannot be restored should untruthfulness be exposed during the divorce process.

Do hire an experienced attorney.  Beware of online divorce websites, which promote do-it-yourself divorce as a cheap and easy alternative to working with an attorney.  While the Internet can be a good resource for information, you can also receive bad advice online.

There are many nuances in divorce and custody cases that make “cookie cutter” divorce kits inappropriate.  It’s very important to protect your interests by hiring a knowledgeable attorney, because there are numerous things that cannot be changed after final judgment.

Do explore your options regarding alternative dispute resolution such as mediation or arbitration. In addition to facing the emotional trauma of separating a family unit, the process of dividing years of accumulated assets can be complicated and overwhelming. Divorce through the Connecticut State Court can take months, or even years, of time-consuming and expensive Court appearances.

The process of mediation is an attempt to resolve disputes outside of Court with the help of a neutral third party who can achieve a common ground and a mutually agreeable resolution.  If the parties are unable to reach consensus, arbitration allows the parties to efficiently present their respective positions to an impartial, neutral third party decision-maker, similar to a trial judge, called an Arbitrator.

Through arbitration couples have much more control over scheduling and privacy. Both spouses and their attorneys agree on the Arbitrator, hearing time, and location. They also approve the rules and procedures ahead of time. The Arbitrator’s decision is binding, so appeals rarely become an issue in the future. The proceedings can be completely confidential and only the final decision will be approved and filed with the court.

Attorney Robert G. Tukey is a Director at Suisman Shapiro whose practice concentrates in family law. Contact him via email at rtukey@sswbgg.com or via phone at (860)442-4416 with questions regarding divorce and custody matters.

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Letter from Paris: ‘Loi Macron’ Indicates a Sea Change in French Politics

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

In January 2015, in a forceful declaration, French president François Hollande officially announced a break with the Socialist program, which had been the basis of his 2012 presidential campaign.  It was a sharp turn toward a more liberal, market-oriented policy.  The Loi Macron, named after the young (33-year-old) Minister of Economy Emmanuel Macron, was to embody the new trend.

Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron

Expecting that the law would not pass, the government decided to use a joker – the article 49.3.  It was a gamble since, in the event that the motion de censure (vote of no confidence) of the opposition succeeded, the government of Manuel Valls would be disavowed and fall.  But the motion de censure received only 234 votes when it needed the absolute majority of 289.  The law passed.

The article 49.3 is included in the constitution of the Fifth Republic.  It allows the government to act in force to push a text through the Parliament without the need of a vote. It is a powerful but dangerous device.  It has been used 82 times since 1958.

The last time was in 2006 when Dominique de Villepin, under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, tried to promote the Contrat Premiere Embauche, or CPE (first hiring contract). The students demonstrated in the streets.  Shortly thereafter the CPE received national funerals.  The champion of article 49.3 was Michel Rocard who in the late 1980s used it 28 times.

After 200 hours of consultations and 1,500 amendments granted by the government, it looked as though each article had been accepted separately.  And yet, by the time of the final vote on Feb. 17, the far right (Front National), the far left (Front de Gauche), most of the right (UMP), and the 40 Frondeurs, or splinter group from within the Socialist party, joined in an alliance to put road blocks to stop the government’s proposal. Manuel Valls and Emmanuel Macron made their concluding speeches among jeers and interruptions.  On the face of many deputies could be seen a rather despicable sarcasm.

In fact, the manoeuvre of the government deserves to be applauded since, to push a text in force, was the only way for the Executive to succeed.  The Loi Macron reperesents an enormous task attempting to reform the fabric of French society.  It meant dismantling the century-old system of privileges and protected niches enjoyed by whole segments of the population, including the five million civil servants, known as notaires — in France, notaires are a specific type of French attorneys overseeing all legal transaction while collecting taxes on behalf of the government, doctors, veterinarians, taxi drivers, auction houses officials, etc.

All the professions are regulated and benefit from a a special satus.  The right to work on Sundays, and allowing intercities busses were hard-won victories.  Only indirectly, the Loi Macron dealt with unemployment and ways to jump-start the economy.

The law is insufficient and has its defects, but is a step in the right direction. It represents a real effort to bring changes and to satisfy Brussels. Angela Merkel, in Paris for more discussions about the Ukraine, expressed her satisfaction.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: Minsk 2 – Another Truce for Ukraine … Maybe

From left to right, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Petroshenko.

From left to right, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Petro Porosnhenko. Photo credit EPA/Maxim Shipenkov.

