Entrepreneurship Heros II: Night at the Museum

If the Seal of New York City were designed today, it would not have a sailor and a Native American on it. It would have a cab driver and a food cart vendor.

Cab driving and food vending wood seem like the two of the most democratic enterpreneurial options, the foundation of which is the public streets New York City: you just wheel out your vehicle and try to make some commerce happen. The only thing that you need is a license. The one for cab driving is called a “medallion”, costs $766K, and as an investment vehicle outperformed just about any commodity and stock index. The food cart licesnses are also very expensive. Plus you are hounded by NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and who knows what else. Cab drivers and food cart vendors are some of the hardest working and most prosecuted businesmen in the city, but sometimes they have their own victories, big and small.

You don’t need to go any further than the Metropolitain Museum of Art to see two interesting examples. Right in front of the museum there’s a collection of food carts. They all are very typical carts, none of them are of the fancy variety. There are two types represented – the basic “dirty water hot dog” cars and “street meat” carts. But there’s one important difference – they all have stickers that say “Disabled Veteran”, and there’s usually an actual veteran somewhere nearby.

In the past years the space in front of the museum was either empty or occupied by one or two carts licensed by the Department of Parks. Then one day Dan Rossi, a disabled veteran, discovered a 19th century state law that allows disabled veterans to sell food in areas that are off-limits to others. The location in front of the museum is particularly lucrative because there are no affordable restaurants as far as an overweight tourist can walk. This hack is a small, but significant victory for food vendors. They are still ticketed mercelesly by NYPD, have to work crazy hours, and deal with the need to urinate in some kind of a miraculous way. At least they got an article in the New York Times written about them.

Across the road from the veteran’s carts is a mansion that belongs to billionaire Tamir Sapir, a former cab driver.

Mr. Sapir’s legend starts in Georgia, USSR. He found an interesting niche business: filling out complicated emigration forms for the Soviet Jews. At some point he was persuaded by his mother to give up his excellent life (it was a very lucrative business, from what I understand) and emigrate to Israel himself. He found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur War, and quickly emigrated to the United States. He worked hard to earn enough money to leave rural Kentucky for New York, and then even harder to buy a cab medallion (which was a lot more affordable in those days). Then he risked everything again by putting up that medallion as collateral for a loan that he needed to open up an electronics store with a partner.

In the 80s there was a bit of a thaw in Sovet-American relations – Perestroyka and whatnot. There was a significant amount of people visiting the US – diplomats, scientists, sailors, and those invited by relatives. These people were allowed to exchange a small sum of rubles into dollars at the official rate – if I remember correctly, 60-something kopeks to a dollar.

What these lucky tourists wanted the most was electronics. In particular – vcrs, doule deck cassette players, and Walkmen. They had the money to buy these things, but here’s a problem: they needed 220 volt round plug devices, and more than that, VCRs needed to support the SECAM standard. You could not just walk into any store and find these: American market was all 110V and NTSC.

Every child in Odessa back then knew all of this, as well as that if you found yourself in New York City with some money, all you needed to do was trudge over to Timur’s (this was before he changed his name) store in Manhattan and find 220V SECAM VCRs.

Mr. Sapir was making a mint, but more importantly he was making connections with the Soviet ministers, diplomats, and future oligarchs. A little later he was invited back to the USSR, and made more connections there. These connections allowed him to play on the Soviet deregulation arbitrage market.

You see, when the Soviet Union was transitioning to the market economy all prices were regulated except those for commidities like metals, oil, and fertilizer. Those with connections could buy these commodities for already devalued rubles and sell them abroad for hard currency, making millions of dollars. All you needed was connections, which Mr. Sapir had.

He made millions, but the game became very dangerous as people tougher than NYC cabbies entered it. Mr. Sapir did not continue his career as a commodity exporter. Instead he invested his millions into New York City skyscrapers. The real estate market bottomed out, and you could buy a whole skyscraper for 10 million dollars or so. He bought a whole bunch of them. The price of Manhattan real estate exploded, and he became a billionare.

He bought a mansion across from the Metropolitain Museum to house his collection of carved ivory (for some reason this was a very popular area of collecting in the Soviet Union), has a yacht that used to be stuffed with a collection of exotic animal taxidermy that could rival Mr. Burn’s wardrobe or Amy’s car from Futurama.

Well, the two lessons here are: 1) you have to take risks and 2) you have to find a niche. The rest is luck.

Burying the Lead

Every time I reread my blog posts, the same thought comes to my mind – “man, I buried the lead again”.

I learned about leads from “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a short book, but one that influenced me deeply. Every blogger out there should read it.

Burying a lead“, in the jargon of journalists means boring the reader before getting to the juicy part. A “lead” or “lede” is the first sentence of the story.

In the book, there’s an anecdote about a journalism teacher giving his students an assignment:

” … They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Amnong the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown. ”

Apparently, most students produced a lead that lumped all these facts into a single sentence. The teacher read all the submissions and then announced:

“The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday’ ”

I am having a huge problem with writing in “inverted pyramid” style. The juicy parts of my posts are usually at the bottom.

Think about it, most blog readers, especially the ones that matter suffer from add, and often do not get to the bottom of the article. This means they won’t link to it, won’t digg it.

I am trying to improve, but writing is a difficult art to master. I just wish I took more writing classes.

Weegee’s New York: Photographs, 1935-1960

Weegee’s New York: Photographs 1935–1960

Weegee’s legendary camera recorded an unmatched pictorial chronicle of a legendary time. Weegee’s New York is the New York of the thirties and forties, a city marked by the Great Depression, by unemployment and poverty, by mob violence and prostitution. He was the first news photographer allowed a police radio in his car. Racing through Manhattan’s streets after midnight, he often beat the cops to the scene of the crime to shoot the pictures which would scream from the pages of the Daily News and the Daily Mirror next morning. They still jump from the page with a restless immediacy and intense nervousness that has never been surpassed. The 335 photographs collected in this new softcover reprint tell the astonishing story of New York during one of its most violent and exciting periods. The introductory essay is by the former editor of Art Forum, John Coplans.

Essay by Weegee

Weegee (1899-1968),was born Arthur Fellig in what is now a part of Poland and arrived in New York at the age of ten. During his ten years at Manhattan’s police headquarters he published 5,000 photos that made him the most famous of a new breed of hardboiled news photographers. His book Naked City (later made into a film) was published in 1945, followed in 1953 by Naked Hollywood.

John Coplans, born in 1920 in England, immigrated to the US in 1960. In 1962 he founded the periodical Artforum serving as its editor until 1980. He was director of the Art Gallery of University of California at Irvine; senior curator at the Pasadena Art Museum; and director of the Akron Art Museum, Ohio. At age sixty he took up photography full-time.

335 duotone plates.

Kicking The Atomic Space Rocket Bucket

Yesterday, while having tea with my wife, I mentioned the uneasy feeling that I was getting over not only how many science fiction writers that influenced the way I think have passed away already, but also of how many were dying lately. I started making a list of dead sci-fi writers (which I enhanced through Wikipedia while writing this post).

Jules Verne died in ’05. Karel Capek died in ’38. H. G. Wells died in ’46. H. P. Lovecraft died of cancer in ’47. Henry Kuttner went to shovel snow off of his driveway in Jersey and died of a heart attack in ’58. Paul Linebarger died in 66. Hugo Gernsback died in 67. William Jenkins died in ’75.Philip K. Dick stroked-out in ’82. Kuttner’s wife, C. L. Moore died in ’87, of Alzheimer’s. Cyril Kornbluth died the same year. Bob Heinlein died in ’88. So did Clifford Simak. Isaac Asimov died in ’92. As it turns out, of AIDS that he contracted from a blood transfusion. Douglas Adams was working out and had a heart attack in 01. Robert Sheckley went to visit Ukraine, fell ill and later died in a hospital in ’05. Andre Norton died in ’05.Stanislaw Lem died in ’06, also of heart-related problems.

Well, at least Kurt Vonnegut is still alive – said my wife. Yeah, but he’s pretty young, I said. Little did we know that he was already gone

It seems that I received a package in the mail from him just recently, although it was already 9 years ago.

Theodore Sturgeon, the real Kilgore Trout died in ’85.

The era’s not over yet. As I went through Wikipedia’s list of important sci-fi writers I was surprised to see so many classics born in the 20s and 30s to be still writing.

Also, three out of six Beatles are still with us.

Old Photos

I borrowed some pictures from my grand-aunt for scanning. Amongst them was this awesome picture of my great-grandfather.

In the picture he looks very much like Seth Bullock. Here are for comparison pictures of great-gramps, Timothy Oliphant as Seth Bullock in HBO’s Deadwood, and the original Seth Bullock.

In reality my grand-grandfather was more of a Sol Star character. I learned from my grand-aunt that he studied to become a bridge builder, but his father refused to support him because in that profession he would have to work and study on Saturdays (great-great-grandfather was very religious). Instead, grand-grandpa was forced to enter the family business which was, just like for Seth Bullock and Sol Star – a hardware store. He became rather wealthy, owning 3 hardware stores at some point.

Then during the Bolshevik Revolution his hardware stores were nationalized and he became a lishenets. Thinking on his feet, he made a quick trip to Kiev and quickly learned the photography trade. That was a pretty good profession and it allowed him to support his large family in the Soviet times as well.