After a 16-hour long marathon of negotiations on Feb. 11, and a great deal of suspense, Angela Merkel and François Hollande wrenched out a hard-won agreement for a cease-fire in Ukraine from Petro Porosnhenko and Vladimir Putin starting on Saturday, Feb. 14 at midnight.  All parties to the agreement were extremely cautious and hoped that “Minsk 2” would last longer than “Minsk 1” signed in September 2014.

More than 5,500 people have died in the conflict during the past 10 months, which makes it the deadliest in Europe since World War II.  There was a sense of relief that the agreement went through and thus a disaster had been avoided.  In the morning, Putin joked that he had had better nights but felt satisfied.

To continue the negotiations rather than slamming more sanctions on Putin, as some Washington pundits advocate, was the objective of Minsk 2.  Sanctions have a cost for Europe (for example, the Russian government retaliated to earlier sanctions by blocking the import of produce from Western Europe.)  More dangerously, they exacerbate the nationalism of Putin and enhance his popularity in Russia.

In the face of a threatening strategy of Daesh* making well planned inroads to destabilise Europe by recent acts of terrorism, Russia and the European Union (EU) have a common enemy.  For decades, the extremist Moslem opposition in Chechnya and Central Asia has been a great fear for the Russian government..

The talks in Minsk started in a polar atmosphere.  Throughout the night, Petro Poroshenko’s and Vladimir Putin’s teams moved like a choreographed ballet.  Early in the morning, Putin left the room, slamming the door, only to reappear a few minutes later. The Franco-German duo is to be credited with an unflappable tenacity to reach an agreement.  The two worked perfectly together.  Merkel needed Hollande since she wants to avoid making foreign policy decisions alone and prefers,“Leading from the center,” to use a formula coined by the German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.37.33 AM

Minsk 2 includes modified provisions to make the process move forward.  The buffer zone – cleared from all heavy armaments – has been widened from 30 km to 70 kms.  The European Council for Stability and Security will be monitoring the application of the agreement.  Putin expressed his demands for the autonomy of the Luhansk and Donestk regions..

The EU widely considers that Ukraine is both a corrupt and failed state.  It cannot afford to help it financially nor envisages its adhesion to the EU any time soon.  Kiev does not want to lose the industrial and mining Donbas region, but its action is disorganized.  For many months, Putin has claimed that he never intervened in the conflict taking place in Eastern Ukraine.

One wonders whether he really controls the Russian separatists, so different from the sophisticated Maidan crowd.  The Donbass miners and blue collar workers are products of massive transfers of population forced by the Soviets at the time of the German offensive to compensate for the relocation of highly skilled workers to the Ural Mountains.  Another headache for Putin is the presence among the Russian separatists of clans whose leaders have political ambitions .

It is hard to understand Putin’s strategy.  Obviously he does not want NATO to choke him nor nuclear misssiles to be installed in the area.  He does not have the means to support the Donbas.  His priority should most likely be to allow a corridor from Rostov on Don, through Mariopol on the Sea of Azov and then leading to the Crimea.  At present his only access to the Crimea is through the Straits of Kerch, which is some distance away.

*The new nickname for ISIS widely used in France, Australia and some other countries because ISIS supposedly dislikes it intensely — it is a loose acronym of the Arabic description of ISIS, which does not acknowledge any statehood for the organization but rather can be roughly translated as, “One who crushes something underfoot,” or, “One who sows discord.”

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: Is Metro-North Irreplaceable?

What is Connecticut’s relationship with Metro-North?  Client – vendor?  Shared partnership?  Stockholm syndrome?  Or is the railroad a “fanged sloth” hanging around our neck?

All of those analogies has been made to the state’s 30+ year relationship with Metro-North, part of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).  But given their dismal safety record and deteriorating service in recent years, many have asked, “Is it time to fire Metro-North and find someone else to run our trains?”

I posed that very question almost four years ago and people were shocked, not knowing that such a thing was even possible.  Now there are even laws being considered in Hartford to rid us of the railroad.

But even though Metro-North works for us, CDOT’s Commissioner Jim Redeker says they should not … in fact, cannot … be replaced.

Redeker recently testified that Metro-North is uniquely qualified and staffed to run a commuter rail operation of its size and that there are no other potential competitors he’d consider as operator, let alone try to build our own agency from scratch.  On this point he’s probably right.

Where he’s wrong is in arguing that replacing Metro-North would mean we wouldn’t be allowed to run “Our trains” into “Their station,” Grand Central Terminal (GCT).

There are plenty of railroads with operating rights on others’ tracks.  New Jersey Transit has no trouble getting into Penn Station.  Virginia Railway Express runs into downtown DC.  Does Commissioner Redeker really think that our Congressional delegation couldn’t force the MTA to give us access to GCT?  It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but this is certainly no deal-breaker to replacing Metro-North.

Alternative #3 is to renegotiate our contract with the railroad.  This opportunity only presents itself every five years, and 2015 is one of those windows.  Maybe we should get them to commit to service standards, as their current contract has no metrics to measure their performance.  But again, Commissioner Redeker seems reticent to fight for our state or its commuters.

He reminded lawmakers that the last time Connecticut arbitrated the contract, we were out-smarted and ending up with a worse deal than we’d had before.  The MTA’s army of lawyers took us to the cleaners, costing us millions more in payments to Metro-North each year.  Apparently the Commissioner thinks we’re not smart enough to negotiate a better deal, so why even try?

So, just to recap … our Commissioner of Transportation says we have no real options, that we have to work with Metro-North, but we’re probably not savvy enough to get any better deal than we have now.  So let’s just wave the white flag before the battle begins and keep paying $70+ million a year for lousy train service.

Now there is inspired leadership!  Declare defeat and just walk away.  Let the “fanged sloth” continue to hang around our necks.  We really have no choice.  Suck it up because Metro-North, our vendor, is running the show.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

About the author:
Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   
For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Letter from Paris: Patrick Modiano receives 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

Nobel_prize_for_Literature_2014

…”all those wasted years during which one did not pay enough attention to trees, to flowers”…) says the main character  in Modiano’s latest novel ‘Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier’ (which translates roughly as, “To avoid getting yourself lost in the neighborhood”)

France had the distinctive honor of receiving two Nobel prizes in 2014:   Jean Tirole was the recipient of the Prize for Economics for his work on the financial crisis and the banking system while Patrick Modiano received the Prize for Literature.  He will join an illustrious pantheon of writers from Gunter Grass (Germany) ), Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Gabriel Garcia Marques (Columbia) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Soviet Union)  to Albert Camus (France) or Ernest Hemingway (USA).  Modiano is the 16th laureate from France, giving that country the largest number since beginning of the Nobel awards in 1900.

The press release issued by the Swedish Academy of Sciences selected the French writer, “For the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.” The prize was a recognition of his abundant literary production (30 novels)  centered on the protagonists’ search of their own past, in the urban setting of Paris, going back to World War II.

He writes like a sleep walker, plodding through a mysterious, sometimes disjointed sequence of events looking for his lost childhood when he was tossed around from one home to another.  Since his first novel, ‘La Place de l’Etoile,’ published in 1968, he has created a world where autobiographic notes are interwoven with the “bad dream” of the Occupation.

Modiano is a tall (6′ 6” ) man of 69 with a kind face and fluttering hands as he speaks.  During a 45-minute acceptance speech in Stockholm, his modest personality must have made him endearing to the distinguished audience, particularly when he dedicated his award to his Swedish grandson.

A writer, he said, is usually a poor speaker, who leaves his sentences unfinished, because he is used to editing his text over and over again.

He explained that he belonged to a generation when children were not allowed to speak up and, if they were given a chance to speak, they expected to be interrupted at any time.

During an interview he gave in his study, surrounded by thousands of books, he asked, “Why would I write another book when so many have been already written?”  Then he added,  “It is probably at the sight of his own bookcases that a discouraged Scott Fitzgerald took up drinking.”

He claims, with incredible modesty, that “It is with bad poets that one obtains prose writers.”

According to Alice Kaplan, head of the French department at Yale University, Modiano can be labelled as the Marcel Proust of modern times.

Claire Duvarrieux, head of the ‘Books’ department of the daily newspaper, Liberation, describes the works of Modiano as a collective memory of France during the war, the German Occupation, collaboration, the persecution of the Jews and finally, the war in Algeria.

With Louis Malle, he co-wrote the scenario of Lacombe Lucien in 1974, one of the best French “New Wave” films.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Marcel Duchamp at the Pompidou Center

Marcel Duchamp i(1887-1965) is well known in America. Most people have heard of his readymades like the famous (or infamous) Fontaine, which is, in fact, a public urinal. Stiglitz immortilized the original in a 1917 photograph before it disappeared for ever. The bicycle wheel set on a kitchen stool is a familiar sight for MOMA vistors.