Amongst the pictures I found a photo of my dad (looking eerily similar to myself at that age) wearing a flat cap, just like an outstanding comic book character The Goon.

I wonder if in the age of flying cars, teleportation, personal robots, spaceship yachts and the like, someone will post a picture of me on the interplanetary network and marvel at my new-media-blue shirt, fatness (I believe by then they’ll solve this problem) and a cubicle with a primitive computer in the background.

Amen


My paternal grandmother, the matriarch of the family, a mechanical engineer and a workaholic, was the main driving force behind our move to America. She woke up at 5 am every day to prepare a meal for the family and start cleaning. She loved America, but did not live long enough to enjoy her life here. Her luck ran out a several years after my family arrived in the US — pancreatic cancer destroyed her body. The surgeons operated, but could not help her.

My grandfather, on the other hand was a bit luckier. He also had an operation in the US – a quadruple bypass, which fixed his heart that was weakened by several small heart attacks. In all likelihood, if he did not immigrate, his heart would have given out earlier, as these operations were not widely available in Ukraine.

Gramps lived an extraordinary life, squeaking by on his luck more than once. The picture of him and my grandma you see above is from their vacation on a Soviet cruise ship. I took a scan from a page of my personal photo album that he lovingly created for me, complete with his accurately printed titles. “October 1984, Cruise on ‘Admiral Nakhimov’, Odessa-Yalta” the caption reads. In August 1986, Admiral Nakhimov became the Soviet Titanic, colliding with cargo ship Pyotr Vasyev, mostly though gross incompetence of and dereliction of duty by the two captains.

Having survived Stalin’s purges was mostly pure luck for my grandparents. Having relatives in the USA actually tipped the odds in the wrong direction. My grandparents did have a chance to emigrate in the pre-war wave. One of my grandpa’s friends tried to talk him into going to America and starting a construction business. Good construction engineers like you are hard to find there, he said. My grandma did not want to go at that time, leaving their elderly parents behind. I remember seeing a letter from my grandpa’s friend, who actually started a construction business in the US and struck it rich. The zip code on the letter stuck in my mind for some reason back then, and now I know what it meant — it was 90210. In any case, I think the major reason why my grandfather did not get arrested adn “disappeared” is his easygoing personality. He was a very gentle person, with a small circle of good friends and absolutely no enemies. That, and his luck.

My grandfather had some luck in WWII as well. Very early on in the war a few of his egghead friends called on him to volunteer to a newly formed and somewhat secret division. He spent the war very close to the hottest front points, but not actually in them. He did not shoot or got shot at. In fact, he was handling lots and lots of paperwork. That paperwork was generated by strange-looking cars with antennas, egg-headed mathematicians and grandpa’s friends, who were fluent in several languages. I always knew my grandfather as an extremely meticulous person, especially about paperwork. This quality is very important in the business of code breaking as well as in the construction business.

After the war gramps was poor as a churchmouse. His wartime spoils were limited to the fork and the polishing cloth that I wrote about earlier. To fix their finances my grandparents headed to the boom island of Sakhalin. Sakhalin is an island right next to Japan that looks like a fish from above. The history of Sakhalin’s population is strange and convoluted. Chinese, Japanese, Ainu, Russians and others co-inhabited it. Japan and Russia fought for complete control of it, and finally, after WWII Soviet Russia won. Japanese were driven out and it became a Soviet frontier, rich in oil and other natural resourses. Engineers were desperately needed, and even within the confines of non-market economy, wages were much higher there. My grandparents made a good living there, sending money back to their parent and saving a lot to start their independent life back in Odessa. My dad, whom they took along, meanwhile, learned to ski and to catch smelts, strange little fish that smell like fresh cucumbers.

Back to Odessa they went, where they continued their careers. They bought a few things with their Sakhalin earnings, such as the nice modern furniture and a color TV that I later enjoyed. There are many buildings in Odessa that were built under the supervision of my grandfather. Later he became a college instructor, and taught architects and builders.

Without ever hearing about another famous Odessan who also happens to share his first name, one Yakov Pokhis better known as Yakov Smirnoff, gramps liked to repeat the famous catchphrase. “What a country! What won’t they think of!” — he used to say when I showed him a gadget or when he read about something in a newspaper or saw something on TV.

Grandfather’s luck ran out at the age of 91. He caught pneumonia. In the hospital, he started to get a little better, but then suddenly coded. His heart probably simply gave out, and the house doctor could not revive him. I talked to that doctor, and it was bad. Decent doctors say “I am sorry for your loss” and not “what is it that you want to know”; they do not mix pronouns, even if they speak broken English. I can only hope that he did everything that he could to save my grandfather.