Nude descending a staircase No. 2

Nude going down a staircase No. 2

Since his first trip to the US in 1915, the artist made multiple visits to that country, avoiding the two World Wars. He acquired American nationality in 1955. It was at the 1913 Armory Show that his cubist painting ‘Nu Descendant un escalier No. 2′ (Nude going down a staircase No. 2) became a huge success.

Some critics have labelled Marcel Duchamp as the creator of modern art while others say he destroyed it when he advocated “non-retinal” painting. Volumes have been written about him. In an amazingly short time – since he abandoned art for chess at age 36 – he was able not only to produce art, but also to integrate into it the latest discoveries of science and modern technology.

The Marcel Duchamp exhibit at the Pompidou Center just closed its doors after several successful months. It was a monographic approach consisting of about 100 paintings and drawings little known in France (most of them are part of the Louise and Walter Arensberg collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) covering the 1912 to 1923 period and leading to his main creation, ‘Le Grand Verre.’

Born in Normandy, Duchamp belonged to a talented family of six children. The mother was a distant figure, which may explain his alienation from women. ‘Sonate,’ 1911, represents the three sisters playing musical instruments. The mother stands stern and erect . Strangely enough she seems to be enjoying the concert, although she is deaf.

He had a deadpan sort of humor and provocation was his tool. He enjoyed playing tricks on the Regardeurs (viewers), giving wrong titles to his works. He relished plays on words, for example, he called himself Rose Selavy (Eros – that’s life) in the photograph Man Ray took of him. To put a moustache and a goatie on Mona Lisa was a virtual iconoclastic gesture and he made it even more outrageous by giving it the title of LHOOQ (if the letters are pronounced in French the meaning is shockingly vulgar) .

Duchamp joined his two brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond-Duchamp in the Puteaux group of Cubists. ‘Dulcinea’ and the ‘Joueurs d’échecs’ are among his superb cubist paintings. Borrowing the technique of chronophotography and cinema, he introduced time and movement in ‘Jeune Homme Triste dans Un Train 1911-12,’ where the real accomplishment was to show a person in a train in motion while also suggesting his sad mood.

La Mariée mise a nu par ses célibataires,’ meme (also called Le Grand Verre) was his major work. It consists of two free-standing glass panels. In the lower register, nine Moules Maliques* (an officer, a gendarme, a priest, etc) stand beside a chocolate-crushing machine, which rotates non-stop. By means of sexually-related devices, gas travels up toward the mariée, who is hanging limply at the top, having gone from the virgin to the bride stage. The work alludes to the universal themes of erotic love and the inaccessible woman.

* I am not even attempting to translate these nonsensical words!

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

 

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: Ten Days Later

US Foreign Secretary John Kerry pays his respects at the memorial to the Charlie Hebdo victims.

US Secretary of State John Kerry pays his respects at the makeshift memorial in Paris to the Charlie Hebdo victims.

Ten days after the assassination at the Charlie Hebdo office including the magazine’s editor and leading cartoonists, France is on high alert. Threats against persons and acts of vandalism are multiplying. The Jewish community is scared, the Muslims feel stigmatized, the Catholics are worried. It would be exaggerated however to describe – the way a Fox News journalist claimed – that certain areas of Paris, such as the 11th arrondissement, are dangerous and should be avoided. Incidentally, the journalist quickly withdrew his remark.

Prime minister Manuel Valls and minister of the Interior Bernard Caseneuve have launched maximum security measures: the Vigipirate alert system (at first created by president Giscard d’Estaing in 1978) now includes 10,000 troops from the Foreign Legion, the army and the police. They are positioned throughout France to protect monuments, schools and places of worship, as well as strategic points like airports or railroad stations. On Thursday, Francois Hollande was on the air force carrier Charles de Gaulle in Toulon to review the 2,000 troops before their departure for manoeuvers in the Indian Ocean. France has currently nine Rafales in Jordan and two Mirages in Saudi Arabia.

The criminal investigation has been fast and efficient. In lightning speed, they uncovered more ramifications of the jihadists’ organization, extended to their families, friends and acquaintances, with the “Buttes-Chaumont connection” at the center. The Belhoucine brothers are on the list of suspects. A large number of individuals have been taken for questioning and nine are currently in police custody . In the Paris region, five caches of weapons have been located and searched.

Reinforcement of the legal system to control the jihadists’ travels and activities is being studied by the government. Measures such as the creation of special files on terrorists similar to the ones kept on sexual offenders and withdrawing the French nationality of returning jihadists are being considered. Voting on a new law should take place as early as the beginning of February. Control of internet has become a priority. The social networks constitute a counter culture expressed in simple manichean terms to be accessible to the largest possible numbers. Calls for violence and hatred never stop.

The recent events have marked the French. On Wednesday, January 14, after a powerful speech by the prime minister at the National Assembly, all the deputies stood up to observe a minute of silence. Then one voice started singing the Marseillaise and soon everybody followed in unison. The last time this happened was on November 11, 1918! At the Institut du Monde Arabe and during all the official ceremonies, the president and the prime minister reiterated their basic point: the French government is not against Islam nor the Muslim population. Around the world, French diplomatic representations and economic interests are under attack. The TV news shows the fury of violent mobs shouting their hatred in the streets of Niger — quite a contrast from the calm of the people in the streets of Paris on January 11.

Laicite (secularism) is a specificity of France, and the outcome of a tumultuous history, starting with the 16th century wars of religions, opposing monarch and church. It took a whole century for the Catholic Church to accept the separation of church and state in 1904. That principle was enshrined in the first article of the 1958 constitution at the outset of the fifth Republic. It is alien to most of the other countries and should be “formatted” (to use a computer science term) in order to be understood beyond our borders.

US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Paris, saw the places where the violent attacks took place on January 7 and used warm words (in French) to express his support of France.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Reading Uncertainly? “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert

The_Sixth_Extinction

Rats! Is there a real possibility that rats may be the species that survives the human race? Elizabeth Kolbert suggests such an outcome in her engrossing perambulation around this modest earth on which we live, since we may well be living at the start of the “Sixth Extinction.”

Science tells us the earth has experienced five earlier “extinctions,” when many living creatures, small and large, disappeared because of a major change in the earth’s constitution or because of an errant asteroid. But these five occurred approximately 450, 375, 250, 200 and 60 million years ago, in a universe that is 13.5 billion years old.

So we are minute upstarts on this planet. But, as a thinking and intensely curious species, we’ve tried to understand that long past, plus our present and a most uncertain future.

Kolbert’s question: are we creating our own Sixth Extinction?

Like Pogo, she suggests “the cataclysm is us!” “Since the start of the industrial revolution,” she writes, “humans have burned through enough fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year we throw up another nine billion tons or so . . . . The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today . . . is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years. . . . It is expected that such an increase will produce an eventual average global temperature rise of between three and a half and seven degrees Fahrenheit . . . (triggering) the disappearance of most remaining glaciers, the inundation of low-lying islands and coastal cities, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap.”

Then add to that “ocean acidification.”

We know that all species on this planet are interdependent, but are humans also an “invasive species?” Yes, we seem to be collective problem solvers (much like ants, according to E. O. Wilson) but we seem to be unable to solve our biggest problem: us! “Though it might be nice to imagine there was once a time when men lived in harmony with nature, it is not clear he ever did!”

Is it possible, then, as Kolbert suggests, “ . . . a hushed hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man – the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories – will all be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper?”

Kolbert visits locations all around this earth – some 11 countries – very much like Alan Weisman’s research for his Countdown, exploring current rates of extinction. One is on an island in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, looking at the erosion of coral. Another is the decline of bats in the eastern United States. Still another is the Panamanian golden frog. Together, she says, they indicate we are a part of the Anthropocene epoch, during which we may well become extinct.

This is a sobering analysis of current practices and signs. She acknowledges the possibility that “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster that human ingenuity sets in motion.” But I’m left with the likelihood that our friend the rat, who has hitchhiked to almost every piece of this earth with us, and who successfully scavenges our debris, may survive us. As Ratty pronounced, in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (my paraphrase), “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about with humans.”

Her book is “one of 2014’s best” according to The Economist.

HFK_headshot_2005_284x331About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Letter From Paris: Nous Sommes Tous Charlie

Our French correspondent Nicole Prévost Logan was in Paris last Wednesday when the horrific shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office occurred and for the subsequent days of terror in the environs of Paris. This column reflects her thoughts on the tragedy.  She writes:

Je_suis_Charlie_v3

They were a talented, irreverent, friendly and humorous bunch of cartoonists and journalists.  They were like family.  We knew them by name.  Charb, Cabu, Wolinski (Stéphane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut,  Georges Wolinski) and the others were also incredibly courageous.  Round the clock they had to be protected by police and body guards.  In 2011, their office was blown up in an explosion.  Charb, leader and editor-in-chief of the Charlie Hebdo weekly satirical newspaper, was on the ‘Wanted’ list of Al-Qaeda as someone to be eliminated.