Here’s literally the last picture I ever took of him (it was earlier this year). My latest digital camera and flash impressed gramps a lot, as it came a long way from the huge camera he and his father used to have (I pointed out that the quality of that old-timey camera was probably better).

As I learned from the eulogy delivered by a rabbi at the funeral, 91 is a special age. In Hebrew letter code 91 means Amen. Aleph = 1, Mem = 40, Nun = 50. Gramps lived a good life, and I am very grateful for having him with us that long. I am also grateful that his death was quick and I hope mostly without suffering. He is finally back with grandma. Amen.

Blast From the Past

Boing Boing, with it’s love of red and anti-red comics made me remember Herluf Bidstrup. You see, for some reason in the Soviet Union multiframe format comics were seen as a western influence, despite their usefulness as a propaganda tool. Single and two-frame caricatures were common though. One glaring exception to the rule were comics of a Danish illustrator Herluf Bidstrup, who worked for a Danish communist newspaper. His work was published in a 5-volume set of coffee table books.

The fifth volume was all political, and thus particularly interesting to the Soviet reader. But the other 4 were full of amazingly drawn multi-frame comics that showcased Bidstrup’s eye for little things in life and his crisp, flowing line. I spent hours upon hours looking at his cartoons. Unfortunately we left the books behind, but I will absolutely replace them (I’ve seen them for sale in a Russian bookstore, but balked at the price).

Here you can find some political editorial cartoons and everyday sketches, probably from the last volume at pretty good resolution. These include sketches from his visit to the Soviet Union.

This site, on the other hand has a lot of the good stuff from the first four volumes, alas at a terrible resolution that absolutely destroys Bidstrup’s elegant line. Here’s a similar site.

Bidstrup was pretty much anti-US. Here’s Denmark scared by the Soviet menace joins the Nato. These are just few frames out of a longer sequence.

I absolutely love Bidstrup’s take on the generational conflict and his other cartoons about families. This is another favorite of mine.

Sometimes he just could not help himself and drew pinup girls, and the editors of his books were forced to add politically motivated copy: this cartoon’s title said something about how “this Bulgarian Eve is safe in the Garden of Socialism” or some such nonsense. I think it’s just that Bidstrup liked exotic women in bikinis (forgetting to thank Uncle Sam for the bikini, of course).

I bet that if he were born in the US Bidstrup would have become one of the finest pulp illustrators. I wonder if he illustrated any sci-fi at all…

Oh, and another thing. To this day I prefer cigars that taper on ends because they were prominently featured in Bidstrup’s cartoons. These are collectively called “figurados” and are rather uncommon in the American market. The type that tapers on both ends is called “perfecto” and the one that tapers on one end is called “torpedo”. These are hard to roll, so usually only experienced rollers venture to make them.

Hand Chewed

I just learned from co-worker that I missed a reading by Douglas Coupland over at B&N in Union Square. He signed books and everything! Dang. How I wish Barnes and Noble had an rss feed of all the Meet the Writers events in Manhattan stores.

Anyway, heads up – Coupland is on his way to Atlanta, SF, Berkley, Portland, Seattle, etc.

I am surprised Kurt Vonnegut did not think of this first: “hand chewed” book sculptures. I wonder what inspired Coupland – the Spanish Inquisition that forced heretics to eat their books?

“Generation X”
Paper and magnolia branch
First edition English language version of Generation X
hand chewed by the artist and then formed into a nest
2004

The (Drive)way of a Samurai

Larry Ellison’s Japanese fetish is well known. He owned at different times yachts named “Ronin”, “Katana” and “The Rising Sun”. According to “The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison” Larry often flies to Japan for Sakura Matsuri. And now he is building himself a $60 million 3000 sq. foot replica of a 16th century Japanese warlord’s mansion.

The house will be built using traditional materials and without nails (good idea earthquake-wise), but I doubt that any warlord had a house that big, especially with an amazing master bath that will include “.. boulder that will be part of the master bathroom shower. The 30-ton stone (yes, that’s 60,000 pounds) was recently moved into place with a rented high-rise crane that was brought to the site expressly to move the “shower rock.” ”

A house like that needs a driveway to match. Larry wants it paved with natural hand cut stone. The stone is quarried in Japan and China (Larry chose China because the labor is cheaper there) and for some reason needs to be cut on site. This means that the architect needs to provide a template for each and every stone. It would take months to do this by hand, but luckily a CIS student helped him, making Larry’s driveway his CS270 Project. Random, but not too random, concave and convex, angles not too sharp, 5 to 9 sides to a stone – this is not as simple as it seems :

By the way, is it just me or does Mr. Scorpio from “The Simpsons” look very much like the samurai in question?