On Wednesday, January 7, at noon, I was walking by the Bastille, near my apartment, when police cars, ambulances, Red Cross vehicles, fire trucks – their sirens howling – seemed to be converging on the square.  Strange, I thought.  When I met my daughter for lunch, she told me that the entire editorial board of Charlie Hebdo had been shot.  Being “connected” with her smart phone, she was able to follow every minute of the crisis

The crisis lasted for three days with the pursuit of the two Kouachi brothers by tens of thousands of police and special forces.  Two more attacks (related, as it turned out later) occurred in Montrouge and Porte de Vincennes with the taking of hostages by a third terrorist Amedy Coulibaly.  Seventeen people died during the 72 hours, including four Jewish hostages  who had been held in a Kosher supermarket.

From left to right, Charlie Hebdo victims Cabu, Wolinski and Charb

From left to right, Charlie Hebdo victims Cabu, Wolinski and Charb.

The emotion in France was intense.  The French have always relished Charlie Hebdo’s iconoclastic derision aimed at everyone … women, Jews, Moslems, blacks, no exceptions … and their making fun of politics, religion and other serious topics.

The tragic end of an entire editorial staff of a newspaper at the point of a gun in the name of a principle explains the incredible shock wave of sympathy with spread around the world in a few hours.  A journalist from Los Angeles said in his grief at the talent lost that, in one throw, more cartoonists were killed than the total number existing in the US.  The victims have become the heroes, for having pushed to the extreme the right to say, write or draw anything in a free democratic society.

One may quote Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you say but I will fight to death for your right to say it.” Humor rather than violence or a call to violence, this was their motto.  This weekend France became a libertarian banner and the world seemed grateful to France for doing what no one else dared to do.  This attack and the planet’s reaction that it triggered can be seen as a fight for a secular state threatened by obscurantist developments, both in the regions where ISIL is taking hold and against terrorism anywhere in the world.

The French opinion from all parties, (except the Front National) is that president François Hollande managed the crisis superbly.  He was on the front line at all times.  He scared the police forces beyond belief when he came to the Charlie Hebdo street barely one hour after the attack, even before the area was made secure.  Hollande was at the helm of the operations and gave the green light for the two final assaults  to be perfectly synchronized.  He addressed the nation several times, avoiding grandiloquence and photo-op opportunities.

Instead of being belligerent and declaring “at war” status, what he stressed was the national unity and the need of inclusion of the overwhelmingly moderate Moslem population (about four million or 6.8 percent of the population, by 2012 figures.)  He urged the leaders of that community – imams, clergy, intellectuals and associations – to speak up and to join the march organized on Sunday. Hassan Chalghoumi, imam of the mosque of Drancy, a neighborhood with a majority of immigrants, declared on television, “What they have done is not Islam, we strongly condemn their acts.”  This is important because the problem of “integration” in France (one remembers the hostility caused by the ban on the veil) is a difficult process.

For three days, men in black, super-equipped with helmets, bullet-proof vests, shields and heavy arms, occupied our television screens.  We learned more about the elite groups which carried out the assaults.  In Dammartin-en-Goële,  it was the GIGN  (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), part of a 400-strong military elite corps based in Versailles.  At the Kosher market of the Porte de Vincennes, RAID (Recherche pour Assistance Intervention Dissuasion) is part of the police.  It was the first time ever that GIGN and RAID collaborated.

A question was immediately raised: how was it possible that Cherif and Saïd Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, young French men with murky pasts of convictions, prisons terms, and, most of all, trips to Syria and several months training in Yemen with the most  dangerous groups of Al-Qaeda (AQPA) in the Arabian Peninsula, included on the US “no fly list,” could have been overlooked by the DGSE  (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure)?  Pierre Martinet, one of the heads of  the DGSE explained that the data about all these people has been collected, but they do not have the manpower to put several thousands potential terrorists under surveillance.

Gilles Keppel, a Middle East specialist and professor at Sciences Po) revealed that France has been designated as the prime enemy. There are about 1,200 French Jihadists, the largest group in Europe.  The era when terrorists learnt how to fly planes is over — today the social networks have created another situation when Al-Qaeda is less an organization than a system.  Private individuals make decisions, hence the difficulty in controlling them.

In an interview Monday morning, Laurent Fabius, Minister of Foreign Affairs, summarized the priorities:  control the calls for violence on the internet; in prison, separate radical islamists to prevent their radicalization of other prisoners; and intensify the coordination of intelligence agencies within Europe and around the world.  The Socialists are reluctant to introduce legislation comparable to the Patriot Act in the US at the expense of the rule of law.

Millions gathered Sunday to pay tribute to the victims of the previous week and stand together in defense of the right to free speech.

Millions gathered Sunday to pay tribute to the victims of the previous week and stand in solidarity in defence of the right to free speech.

Sunday, January 11, saw the march of the century.  Forty heads of state participated in the demonstration.  François Hollande led the march, accompanied by Angela Merkel and 40 other heads of state.  Some commentators wondered whether Benjamin Netanyahu’s presence was politically motivated or also to defend the principle of freedom of expression.

Four million people were on the streets, almost half of them in Paris.  The crowd, including many children, was calm and disciplined, sang La Marseillaise, and applauded the police – probably for the first time in French history.

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Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: “Getting to the Airport”

The old Cunard line used to say that “getting there is half the fun.”  But anyone who’s endured the challenges and indignities of air travel know that getting to the airport can sap your strength, if not your wallet.  Consider the alternatives.

A car service is certainly convenient.  But at $110 one way to LaGuardia,  $140 to JFK and $150+ to Newark, getting to the airport can often cost more than your air fare. (Mind you, these are the advertised rates, so I wouldn’t be shy about asking for promotions and discounts when you call to book.  It’s a competitive business.)

But car services aren’t just expensive, they’re also wasteful.  Couldn’t solo travelers share a car with others in a “limo-pool”?  Is one passenger in a Lincoln Town Car an efficient use of limited space on I-95?

How about Connecticut Limousine? Now there’s a misnomer!  Since when is a cramped van a limo?  And try explaining that name on the receipt on your expenses to your company’s accountant.  “Really, boss … it was just a van!”

Being thrifty, on a few occasions I’ve actually rented a car at the airport, driven home and then dropped the car the next day in Stamford.  A day’s car rental is about half the cost of a car service.

Some regular fliers hire neighborhood teens to drive their own car to the airport, drop them off and drive the car home, repeating the process on their return.  That’s less expensive than a car service, but puts double the miles on your car.

My preferred airport transfer is in my own car. Airport parking is $39 a day. Not cheap, but certainly convenient. And nobody complains about my cigar smoking en route to the airport.

Another alternative, believe it or not, is Metro-North. Get off at 125th Street and catch a cab or livery and you’re at LaGuardia in about 15 minutes.  There’s also a new Express Bus, the M60, that whisks you from 125th St to LGA in about 20 minutes.

If you’re heading to Newark, definitely consider Amtrak.  Many Northeast corridor trains stop at Newark Airport where a convenient connection to the airport monorail has you at the terminals in just minutes.  The train sure beats the Cross-Bronx and GWB any day. And fares are as low as $28 one way.

Mind you, New York’s three airports aren’t the only choices. Westchester County’s White Plains airport offers non-stop jet service to many cities on a variety of major carriers including JetBlue.  Hartford’s Bradley Airport offers another alternative, including low-fare carriers like Southwest … if you don’t mind an hour plus drive to get to the airport, north of Hartford.  One faithful reader extols the virtues of New Haven’s Tweed Airport where US Air flies to Philly where you can connect to most anywhere.

Clearly, the trip to and from the airport can start and end a trip on a very sour, and expensive, note.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com   For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Talking Transportation: The Myth of the Third Rail

Metro-North’s mangled and much-maligned service in Connecticut is made all the more challenging by a technological quirk of fate.  Ours is the only commuter railroad in the US that operates on three modes of power … AC, DC and diesel.

On a typical run from, say, New Haven to Grand Central, the first part of the journey is done “under the wire”, the trains being powered by 13,000 volt AC overhead wires, or catenaries.  Around Pelham, in Westchester County, the conversion is made to 660 volt DC third rail power for the rest of the trip into New York.  Even diesel trains must convert to third-rail as their smoky exhaust is banned in the Park Avenue tunnels.

And there’s the rub: Connecticut trains need both AC and DC, overhead and third-rail, power pick-ups and processors.  That means a lot more electronics, and added cost, for each car.  While the DC-only new M7 cars running in Westchester cost about $2 million each, our new dual-mode M8 car designed for Connecticut cost $2.5 million each.

So, some folks are asking, “Why not just use one power source?  Just replace the overhead wires with third-rail and we can buy cheaper cars.”  Simple, yes.  Smart, no.  And here’s why.

There’s not enough space to lay a third-rail along each of the four sets of tracks in the existing right of way.  All four existing tracks would have to be ripped out and the space between them widened.  Every bridge and tunnel would have to be widened, platforms moved and land acquired.  Cost?  Probably hundreds of millions of dollars, years of construction and service disruptions.

Even with third-rail, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CDOT) would still be required to provide overhead power lines for Amtrak.  That would mean maintaining two power systems at double the cost.  We’re currently spending billions just to upgrade the 80-year old catenary, so why then replace it with  third rail?

Third-rail AC power requires substations every few miles, meaning further construction and real estate.  The environmental lawsuits alone would kill this idea.

DC-driven third rail is less efficient.  Trains accelerate much faster using overhead AC voltage, the power source used by the fastest trains in the world … the TGV, Shinkansen, etc.  On third-rail, speeds are limited to 75 miles an hour as opposed to 90 mph under the wire.  That means, mile for mile, commute time is longer using third rail.

Third rail ices-up in bad weather and can get buried in snow causing short circuits.  Overhead wires have problems sometimes, but they are never buried in a blizzard.

Third-rail is dangerous to pedestrians and track workers.

The idea of conversion to third-rail was studied in the 1980s by consultants to the CDOT.  They concluded that, while cumbersome and costly, the current dual-power system is, in the long run, cheaper and more efficient than installing third-rail.  This time, the engineers at the CDOT got it right.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

 

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘Fire and Ashes’ by Michael Ignatieff

Fire and Ashes by Michael Ignatieff

I admit to a lifelong fascination with the people and territory of that land just north of the United States.  I first drove through Alberta and the Yukon in 1952, on my way to Alaska, and then sailed up the St. Lawrence River on a Navy cruiser to Quebec City in 1954. Since then I’ve spent considerable time in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec, with side excursions to Victoria, Banff, Edmonton, Trenton, and Beaconsfield. So it was only natural to buy an early copy of Michael Ignatieff’s description of his six-year foray into Canadian politics.

Who can ignore this description of Canada: “ten provinces and three territories strung out like birds on the wire of the forty-ninth parallel?” And its political uniqueness: “ . . . the fact that we didn’t have capital punishment or a right to bear arms; that we believed in group rights to protect the French language and aboriginal title to land; the fact that we believed a woman’s right to choose should prevail; the fact that a bilingual national experiment, always under stress, forced us constantly, as a condition of survival, to try and understand each other and reach common ground.”

Ignatieff first ran for Parliament in 2005, resigning a professorial chair at Harvard and returning to the land of his birth after many years abroad. He later became the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, one with which his family had early close connections, only to lose a national election in 2011. The book is his analysis of those years and the nature of politics in a democracy. He concludes with a “renewed respect for politicians as a breed and with reinvigorated faith in the good sense of citizens,” and “ . . . what is right about the democratic ideal: the faith, constantly tested, that ordinary men and women can rightly choose those who govern in their name, and that those they choose can govern with justice and compassion.”

But how can mere mortals stand for leadership positions? “Politics tests your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know,” Ignatieff says, going on to offer “self-dramatization is the essence of politics,” playing on a perpetual stage. He also urges development of listening skills: “listening, being deeply able to deeply listen to your fellow citizens, is the most under-rated skill in politics.” And “standing” is equally important: “When you first enter politics, your first job is to secure your standing, the authority to make your case and ensure a hearing.” That is especially true for newcomers, who will certainly be attacked for their “lack of experience.”

He also argues for civility in political life, something all too lacking recently. But is it possible to treat someone, civilly, as an “adversary” when that person treats you as an “enemy?”

The “virtues” of successful politics include “adaptability, cunning, rapid-fire recognition of Fortuna, the keen intuition that a situation has changed and that what was true is no longer so, together with the noble capacity to lead, to charm, to inspire.” Politics is then “the baffling combination of will and chance that determines the shape of life.”

I now know something more about my Canadian friends and their country. Oh, Canada!

Editor’s Note: Michael Ignatieff’s ‘Fire and Ashes’ is published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2013

Felix Kloman

Felix Kloman

About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer.  He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008).  A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history.  But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings.  His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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